I suspect this post will come as something of a surprise to my regular readers. It is, after all, my first real post on a topic other than Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (which is, for new readers, a multiplayer collectible card game with a lot of social deduction, alliance making, and political backstabbing). However, I have always said that this blog was going to be about gaming in general and not necessary focused on any specific game.
As I’ve gotten older, my tastes in games have shifted somewhat, and I find myself becoming more and more interested in the relatively new genre of cooperative card games. This blossoming love springs partially from practical reasons. If I go too long without diving into a card game, I start to get the itch again, and this has caused me to briefly fall in love with a number of games (usually dead CCGs) over time. Examples include VS System by Upper Deck, the Horus Heresy CCG by Sabertooth Games, Star Trek CCG 2nd Edition, Star Wars CCG, and it’s successor WARS TCG, all by Decipher Games, and so many more. The difficulty with all of these games is that without an opponent, the game can’t be played. I’ve owned a few card games that I was never able to play against a real opponent. But this problem simply doesn’t exist with cooperative card games. Since the game itself is your opponent, you can play anytime. To a cooperative card game, an active community is a boon, but for a competitive card game, it is a requirement.
My love for these games also springs from the strengths they bring which competitive games often struggle to achieve – a focus on narrative and characters. Since the game itself is the opponent, it has little choice other than to tell you a story. Sentinels of the Multiverse, for example, lets you play out a climatic showdown between an arch-villain and a team of super heroes, complete with derailed trains and imperiled bystanders. Since these games usually puts the players in the role of hero (or at least main character), it naturally focuses the narrative arc on who the players choose to be.
So if you share my interest in cooperative card games, or if my words have convinced you to give them a try, which game should you play? Well that’s a difficult question to answer, as your options are increasing all the time. However, if you want a card game that is both cooperative and customizable, there are currently two main contenders that I’m aware of: Arkham Horror Living Card Game (which I will simply call Arkham) and the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game (which I will call LotR), both of which are published by Fantasy Flight Games. So assuming that you are willing to confine the discussion to these two games, which game should you play?
On the surface the games seem quite similar, but having played them both fairly extensively, I can attest that the differences between them are significant as opposed to cosmetic. And it is these differences in theme, tone, and gameplay that should dictate your decision between these games. It is worth nothing that both games are in the top 100 games according to the rankings on Boardgamegeek, and both are within the top 10 within the customizable category (for comparison, Vampire: the Eternal Struggle is ranked 882 over all, and 48th for customizable games). Clearly, both games are considered excellent by the community, which means that your decision is unlikely to come down to questions about which is the “better” game.
A quick note before we start: it may become clear that I favor on game over the other, but that is only because I prefer the strengths of that game and am less willing to deal with the weaknesses of the other game. You may well feel differently, and I advise that you let your personal preferences guide you. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive into the differences between these two great games!
1. Game Narrative:
I actually think that both games feature strong storytelling elements which form a cohesive narrative. Playing LotR is slightly more akin to reading a book because you typically keep playing a scenario until you win, and then you move on to the next which assumes that you were successful in the previous scenario. This means that the story is set before you begin and you are really just allowing it to unfold rather than altering its path. Arguably the only narrative element you have control over is the path you take to victory. I should also note that the quality of the narrative has gotten better over time, meaning that the the later expansions are particularly good in this category.
Arkham shares much more in common with a table-top role playing game where success and failure are both viable and (hopefully) interesting options. The game specifically urges you not to replay individual scenarios in search of the optimal outcome. Indeed, some scenarios don’t have truly “good” resolutions, which forces you to strive for the “less bad” outcome. This feels appropriate to the universe created by H. P. Lovecraft. Arkham asks you to keep track of certain key choices you make during play, and these decisions can come back to haunt or help you. If you fail to kill a boss enemy in one scenario, you can bet that they’ll show back up at some point in the future.
In my estimation, Arkham has a more compelling narrative because you have at least some control over how the story flow. This is enhanced by the inclusion of cards that chart the progress of the antagonists (LotR only has cards that follow the protagonists). And example of this (the very first cards of the first scenario – no spoilers here!) are below. But these benefit comes with a number of logistical… issues. Because each scenario is so dependent on the previous one, you are limited to either continuing a campaign or start a new one. Starting over means playing through the first scenario again, and continuing means playing through the scenario immediately following the one you just played. Given that scenarios are released once per month, you will quickly find yourself in an awkward situation. You can either set aside the game for a month, start the campaign over, or reply the scenario with the same deck against the wishes of the game. You can’t even play this scenario with a different deck (I’ll explain why in my next section).
