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Behind the Curtain – Investigators (part I)

Hello again, lovely Arkham LCG fans!

After my previous series, I wasn't sure what to write about next. Well, you all chimed in...

And that settled things pretty quickly. So, without further ado, let's chat about one of the most important things in Arkham Horror: The Card Game—the investigators.

A Crisis of Identity

My favorite card games are the ones in which you take control of a single character, rather than controlling a faction or an army. Netrunner, Marvel Champions, Ashes, and of course Arkham Horror are prime examples of this. A Black Widow deck operates quite differently from a Ms. Marvel deck, a Noise deck operates differently from a Chaos Theory deck, and so on. Warhammer 40k: Conquest also ventured into this design space with its Warlords, and Lord of the Rings: The Card Game was similar in that you controlled three heroes, the sum total of which became the core of your deck's identity. The benefits to this approach are many:

  • Your identity restricts what you can include in your deck. In some games, like Netrunner, this is purely faction-based (although some fan favorites like Sunny Lebeau were their own mini-faction). In Conquest and Marvel Champions, you're forced to include a pack of cards based on which warlord or hero you chose. In Arkham, your identity belongs to a class, but also typically has access to a pool of other cards that are thematically linked with that character. In all instances, this restriction is important. It makes each character feel distinct and unique, and it also ensures that every player isn't just putting the best cards in the game into their deck, making them great at everything. This also makes your choice of identity the most important choice you will make in building your deck, which is ideal because it makes that cardtype automatically the most important one in the game.

  • Your identity serves as a focal point for your deck. No matter what, you'll always be building your deck around your identity card. Whether it's capitalizing on what your identity is good at, finding combos that synergize with your identity, or shoring up your identity's weaknesses, it is always first and foremost in your mind. This is great for a number of reasons. For casual players, it helps to narrow down what might otherwise be an overwhelming collection of cards. For veteran card game players, it provides a built-in ability that they want to find other cards to build from. For developers, it provides an easy avenue to create new cards for specific characters or deck types.

  • Your identity provides a narrative throughline for your experience. This is possibly the most important bullet point here. In games in which you control an identity—in which you, the player, are the character in front of you—you have an immediate connection with the action. You might connect with your chosen character based on their artwork, their backstory, their ability, or any number of other factors, but no matter what, you become invested in your character's success and well-being. For many players, this effect is far greater than it would be if they controlled an entire faction or army.

There are some characters in Netrunner who I unabashedly love so much, they've shaped my experience with the game. In my few dalliances developing for Netrunner, I always went out of my way to make a few expose abilities in order to make my favorite gal Silhouette even stronger. And when Jesminder Sareen was released, it opened up a completely new playstyle for me that I was never interested in before. (Incidentally, my very own Netrunner OC, whose flavor text I wrote for Cloak and Dagger, the game's first stealth cards, sadly never made it into the game. Riot for me pls.)

So, now that I've explained why identity cards are great, let's talk about their implementation in Arkham.

What's in an Investigator?

Knowing how important investigators were to both the card game formula and the Arkham Horror IP, we knew it was important to get investigators right. So we started off by making a cheat sheet of things an investigator should possess:

  • Skills. This is the obvious one, as it is present in every other Arkham Horror game. Skills are the primary way in which each investigator interacts with the game, and assigning different values to different investigators makes each one unique. It creates natural peaks and valleys for each investigator—things they're great at, things they're bad at, etc (or, if you're Jenny Barnes, perhaps only "things they're good at"). Ideally, no two investigators should share the same skill line. Of course, as the game has progressed for several years, we've broken that rule a few times, but generally, we want each investigator to have their own particular skill line.

  • A unique ability. Probably the most important thing here. An investigator's ability is the real spark. The thing that makes you go "oh wow, I want to play as this person." Skills give each investigator strengths and weaknesses, but an investigator's ability is what truly makes each investigator play differently from one another. The more the ability changes the way the game is played, the more it sets that investigator apart from the rest.

