Introduction, Disclaimer and Spoiler Warning
This is the second in a series of articles in which i try to tackle a specific mechanic or design piece from Arkham and break it down. To do so, i do not just look at the mechanic from within Arkham LCG, but also compare it with how it is handled in Lord of the Rings LCG and Marvel Champions, which both share plenty DNA with Arkham to make such a comparison useful. I’ll then try to come to some sort of conclusion about which implementation i like best and whatever else i can draw out of the comparison.
I want to make clear here that these are purely opinion pieces. I do not have any special access to the thoughts of Jeremy, Maxine or Caleb aside from what they publically released. Nor am i a designer myself, merely an interested individual that likes to take things apart to see how they tick. Especially when it comes to designer’s intents, there is certainly room for speculation and interpretation and i do not claim to have any sort of hard authority on the topic.
As for spoilers, i will try to keep it to a minimum. But of course i will have to grab specific examples from any of those games sometimes and that will absolutely include some encounter cards.
Why is randomization needed?
With this article, i want to take a look at how each of the three games introduces some random elements into its gameplay. Doing this is needed especially for this sort of cooperative game to stop it from being too deterministic which would lead to ultimately becoming “solvable”. A game with a clear solution becomes stale and loses replayability. It also removes a large amount of interesting decision making from the game. While constructing decks and watching them perform just as planned can be relaxing and satisfying, the real juicy parts of the game usually happens when the plan goes of the rails. That’s when players need to prove they are able to improvise and to make good calls under pressure. While this can lead to defeat and frustration, the reward for pulling it off is so much more satisfying. Even when everything goes right, it feels better if you know that it *might* have gone wrong instead.
As in the previous article, i will start with a superficial look at the three games so we get an overview. I will then break it down further afterwards.
In the Arkham LCG, there are two main contributors to making the game less deterministic: One, the encounter deck consists of a few dozen cards, shuffled up and coming out in random order during a specific phase of the game. Usually, one per player is drawn. Two, the game uses the “chaos bag” as a way to test if players are actually able to perform the tasks they attempt. To do such a test, a random token from this bag is drawn, showing a numerical modifier that is applied to the investigators skill value. The result has to beat some difficulty value or it’s a failed test. Tokens can have other effects tacked on as well and includes an “auto-fail” token.
Like Arkham, the Lord of the Rings card game also uses an encounter deck where random cards are revealed from during an encounter phase. While the weight of those cards is certainly different than it is in Arkham (a topic for another day), the method of randomization is the same. However, LotR does not have a chaos bag or similar to affect player actions specifically. Instead it uses so-called “shadow cards”, which is basically a second round of encounter deck draws, using seperate shadow effects that are on many cards. These shadow cards are not drawn per player, they are instead assigned face down to attacking enemies, giving each attack an element of uncertainty that players will have to deal with when deciding on how to do combat. Shadow cards can have a wide range of effects, sometimes rivaling proper treacheries.
Marvel Champions is close to LotR in how it does randomization, however there are a few interesting differences. As with the other two games, Marvel uses an encounter deck to draw from during the encounter phase. So nothing special on that front. Villains attack or scheme against each player once per turn, and when they do so they are assigned a face down encounter card, similar to LotR’s shadow cards. Champions calls these “boost cards” and they are a lot tamer than LotR’s quasi-treacheries. Usually, the boost cards will just apply a bonus of 0-3 to the villains attack/scheme value, for a bit of uncertainty when it comes to blocking. Tacked on effects do exist, but they are by far not on LotR’s scale. It should be noted though that Champions does have the design space for bigger effects here, something that could easily be cranked up for some villains or modular sets in the future.
Let’s get into some observations about the three main ways of randomization noted above (encounter deck, shadow cards, chaos bag). I don’t really have much of a point with most of these bullet points, just take it as a list of notable things about these methods for now.
The random encounter deck
The use of an encounter deck that randomizes the order of challenges is a feature of all three games, so let’s start there.