Personal Verdict: Ultimately, I think the release schedule of Arkham hurts it. I would much rather buy a single expansion that includes the full campaign. Although expensive, this would allow me to play through the story as often as I would like with different decks and play-styles. The decision I’ve outlined above (wait, restart, or cheat) is not one that I like, and I often find myself simply setting the game aside rather than being adventurous with it. LotR does not suffer from this problem. Because scenarios are not dependent on your previous decisions, you are free to play whichever one you want at any given time. The one feature I wish LotR possessed was the antagonist “quest” cards present in Arkham.
2. Character Progression:
The next major difference is that your investigators in Arkham actually grow and change as you play through the campaign. It is particularly nice to see this growth reflected in the contents of your deck. You acquire experience points after each scenario that can be used to purchase advanced cards (which kind of feels like leveling up). But the horrors you experience during the scenario might force you to include negative cards (called weaknesses) in your deck. Again, this lends the game an RPG-like feel as you carry the rewards and scars of previous encounters with you.
In contrast, LotR includes almost no character progression. Most of the time, you build your deck and it remains static unless you elect to change it. This provides the feeling that your LotR characters are at the height of their power and experience, while Arkham investigators are slowly experiencing the horror of their world. Again, I think both systems reflect their source material. I should note that the Saga expansions of LotR (which play through the events of the book) have optional campaign rules that do allow you to make some slight modifications to your deck (you might find a cache of treasure or be given a gift from Galadriel that you can keep in your deck). The changes are minor and feel a bit like they were experimenting with the concept in preparation for Arkham.
Personal Verdict: On the surface, the progression system in Arkham system is the clear winner. But again, this victory comes with significant logical issues. The fact that your deck changes throughout the campaign means that it is impossible to keep ready-to-play decks on hand. Your deck is either unmodified (meaning it can only be used for the first scenario of a campaign), or modified (meaning it can only be used for the scenario immediately after the one you just played). In the end, Arkham severely restricts which scenario I can play against and which deck I can play with. LotR doesn’t place these restrictions on me. Any deck may be played against any scenario. That doesn’t mean that every deck will be successful against any scenario (there is no one deck to rule them all), but the game gives me a lot of freedom when I sit down to play.
3. Gameplay Feel:
To me, the games provide a very different play experience that is difficult to quantify. I think LotR feels more reminiscent of traditional customizable card games like Magic the Gathering, Game of Thrones, or Netrunner. Your deck is based around specific combos and synergies, and while synergy with the other decks at the table will certainly strengthen your position, I rarely feel that I am forced to adapt my deck to complement the others at the table. I just need to focus on contributing as much as I can. Now obviously you are going to have a bad time if you sit down with four combat decks, but ultimately, the decks feel more self-contained to me.
Arkham stays true to its RPG roots in that each deck feels like a character inside a party with a role to play. The synergies often occur between decks rather than within decks. Working well with the team might be more important than completing your own power combo. When paired with the fact that you can and often should contribute to the skill checks (see below) of your allies, it lends the game a very nice cooperative feel. I should note that it is possible that the current lack of synergy within a single deck may well be due to the fairly small card pool currently available to Arkham. Indeed, I am starting to see more possibilities open as more cards are released.
Arkham also deserves special mention for its board-like system shown above. Locations are played on the table like a board, and you have to actually move your investigator around to specific places. It solidifies some of the abstraction that exists in LotR.
Personal Verdict: I really like the board that Arkham’s locations form. It can be somewhat annoying when you are forced return to the same locations in LotR (“Aragorn, you’re leading us in circles again!”). But I also prefer the more traditional card game feel of LotR.
4. “Action” Resolution:
Although a sub-category of gameplay, I believe it deserves to be highlighted. In Arkham, you do things by counting up your total skill points (which you can add to for a given check by discarding cards) and then drawing a tile out of a bag with a negative point value. If your check is above the target number, you succeed. It is a mechanic that includes a lot of risk management (“I’m likely to get -X on the check, so I’d better commit +Y to the check”), but it also introduces an element to randomness that can feel to some like rolling dice.
LotR is more… well… “mathy” is the best way I have to describe it. You add up your total number (like willpower of questing characters), and subtract the enemy’s total number (like threat in the staging area). In higher player count games of LotR, I keep a threat dial around to of keeping track of these numbers. Randomness comes from which cards are revealed from the deck and from Shadow effects on cards which provide attacking enemies with an added bonus.
Personal Verdict: This is a bit of a toss up for me. I like the element of risk-management that Arkham offers, but simple number comparisons presented by LotR make me feel like I have more control over the outcome. I think both systems have their charm. Randomness is an essential ingredient in these types of games, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be included or excluded from action resolution.
