One of the most important features of the Arkham LCG when compared to other card games, even when compared to the other LCGs by Fantasy Flight, is using location cards to create what is basically a board. In doing so, the designers managed to take the best things from both card games and board games to create something remarkably unique. One thing i personally am impressed with over and over is the willingness to experiment with the location system. Over the span of its expansions, the AHLCG has seen a range of particularly interesting location mechanics. I want to spotlight the ones that i like the most. I was originally planning on doing a Top 5 for these, but as it turns out there are enough worth talking about that i can fill a 10 part list and still leave out a good chunk. To clarify, this list looks at mechanics that aren’t limited to single locations. Yes, stuff like the Balcony in Curtain Call, the other Balcony in Excelsior or the Stairwell in Waking Nightmare are fun, but not quite what I am going for here.
Oh right, i should mention: Heavy spoilers incoming, including for several campaign finales.
#10: Ice and Death I, II and III
The Edge of the Earth campaign starts us off with a three-part scenario and a persistent map. This persistance between scenarios is what’s special here. It’s a large map with progression between locations slowed by chunky clue requirements. Uncovering as much as possible likely requires all three scenarios which gives this first part of the campaign a nice feel of progress from one part to the next.
#9: In Too Deep
A huge grid of 3×5 locations and you are tasked with going from one corner of the map to the one on the opposite side. The fancy thing here are the barricades between locations that introduce extra costs to moving on from one to the next. While it usually just takes an action to move, In Too Deep changes this by making some roads more easy to take than others. As a result, there are multiple ways to move through the maze (even if most people just default to snaking their way through…).
#8: Without a Trace
The Scarlet Keys introduces the Outsiders as an enemy faction. While the Outsiders themselves and their Hollow mechanic isn’t quite as memorable as i would like, the representation of their own land is very unique. Utilizing the campaign’s signature Conceal mechanic, the lay of the land needs to be figured out by the players while avoiding dead ends and being exposed to harmful effects whenever they find new connections. It’s all a quite unique and sufficiently “alien” experience that highlights how far from home the investigators are. Sadly the campaign finale only lightly touches on this and opts for a linear way to the final boss instead. So the only way to experience the Outsider’s realm is going for the scenario that most players won’t even know how to get to without consulting a guide.
#7: Untamed Wilds
I like the Explore mechanic. Always have, even before Return to Forgotten Age improved it significantly. It’s used a couple of times during the Forgotten Age, with some twists to the base formula here and there. I chose Untamed Wilds to represent Explore in this list because it’s the first time the players are exposed to it and because it’s Explore in its most basic form. Instead of having the locations on the table from the start, they are shuffled up in a deck that players can discard from to find what’s next for them in the jungle. Of course this is Arkham, so that exploration deck also has danger in it in the form of treacheries (and enemies, in Return To). This really nails the discovery theme of the campaign. However, the one flaw that Explore has even with the Return rules is its reliance on location connectors. That means the location grid will always look the same in the end which can lead to experienced players gaming the system while replaying the campaign. Your jungle is always going to look the same, the temples be at the same places. The only thing that changes is the order in which you discover the landmarks. But still, i do enjoy Explore quite a bit.
#6: Thousand Shapes of Horror
Thousand Shapes is a wild hodgepodge of mechanisms that doesn’t quite come together. One thing that works when taken for itself is the flight of stairs at the end, though. Under pursuit by the Unnamable, the investigators make their way down a linear line of locations, hoping to get to the end. Each location has its own conditions that need to be fulfilled to progress. What makes this especially interesting is a certain treachery that takes one of the locations from the top and adds it to the bottom, making the stairs go on for longer than expected.
#5: Horror in High Gear
“Locations, locations, locations” is like the unofficial subtitle of the Innsmouth campaign, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it turns up again in this list. Horror in High Gear randomizes its locations and forces the players to move through them in a straight line. This is nothing new to Arkham, another scenario did this first (and better) and we are going to talk about that one in a second. The interesting part about High Gear is the inclusion of vehicles for the players to move in. The cars move automatically one location per turn, removing the usual action cost to go forward, but at the same time also limiting the amount of progress that can be made in a given turn. Accelerating is possible, but costly. Actually, even stopping has a cost associated with it. As a consequence, Horror in High Gear moves on at a constant pace, not affording the players much of a pause. It’s a gauntlet that just keeps raining down on the investigators and the interplay between the locations and the vehicles is what creates the constant pressure. Of course, (almost) removing the player’s ability to move freely also removes a lot of the gameplay options that the players have and in turn the scenario feels a bit on rails. But for a single scenario, this works and usually it’s over before it overstays its welcome.
#4: Essex County Express
The last two entries were centered around locations arranged in a linear fashion and forcing the players to go through them. So let’s talk about the granddaddy of those location mechanics, Essex County Express. When i was new to the game and played Dunwich for the first time, Essex blew my mind. Looking at it today, with all those other campaigns behind me, it can be easy to overlook just how special the whole “Your cards are now a train” thing really was. Or still is, I should say. Coming from Night of the Zealot and the first couple Dunwich scenarios, locations were always used in a fairly conservative way. Essex is the first one that randomizes them and puts them in a shape. The link between the location cards and the thematic setup of a locomotive and its train cars is excellent. For me, this was the first time i realized that Arkham had really something special going on with its approach to using cards to build the board and how flexible this system actually is. This was the first time it was doing something that a board couldn’t.