  • A way to interact with the chaos bag. Once we knew how the chaos bag worked, we wanted to capitalize on its uniqueness by giving each investigator their own token. Of course, having a separate token for each character would prove untenable for future releases, and also awkward in multiplayer, so we designed the Elder Sign token—which was previously just a "critical success"—and made it a different kind of success for every investigator. (Interesting aside: at one point in early development, when the chaos bag was a "chaos deck," each investigator came with their own chaos card that would have been shuffled into the deck. While this was neat, setup with the proposed chaos deck was pretty cumbersome, and ultimately the Elder Sign token is both more thematically compelling and more elegant.)

  • Unique deckbuilding rules. This is crucial. If we really wanted to sell the idea that each of these investigators are unique individuals with their own repertoire of talents, spells, and equipment, they needed to have access to a different swath of cards within the greater card pool. And not just split by faction, either—we wanted it to be possible to have five different investigators of the same class who all had access to a different pool of cards. Luckily, we we several "knobs" that we could adjust: Deck Size, card classes, card traits, etc. Instead of choosing just a couple of these knobs, we made the decision early on that all of them were on the table. The most exciting of these "knobs," of course, was the concept of card levels—a feature unique to Arkham. Not only could we control exactly which cards an investigator could take, but how powerful each of those categories could be. This meant (a) we could create characters who focused on one category but could dabble in weaker cards from other categories, (b) we could create characters who didn't focus on classes, but rather, on traits, which was pretty rare in our other LCGs, and (c) we could even create characters who started off as one class and slowly built into a different class as they earned experience. (That's right—the idea for Norman Withers's deckbuilding was something we had thought of long before the game even came out!) With so many knobs to tweak and so many different ideas floating around our heads, we were sure we could make every single investigator have their own card pool without any two investigators sharing the exact same one. I was especially excited about the idea of investigators who could take any card of a particular trait, or even any card with a particular line of ability text—two ideas that wouldn't see fruition until Marie Lambeau and Carolyn Fern made their debuts, respectively.

Back when we first started working on Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Nate and I hashed out a lot of things regarding investigators. What the card would look like, what the abilities would look like, what the symbols would look like, everything. We did so with a lot of... *clears throat* joke cards.

It's a card called "Al, the Alligator in a Vest."
We have fun here at Fantasy Flight.

Here's an...example. Yes, this is a real card. I've kept it in my collection ever since Nate printed it out and put it on my desk 5-ish years ago. (And I'll never let it go.) It goes without saying, but obviously, this was never intended to be anything other than a joke card. However, what's neat about this card is that you can see the skeleton of other Arkham Horror investigators in here, and this was months before we had designed any actual cards that would make it into the Core Set. For example:

  • Al has his name and profession right at the top, and his artwork dominates one half of the card, just like in the final versions, although the placement is reversed.

  • His stats even add up to 12 and his health and sanity up to 14, just like a real human being!

  • He's got a trait, an ability, and an elder sign ability, just like normal investigators, although at the time the icons were a bit different. You might note that his ability says "Focus" on it—at the time, that was early terminology for an ability that cost an action to perform.

  • Only thing Al is missing is deckbuilding rules. Would have been premature if we'd designed them at the time, since there was no cardpool to really pull on. I guess we can tell that Al is a seeker though. The card border is yellow, after all. You might think it's weird that he has so much combat for a seeker, but he is an alligator, after all.

  • I guess we didn't know how to spell parley back then. Cool.

Okay, What's in a Good Investigator?

Now that you know what we put into each investigator, let's chat about what our goals are when designing and developing a new one! Hopefully—if we've done our job right—you can see most or all of these elements in every investigator we've made, though perhaps not all of them adhere to this list quite so strictly.

  • An investigator should be able to fill at least one role. Now, before I hear you yelling, "What about Jenny?"—this role can be one of many different kinds, not just one that specializes in a particular skill. An investigator could be dedicated to a particular role, such as "fighter," "support," "healing," or "clue-ver" (as the Arkham community has so endearingly dubbed them), or it could be more of a "flex" role: somebody who is able to perform multiple roles and switch between them easily. Usually, we want to craft an investigator in such a way as to guide them toward a particular role, to really cement their identity and make deckbuilding a little less obtuse for players. If an investigator is too obtuse or difficult to place within any roles, that's not ideal.

