Hi there and welcome to the first article in my series discussing game mechanics in Arkham Horror: The Card Game. This was a topic that was high on my last poll of potential taking points and I’m excited to get started! This week, in anticipation of the (hopefully) not-too-distant release of Return to The Circle Undone cycle, I want to discuss the tarot mechanic. It was originally featured, appropriately, in the Circle Undone expansion. We haven’t seen anything on it since, but I think it has a lot of potential and some interesting design decisions behind the cards. Without further ado, let’s get into it!
SPOILER WARNING: There will be minor spoilers from the beginning of The Circle Undone campaign.
The World – XXI: Theme
The first thing I want to mention is the thematic connection of tarot to the world of Arkham Horror but before that, I want to quickly go over their relevance to our own world. Just in case you’re unfamiliar, tarot cards are sometimes used for divination, that is, reading someone’s future according to how the cards are drawn from the deck. The origins of such practice are diverse but the cards mostly originate from Europe where the composition of decks vary even further by region. Whether or not you use them for divination, for some sort of game or not at all, hopefully I can provide a short explanation that will make sense of some of the cards we see later.
Modern tarot decks are comprised of two different types of cards: the first 22, known as the Major Arcana or trumps, are numbered 0 to 21 and represent major events in a person’s life. The following 56 cards are numbered from 1 to 10 followed by 4 “court” cards, page, knight, queen and king and are replicated in four suits. Those four suits can vary depending on region, but the usual combination is composed of Rods (or Wands), Swords, Cups and Pentacles (or Coins). Each suit is also associated with an element and in turn, an aspect of life. Wands is associated with fire and passion. Swords is associated with air and logical reasoning. Cups is associated with water and emotions. Pentacles is associated with earth and practical or materialistic issues.
In the world of Arkham, tarot is a constant presence as our unlikely heroes are faced with their inevitable fate. Sometimes the cards will spell out their approaching doom but other times, the cards will offer some glimmer of hope to the otherwise hopeless survivors. Tarot cards have been present in previous Arkham Horror games, sometimes story points and many times as assets you gain throughout your adventures in Arkham. A recurring character who oftentimes presents the characters with their fates is the fortune teller, Anna Kaslow. She’s present in earlier games as an ally, but she appears throughout the story in Arkham Horror (3rd Edition) and is pivotal to the story of The Circle Undone. She also appears as a player card in the Living Card Game, which we’ll discuss more in depth in the next session.
In TCU, the debut of this theme, tarots are not just represented on player cards as a light in the fog of your opening hand, but also as a herald of doom to come in the agenda deck. All scenarios in this campaign start off with a tarot-based Agenda 1 with some amazing art by Lenka Šimečková. I think this is a fantastic narrative element that adds that feeling of impending doom and uncertainty at the beginning of the scenario. There is also the introduction to the campaign, where you meet Anna, she reveals the The Tower as an ominous sign representing an impending crisis and offers to keep reading your fortune which in turn reveals the Ace of Rods. She tells you that you must be ready to act to change your fate and you must add both cards to your deck, a great ludonarrative device representing the burden of accepting your fate. Alternatively, you can reject your fate and continue with your skepticism. Either way, the tarot cards will continue to haunt your journey.
Eight of Pentacles: Mechanics
Now that we know how tarot cards function and what they mean, we can talk about the player cards and hopefully understand the top down (theme-first) design that spawned them. Because tarot cards are physical objects and because of their previous iterations in Arkham games, assets were a natural type fit. The LCG versions also followed the footsteps of the board game ones by providing passive skill boosts. The only mechanic left was related to fate and the drawing of cards. This is where the secondary text on each tarot card comes in, the drawing of your opening hand symbolizing the reading of fortunes through cards. If you’re lucky enough to find the desired fate during your reading, you’ll be rewarded by being able to put that card into play directly. In addition to this, each tarot card has a subtitle and flavor text related to their interpretation, tying this thematic package very nicely together.
In addition to the thematic connection, there’s more in play to these cards with their additional attributes. The first and, to me, most interesting is the addition of a new slot to allow only one tarot per investigator. The reason I find this so interesting is that it has been implemented in different ways, notably my calling out the limit on each card like in Track Shoes or the recently released covenants. The addition of a new slot here indicates that, at least at the time of conception, the designers of this game felt like tarot had a place in the long term future of it, altering the rules to accommodate it. The level 1 on all the cards also shows that there is a slight power concern here, adding a real cost to putting it in your deck. Finally, the lack of skill icons makes this card mostly useless if it’s not in play, which I really believe comes at the cost of the big upside of potentially getting it in play for free.