- Many encounter cards vary in impact depending on when they are drawn. Timing often matters with certain cards. Examples: In Arkham, a card that drains your resources hits hard during the setup turns, but can be a freebie in the final turns. In LotR, drawing enemies early gives you time to prepare for them, while they would immediately attack later on when your threat is already high. In Champions, many of the heroes are considerably more vulnerable to having the board flooded with enemies while they are still building up their kit, even more so than in the other two games.
By having the deck randomized, the difficulty curve for the game becomes less predictable, with valleys and peaks at certain points.
- Encounter decks often contain notable singletons. Speaking of difficulty peaks, many times the encounter deck contains few copies or even just one of a card that is a good deal more dangerous than the rest. Knowing that these can come from the deck from the first encounter phase makes those encounter phases extra tense and provides a deckbuilding challenge. When finally drawing these cards, it can lead to some sort of a mid-game mini-boss or some other memorable moment. Examples: The Deep One Bull in Innsmouth Conspiracy. Chieftain Uthak for the LotR Core scenarios. The hero’s nemesis in (almost) any Champions game.
- Multiplayer enables encounter card combos. Encounter cards are drawn one per player, all in the same phase. Often, there’s combinations of cards that will be especially potent if drawn in the same phase. That can be as simple as drawing multiple enemies in the same turn, making your fighters scramble to get their job done. Or specific effects building on top of each other. Ideally the encounter deck is constructed in a way that these things happen and make it seem like the deck really has it out for the players, but arguably not all of these are desired. Examples like the dreaded Cultist -> Chanting -> Ancient Evils in Arkham or the “location lock” in LotR showcase what happens when the stars align a little too much against the players.
(Quick explanation of the “location lock”: Players can travel to and clear one location per turn. If they draw multiple locations for several turns, these start stacking up in the staging area where they in turn make clearing the one travelled to harder to do. This can spiral out of control and ultimately lead to a failed scenario)
- It matters who drew the encounter card. In multiplayer, it’s not only relevant when an encounter card is drawn, but also by whom. A low willpower rogue will hate Frozen in Fear, which is far less of an issue for high willpower mystics. Enemies drawn by a clue focused investigator are more dangerous than one drawn by the main fighter. This is still true for Champions, but much less so. Due to the lack of locations, players are able to attack enemies engaged with anyone, making this less of an issue. LotR uses a shared staging area for most of the cards in the encounter deck, so it’s the game where this effect is the least pronounced. Enemies and locations aren’t tied to whoever drew them. Treacheries can still be be, but even there LotR is often using more sweeping effects that are either global or tied to threat levels.
Since these are also drawn from the encounter deck, it make sense to move onto those next. I will keep using the term shadow card, unless noted otherwise i will include boost cards in that term.
- Shadow/Boost cards can have extra effects. Once the attacking enemies are determined and have gotten their shadow card, the defending player has to assign their defenders with the incomplete information in mind that comes from that face down card. The wide variety of effects (and the magnitude of them…) makes this a big deal in LotR. There’s shadow cards that punish blocking, there’s those that punish not blocking and there’s those that punish you just for existing. Knowing what to expect is of tremendous value here. This is less the case for Marvel Champions. The boost cards might have lesser effects tacked on, but usually it’s just a modifier to the combat/scheme value. While certainly able to mess up your combat math, deep knowledge of the scenario contents aren’t important here.
- Shadow cards drawn scale with the number of enemies, Boost cards with the number of players. Every attacking enemy in LotR will get a shadow card, so should someone get attacked by multipe enemies, this can stack up fast. Not only does the combat math become increasingly fuzzy the more face down cards are introduced, but the extra effects can potentially also feed on another similar to how treacheries can in the encounter phase. For Marvel, this effect is not a thing. Villains gain their boosts once per attack, their minions (with exceptions) do not gain any boosts at all. And since villains usually attack once per player per turn, the rate at which these boosts are drawn is relatively constant.
