This article contains spoilers from Night of the Zealot, the campaign that comes with the base set of Arkham Horror: The Card Game.
The night began just like any other. I was sniffing out a lead on my latest case with my friend Wendy Adams, a drifter who also happens to be an excellent informant thanks to her less than scrupulous burglary talents. We were looking into several mysterious disappearances happening in the area marked only by smears of blood. Something weird was happening for sure, but nothing could have prepared us for the truth.
I began to hear some chanting from downstairs, and soon after, something like earth moving below us. Unsure of what was happening, I rose to exit my study and see who was in my house making a racket only to find the door was completely gone, with only a black outline of where the frame used to be. We were seemingly trapped, and began to frantically look around for some clue as to how to exit the room.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game diverges from its namesake right away by actually telling a coherent story instead of being a series of random happenings getting thrown at you. That’s because the game inserts you into a more traditional narrative structure, guided from start to finish. That’s not a slight against the game, because it allows the different scenarios to absolutely drip atmosphere. That study that we found ourselves stuck in? We did end up finding a way out thanks to a combination of testing against our Lore stat and a Magnifying Glass card, which gave bonuses to investigating for clues. Succeeding at these tests get you clue tokens, which you need to advance your end of the story. Meanwhile, doom increases with time, and forces you to race to solve the mystery, injecting extra tension into your investigation.
As it turns out, we found the door to the study – in the floor underneath a carpet. It was the same door as was on the wall, just moved into the floor as if it was always there. Entering it, we fell into a familiar hallway that was different than when I last left it. There was a musty smell everywhere, and the floor was replaced by bare earth. Undeterred, I tried to enter the parlor where I first heard the chanting, but a blast of hissing heat pushed me back. Some kind of barrier was preventing me from entering, and I was going to need to search the house to find a way through.
By far the most immersive part of the Arkham Horror Card Game is the location cards that you find yourself moving between. They simultaneously ground the story by giving it a sense of place and provides enough malleability to surprise you at the right moments with a sudden structural shift. They’re also double sided, so you don’t know what you’re getting into until you enter.
And those clues I mentioned earlier? They almost always refer to specific things in the story that will push the plot forward. I got through the barrier by searching both the basement and the attic. I opened the door to the attic to find a mangled carcass of an unknown beast hanging from a meat hook and dripping blood into a barrel. The basement was even stranger, as it was transformed into a vast ice cavern. After a thorough search of both rooms, I grabbed the barrel from the attic and put some snow from the basement into it, and we threw it into the barrier to finally break through to the parlor.
It wasn’t without difficulty, though. The house was now infested with disfigured humanoid creatures known as ghouls. Being a Fed, I was armed to the teeth and could dispatch the creatures with ease. Meanwhile, Wendy used her skill at stealth to evade danger and continue to investigate while I kept the monsters busy. But it turned out that one of our worst foes was ourselves. As part of our individual deckbuilding requirements, we had Weakness cards shuffled in our decks and popping up at inconvenient times. My need to cover up any crimes I may have committed meant I found myself burning bodies, and with them crucial evidence we needed to get out of the house. Wendy suffered from amnesia, and began forgetting things in the heat of the moment. These little touches give your individual character decks character, furthering immersion.
This tale culminates with a faceoff in the parlor with a mysterious woman and a ghoul in red priest robes which proved far more formidable than the rest of the ghouls in the house. The ghoul priest proved too much for us, as the reality of this monster’s existence caused me to lose my composure and run like mad from the house, leaving Wendy to unsuccessfully try to kill it. In the end, the ghoul priest escaped the house along with a cavalcade of other ghouls, leaving the woman very upset with us. She would conscript us to right our grave mistake and save the town. In future scenarios, the woman was an asset inserted into one of our decks. That wouldn’t be the last we would see of the ghoul priest, either. Our choices would end up haunting us in the most deliciously horrifying ways.