Since each class got their own implementation of tarot, we can see how each one defines a key aspect of the class. Seeker, Guardian, Rogue and Mystic all get a boost to their key stat. Survivor gets the odd one out, giving the rare benefit of a higher health and sanity value. This is actually a strong Survivor theme since it’s the class with the best soak in the game as seen on cards like Jessica Hyde and Peter Sylvestre. The implementation of Five of Pentacles does mean it can “take” direct horror and definitely makes one Mr.Calvin Wright very happy. The one other card we have is the neutral tarot, which I’ve mentioned, Ace of Rods. Unfortunately, this card is quite a step down from the other cards due to the fact that if it doesn’t show up in your opening hand, it’s basically 3 resources for +2 on an action. Yes, it also allows you to bank that action for a future turn, but it also competes in slot with the other tarot cards, which you probably don’t want to discard.
So who do these cards benefit? Everyone mostly. Almost any character will benefit from a static boost in a stat they might already be looking to use anyways. This is especially true because at only level 1, these cards are doubly accessible to any 5-2 investigator, like Patrice Hathaway looking to cast some spells, for example. Currently, the way of attaining passive skill boosts by way of assets can vary a lot by class. Seekers can boost their investigating with Magnifying Glass and Mystics have access to Holy Rosary or St. Hubert’s Key. All classes have some form of boost in their ally suite, with Beat Cop, Dr. Milan Christopher, Granny Orne and others. Overall, it’s hard to see assets without slots give static boosts unless they have strong restrictions like Dark Horse. The tarot suite adds another element to this, allowing you to take allies that might not raise your stats or double down on a skill that you’ll be using a lot. Despite a somewhat bland overall boon, I think these cards add a lot of interesting decisions during deck building and mulliganing.
Speaking of the ally slot, there is one last player card that interacts with tarots, someone who I’ve mentioned several times already, Anna Kaslow. This level 4 neutral ally comes into play similarly to the tarot cards she reads and she lets you fetch out any tarot from your deck while also giving you space for more. I love the idea of this card, an important character in the narrative doing exactly what you’d expect her to do. Overall though, she’s a little too costly for her ability since she provides no other bonuses and no soak. For 4 experience and taking up an ally slot, you probably have better options that give you boosts and extra abilities like Peter Sylvestre (2), Whitton Greene (2), Lola Santiago and others.
Lastly, I want to mention the other implementation of tarot added in this game, The Tower • XVI basic weakness. Like I mentioned in the last section, it has a very interesting tie to the meaning of the card, stated in the subtitle. The interaction this card has with other tarot cards is unique in that it kicks out any useful asset after you play it, while not doing anything by itself. In fact, it makes it harder to find tarot cards by sticking around in your opening hand. If you do manage to find a useful tarot card, will you put it into play or stick it out for long enough without skill cards? Overall, there isn’t much design discussion around weaknesses (yet!) but I think The Tower is very brutal, but well designed and wonderfully thematic.
Three of Rods: The Future
As I said a the start of this article, I’m anticipating an announcement for Return to The Circle Undone in the near future and I think we could definitely see the return of tarot cards. In fact, the banner for this article is card art commissioned by Fantasy Flight Games but never used on a card in the LCG (credit to Pat – bluehg for finding this). The prevalence in previous games, the rules alterations and the thematic tie-ins make me hopeful of this fact. So, how could we see this mechanic come back in the future? Let’s brainstorm for a little bit.
The most obvious option for more tarot cards would be to simply print new ones. While this seems simple enough, there’s a few questions we can ask to diversify the options. Would it be possible to see upgrades to existing tarot cards, potentially putting them out of range for off-class pick-ups? Could we see completely different cards to compete with the existing set? This excites me especially for the neutral tarot slot, where Ace of Rods just isn’t doing enough. Another potential factor that could make for more interesting tarot cards is interacting with other mechanics. Could we see a tarot card that seals tokens? Maybe we could even see one that interacts with bless and curse tokens since those also behave differently for each class. I’d even be interested in a downgrade for Anna Kaslow, alleviating her high XP cost and potentially leading to more play. I think even a new Tarot weakness could add some fun twists to the game, even if I’d rather see more player cards.
Another option for reviving this mechanic is printing tarot-adjacent cards. Currently, the only cards that interact with them are the aforementioned Anna and, in an indirect way, Studious. That last option is tied to main-class seekers and Lola Hayes, but I think we could see similar mechanics that alter your starting hand in way that strengthens tarot cards. Sefina Rousseau is a great example of an alternative opening hand draw, but it’s suited mostly to her ability. Cards like Stick to the Plan already offer a sort of more consistent opening hands without actually drawing you more cards. I think that permanents that shape your opening hand in different ways are a possibility to add consistency to tarot. Of course, the designers of Arkham Horror might have different, even more interesting ideas in mind and I really hope those make it to our hands in the near future.
That’s all I have today on the tarot mechanic in Arkham Horror: The Card Game. I’m definitely excited to see it come back in some way and I’m also interested to hear any of your thoughts on it! If you have any questions, comments or concerns, feel free to comment down below or reach out to me on Facebook, Discord or Nightgaunt Mail. See you next time!