The Scarlet Keys: A spoiler-free(ish) campaign review


Scarlet Keys is an interesting campaign and my thoughts on it were quite difficult to nail down. I am now on my fourth play through it and i feel like i’ve got a good grasp on what the campaign is about and what i like/dislike about it, so here’s a write-up of my opinions.
This page has no concrete spoilers about specific scenario details or story developments, but in order to discuss a few things i do need to make some more sweeping observations. These don’t go past something like “Circle Undone has a lot of three health enemies” or “Dunwich Legacy has a lot of agility treacheries” (both made-up examples, of course). I also explain some of the global mechanisms of this campaign. Keep in mind this is an opinion piece. You can have a different opinion and we can both be right.

Good: Non-Linear campaign

Scarlet Keys is the first truly non-linear campaign. There’s basically two parts to playing Scarlet Keys: One, you are navigating between scenarios and interludes using a world map and a campaign book that is more or less laid out like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. You are relatively free to plot different courses between scenarios, spending “time” as a resource to get from one spot to the other. Meeting certain thresholds of “time spent” can trigger events, including a forced transition to the final scenario at 35 time.

As a result of this unique campaign structure, Scarlet Keys is incredibly replayable. There’s different routes to explore, various decisions to make during interludes and scenario texts. Just wanting to see everything is going to take at least four or five playthroughs. Of course, this sort of thing is amazing for people like me that play a lot, that do want to replay a campaign over and over again and still have new stuff to figure out. It’s not all sunshine and roses though, because this campaign structure also means that your first run of the campaign is probably going to be … not great. You are guaranteed the first and last chapter, but if you just blindly wander across the map, you are likely only going to sandwich another three or four scenarios in between them. So the result is a somewhat short campaign of 5-6 scenarios which you nonetheless spent a lot of time on because you are reading a novel’s worth of interludes and intro texts along the way.

I do count the non-linearity of Scarlet Keys as a plus, but i can certainly imagine that playgroups or players that usually only play a campaign once because they got other games to play or just not the time for more might actually find this detrimental to their enjoyment. In any case, this campaign does a great showcase of the sort of new things that the designers are able to do now with the new release model.

Bad: Low XP payouts

Alright, with Scarlet Keys’ biggest plus out of the way, we need to discuss the bonus situation. This is a campaign that is very stingy with its rewards, with scenarios usually giving only 4-5XP a piece. If you consider that you might just play 5 or 6 scenarios in your first play because you aren’t optimizing your routes, you are looking at lower payouts than Dunwich Legacy. You have some extra ways of gaining points during interludes at the non-scenario locations, but this campaign is quite difficult. Difficult enough that having to prematurely resign from a scenario or two is very realistic.

The result is that TSK clamps down somewhat hard on what decks are suitable. Anything that requires more than 15XP to get going is basically out of the question because at that point you might actually only have two or three scenarios left.

This is counteracted by two things. One, you do get access to some powerful artifacts (the Keys) and a couple other story assets. These help for sure and one or two of them are even borderline broken, but generally don’t expect these to be as helpful as the partner assets from Edge of the Earth. On average, they are more comparable to the Mantle, Headdress and Idol from Innsmouth in powerlevel, I’d say. The other thing that helps with the XP situation is personal experience. Once you know more about what’s going on where on the map and you can plot better courses, you can hit eight scenarios pretty reliable and can cherrypick the better interludes and thus get more XP from the campaign to go towards building your decks. Again, this is of course not much of a relief to people who don’t play this game obsessively and who might have other things going on in their lives…

Good: Scenario design

So, i am not at a point yet where i would be able to sort the TSK scenarios into my scenario rankings. I’ve played every scenario now, but not every variation of those that have them. And i also haven’t won all of the scenarios either… But i can say that i am not sick of any of them yet (like i was with Fatal Mirage after just one play of Edge). I feel they are all doing something interesting. Two are new takes on flawed scenarios of old (Echoes of the Past and Wages of Sin) and both are much better than their predecessors. A low bar, sure. But i’ll take it! Jokes aside, the “new Echoes” might actually even be my favorite scenario of Scarlet Keys.

The scenarios are very different from each other. While some mechanisms overlap here and there (like the Concealment ability), there is enough variety in how those mechanisms are used that it doesn’t feel too repetitive. We finally have some real act and agenda decks again, for mid-scenario twists and the like. All just really good stuff and a great contrast to the comparatively bland Edge of the Earth. Of course the campaign doesn’t stick the landing, the finale is a bit too weird for my tastes. But ending the campaign on a whimper is sort of a signature AHLCG move by now, so whatever. YMMV, of course.

