Hi and welcome to the third 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. Today, I’m stepping even further into game elements that make Arkham Horror special since it’s one of the few of its type to feature such a mechanic. Today’s article will be focusing on the experience system.
Similarly to the chaos bag, which we covered in the last article, you’ll probably be very familiar with purchasing new cards with experience. There’s plenty of ways this mechanic is explored in the game, but the base concept of upgrading individual cards with victory points earned in a scenario has been present from the Core Set. With each campaign, we’ve not only gotten more options for spending experience, but also more ways to earn experience and ways to alter how we spend it.
What does it all mean?
The existence of an experience system isn’t unique to games. In fact, taking at look at non-card games that feature such a mechanic can give us insight into what experience means in Arkham Horror. The most common genre to feature experience as a character progression system are Role Playing Games (RPGs). In these games, as you defeat more enemies or otherwise perform impressive feats, you gain experience that allows you to level up and acquire more powerful abilities. The main idea is to provide players a sense of growth, allowing them to take on harder challenges. In Arkham, characters themselves don’t level up, but the tools at their disposal do, and that manifests itself in two broad forms.
The most obvious upgrades available thematically to an investigator are new, high profile cards. Whether it’s a powerful Shotgun you purchased or found amidst the chaos, or the ability to perform highly Cryptic Research, it’s easy to imagine your character acquiring these new items or abilities. In this sense, experience can translate into a variety of concepts: either the ability to wield more powerful tools, the knowledge of where to find them or even the monetary resources necessary to buy them.
The other side of card upgrades are enhanced versions of new cards. Especially when augmenting level 0 cards, it might not be obvious what is happening when individual cards are upgraded. One possibility is that the investigator has learned to use a specific tool or skill more effectively. Maybe Daisy has increased her powers of Deduction, allowing her to find even more clues to unravel the mythos. Perhaps Roland has learned to better wield his .45 Automatic, leading to the ability to shoot from even further, symbolizing the ability to ignore the retaliate keyword. Another possibility is that the item itself has been upgraded. Maybe by spending some time modifying her .41 Derringer, Jenny has made it more lightweight, allowing her to shoot it very quickly.
There are also other, more special cases of upgraded cards telling a story. Researched cards, as Strange Solution and its ilk are now classified, don’t work in their level 0 iterations and only become real, and powerful cards when upgraded. The upgrading mechanic is even altered, requiring a bit of extra studying or deciphering a mysterious object. Not only do the investigators need to spend the experience to upgrade their object, they must also have dedicated time to identify the solution or translate the glyphs.
Another instance of upgrades telling a story lie in two classes of skill cards with a narrative in their progression. Practiced skills such as Deduction and Vicious Blow upgrade into higher level versions with the Expert trait. This tells us that the character with these skills honed them so much that they are extremely adept at utilizing them Similarly, Innate skills such as Opportunist and Survival Instinct upgrade into the Developed trait, showcasing that despite being intrinsic to the individual, they can still be improved with practice.
How does it all work?
If there’s more to the theme than just getting more powerful cards, is there more to the mechanics of upgrading cards than just making your deck better? First, let’s dive into exactly what making your deck better could look like. While it might be as simple as going from a compact .41 Derringer to a powerful Chicago Typewriter, there’s also more to shop for than just pure action compression. At higher experience costs, we start seeing pieces to engines coming together. Maybe your secret deck needs both copies of Ariadne’s Twine to function or you’ve built a complicated event loop, but it only works when you have Grisly Totem (Survivor – 3). The experience system both allows you to build decks like these while also restricting your ability to do so at certain points of a campaign.
One big element that is affected by the experience system are the deck building options for each investigator. I have an entire series dedicated to that, which you can check out here. Each investigator can take only cards of a specific class up to a certain level, usually augmented by lower levels of another class or trait. This keeps the more powerful and iconic cards of a class limited to investigators of that color. As such, higher experience cards can more purely express what its class is all about. Guardians get impressive weapons, Mystics get impressive spells, etc. As such, the experience system really helps cement class identity and prevent any blurring of the lines between colors.
Of course, there are other, more interesting tricks we can pull off with experience. The first being allowing players to manipulate how they gain experience or even how much. We saw this very early in the game with Delve Too Deep, an extremely risky card costing an action and forcing all players to draw and resolve an encounter card. Despite this, it’s been a mainstay of Mystic decks, especially in campaigns that are deemed to provide low amounts of experience (usually less than 40 by the end of the penultimate scenario). In general, experience granting cards either have some risk attached or some crazy condition to pull off to actually get extra experience. Risks include trauma, in Arcane Research and In the Thick of It or a complete randomization in Shrewd Analysis. Some crazy conditions are featured in “Let God sort them out…” or Down the Rabbit Hole.
The cards themselves can also feature unique ways of using the experience system. We’ve already covered Researched cards, a thematic way to provide players with more challenges for better cards, while also telling the story of a Seeker discovering the true power of a mysterious artifact. There are also Exceptional cards, which are not only limited to one copy per deck, but cost double the experience. They also highlight the difference between cost and level, allowing for investigators with limited class access like Finn and Lola to take them. We also have the Exile mechanic, leveraging experience as another resource to be spent in-game, working well alongside Survivor’s low-level cards. With that mechanic, we also saw another very unique experience granting card in Déjà Vu.
The last bit of mechanics that the experience system grants us is one that probably flies under the radar: chaining and unchaining cards via the taboo list. The reason this may not be as visible to most players is that the taboo list is completely optional and generally recommended for more experienced players. Despite that, I think the array of tools the developers have at their disposal for balancing overpowered cards is made even more unique by the experience system. Instead of requiring cards to be banned or otherwise limited in how they can be used, the experience system allows for certain cards to cost more if they want to be exploited. Even light touches, such as to cards like Machete, have drastic effects on how players approach these cards.
Why is this system so good?
I’ve talked all about experience and how it works, but I want to end this article with a why. Why is this system so good? Why is it different in Arkham than it is in, say, Dungeons & Dragons? The first factor is common in most games with this kind of mechanic: the feeling of progression and growth. In a lovecraftian setting, a feeling like you’re going up against something much more powerful than you is often the intention. Being able to accrue the necessary resources and knowledge to overcome this situation provides the players with a wonderful feeling of being in control of their destinies and it’s a big part of what makes Arkham special.
The other factor is unique to Arkham: the feeling that your deck represents your character. It’s not only what gear they have in their arsenal, but also their skills, abilities, talents and weaknesses. Being able to upgrade that deck during the course of a campaign highlights even further the feeling of progression Other games give players opportunities to get slight buffs to their deck, but the experience system is much more robust and prioritizes player agency. You can focus on getting a specific, high experience card and build your deck and save your XP for that.
One big advantage to the system is that it is an immense tool for game balance. Extremely powerful cards can be gated behind experience points without necessarily breaking the game. The main reason that we’re allowed to have big crescendos culminating with a fight against an ancient elder god is the experience players gained beforehand. Not only does it allow for amazing finales, it also permits players to bring varied builds to standalones, at the cost of a certain number of weaknesses. While the weakness mechanic itself is an amazing contributor (and probably future topic for this series), the XP system is really flexible no matter what type of game you’re playing.
That’s all I have for this installment of Breaking Down the Game. I hope you learned something or at least renewed your appreciation for one of the game’s hallmark elements. Are there any other games with similar mechanics I should know about? 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!