Last month, I posted that if I reached 1000 followers on Twitter, I'd do something special, and offered a poll with a few different options. Unsurprisingly, "post Arkham design insights" won out, and honestly, I'm pretty excited to reveal some behind-the-scenes details regarding the design and development process for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. So, without further ado, here is the first in an ongoing series of Arkham LCG related blog posts.
These posts will focus a little more on design/development insights and less on production, but I might occasionally reveal some production-related details from time to time. For today, I'd like to focus on enemies. Enemy cards a crucial part of Arkham LCG's design. As a horror game, it is imperative that enemies in Arkham generally feel scary, threatening, lethal. While doom is perhaps the primary driving force for tension in the game, enemies, more than any other cardtype, are the primary driving source for fear.
Enemies must be scary.
When Nate and I first started working on Arkham, we built its foundation on The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and while enemies in that game can most certainly be quite lethal, one of the pillars of that game is its epic and grandiose tone. You aren't just one character; you control a fellowship, with each of your characters likely to be able to handle different elements of gameplay, including defending against and dispatching enemies. Enemies in LOTR are also quite common, generally comprising roughly 30–50% of the encounter deck in most quests.
Arkham is a bit of a different beast. You generally control only a single character, so it was important to us that if you weren't equipped to deal with enemies, you really felt it. As a result, enemies have a few defining traits that were crucial to their design:
While an enemy is engaged with you, your forward progress is slowed/halted. This is very different from LOTR—in fact, in LOTR having an enemy engaged with you helps you quest. Okay, technically you can still move and investigate while an enemy is engaged with you, but attacks of opportunity make this a difficult proposition at best, and deadly at worst. Generally speaking, when you draw an enemy, you have to drop what you're doing and deal with it. This draws immediate attention to the enemy and makes them seem scary, even when they are sometimes not.
Enemies are deadly. Enemies do not have to "test" to attack you, but you always get a full turn to deal with them before they do. This makes them seem deadlier than you (since they always hit), but ensures that it usually feels fair when they do hit you.
Enemies do not have to be handled through combat. Obviously, removing them from the board is going to be the best option nine times out of ten, but it's not the only option. Many enemies can be evaded or even parleyed with to avoid having to actually fight them. This improves the RPG feeling of the game by granting players several different paths to pursue, and is necessary given the fact that you only control one investigator.
Dealing with more than one enemy is hard. Arkham's action system makes it difficult, or at the very least time-consuming, to deal with multiple engaged enemies; this helps make each enemy encounter even more tense, because you know if you draw one or two more, you'll be in a heap of trouble.
Being well-equipped is crucial to defeating enemies. For most investigators, even investigators with above-average combat, fighting an enemy barehanded is difficult, and success means only dealing 1 damage to an enemy. With an average health value of 2–3, this could mean an entire turn spent defeating one enemy, even for a high combat investigator.
Finally, and most importantly, a strong enough enemy engaged with the wrong investigator has the potential to lock them down. All of this leads to one ultimate and crucial conclusion—if you do not have the right skills or items, an enemy with high enough stats can become impossible to deal with. If its Fight is 4 and its Evade is 4, and you are by yourself with 1 Combat and 1 Agility, and you have no tricks up your sleeve, you are as good as dead. Internally, the dev team calls this becoming "pinned."
"But, MJ!" you might say. "That doesn't seem fair!" And you would be right. Getting pinned is totally unfair. But it's intentionally unfair, and that inherent unfairness is part of what sets enemies in Arkham apart from, say, minions in Marvel Champions. If you are Daisy Walker and you become engaged with a 4/5/4 enemy (that is, an enemy with 4 Fight, 5 Health and 4 Evade), you best have a card that helps you deal with that enemy (or a pocket Roland to help you out) because otherwise, it's game over. And that's scary.
Enemies are a ludonarrative device.
One of my favorite things about enemies in Arkham LCG is how an enemy's stat lineup and keywords completely alter an investigator's approach to dealing with that enemy, which in turn affects the emergent story being told through gameplay, otherwise known as the ludonarrative (a compound of ludology and narrative). Ludonarrative is absolutely essential to what makes Arkham LCG sing—many games have great gameplay, some games have a fantastic story, but a rare few games have narrative moments that are told entirely through gameplay. In other words, when Lita Chantler tells you to burn your house down and you refuse, that's just narrative, but when you run away from a ghoul and barricade yourself in another room, leaving behind your friend whose .45 Automatic is out of ammunition—that, my friend, is ludonarrative.
Enemies are crucial to the success of Arkham's ludonarrative, and I'll show you why through just a handful of different enemy stats. First, let's assume that the average Arkham enemy has the following stats: 2/3/2, 1/1 (that is, 2 Fight, 3 Health, 2 Evade, 1 Damage, and 1 Horror). Just by adjusting these values and adding various keywords, even without adding any other abilities, we can encourage different kinds of stories to be told through gameplay.
4/4/1, 2/–, Retaliate: This is an enemy that is hard to hit, has above average health, hits fairly hard, and most importantly, hits you when you miss an attack against it. However, it is very easy to evade and doesn't possess the hunter keyword, meaning it won't pursue you around the map. Tangling with this enemy while you are not equipped to deal with it can be straight-up lethal, but it will almost never pin an investigator because evading it is so easy. Even if you're not a high-agility character, the game encourages you to evade this enemy and leave it behind, because trying to fight it might get you killed, especially if there is no reason to come back to its location. A high combat character with a powerful enough weapon might go for the kill, but even Roland Banks with a .45 Automatic might decide to try to evade it instead, depending on the circumstances.
