Breaking Down the Game: How we have fun

Hi there and welcome to another inaugural article here on Obscure Studies. This series takes a step back and analyzes some more meta aspects of Arkham Horror and to some degree, board and card games in general. I have a few articles planned, but I also want to hear what you’d like to read about in the future. If you enjoy this style of analysis, let me know and I’ll make sure to get more out!

Today, I’ll be covering a topic that comes up a lot in discussions about Arkham Horror and other card games, even if people don’t realize it. That topic, in a single, very vague nutshell, is how different players enjoy this game in their own ways. It’s a subject that feels very important to me both as a community member and as a game design enthusiast. Hopefully, this article will teach you more about the way you approach Arkham Horror and maybe even gaming in general. Let’s dive in!

The Axes of Enjoyment

The Cruel Hunter by Borja Pindado

No, I’m not not talking about tools that you use to split wood (or other things). Instead, we’re talking about each axis on which players find enjoyment in this game. Arkham Horror has the unique benefit of being a game that brings together mechanics from many different styles of board and card games. Arguably, the most prominent one we have is the deck building, with its many flavors, combos and overall different approaches. Another strong element of Arkham Horror is the narrative behind each campaign, evolving over multiple scenarios, with branching paths related to player decisions. There’s also the difficulty of the game, which, while variable, is generally pretty high and presents strong challenges to the players, drawing them into creating better decks to eventually defeat a Great Old One and save the world. All these elements combined with the many others that make up this game can lead to various approaches to actually enjoying it. My goal now is to try and break down these approaches to having fun in Arkham Horror.

The first approach I want to cover is related to the mechanical aspect of the game. While Arkham Horror is a game with a rich background and deep story, it is still a deck building game with clear win conditions. In fact, the mechanical framework it sits on might be one of the best I’ve ever seen in a card game and I’m sure we’ll cover it in depth in future Breaking Down the Game articles. All this to say, that it is a game that can be enjoyed separately from its theme, as a deck building and piloting challenge. Understanding the story can be necessary to the extent of making it through a campaign, but objectives are always presented in a concrete manner and even the branching paths can be broken down to a series of choices and consequences. Playing through a campaign to achieve the optimal scenario, especially in higher difficulties is a very legitimate way to enjoy this game. Even if your goal isn’t strictly to win every scenario, there’s still plenty to do in the realm of putting cards together, forming a cohesive deck with powerful synergies and combos.

On the subject of winning scenarios and how we enjoy the game, I want to take a moment to further break down the mechanical axis of fun in Arkham Horror. It’s important to note that having fun is not always tied to winning. In a game that provides you with a full narrative experience even during a loss, breezing through a game isn’t always the best thing you can be doing. It’s imperative that, during any discourse surrounding this game, we recognize that there are (at least) two directions you can take on this axis: winning the game and enjoying yourself. While for some people, the former might depend on the latter, that won’t be true for everyone. We’ll talk more about how individual players enjoy the game in the next section.

In contrast to the first method of enjoying the game, there is also the one focused on the story-telling that occurs as the game is played. Arkham has such a rich narrative behind it, which is backed by a huge existing Intellectual Property (IP). These factors make for a strong thematic experience that has brought many players over to it from different board games. The ultimate manifestation of this experience is during a first-time playthrough of a campaign, when your decisions are guided purely by what you think might happen and based on the events leading up to that point. In that way, everyone enjoys the game on this front, at least at first, even if they don’t put much of an emphasis on the story being told. This axis can manifest itself in many different ways such as making decisions based on what your character would do or attempting to build a deck that sticks to a theme. At its core, Arkham Horror is a game about regular people standing up to evil powers beyond understanding and playing to that theme is how a lot of people find enjoyment in such a grim landscape.

The last aspect of the game I want to mention is one that is not strictly isolated from either of the previous two. It’s the social experience this game provides. This isn’t exclusive to Arkham Horror as a game. In fact, it’s an inherent part of why board games are so enjoyable. Sitting at a table with friends passing around physical components definitely has a great appeal to it (when possible and safe to do so, of course). In the Arkham Files world, this experience is augmented by the constant barrage of treacheries and enemies and the bleak prospect of success when facing down an Elder God. In that sense, this game is great at bringing people together, scratching their heads at how they can accomplish their goals while the encounter cards do everything to try and stop them. Whether that goal is done with a fun, laid back group or a more intense, min-maxing one, this game benefits so much from the interaction between players. Ejoying Arkham Horror for the camaraderie involved in facing the unknown together is an aspect of that game that is sometimes overlooked, but is a strong axis of enjoyment.

Player Profiles

Starry Seer by Jarreau Wimberly

Now that we’ve talked about the general ways that the game can be enjoyed, I want to focus on what inspired me to write this article in the first place, the types of players. As I’ve mentioned before, I was a very avid Magic: The Gathering player a while back and the designers of that game have developed an extensive theory on the types of players. You can find more on that here and it’ll be the basis of what I’m going to present on this section. The idea behind my analysis will be to provide a reskin of this theory for Arkham Horror, not to create an entirely new one, so if you’re already familiar with the MTG player types, this will be very familiar. These player types explain how players interact with the game and specific cards and mechanics inside of it.

