Hi there and welcome to the second article of Breaking Down the Game. This series takes a step back and analyzes more meta aspects of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, taking into consideration other board and card games. Last time, I explored the ways players can have fun in card games and more specifically in Arkham Horror. Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the elements to this game that sets it apart from most other card, board and even roleplaying games: the chaos bag.
If you’ve been playing Arkham for a while, the chaos bag and the tokens it contains might have become a routine part of the experience. If you’re newer to the game, you might still be full of wonder at this concept. In either case you might still be getting used to the idea of assembling it for every campaign and making sure you keep it up to date. No matter your experience, I hope to pass on some of my deep appreciation of this game element and how much it enhances the card game. Let’s get started!
Ceci n’est pas une chaos bag
The idea of a physical object that determines your success or failure is not new to the Arkham Horror files. In most other games, such as Eldritch Horror or Mansions of Madness you roll some sort of dice to determine the number of “successes” of your action. That number might translate to how much damage you deal to the monster or how many clues you find from your location. The idea of using dice, either specialized ones like in Eldritch Horror is just plain six-sided ones like in Arkham Horror (third edition) ultimately did not make it into the card game. This might be because the designers wanted something more innovative or because the idea of escalating success was not initially tied to the result of your skill test. Ultimately, I think the decision to move away from multiple dice rolls was a good, if difficult one, favoring the customizable aspect of tokens and a chaos bag.
There is one very popular type dice that did inspire the creation of the chaos bag: the d20, also known as a 20 sided dice. It’s most famous for its use in the classic tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons and even if you’ve never played, you might be familiar with the concept. The number of results is roughly the same for the d20 and the chaos bag since campaigns average between 16 and 20 tokens, but the biggest inspiration taken from the dice is in the critical results. If you manage to roll a 20, you achieve something called a critical success, which is relevant for staving off death and also dealing more damage during attacks. Despite being commonly considered a critical failure, rolling a 1 on the d20 doesn’t have much consequence, unless it’s during the death saving throw. All this is to say that some of the most interesting moments in D&D come from the highs of rolling a natural 20 or the lows of rolling a 1 or 2 and failing your tests. These elements inspired the creation of a chaos bag with tokens representing possible results of the die.
With the D&D inspiration, Nate French and MJ Newman created the two mainstay tokens of the Arkham card game: the Elder Sign and the Auto-fail, also known as the tentacle. The Elder Sign is a common symbol in Lovecraftian literature and is used to repel the forces of evil. In the chaos bag it represents a critical success and the potential to pull off something only your character can do. Be it Daisy Walker drawing cards off her tome assets or Silas Marsh executing powerful loops from his discard pile, it’s almost always fun to draw the elder sign. Hopefully it will at least equate to passing the test you are currently performing, which is at least a relief from the barrage of negative modifiers otherwise populating the chaos bag.
The Auto-fail represents the ever present threat of the Mythos and how despite trying your hardest, you might still be found lacking. Despite being the much more despised of the two tokens, it’s also the one with the most impact on gameplay as a whole. If you manage to boost yourself up above the lowest modifier, you’ll still need to worry about this single game piece that can ruin your day. This is the token that adds the single most tension at any moment and that tension can lead to frustration, but paradoxically, it also leads to a lot of fun.
In addition to the two critical tokens, we also got four special symbols: the Skull, the Cultist, the Tablet and the Elder Thing. Initially these presented mechanisms in which to personalize the chaos bag for each scenario by specifying their effects on the scenario reference card. In general, we’ve seen those numbers be tied to mechanics of the scenario itself. For example, if the objective requires you to get clues off locations, there could be a token with an escalating modifier for each location without clues or different one that forces you to place clues from the token pool on your location. They’re also generic enough that the interpretation of these symbols can be broad, which will lead to some very interesting uses of these tokens which we’ll talk about in the next section.
The last concept that the introduction of the chaos bag brought us was the ability to customize the difficulty. This is done mostly by adding tokens with lower modifiers, potentially as low as -8, as well as altering the values of the symbol tokens on the scenario sheet. This gives Arkham Horror: The Card Game a difficulty knob that has never really been present in any previous Arkham Files games. If we go back to our comparison with Dungeons & Dragons, there is no such thing as altering the composition of a d20. Usually the difficulty knob of that game is in the Dungeon Master’s hands with how difficult they choose to make tests or how many and which enemies the party is confronted with. In the Arkham LCG, the group itself decides how difficult they want the campaign to be. This feature is genius both because it can appeal to more casual groups with lower difficulties or more experienced veterans of the games. It also can make repeat playthroughs more intriguing at higher difficulties.
The cultivation of ideas
The inspiration for creating the chaos bag is merely the first step in today’s analysis. Thankfully for all of us, the designers of this game did not stop at the initial concept and have since explored many ways that players can interact further with this game element. Let’s take a look at some of those now!
The first and perhaps most obvious ways the players can interact with the tokens is by having cards that do just that. The first instance of this effect was on Mystic spells that punished you for drawing the nasty symbol tokens, tying in with Mystic’s “power at a price” dynamic. Shrivelling was the first of those cards, printed in the core set. We’ve since seen other similar spells and even a twist on this concept in the form of cards that mitigate those tokens, such as Ritual Candles or that actively reward you for them, like Sixth Sense. We’ve even seen investigators like Jacqueline Fine who center on manipulating those tokens or Jim Culver who mitigate specific tokens even further.