Neutral: Difficulty

Yeah, this campaign is rough. Like, really rough. Imagine a chaos bag with three autofails and four -5 tokens in it. That’s how it effectively can look like near the end of the campaign in certain scenarios. On Easy. Meanwhile you are expected to reliably pass difficulties of 4 and 5, with the occasional spike up or down. The enemies are mostly fine, but especially the coterie members themselves are chunky Elites that are potentially very dangerous. Add to that the two main mechanisms of the campaign: Concealed, which is basically an action tax that you have to go through before being allowed to interact with the enemies in the shadows. And Hallow, which randomly removes cards from your hand, board and deck from the game.

The mix of all of these leads to a very challenging cocktail. Now, i am not one to think of difficulty as something bad (TFA is my favorite campaign for a reason), but couple it with the XP situation and you get into dangerous waters. I do like difficulty, but only if i feel like i have the tools to meet that difficulty with tools of my own. And i don’t think that Scarlet Keys gives me reasonable access to my tools. I do however put the blame for that completely on the XP scarcity.

To be honest, the difficulty of this campaign is probably going to be a negative for most players.

Bad: Bugs

Sadly, this campaign seems to have a few bugs. Nothing that will sink your campaign, but just a noticeable amount of errors in card and scenario texts. Things like card texts with choices missing a crucial “Must” in there, so as written you’d be able to choose options that don’t do anything. Or scenario text referring to a campaign log entry with a different wording than the one that was actually given earlier in the campaign. The resolution of one scenario ignores a choice that was made earlier in the scenario.

There’s just a bunch of little annoyances like that sprinkled over the whole thing but as i said nothing major like the broken stuff we had in Dunwich. Hopefully those should be cleared up with the next release of the FAQ/Errata.

I suppose this is the price to pay for a massively more complicated campaign like TSK with all its non-linearity and branching decisions. There’s bound to be more opportunity to slip up than for something linear like Innsmouth.

Good: Encounter design and main mechanisms

I do like a lot of what’s going on in the encounter sets. It’s varied, it’s impactful and most of it is interesting. The enemies aren’t as generic as the ones in Edge either. The raised difficulty does stretch into the treachery cards as well, with barely a card being something you can ignore. Two things immediately stood out to me: There’s a surprising amount of direct damage and horror happening (often in addition to other effects) and it feels like more cards than usual are meant to target the clue gatherers of the group. The two main encounter mechanisms, Concealment and Hollow, are both very present.

Hollow is the one weak point of the encounter design in my opinion. Not because it removes cards, i am perfectly fine with that. But it does feel somewhat tacked on and the game doesn’t do enough interesting things with it. There’s a lot of effects around that remove cards as a hollow, but only few ways that this pays off. So it often plays just like a straight “remove a random card” which is a bit disappointing. I feel like this could’ve been explored better.

Concealment on the other hand has been given a lot of space to breathe, with a high amount of encounter sets devoted to it. Concealment is also the cornerstone of several scenarios and just by default has a higher immediate impact on the game than Hollow. It strikes a better balance of cards that setup the mechanic and those that have a payoff from them and that is despite Concealment not even needing much of a payoff. While it is almost everywhere in the campaign, there is a lot of variance to how the mechanism is used. I really like this one. It’s a bit of a pain to deal with while playing because it taxes your actions a lot, but you can build your decks with this mechanism in mind and it’s open-ended enough that several distinct approaches are viable. As seems to be a recurring theme in Scarlet Keys, that makes it feel very punishing on your first play, but is rewarding to overcome in future replays.

Unfortunate: The selection of investigators in the Player Card box

Alright, so this one isn’t strictly a criticism of either the TSK Campaign or the TSK Investigator Expansion… but there is one thing that kinda bugs me and i want to mention it. I do like the TSK Investigator Expansion quite a bit, it’s a box full of powerful player cards, aimed at more expert level players and the investigators reflect that to a degree as well. While i do think that at least two of them are a bit underpowered, they all have a place in a collection. My argument however would be that this was a bad place to publish them because the selection of investigator clashes pretty hard with what the campaign wants you to do.

The TSK campaign consistently throws high difficulty tests at the players, tests that need to be passed to progress. Meanwhile the chaos bag gets incredibly hard over time, to the point where you want to be able to hit modified skill values of 8-10 to pass your tests against Retaliate enemies and the like. If you try to meet this challenge with Amina or Carson, you are in for a bad time. Carson at least can hide behind his playstyle of not actually doing anything except letting other players take his actions, but for Amina this is very rough. She already needs to assemble an assortment of assets that cost somewhere in the range of 20-25XP to consistently get a reasonable skill value of 6+ going and then that’s barely even enough for the campaign after all. And that’s before even talking about where she’s supposed to get those 20XP from…

There are six investigators in the box, but they are lacking a solid fighter. Sure, Vincent and Charlie can be competent at defeating enemies, but just looking at the investigator selection you’d get the impression that you are supposed to lean more heavily into evasion with Kymani. You are then in for a rude awakening because not only are you going to run into scenarios that require constant fighting, but you also need to be able to defeat the coterie members who are high powered Elites and you often don’t have an alternative way of getting past them. One scenario even hardcounters Kymani’s ability to discard enemies with their double evade, making them struggle really hard to contribute to that scenario. To be clear, Kymani is a fine investigator for Scarlet Keys. Good, even. But don’t expect them to be able to be your main enemy handler unless you come equipped with the necessary campaign knowledge that enables you to plot a route past the fight heavy scenarios.