Player scalability is the degree to which scenarios retain their difficulty regardless of the number of players (1-4) playing. Arkham accomplishes this through the use of the “per investigator” icon. Where LotR would require X progress to advance the story regardless of the number of players present, Arkham asks you to find X clues per player. This means that Arkham scales very nicely and that their scenarios are of (roughly) equal difficulty regardless of the number of players.
The scalability in LotR just isn’t as clean. Each player draws one card from the encounter deck, meaning that you will see more enemies and locations in higher player counters. While this works well in principal, many of the cards have a global effect when they come out (like deal 1 damage to each character), which means that in a one player game, your characters are getting hit by up to 1 effect each round, but in a four player game, you could be smacked around by up to 4 per turn! To make matters a bit worse for LotR, locations (one of the three types of cards you might draw on a turn) can only be removed one per turn regardless of how many players are playing. So in a one player game, you might draw one location and be able to explore it that turn. But in a four player game, you could draw four locations and still only be able to explore one of those per turn.
While that doesn’t sound good, I should say that scaling in LotR is ok, just not great. My impression is that the community views 2-3 players as the sweet spot for most scenarios, which matches my experience. I should note that some scenarios favor solo play while others favor four players.
Personal Verdict: Arkham is the clear victor here. The “per investigator” symbol is a brilliant addition to the genre, and I would certainly welcome its addition to LotR. I would like to emphasize, however, that LotR plays extremely well with 2-3 players and only suffers somewhat with 1 or 4 players.
6. Core Box Experience:
This is unfortunately LotR’s Achilles heel. The designers just didn’t have as much experience when they made it as they did for Arkham. Not only is LotR the the older game, but it was the first cooperative customizable card game of its type ever made (that I’m aware of). The early scenarios aren’t uniformly bad, rather they are inconsistent. The core set has three scenarios. The first is the excellent learning scenario that you are unlikely to play once you understand the game. The second scenario is extremely good and you will keep coming back to it for years. Seriously, Journey down the Anduin is rated as one of the best scenarios in the game by the community. But the third is widely considered to be one of the worst and most frustrating in the game (there are even debates on whether it is beatable solo with the core set). However, the game rapidly improves – the expansions (particularly the later ones) are marvelous. There are certainly weaker and stronger scenarios, but rarely a true dud.
The three scenarios in Arkham’s core set are, by contrast, uniformly excellent. It is clear that the designers of Arkham carried the lessons they learned while designing scenarios for LotR over to the new game.
Personal Verdict: Looking purely at the scenarios included in the core set, Arkham is the winner. Each of them is engaging, interesting, and different. That having been said, LotR rapidly gets better (and becomes truly awesome) while Arkham becomes… different. The later scenarios are good, but I’m not sure I’d classify them as better than those in the core.
Final Personal Verdict:
Again, the game you should pick will depend on how much you value different factors. For me, I value having a box of decks sitting on hand that allow me to instantly play any scenario (a new one or an old favorite). The fact that Arkham doesn’t let me do this means that it often gets overlooked in my household. But when I do have the energy to coordinate deck construction and play through an entire campaign without stopping (maybe after everything’s been released?) then I do enjoy it. But if I could only have one game, it would be LotR without question. The game is just so rich at this point, and its been great to watch the designers explore the corners and edges of Middle Earth.
Want to dive into LotR?
Obviously you should buy the core set first and play through the scenarios in there. If you do enjoy the experience and want to go further, you will quickly discover that there are a sea of options out there. This is the oldest Living Card Game in production, so there is a lot of content out there. Let me just point out that because this is a cooperative game, there is absolutely no need for you to own everything. You won’t go to tournaments and get beaten in the ground because you don’t have the new meta-defining power card.
So here is my advice – don’t let yourself become overwhelmed, and don’t force yourself to buy expansions in the order they were published. Some of the older expansions are hard to find and you’ll have to wait for FFG to reprint them (which they frequently do), and there is no reason to not enjoy the game in the meantime. A great way to decide which expansion to get is to find a theme that strikes you and dive in. Like the books? Maybe you should start with the Saga Expansions. Want compelling new stories? Maybe try one of the recent Deluxe Expansions. Finally, there is an incredibly good and incredibly long blog post which summarizes each expansion, and makes suggestions about which would be good first purchases. You can find this list in all its gargantuan glory here.
Want to dive into Arkham?
Well, the advice is largely the same – go buy the core set and play through it. If you end up really enjoying it then you should start buying the expansions in the order in which they were released, which isn’t that difficult yet since the game is only a year old at this point.
Hopefully this post hasn’t been overly long and painful and has instead helped you make what has proven to a difficult decision for some new players. Ultimately when deciding between Arkham and LotR, there is no wrong choice. They are both great games. But hopefully you feel a bit more informed about which game might suit you better. Thanks for reading, and enjoy whichever game you decide to try!