    • Example: Let's use Tommy Muldoon as our example. We built Tommy to fulfill a sort of "Paladin" power fantasy. As such, his primary roles are combat and tanking. He's good at using asset cards to soak damage and horror, and he can leverage the resources generated by his ability—along with his high combat value—to take out enemies, especially with his signature rifle, Becky.

  • An investigator should fill a space other investigators don't. Don't let the above fool you—roles are important, but uniqueness is even more important. If an investigator occupies precisely the same space as another investigator in the cardpool, that's not ideal. Each investigator should have their own shtick, something they can call their own. That shtick can be pretty niche, or it could be broad—it all depends on what we want for that investigator. We can accomplish this goal in one of two ways: with an investigator's ability or with their deckbuilding options. Often, we do it with both.

    • Example: There are many investigators who are good at staying alive, but Tommy is uniquely positioned to "tank" for other players; that is, to soak up damage and horror for other members of a party, so they stay healthy. His ability helps him pay for cards that soak damage or horror, and he has access to a wide variety of such cards in both Guardian and Survivor, several of which can be assigned damage dealt to other investigators.

  • An investigator's ability should "inform" their deckbuilding. What this means is that there should be some connection between an investigator's ability and the rest of a player's collection. Players enjoy finding combos and synergies between an investigator and the rest of their cards. By contrast, if an investigator's ability is divorced from the rest of the player cards in the game, it makes deckbuilding difficult and uninspiring.

    • Example: As soon as one reads Tommy's ability, the gears start churning. Every card with health or sanity is instantly re-evaluated when Tommy is involved. A card that costs 3 resources and soaks 3 health effectively nets a resource cost of 0, or can generate 3 ammo for Becky. This "informs" your deckbuilding: as Tommy, you want to include these kinds of cards in your deck, in order to capitalize on your ability.

    • Sometimes, when creating an investigator, we may even work in reverse, deciding on what their ability should be based on what cards we want them to include in their deck. For example, we wanted Trish Scarborough players to feel good including cards that made them feel like a spy: cards like Eavesdrop, Followed, Burglary, Lockpicks, Slip Away, etc. The ability we ended up crafting for her accomplishes this goal by making her want to discover clues, especially when enemies are around.

  • An investigator's card should line up with their backstory. Each investigator in Arkham Horror is more than just a name and a set of mechanics. They're a person with a unique history, a profession, friends, family, lives. These themes are not only informative for us as designers, they can help to sell player card mechanics. Card games are often notoriously abstract, so it's important that an investigator's ability can be interpreted in a way that lines up with their theme. It's also important that an investigator have access to cards that make sense thematically for who they are and where they come from.

    • Example: As a young idealist often at odds with jaded superiors and the day-to-day of his profession, Tommy Muldoon's backstory is all about him wanting to protect others and "save the day." This led us to come up with the "paladin" archetype we wanted him to fill. It also helps to explain the specifics of his ability. That is, the reason why his assets are shuffled back into his deck instead of discarded: Tommy "saves" them, allowing them to get away and return again later. Without this small but important detail, it might instead seem like Tommy is purposely throwing his allies into the fire, which is the opposite of how we want him to feel!

  • An investigator should be cool. Okay, I know this sounds rather informal, but hear me out. You know what would be cool? If there was an investigator who could hop into a portal and end up in their own little location. That would be so cool. No, no, wait—what about an investigator who was all about scrying the encounter deck, and she could, like, put encounter cards beneath her to keep them out of the deck? Oooo, or there could be an investigator who like... has a bunch of events beneath her and duplicate them with her signature card! Wouldn't that be cooool?

    • You get the idea. We want every investigator to fulfill some kind of power fantasy, to be cool in their own unique way.

Till Next Time...

That's all I have for you for now, but stay tuned. Now that you understand a bit of what goes into the creation of each investigator, in part two, I'll go through the creation of one such investigator, step by step, from start to finish!

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David Koons
David Koons
Apr 18, 2021

I'd absolutely buy a pack of alligator investigators.


Donel Loth
Donel Loth
Apr 11, 2021

I had never thought of Tommy's power like that. What is the conceptual framework behind Patrice's investigator power? You've got me really curious now

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