So once more, we run into a situation where players on their first blind play are just set up to crash and burn in a rather unsatisfying manner. While technically the Investigator expansion and the Campaign box aren’t required to be linked mechanically, there is a certain expectation for that anyways and i think it’s really unfortunate how the two TSK products don’t line up with each other. Previous cycles handled this much better and all that was required here was saving up either Carson or Amina for a future product and have a fighty investigator in their place for TSK. The thought that some are out there doing this campaign on just Core+TSK with Roland (or maaaybe Agnes) as their only fighter is giving me second hand anxiety.

While we are on the topic of the player card box, i already talked about the XP situation … but let me just say that giving us amazingly cool XP pits like the Customizables and then a campaign where we have to play like 3-4 scenarios just to max one of them is a bit of a cruel joke. I find this very frustrating. Let me play my cards.

Final verdict

I do really like playing Scarlet Keys. The campaign structure is great, the choices behind the travel system is engaging, decisions around how to handle certain coterie members are suitably impactful. I’ve not played anything else (Arkham-related…) since TSK’s release and i will probably finish it another two or three times before finally going back to an older one. The main reason is the replayability. There is just so much to do, so much to explore. And while the difficulty is harsh, i am not particularly bothered by it. Failing is a part of AHLCG for me.

But that being said, all of the things i like about this campaign hinge on the ability to replay the campaign over and over. Not everyone has as much free time to waste as i do and especially gaming groups might find it hard to swallow that their first play is likely going to be a forgone conclusion of misery and failure. I already commented on the Investigator Box that i think of it as an Expert level product: Fantastic for people with large collections, but questionable as an early purchase. I feel like this is even more the case for the campaign.

TSK is often brilliant, but it has many moments all over that just invite frustration. Depending on your own threshold, this can prove too much even if you are entrenched into the game. Personally, i had to introduce a houserule into my own campaign to fix the XP situation (i am giving myself an extra XP for each 2 time spent that weren’t part of a scenario resolution) to be able to enjoy it properly. Scarlet Keys is a very unique experience that does everything right on a mechanical level. It’s just that a bunch of numbers are out of whack and it does require a lot of work on the player’s part to get into it deep enough that the cool parts open up to you.

As for my personal rankings, I don’t think Scarlet Keys will be able to push Return to TFA from the number one spot. But i do expect it to overtake Innsmouth and plant itself firmly on the second place… at least with my house rule in place.

2 Replies to “The Scarlet Keys: A spoiler-free(ish) campaign review”

  1. Which scenario do you mean when you talk about reimplementing Wages of Sin?

    In generall you seem to have come to a much positiver view than me. While the scenario themselves are mostly well designed the overall campaign structure seems broken to me. And not for the reasons you mentioned. the open world structure means that each scenario must work well with 5 XP and with 30 XP. But they just don’t manage to do that. The first few scenarios are way to easy, while the proliferation of the chaos bag with completely unfair chaos tokens makes the later scenarios very much unfun. The test difficulties you mention have no reason to come up on easy mode this regularly. I checked this against some other campaigns and the negative modifiers seem really excessive to me.
    And the time mechanic creates similar problems. There is a big difference in beating a hard scenario mechanic compared to beating an “easy” mechanic in only half the time available. And since the scenario must all be at least partly winnable with 20 time in play (and hard tests) they are much to generous before you hit the first treshhold.
    I also are much less forgiving of the bus than me. Repeating the agenda flipping bug from Miscatonic Museum once more is just unneccesary poor proof reading. And this kind of campaign means too many of those bugs, I would rather prefer a more traditional campaign with a more traditional quality.

    1. > Which scenario do you mean when you talk about reimplementing Wages of Sin?

      Shades of Suffering has many of the same elements, with the spirit enemies that you can’t just defeat, but have to jump through some hoops before… and they don’t tell you what hoops those are until its too late so the random factor on success is through the roof. There is of course the whole thing with Umbrella Girl in the end that sets it apart, but i found it very similar both in theme and general mechanisms for most of the scenario.

      As for your other remarks, all fair enough. From what i can read around the internet, you are by far not alone with your stance. Personally, i just finished my 5th (well, 4.5th) playthrough and i am already thinking about how i am going to change up the next one. Replayability is so high on the totem pole for me that it completely makes up for so many other issues that might be there. And for what it’s worth, the last campaign i did (just finished it yesterday, actually) i even got good XP because i actually managed to get 8 scenarios into that one.
      But yeah, your complaints are absolutely valid and i do think that this campaign did cross a few lines in terms of difficulty and accessibility for most of the players.

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