This scenario holds up today still because the location mechanics are not just limited to arranging the locations in a line. Removing locations from the game whenever the agenda advances also does a terrifyingly good job of communicating that the train is being sucked up and torn apart. Looking back at the full range of campaigns, having game effects “destroy” locations is still super rare (Blob is the other one that does it well!), which let’s it keep its impact when it happens.
#3: Wages of Sin… kinda, almost
Hey, what’s my least favorite scenario doing here!? Well, you see, it has a great location mechanic in it, one that i would really like to see more of. Sadly, the scenario doesn’t do anything with it, making this one of the bigger wasted opportunities i can think of in an Arkham scenario, but oh well. Wages of Sin introduces locations that are revealed from the start, but can flip between two sides with one side of them being Spectral. While at a Spectral location, players draw from a second encounter deck. While at a non-Spectral location, they draw from the regular encounter deck. Some enemies work differently depending on the state of the location they are at. There is a huge potential for this interaction to do something cool, allowing players to manipulate their location to choose the type of threats they expose themselves to while also influencing other options available to them. For example, for a while clues can only be discovered at Spectral locations.
But then Wages of Sin britta’d it and locked the locations in place for all but maybe two or three turns. In the beginning, the locations are rooted to their non-Spectral side, only advancing the act gives players the ability to flip locations back and forth. However, once the agenda also advances, it will lock all locations into their Spectral side. So the only window where players can play around with this mechanic is between advancing the act and advancing the agenda. And it’s a damn shame.
This concept of “two location sides, two encounter decks, two states to enemies and options” is very high on the list of things that i wish the designers would revisit, but this time while giving players the option to actually engage with it.
#2: The Pallid Mask
Well, #3 was about my least favorite scenario, so let’s talk about what is actually my favorite one. There are a couple of variants on the “randomize locations, arrange facedown or draw from a deck” concept for location placement in the game by now, but Pallid Mask still does it the best. Bit by bit, you explore the catacombs under Paris, drawing new facedown locations from a deck. Revealing locations costs clues, so you can’t just explore the area before committing to a direction like you can in the Tidal Tunnels of Innsmouth. There are no location connectors like Explore has, so you can’t tell what will be where even with experience. And the revealed sides determine where new things can connect (up, down, left, right or multiple of those), so it’s not just a grid either but a dungeon that can snake around the table or connect back on its tail. When you play Pallid Mask, you never quite know how your catacombs are going to look today. I love it. The catacomb placement is what makes The Pallid Mask my favorite scenario out of everything released so far.
#1: Lost in Time and Space
I talked about how Essex blew my mind on the first play of Dunwich. And that was just putting location cards in a straight line. Now, Lost in Time and Space? Well i actually didn’t get to play it on my first play of Dunwich because i wiped in Where Doom Awaits… But once i got there on the second try, Lost in Time and Space just took it to the next level. Shuffling locations into the encounter deck? Brilliant! Locations semi-randomly popping in and out of existence? Awesome! Seeing the location you want to get to, but having no idea how to get there? Yes! Lost in Time and Space does a fantastic job of communicating to you that you just went through a portal to another dimension where space works differently. It’s completely alien and having to wrap your head around how to traverse places here leaves great memories.
What completely baffles me is that we haven’t seen the designers return to this well. Putting locations into your encounter deck has some really interesting design space left and I would be happy to see this concept return in a future scenario that deals with otherworldly experiences.
Not mentioned above and closing thoughts
Those are the ten location mechanics i like the most, but they are by far not the only ones. The designers are constantly innovating in that area and in turn there’s a good amount of other things done with locations. For example, Veiled locations have story text on their other side. They mostly appear in Dream-Eaters, but were actually done first (and better) in Dim Carcosa. I find it super fun how Echoes of the Past replicates the layout of the building. I could’ve snuck Innsmouth onto the list a third time by talking about the Tidal Tunnels which are basically a lite version of The Pallid Mask’s catacombs. Devil Reef even goes a step further and randomizes in two layers, by grouping the locations into islands, then randomizing the islands among each other. The Circle Undone finale uses player cards for the “Cosmos”, a set of locations that some enemies can traverse and players can’t. The large circular map of Heart of Madness has some interesting bits to it. A Light in the Fog has a different take on how to represent a circular layout. There is just so much to like about locations in this game, to the point where LotR and Marvel Champions almost feel ‘incomplete’ whenever i play them. I am looking forward to whatever the designers come up with next. There is a lot of design space left with them, something that is showcased by the community creators of custom campaigns (the C.C.C.C.) again and again. To just name two great examples that come to my mind immediately, there’s the tea party in The Beard’s Alice in Wonderland and the Scan deck in Axolotl’s Dark Matter. The former makes it so that each location can only hold one investigator or enemy (they are chairs, you see) and plays around with the consequences of that. The latter is an iteration on Explore, determining what you can find at a location with more unpredictability and the potential to have all sorts of things in the deck, from enemies over locations to story cards.
We couldn’t have this sort of thing with other card games!
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