By Jaya Baldwin
Scenario School is a new series designed for everyone to fully appreciate the true stars of Arkham Horror: The Card Game: not the investigators, not the players (have you SEEN how little this game cares about your feelings?) but the true feats of game design that are the scenarios. We’re going to be boiling down each of the grand and horrifying adventures the game takes us on piece by piece and really get into the nitty gritty of what makes them tick. From the acts and agendas, all the way to the individual encounter sets chosen, we will leave no stone unturned.
And so like most derivative Western storytellers, I’m going to start at the beginning – with that scenario we all know and love and that your mate Bill couldn’t resist making that obnoxious Magic pun about: THE GATHERING. It may be one of the simplest scenarios in the game, but it’s also a special and important one. After all, this is the place where, for the vast majority of us, our journeys into this card game began and judging by the size of our lovely community it must have done something right! But just what exactly did it do right? Let’s delve deeper.
Act 1 – Trapped!
We begin this scenario in a place that can already cause sensations of dread by itself – a study. And yet worse, we can’t get out of it. It’s a horror game from word go, ladies and gentlemen. First off, the fact this scenario is set in your own home is absolutely fantastic; it immerses the players in the scene instantly because this world feels relevant to them. The door disappearing is another great moment, because it presents instant intrigue.
Gameplay wise, this act is remarkably simple: grab the clues from a single location, then leave. There’s not a lot to it, and it’s a 2 shroud location so it’s not particularly hard either. Still, this is perfect for introducing a new player. It introduces us to the idea of the skill test and chaos bag while leaving out the additional decision trees of movement and combat. Until that is… there aren’t any more clues on the location and we fall through the door in the floor to…
Act 2 – The Barrier
So now we’ve gotten off our bums and dusted ourselves down from the crash landing (leaving any ghouls we might have found behind us upstairs, the poor fellows are scared of heights), we encounter a big flamey death wall in need of a good destroying. The mystery deepens as the player explores their house, finding carcasses in their attic, ice caves in their cellar, and churned up dirt everywhere else, until we have enough clues to do some old text based adventure game style puzzle solving by putting ice in a barrel and throwing it at the magical flame barrier. Amazingly, this works!
This act adds movement and is the first opportunity the players get to do a Scooby Doo and quite literally split up and look for clues. When you enter these new locations, they deal damage or horror to you, suddenly making you realise these locations can attack you as well and putting you a little on edge. We have a shroud 4 location, which will require even a Seeker to start using their cards to solve problems, and we have our first big beasties in the form of Flesh-Eater and Icy Ghoul. However, these tricky-to-get clues and nasty monsters are also mostly avoidable. You don’t need all the clues on the table to progress and the big monsters don’t chase you outside their spawn locations, meaning you could ignore for the most part the harder parts of the scenario… but these are the first cards printed with the ever alluring Victory X keyword! While we may not know exactly what XP gets us yet… whoa boy, do we want it!
Act 3 – What Have you Done!?
Uh oh… you’ve finally found the source of that mysterious chanting! It was a red haired woman by the name of Lita who is now very very angry at you. As the skittering of ghouls in the earth gets louder we now face down our first ever boss monster, the Ghoul Priest. If the players weren’t scared yet, they are now. If you’re playing with 2 or more players, this guy has over double the health of any enemy you’ve fought so far, hits like a truck and threatens to severely punish anyone taking potshots at it with the Retaliate keyword. However that woman who erected the barrier seemed to know what she was doing, and may be of some assistance.
This fight is awesome because it gives everyone something to do. Guardians get to the front and attack the Ghoul Priest. Seekers run off to the side and convince Lita to help everyone! Rogues and Survivors? Keep the heat off the party and turn off the retaliate by evading it! Or just run away out the parlour door! Mystics as always go where their spells lead them.
This section tests everything the players have got and teaches the players that sometimes the scenarios will actually throw help back your way, this time in the form of Lita. The fact you can also just run away is crucial too though! Most games will tell you that you HAVE to save the world, you HAVE to beat the bad guy, and if you don’t, you lose. But here Arkham is saying, ‘Wanna just leave? The door’s right here…’ and I’m sure some new players probably did this… only to find themselves haunted later.