Mystic isn’t the only class that can interact with chaos tokens, despite being the best one at it. We’ve seen each class get its own form of token interaction. Guardians can tell enemies to “Eat lead!” or harness the power of the Wish Eater to easily dispel bad tokens. Rogues can bet on a Sure Gamble or try their luck with the Lucky Dice. Survivors are probably the second best class at reacting to tokens with cards like Against All Odds, Eucatastrophe, Stroke of Luck, and others. In fact, they have one of the best token mitigators outside of Ms. Fine in Wendy Adams. Even Seekers can pay a great cost to eliminate token drawing all together with the ancient Pnakotic Manuscripts. The evolution of each class’ token mechanics has been an integral part of the development of this game and I hope to see it explored further in future cards.
In addition to player cards interacting directly with the chaos bag, we also see mechanics centered around the tokens themselves. The first of these was Seal, which allowed certain tokens to be removed from the chaos bag for a certain duration. This could manifest itself as a way to mitigate nasty tokens with The Chthonian Stone or to gain benefits by sealing positive tokens through Crystalline Elder Sign. More recently, we’ve seen the addition of a new token entirely in the Bless and Curse mechanic. The translation of this classic Arkham Files mechanic into chaos tokens is nothing short of brilliant. Not only have we seen cards that add, remove and benefit from resolving these new tokens, but also the return of the Seal mechanic in new classes. I’ve taken a look at the numbers behind these cards in my ongoing Horror by the Numbers series and I’ll soon give my full thoughts on the mechanic in a separate article. Suffice to say that the addition of the chaos bag allowed for what I considered one of the most fun and impactful new mechanics this game has seen in the Bless and Curse tokens.
One indirect way that chaos tokens have to impact a game is through their use as a narrative device. This was first lightly seen in The Dunwich Legacy campaign by adding certain bad tokens to the chaos bag as consequences for selfish actions. In The Path to Carcosa, we saw this developed further by having each path you take in the adventure represented by a different token, swing your bag back and forth if you were indecisive. In The Forgotten Age, three of the symbol tokens were used to track progress between possible paths leading to branching outcomes late in the campaign. In The Dream Eaters certain tokens symbolized the help of a mysterious ally, giving you benefits instead of drawbacks. Lastly, in The Innsmouth Conspiracy, the token bag has a veiled meaning that is mysteriously tied to your hazy memory. Hopefully I haven’t given too much away, but I can’t emphasize enough how fun it is that the chaos bag can be a living story-telling element.
Lastly, there’s something to be said of the chaos tokens as additional game pieces themselves. In The Innsmouth Conspiracy campaign, we’ve seen the addition of the flexible key tokens, but before that, we saw chaos tokens be used as keys in For The Greater Good, the fifth scenario of The Circle Undone. We also saw a very innovative use of them in the infestation bag, featured in Waking Nightmare, the first scenario in The Dream Eaters part B. While these are the only two esoteric use of chaos tokens so far, I think there is potential for more.
The art of blinging
The last aspect that I think is worth a brief look is one that might have not been expected by the game designers at first. None of Arkham Horror’s expansions or even the core set actually gives you anywhere to put the chaos tokens. The vague concept of a chaos bag led players to improvise with whatever they could find – a bowl, an opaque plastic bag or in my case, a repurposed dice bag. It didn’t take long for shops to open up selling premium chaos bags. One of the oldest and my personal favorite is Geek Craft Shop on Etsy. Dice Bags UK also has great options for any friends across the pond and so does Tabletop Upgrades. I’ve also seen bags from other games and other fancy drawstring bags being used as chaos bags. Overall, using a nicer looking object for your chaos bag gives every game that extra satisfying feeling during the many skill tests you’ll be performing over the course of the scenario.
In addition to upgrading your chaos bag, there’s also been many options to upgrade the tokens themselves. The first suggestion you might hear around the community is to use coin capsules to avoid your tokens looking like this. Luckily, it’s easy enough to find the necessary 26mm capsules on sites like OnFireGuy or Amazon if you’re so inclined. Of course, we don’t stop there and there’s also plenty of options for entirely new tokens themselves. Aurbits sells beautiful gold-plated tokens that, while expensive, are absolutely gorgeous every time they’re revealed. On Etsy you can find other options such as wood tokens from Air Castle Media or Strata Strike. There’s also glass options from Perfect Store or Board Game Delight. While less of a priority for your table, upgrading chaos tokens can also add a feeling of luxury and excitement to Arkham Horror games.
The so-called art of blinging is not directly related to game design or mechanics, but I found it important to call it out here because it can add the feeling of ownership to a game. If you’re a fan of card games like Magic: The Gathering, you might be familiar with foiled or altered card collectors. In the realm of board games, we see many editions offering upgraded tokens or additional game pieces. In LCGs like, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, we see special products like the World Championship decks that allow for players to feature extended art cards in their decks. While there are very rare extended art cards in Arkham Horror, they’re not generally accessible. I think that the ease of upgrading a component so fundamental as the chaos bags adds an unspoken element of customization that unites most players.
That’s all I have for this installment of Breaking Down the Game. Hopefully some of the insight I had on the chaos bag and tokens will be useful to you or will just renew your appreciation for them. If you have any questions, comments or caught on to the theme of my subtitles, feel free to comment down below or reach out to me on Facebook, Discord or Nightgaunt Mail. See you next time!
Thanks again to @Antimarkonikov for directing me to some of the images featured in this article. Also thanks to MJ, Nate, Jemery and all the other people that make Arkham Horror the awesome game we all love!