An important note before I begin listing the categories is that people are complex. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone will fit squarely into one of these player types. Instead, I’ll be describing the basic idea behind each profile and it’s entirely possible, even probable, that you may find yourself identifying with multiple of them.

The one that plays to win

The first type of player is tied mostly to the mechanical aspect of the game in that they are focused on winning the game. As we know, achieving this with consistency is a hard task for a game such as Arkham Horror but there are a group of players that pride themselves on getting the best results in every scenario, including objectives, victory points, and anything else that’s available. I already talked a bit about this way of enjoying the game in the last section, so here I want to focus on the type of player that enjoys playing this way, the equivalent to the Spike in MTG.

In this category, I’m including players whose main objective is to “100%” the scenario and in turn, the campaign. The manner in which they do that isn’t important. Be it using a deck of their own creation, one recommended by a friend or just replicating the top deck on ArkhamDB, being victorious is the ultimate goal. These players rely on the efficiency of their deck and a lot of times go so far as to tune decks to specific scenarios and even encounter cards. Most of the time, these players will pick the most efficient investigators to get the job done. Action efficiency and card draw is the priority when tackling a game of Arkham. This style of player loves cards like Cryptic Research, Crack the Case and Drawing Thin. This style of player also enjoys concepts as the taboo list because they want to be able to go all out in deck building, leaving game balance concerns to the developers. All in all, these players have the most fun when they contribute meaningfully to a win, even more so if it’s a total victory.

The one that likes combos

The next type of player I want to talk about can work on both the axis of theme as well as mechanics. It’s the player that likes combining different cards together to produce something new and exciting. Players that identify with this type aren’t preoccupied with whether cards are bad or good, they focus entirely on whether card interactions are fun to play with. These card combos might be assembled to build together a theme or to beat a scenario, as long as the focus is bringing it all together. The corresponding player type in MTG here is the Johnny/Jenny.

Players in this category have the goal of bringing cards together into a deck, and whether the main objective is winning the scenario or just having a good laugh. The reason for bringing the cards together can also vary a lot. It can be as simple as triggering Astounding Revelation with Stick to the Plan or as complex and crazy as building an entire deck with only guns and hats. Sometimes, the objective may even be to take a card that’s widely considered poor and make a deck to subvert that expectation. My favorite example of this is a Mark Harrigan deck that you might have seen before, focused on making the Springfield M1903 work. There’s plenty of other examples, such as this Quick Study Rex list I really enjoyed or this Santa Claus Lola deck focused solely on boosting other investigators.

The one that just likes the cards

This might be the most generic of the categories, since it encompasses both the Timmy/Tammy profile from MTG but also many other player types exclusive to cooperative games. I’ll summarize this category as players who really like the game pieces. Whether they love the feeling of chucking a stick of Dynamite and walking away or the dramatic reveal of an agenda that turns out to be an enemy, this player type is just plain fascinated with the game. Seeing a new player card gets them excited to build a deck just to play it and getting beat by a particularly hard enemy gets them excited to return to that scenario and get their revenge. Generally, these players don’t care too much about winning or losing, as long as they get to experience the game. Luckily for them, Arkham does a wonderful job of giving you a real experience both in victory and loss.

Despite the name I gave to this type of player, I think we can generalize to say that they also enjoy game mechanics. Maybe their favorite campaign is Path to Carcosa because of the Doubt/Conviction mechanic or their favorite scenario is Waking Nightmare because of the infestation bag. Another possibility is that they enjoy the social aspects of the game more than anything. Working together and planning out the group’s strategy might be the priority for them. Overall, this type of player doesn’t have many ties to specific decks or combos, but instead values the game for the unique aspects it has to offer.

The one that’s more than one

Like I said before, these are general categories that are distilled down the essence of the player type and anyone can be a combination of multiple of these. They also differ a bit from the psychographic profiles of Magic: The Gathering in that there’s always at least some throwback to the cooperative nature of this game. I want to take a moment to highlight what this can look like in practice. For example, if you’re someone who likes to win but also to build combos, you might have enjoyed playing with Double or Nothing (and even still do). If you’re someone who both likes combos and the cards themselves, you might find yourself enjoying the bless and curse mechanic from The Innsmouth Conspiracy, since it both highlights what the game can do, while also presenting many interesting card interactions. You might even be all three, and love building decks, playing them and experiencing all this game has to offer.

That’s all for the first article in Breaking Down the Game. Hopefully some of the insight I shared here was useful in understanding your own style of play as well as your companions. I have some more articles planned for this series, so let me know if you like it and want to see more! 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!

Thanks again to Ryan for reviewing and Antimarkovnikov for helping with the images. I couldn’t have done this without you! Well, I could have, but it would have been much worse.

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