- Shadow cards and boost cards can have no effect. Drawing cards from the encounter deck that have no shadow effect or boost icons at all is absolutely possible. So players might just get lucky, it’s just that they don’t know before they decided about declaring blockers so those cards can still have an influence on the player’s actions.
Where Shadow and Boost cards introduce uncertainty into the combat situations of LotR and Champions, the Chaos Bag does so for almost everything a player does in Arkham.
- The modifiers are applied to any player tests, not just combat. This is the biggest edge that the chaos bag has over the facedown cards from LotR and Marvel. The chaos bag can be applied to anything the player does (or has done to them). It can even be used as just a general device to determine a random outcome for some effect. When playing Arkham, this thing is active all the time. While boost and shadow cards are only used in one specific phase of the round.
- The contents of the chaos bag are known information. While you could in theory memorize the contents of the encounter deck and count cards while playing to know which shadow or boost cards are still around, this is hardly feasible or at best limited to one or two notable cards. The chaos bag is open information, however. That means you can have at least a good idea of your chances to pass certain tests and make informed decisions on whether you want to commit an extra icon or maybe not even try. On your first play you could meet the encounter deck (and by extension the shadow cards) completely blind. At lest that will not happen to you with the chaos bag.
- Tokens might have other effects in addition. Comparable to the boost cards, not all tokens are just pure modifiers, some of them have extra effects. These symbol tokens often only do their effects on failed tests, but there are multiple examples where they just always work. One thing that is notable here is that the extra effects and modifiers of those tokens aren’t set by the token themselves but by the scenario. They also vary by difficulty (Easy/Standard vs Hard/Expert). This gives scenario designers two interesting screws to finetune their intended difficulty with. For example, in the easy version of the Pit of Despair special tokens will only deal extra horror/damage when the test fails. In the expert version this is no longer required, the punishment can just pile up with every test no matter how much you succeed. Other scenarios, like The Gathering, use a mix of both “on fail” and “on draw” as the default.
- There’s an autofail. No matter how good your stat is, no matter how easy the task… the chaos bag will always offer a way to fail the test. The existence of the tentacle token means that no tests are truely trivial and that any encounter card can end up being hurtful.
- Drawn tokens go back into the bag. This is another thing that differentiates the chaos bag from all the card draw based things before. Encounter cards, shadow cards, boost cards all go into the discard pile after they are done with. So you end up with the knowledge that all Deep One Bull is the discard or that you have seen every Sleeping Sentry or that you drew your Shadows of the Past as a boost card. And in turn you can rest easy for a while, knowing that these dangers are out of the picture. Well, the chaos bag isn’t that merciful. You can potentially draw that tentacle over and over.
Making your own luck: Mitigating the random effects
Since all of those randomization methods are clearly stacked up against the players, often even pure downside for them, the players will want to prepare for this. Luckily, there are player cards that offer reprieve from these effects or allow to tip the scales back in the player’s favor.
The most direct way to mitigate the effects of an encounter card is canceling it. Counterspells have been a staple in card games since forever and they are a part of the LCGs as well. For Lord of the Rings with its huge sweeping treacheries it could even be called mandatory to bring a set of Test of Wills if you can. Similar brute force methods exist in Arkham and Marvel as well, usually attached to some sort of downside like having to take a horror when putting up your Ward of Protection or having to take an extra attack for playing Get Behind Me!
Other effects that help here are less common, but also exist in the card pools, like reordering the top of encounter deck, stacking it so cards go to the players best set up to deal with them. If you can combine this with a search or other shuffle effects, this can delay unwanted cards for even longer.
Some treacheries ask the player to search for an enemy of a certain type. This can sometimes be used in the player’s favor as well. For example, drawing Mysterious Chanting at an opportune time can allow you to intentionally spawn the Wizard of the Order now so he won’t come later when the board might be more crowded already.
