WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS LIGHT SPOILERS FOR THE PATH TO CARCOSA.
I recently finished a two-handed campaign through The Path to Carcosa as Norman and Agnes. Everything was going really well throughout most of the campaign, and both investigators were finding clues, killing enemies, and swimming in XP. Then, I got stuck on one specific Agility test I couldn’t pass during Black Stars Rise, and as the encounter deck kept swarming me, both my investigators were driven insane. Agnes pulled a skull on a Shrivelling 5 test, took 2 horror, and her mind exploded in a blaze of glory as she killed a Byakhee with her last coherent thoughts. Meanwhile, Norman ended up overrun by monsters, and with no one left to save him, he too lost his mind shortly after. Needless to say, despite my epic run-through, I lost the whole campaign.
Was I disappointed? Of course. Weirdly enough though, the more I thought about how everything played out, the more I felt satisfied about my experience. Even though I lost the campaign, I still had a lot of fun, probably more fun than I have had in a lot of my other campaigns. My investigators were powerful and had many bright shining moments along the way to getting completely obliterated. The journey they went on was engrossing, and about halfway through, I started to believe my team could, perhaps, even win. In the end, they were defeated in the way they lived – drawing bad tokens on spells and getting wailed on by enemies. And even though it meant I lost, it was incredibly entertaining.
Here’s the reality of all Arkham Files games: You are more likely to lose than you are to win. The games are designed to be this way – Elder Sign, Eldritch Horror, Arkham Horror, Mansion of Madness, all of them – they are weighted in favour of the players losing by design. And why wouldn’t they be? The theme is small, insignificant human beings trying to ward off a godlike being bent on destroying the world. If you were more likely to win than lose, well, that design choice wouldn’t fit the story that is being told over the course of the game.
This concept can be hard for new Arkham players to grasp in the beginning. In most games, the expectation is that if you do really well, make all the right choices, and generally play smart, you’ll win. On the other hand, if you lose, it is because you played poorly. That is generally true for Arkham as well, but there is a key caveat to all of this. In Arkham, you can make the right choices and still lose the game. You can draw an autofail on a key test. You can draw the one specific encounter card you can’t deal with at the time. You can play Delve Too Deep and watch as your team draws all 3 Ancient Evils and then yell at your mates for not properly shuffling the freaking encounter deck.
But now, the next question is, if the game is weighted against you winning and you can lose even though you make mostly right choices, isn’t that kind of a raw deal for the player? Yes, it is, a raw deal for the player, just like having to escape from a burning theatre filled with cultists and a monstrosity from another dimension was a raw deal for Norman and Agnes. That is the entire idea of the game. However, that sense of deep unfairness is exactly what makes it fun. Even with the odds stacked against you, if you are both smart and lucky, you may yet have a chance of winning. You can overcome this unfair system and snatch victory away from the closing jaws of defeat.
Or, you could just die.
See, Arkham is not so much about winning or losing as it is having fun trying to overcome the system while you’re (probably) losing. As you play the game more, you will discover new strategies and be able to make better decisions to make victory more likely. At some point, you may even become skilled enough at the game to stop an Elder God from entering our world! In the end, remember that losing at Arkham Horror doesn’t make you a loser – it just means you’re human.