Today’s topic is something that I’ve been thinking about off-and-on for quite a while now, but it wasn’t until my recent run-through of the Dunwich Legacy campaign that I began to think about it properly. Arkham Horror LCG is quite unique among the LCGs that I have experience with, for having the mini-RPG feel of levelling up your deck as you go through the game. Throughout each campaign, you’ll earn experience equal to the victory total among cards in the display, so whenever you defeat a big bad, or you fully investigate a difficult location, you could earn any amount of experience. This is then used as a currency between games to level-up cards in your deck. Cards in Arkham Horror LCG have “pips” underneath their resource cost, from 0 to 5, which denotes how much experience is needed to buy them for your deck. When you build a deck to start a game, you can only use level 0 cards, but as time goes on, you can grow it in all kinds of ways.
Sounds amazing, and like it should lead to a truly immersive experience as you go through a campaign. However, I find myself really struggling to find cards to spend that XP on, most of the time. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I’ve been doing some research, and thought I’d present to you all the fruits of these labours. I’m by no means an expert in this, of course! But hopefully it’ll be useful. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to talk about using experience to play standalone scenarios, which is another use of XP; this post is simply going to look at upgrading your deck as you play through the campaign.
First of all, and perhaps the easiest way to use experience points, is to directly upgrade copies of existing cards in your deck, for their higher-cost equivalents. That’s a higher cost in terms of the experience, not resources cost to play the card in-game. So the level 0 talent Hyperawareness costs 2 resources to play, and allows you to spend a resource to boost an attribute as a free action; the level 2 equivalent costs 0 resources to play, for the same effect. It also includes twice as many icons on the left hand side, so if you choose to commit it to a skill test instead, it’s giving you twice as much value. The level 4 version actually gives you the resources you need to trigger the effect, as well. It’s a good example of the principle, and provides the clearest target for your experience to upgrade the card, especially as it’s a much better version of an effect that you already had in the deck. With each class having a couple of these talent cards, it’s an excellent starting point.
There are a number of similar instances as well, where you’ll get weapons which may cost less in their upgraded cost, or with better effects, and so on. With the card pool where it is now, there are plenty of cards which can be straight-upgraded, although back in the day these options were of course more limited. In this respect, then, upgrading your deck becomes easier with more releases for the game, because the designers will still go back and provide upgrades (or downgrades) of older cards. It makes it easy, because you don’t really have to think about which cards to cut from your deck in favour of the fancier cards, I guess!
The way you approach deck progression can actually depend on whether you’re playing super-thematically, or whether you’re simply trying to make your deck the best it can be. I must admit, for all that I love the narrative of games (especially this game), I tend towards the latter, as I want to have the best options available to me when I go through my games. However, many cards exist as multiple points on the experience “tree”, so there will be a stepped approach to including them in your deck. Being able to upgrade a card to a level 1 or 2 version, then upgrade that same card again to a level 3 or 4 version, does have a thematic sense, especially if it is a skill that you can imagine your investigator learning, and getting better at applying to the traumatic events unfolding.
Working this way makes sense, naturally, but it has taken my writing this blog now to realise that the best way to spend experience is actually when you get it, unless you’re saving for something specific. While playing through the Dunwich Legacy campaign recently, I played through four scenarios without upgrading my deck once, meaning I had accrued 13 experience points with nothing to spend it on. However, making small adjustments after each game is perhaps a much better way to go about things, as I think it could lead to some better games with potentially stronger synergies over time. It also fits into the more narrative method of playing, as you’re slowly getting better after each encounter with the Void, rather than having it all in one hit.
But I suppose that’s just symptomatic of the fact I don’t really have a plan!
I think my biggest confusion with it all arises when you’re going for a completely different card, though. So you might be looking to swap in a level 5 weapon and find that your best swap out is a level 0 event, or something. There’s something of a disconnect for me, when you build the initial level 0 deck almost as a placeholder for some of the better, higher-level cards. It’s almost like you include some chaff to then purposefully upgrade later on. Or, and this is how I usually end up building a deck, I try to get it as best I can with the level 0 cards and, when I start to gain the experience, I find that the deck is working fine for me so I don’t have many viable targets for upgrade. Yes, there will be the standard straight-upgrades for better higher-level cards, but not all level 0 cards have a level 5 version (some don’t have any upgraded version, at all). In fact, there are some very useful – even some very powerful – level 0 effects that just don’t need upgrading. It seems perhaps odd, but I truly believe you could play through an entire campaign without upgrading your deck, if you built it well from the off. I know that the choice of investigators must be key, being balanced for each other and for the scenario, but even so, my getting through so much of the recent Dunwich visit without upgrading once is perhaps proof of that – I only started to spend the XP because I felt as though I had to!
In this case, I suppose it works best to have some kind of blend of the two approaches, so that you’re trying to build a good deck, that will see you through the first few games, but that has a clear trajectory for upgrade through the campaign. When building the deck, then, it might make sense to look at the level 5 cards first, to see where you might want to aim for, and then work backwards to see what sort of path you could take to get there.