Since boost and shadow cards come into play whenever attacks against the players happen, the first line of defense against them is minimizing the number of those attacks. For LotR that means either staying low threat enough that enemies don’t engage you unless you want them to or to kill them while they are still in the staging area. Both of those strategies are well supported in the card pool, but of course not available to every hero. The Dunhere hero from LotR is an example where attacking into the staging area is even the main gimmick.
For Marvel, it means stunning or confusing the villain, which will make them skip their next attack/scheming. These effects are generally quite expensive, so while there are a few decks around that can keep a villain stunned for a long time, these are the exception and those breathers will usually be rather infrequent.
Either way, it’s very likely you will end up drawing at least some of these over the course of a game. Some specialized counterspells for these do exist, but they are a much less common thing than the ones for treacheries. For either game, it is thus important to consider them in combat math several times. Any card in your hand that can react to the combat modifiers is much more valuable than one that has to be used in advance. Also consider the option of “chump blocking” which means throwing cheap allies into combat situations as sacrificial lambs. If you expect your guys to die, you don’t have to care about how much he dies…
Especially for LotR there is one other thing that will help you make the right decisions against shadow cards: Knowledge. Knowing what effects are in the deck goes a long way towards winning tight combat situations because that knowledge can inform your decisions immensely.
As omnipresent as the chaos bag itself is, as many player cards are there that basically only exist to shift the odds in the player’s favor for tests. At a bottom level, this includes even things like a Magnifying Glass or Machete, as raising your skill level will turn more of those negative modifiers into successes. Due to the small numbers used by Arkham, every +1 counts a whole lot and stacking up multiple modifiers is a great way to stay ahead of the chaos bag. For important tests, this includes committing cards from your hand, of course.
Survivor, Rogue and in a lesser capacity Mystic each have their tools to more directly influence drawn tokens. Options such as Lucky Dice or Third Time’s A Charm allow to redraw tokens. Mystic effects are usually tied to the symbol tokens, like Eldritch Inspiration allowing to ignore a symbol token’s additional effect.
The tentacle (or “auto-fail”, if you insist) is much harder to influence, with only very few cards allowing to ignore, redraw or beat it.
To increase your chances of passing tests, make conscious use of my earlier point that the contents of the bag are open information. You don’t have to math it out completely of course, but for most tests you should have an idea if you should be +2, +3 or +4 over the difficulty with your skill value to have at least 70%-ish chance to pass. Take certain token effects into account as well. As an example, the Elder Thing token in Miskatonic Museum have you discard an asset from play if you fail, so you’ll want to stay above its modifier more than usual.
Decks can also be built to minimize their need for testing, something that is especially worthwhile in the harder difficulties. By using testless damage or testless clue discovery you can circumvent drawing tokens, usually at the cost of more actions or more resources. Of course, that will still have you wide open to drawing tests on encounter cards, but every bit helps.
Luck is an important part of gaming, but especially so in solo or co-op gaming where there is no sentient opponent around. In order to become better at the game, it is helpful to realize where the moving parts are, which sort of uncertainties exist. Because that way you can start doing something against it. These random devices do not just exist to torment the player, they also open up a wide space for cards and play actions that work against those events. Either by straight up negating them, by mitigating them or by dealing with the aftermath.
As for the comparison between the three games, i’m giving this one to Arkham in a landslide. That chaos bag is pure genius. Able to affect anything and permeates the whole game. It gets even better when we consider that campaigns will sometimes add or remove tokens as a result of your actions. It’s fantastic. And i didn’t even touch on things like curses and blesses that allow for further interaction…
That doesn’t mean that shadow and boost cards are disappointing. It just shows that the focus of LotR and Champions is much more on the fighting than it is with Arkham. They also do contribute to a more ‘mathy’ feel to the games though, especially for Marvel. Depending on what you are looking for, this can either be a positive or a negative. Personally i prefer just eyeballing everything instead of going too deep into the raw numbers over every decision.
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