Agenda 1b is great because it puts a tricky decision on the lead investigator to either take personal damage or screw over the whole team. Arkham is a game all about tough choices, and this agenda tests if players will look out for the team or themselves.
Agenda 3a I love because you see that 10 doom limit having just come from a 7 doom limit and think ‘Ah we still got loads of time!’ Then suddenly the Icy Ghoul you thought you could just leave in the basement and any other ghouls you tried to run from suddenly all come back to bite you, flooding the agenda with doom like nothing else. It accelerates the end game rapidly and really gives the players some tense rising action for the finale!
The decision to burn your house down is iconic in the series and puts you in the character’s shoes of having to make a tough choice with little knowledge of the outcomes. I love making my new players lead investigators and watching them when they come across this decision. I’ve seen some very resolutely decide it must be burned down. I’ve seen people really sit on the fence unsure what to do and one actually suspicious that Lita might be a villain that summoned the ghouls to your house in the first place and so decided she wanted nothing to do with Lita at all!
Either way, most times it leads to instant regret in the form of mental trauma or losing Lita. This is what happens when you WIN the scenario guys. This game is a SAW maze not a Lazy River so buck up and get used to it.
Striking Fear – A great set to introduce players to 3 of the most common types of treacheries. Rotting Remains attacks you with a skill test and teaches you what that willpower stat is there for. The mean thing about this card though is that the investigators with lower willpower tend to be the ones with the lower sanity values too! It’s a very scary card for the Rolands and Skids of this world. Frozen in Fear quickly makes you realise just how precious your actions actually are and is one of the most important willpower 3 tests you’ll ever take to shake it. Finally we have Dissonant Voices that often seems on the gentler side of encounter cards until you start playing your turn and quickly curse yourself for not playing that machete a turn before or you realise that no, you do not ‘Got a Plan!’ any more.
Chilling Cold – Again, some staple effects much like Striking Fear but now with Crypt Chill the game is trying to rip your precious cards that you’ve even gone and paid for straight out of your hands! Losing your Machete, Shrivelling or worse precious friend Leo to this card HURTS and it’s not an easy test to pass. New players will probably try to bust the 4 will test, but advanced players can tactically try and have empty or lower value assets around so they can afford to fail! Obscuring Fog messes with locations in a fairly gentle way and even disappears once you beat it, but if your team doesn’t have a dedicated seeker this can be a lot scarier than it looks.
Ancient Evils – Oh, Ancient Evils. This is quite possible the meanest card the encounter deck will ever throw at you. You’ll plan around having a certain amount of time to achieve a certain goal and then BAM suddenly that agenda’s advancing a round (or worse two rounds) earlier than you anticipated and more bad guys are coming before you’ve even managed to deal with the ones in front of you. It ends games all by itself. The real kicker though? A new player might actually see this as a free pass! ‘Oh nothing bad actually happened to me that round!’ In reality the game has sneakily taken up to twelve actions, four cards and four resources away from your party.
Rats – You have to love Rats. They’ve become synonymous for me with the start of an adventure, they’re the easiest enemy you could ever fight, and even Wendy could probably beat them up barehanded. They’re great to teach players how fighting works and don’t do anything too mean if you stumble a bit on the way there. It also is the first team you will see the Hunter keyword.
Ghouls – Ghoul Minions are just one small step up from Rats, but their flavour text detailing the child’s head being akin to a stick of candy is gruesome and evokes the grim nature of the world you’ve just entered. Grasping Hands is the other side of the coin to Rotting Remains and shows you don’t just need willpower to survive the whims of the encounter deck. Finally we’ve got the Ravenous Ghoul which is actually a pretty formidable foe considering they’re not worth any XP!
So that’s the Gathering! It teaches us the basics, gives us a few thrills and very thoroughly lets us know Arkham does NOT want you to win. For me at least, the experience had me instantly hooked on the game and the quality and dimensions of the adventures only grew from here. I want you to think back when you played The Gathering for the very first time… how did it make you feel? Let me know!
Ghoul Minion flavor text decidedly does NOT compare a child’s head to a stick of candy.
You are correct, it compares an adult’s head to a stick of candy.
In the future, we will be more careful when describing the age of the person whose skull is being gnawed on by ghouls. -Bryan