For example, I’ve recently played through the Innsmouth Conspiracy campaign with Zoey Samaras, and had decided from the off that she would be built into a sort of “holy warrior” character, going for blessed effects, willpower buffs and hitting like a brick wall in combat. I definitely wanted that level 5 spear in the future, but more importantly, I wanted to build out thematically. There’s more to say on this in the upcoming blog on my Innsmouth experience, which is coming next week, but this approach to deck building was new for me, and required a lot more work than I’m used to, but I actually found it really rewarding!
Going off-topic slightly, I think I have also come undone at times by simply not really knowing the investigator class all that well. I think Guardian is perhaps the most straightforward, although there are nuances there that I like, and Seeker and Mystic are quite clear in what they are all about. Indeed, trying to build a Mystic deck can sometimes be an exercise in restraint, because there are too many good options to take account of. In contrast, Rogue and Survivor are perhaps the classes that I am least familiar with, although I have attempted to remedy that as regards Survivor in previous games. Rogue is still a class that often eludes me how to best play it, however, which is why I paired Zoey with Finn Edwards in my recent Innsmouth visit. Again, there’s more to say on his deck as well, but you’ll have to wait for the next blog for that!
Being able to make sense of what you’re trying to do is probably key, though, as it will allow you to make that decision for whether you want to swap out certain cards, or which level 0 cards you could keep in your deck. It’s all tied into having that trajectory, of course, and knowing how you want to progress your investigator through the campaign.
The other thing to bear in mind through all of this, though, is what your investigator is actually trying to do, of course. Marie, above, wants cards with doom on them so that she can take extra turns with her spells, so you need to make sure there are such cards to give you benefits of the investigator’s ability. As you go through the process of upgrading a deck, you need to bear these things in mind, rather than going ahead to get straight-up better cards. It’s a case of upgrading spells with spells, and so on. That said, we could be back in the realms of having chaff cards in the starting deck, with an eye to upgrade for some more powerful cards later on, which will feed in to the investigator’s ability. This can happen where the lower level card is either too expensive to consider for a starting deck, or a lower level card doesn’t exist.
A lot of this missive has talked about upgrading to higher level cards, but there is equally the option of side-grades, where you trade out cards of the same level. Doing this will cost one XP, as the minimum spend is 1, but it does mean that you can try out other stuff if your upgraded card isn’t working out for you. I have sometimes done something similar with level 0 Mystic cards, as there are so many good ones, it can sometimes be hard to know which ones to use. I know some folks like to allow a limited number of swap outs for level 0 cards after the first game in a campaign, to keep the XP gained but to guard against a dud card in your deck, which is a good idea, but I do like the fact you can keep on using different level 0 cards throughout a campaign, regardless.
The more I’ve looked into it, and the more I’m writing this, it’s making me realise that my usual approach of just levelling up at random, picking the higher-level versions of cards already in my deck (because I don’t know what else to get!) is not really working for me. After Dunwich, I chose Innsmouth for my next campaign, because of the campaigns I own, that’s the only one I hadn’t at the time played through fully (I’d started, but was defeated before the end). So I came up with a bit of a checklist for how to approach this next game, in terms of what I wanted from it, and where I was going with my investigators!
All in all, thematic deck progression feels the best, and most correct way to play this game. I have pretty much always enjoyed playing Arkham Horror LCG, but upgrading my deck was always something of a necessity, and seemed to get in the way of the game. I’d often approach it as an exercise is getting the biggest gameplay buffs to help me win in the end. But by building slowly, levelling up as often as I could, I was able to develop a narrative for the investigator over the course of the campaign. Zoey went from a fairly decent bruiser-type into quite the holy warrior that I had envisioned at the start, with a number of tricks up her sleeves, but she never used guns, and always had a focus on faith as she moved through, even so far as taking Brother Xavier down into the depths for the final scenario!
That’s also an important point to mention, here. Deck progression in this thematic manner isn’t simply a case of going from level 0 to level 5 by the time we get to the last scenario. I’d upgraded a couple of Zoey’s cards before the finale, including Brother Xavier who is s level 1 ally. It seemed as good a time as any to involve him, but by having the plan in place, and focusing on those key upgrades where possible, it was actually nice to have the ability to use some of the leftover XP to get some less-important stuff later in the campaign. It’s not all about building to the flashy cards, and indeed, some of the lower or mid-level cards are just as good and important to a deck as the top level stuff. But as I said before, you’ll still find a strong use for level 0 cards even by scenario 8, so it’s not like a deck building game where you’ll wish you could get rid of your basic cards after buying the flashier ones!
I hope this post has been of some interest for you, and if you’ve made it this far, fully heal your stamina, for sure! Look out for my next Arkham blog, which I hope to write up next week, where I’ll be putting all of this into practice as I take Zoey and Finn on a trip to the seaside…