4/4/1, 2/–, Hunter: Now check this out. All I've done here is swap retaliate out for hunter, and all of a sudden, it changes everything. It's still equally tough to hit, but it no longer hits you back when you miss, meaning any investigator can at least attempt to defeat it without being punished to death for failure. It's still rarely going to pin an investigator, but now you're less encouraged to evade it because it will eventually get back up and hunt you down. It might take a while, but it's worth it to take this enemy out, because if you don't, it'll just keep harassing you over and over again—unless, of course, you can outrun it. This is doubly true if I add "Victory" to this enemy because now you're actively rewarded for killing this easy-to-avoid enemy.
1/1/1, 1/–, Aloof: Okay, I'm cheating a little bit. You'll almost never see an enemy with these stats without also having some other kind of ability. Most of the time, an enemy like this comes with some other text that makes you want to hunt it down and defeat it. It might enter play with doom on it, or lower each investigator's skills, or force investigators to discard cards from their hand. Whatever it is, it forces you to make a decision: spend precious actions hunting it down and defeating it (albeit quite easily), or stomach whatever horrible effect it has. "But this enemy isn't scary!" You're right, and that's intentional! This kind of enemy is usually a cultist or human enemy, which only helps to sell the tone when a real monster shows up with very different stats.
1/6/3, 1/1, Alert: Here's a fun one. This enemy is very easy to hit, but has very high health. If you don't have a weapon, it's going to take a very long time to deal that much damage. It can be evaded, but its above-average evade value and its alert keyword makes evading it a deadlier proposition than normal. If you have a weapon out, you'll likely just try to defeat it, and if you have high enough agility, you'll probably try to evade it instead, and hope you never have to re-enter that location ever again. If you're not good at combat or evasion, it'll probably pin you, even with only 1 fight.
4/5/4, 2/2, Retaliate, Hunter: You might recognize these stats. That's right, it's the Ghoul Priest, otherwise known as the "first wall of Arkham," because it's the first enemy you run into that can really stop you completely dead in your tracks. These are what I would consider "boss" stats. This enemy can very easily pin any investigator, even a guardian with a firearm. It takes a combination of teamwork, skill, and luck to take out (or even flee from) such a foe.
3/10/3, 3/3, Massive, Hunter: This is what I would consider to be "final boss" stats—an enemy that can kill you in almost two hits and has a ludicrously high health total. However, there are a few things that change this enemy from the one above. First, the lack of the retaliate keyword means you can predict precisely when it will attack you. Second, the existence of the massive keyword actually makes it harder for this enemy to pin you, because you can simply walk away from it, and it won't stay engaged with you (of course, you'll have to take an enormous attack of opportunity, and it'll still follow you during the enemy phase, but that's better than a game over). The massive keyword also makes it easier for a team of investigators to dogpile the enemy, since they're all considered to be engaged with it, making for a fight that feels epic and climactic.
This is all just with a few stat tweaks. You can see from just these examples that enemies in Arkham are more than just a bunch of numbers; they help to tell a story. Often we spend a lot of time getting the stats of enemies just right in order to evoke the right emotion or encourage a particular kind of story to be told. So, next time you draw an enemy, take a look at its stats, its keyword, and its ability, and try to envision the kind of ludonarrative device we are attempting to create. (Or better yet, just play and find out firsthand!)
I'll leave you with two final examples, this time from real cards. You might be familiar with the Deep One Bull from the recent Innsmouth Conspiracy:
Otherwise known by the dev team as the Deep One Linebacker. You'll notice that this enemy is somewhat close to the second one listed above. It has high fight, very high health, low evade, decent damage, and no victory. As a result, you are encouraged through gameplay to simply evade it and run away rather than spend 2–5 actions attacking it. But now let's take a look at its game text. It might not have hunter, but it has a Forced ability that allows it to pursue you across the map—specifically, whenever you defeat another Deep One. If it had hunter, you might just drop everything you are doing to kill it, but this is a much weaker version of hunter, so you're still heavily encouraged to evade it and work around its ability, making sure you are always far enough away that it won't catch you when you defeat another Deep One in play. Or, if you are a highly evasive character like Trish Scarborough, you might just leave all of the Deep Ones you encounter in play and never defeat them, ensuring the Deep One Bull stays put (but watch out for those engage abilities)!
This enemy makes for a great ludonarrative device because it aids you in telling your own story through gameplay. Did you slip past it, unnoticed? And sneak your way around the rest of its buddies, so as to not anger it? Or did it come crashing into your chamber and attack you viciously after you slayed one of its brethren?
But what about the reverse effect? Introducing the Deep One Hatchling, from the upcoming A Light in the Fog scenario:
Aww, isn't it just precious? I mean, really. Just look at that little guy. uwu (nevermind the fact that it's very clearly eating a human ear.)
This enemy is about as weak as one can get. However, its forced effect makes it somewhat of a nuisance, and is that surge on an enemy? How dare I do this. But what really sells this enemy as a ludonarrative device is its second ability. See, with only 1 fight and 1 health, just about any investigator can send the hatchling to the discard pile, but doing so summons the righteous anger of the nearest Deep One (because *gasps* you are the real monster). And if that enemy is a Deep One Bull, the two abilities will combo off one another, causing it to move twice toward you. (Oh lawd it's comin'.) There may even be other enemies in this particular scenario you really don't want to be nearby if you have the absolute gall to attack this adorable lil' monstrosity. So you're definitely encouraged to instead evade the hatchling and slowly back away...but since it doesn't have aloof, this could prove problematic if you have other things to do in its chamber. And this is especially true if you draw more than one in a row, which could happen quite often seeing as there are four of them in the deck. Yikes!
Well, that's all I have for you today. Stay tuned for more, and have a great Thanksgiving!