Article Spoilers: Forgotten Age mechanics and themes
The Forgotten Age has stood out from its predecessor campaigns in a variety of ways; its focus on Agility, its use of trauma, and the explore mechanic have all combined to make it a harrowing experience for investigators. Some members in the AHLCG community have expressed frustration at its increased difficulty, while others declare it as their favorite campaign to date.
In some cases, we saw design decisions from The Path to Carcosa bleed over into TFA, creating a trend – use of Parlay and NPCs, the need for “raw” intellect tests without investigating, etc. Other mechanics stayed in Carcosa to define it as its own experience, such as massive maps, emphasis on horror, and different resolutions determining special tokens for the next scenario (and the next scenario alone).
So what trends can we expect to see moving forward into The Circle Undone and future campaigns? Which designs will remain in TFA? I have a handful of predictions….
Explore will be a defining feature of only TFA
Our first forays into The Forgotten Age had us create a separate Explore deck with which we, appropriately enough, took an Explore action to interact. Maps started small (just 1 location usually) and we needed to build out our maps to find clues and have places to hide from snakes. Treacheries threatened to set us back in tempo depending on the luck of the draw.
I don’t foresee having the same mechanic used in the same way again in the future. Not only did many players voice their frustrations against the punishing Exploration Deck, but it creates a level of variance that is very difficult to play around. I also think this was a thematic choice to hammer home the cycle’s expedition theme.
That’s not to say we won’t see interesting or randomized locations in the future. Museum has a small map where half of it starts in a deck, The Pallid Mask has a deck of locations that builds out your tomb, and Lost in Time and Space hides locations in the encounter deck. But we won’t see an action arrow with the bolded Explore text on it anytime soon.
We will see more Non-Player Characters as representatives of the story
Spoilers in this section: Dunwich (Extracurricular, House Always Wins) and Carcosa (Last King onward) mechanics, Forgotten Age story
In Dunwich, we gain a fistful of eager academics who are simplistically added to our deck as allies. In Carcosa, we meet a cast of characters involved with a stage play that are first introduced at a dinner party. These NPCs justify the printing of Fine Clothes by offering copious Parlay tests to gain clues instead of a normal Investigate. They can then make a return appearance as enemies in later scenarios. Finally, in The Forgotten Age, we are given Alejandro and Ichtaca as representatives of rival factions. We have the option to align with either side or neither (Fallout New Vegas flashbacks, anyone?). As we gain allegiance with these factions, we in turn gain chaos tokens: Cultists for Ichtaca and Tablets for Alejandro. This led to interesting token interactions in the back half of the campaign where, if you aligned against the serpents, for example, you might draw a tablet and be attacked by a serpent at your location.
As a longtime GM of role playing games, I love the use of NPCs to pull players into a story. I was blown away when I first organized my Carcosa encounter sets, and my jaw dropped as I played The Last King. The fact that Ichtaca and Alejandro can come and go from your deck as your allegiances change serves as an immersive element to a story. I can only assume we will continue to see these rich characters appear in future campaigns. The LCG team at FFG is very good at smashing mechanics and theme together, so I look forward to characters continuing to represent both narrative and strategic decisions.
And yes, that means more Fine Clothes.
Agility will continue to be relevant, but not as maddeningly so
TFA is “the Agility cycle”, and boy howdy did it deliver on that claim. Right out of the gate you find yourself surrounded by Vipers that make your Skull tokens worse every time you kill one, and scenarios later you regret accruing all that vengeance when a massive boss monster spawns at your location as the agenda flips. Nearly HALF of treacheries in Heart of the Elders test your Agility, and usually about 20% of the encounter deck are Agility treacheries throughout the rest of the scenarios.
This is a huge departure from previous campaigns. Dunwich has a handful of scenarios where evasion is genuinely useful (Museum and Undimensioned). Carcosa basically ignores the existence of the Agility stat altogether. If your investigator had a 2 in Agility, you pretty much didn’t care. In fact, that only meant that your actual statistics were higher, so it was mostly a good thing.
However, if you go all the way back to Night of the Zealot, you’ll find that agility treacheries were much more prevalent (namely Grasping Hands, Locked Door, and the terrible Nightgaunt one that ruins your Midnight Masks run),
Agility is often referred to by Mythos Pack reviewers as a “defensive stat” because of the treacheries from which it protects you. Except that isn’t totally accurate in Dunwich and Carcosa because only around 5% of the treacheries in those campaigns have anything to do with Agility (and Locked Door can just be smashed in).
So in order for high-agility characters to be worth their salt in other campaigns besides TFA, we will need to continue to see relevant numbers of Agility tests in the encounter decks. Too long have Zoey, Jim, and Minh been able to walk around without fear. Seeing as they just introduced Ursula and Finn, and we can expect an evasion-centric character in The Circle Undone (muchas gracias, Spanish spoilers), I think there’s too many reasons to make Agility a presence in upcoming adventures.
However, I’m not sure how important evasion specifically will be because…
Vengeance is Yig’s jam
A primary way that TFA rewarded evasion as a tactic was through Vengeance. Killing enemies with Vengeance resulted in worse chaos bags, more punishing events, and added doom. How do you avoid such terrible things? Evasion!
Because of this granular system, you have several decision points akin to, “Do I commit a lot to evade this guy? Or can I just kill him? Can we afford another Vengeance? How scared am I of this tally box I have on my campaign sheet?” I certainly found this thought process intriguing and it was a welcome change from the “ENEMY SPAWN MUST KILL” go-to tactic of early campaigns.
Vengeance was a campaign decision, however, and not just a scenario decision. This makes it a dramatic and somewhat heavy-handed design choice that draws a lot of the focus of most scenarios in that campaign. I doubt the designers will return with Vengeance enemies in another campaign.
That said, I do expect evasion to remain a valid way to play the game. The designers have found ways to highlight evasion before. I mentioned Miskatonic Museum – possibly the easiest scenario to date for a high-agility character – and Undimensioned and Unseen. Non-hunter enemies like Poltergeists are always decent candidates for evading as well.
Supplies will stay in the jungle
Supplies served a handful of purposes in The Forgotten Age. First, it’s a thematic include for a campaign all about making expeditions into the wilds. Second, it serves as a way to make interlude decisions interact with following scenarios. Finally, it makes interludes more dynamic by offering different advantages and disadvantages based on what you brought along.
I’ve heard a bit of complaining from the player base about how Supplies were used. I think this comes from the bad feeling of not bringing binoculars and a blanket so you take a surprise 3 trauma. However, I contest that Supplies are in fact a shopping list of “which threats do I avoid” in an Arkham-esque, punishing way. I’d also argue that none of the forms of punishment from lack of supplies are ever game-ending, so in terms of power level I think they are fine. You also get really cool ways of interacting with locations or gaining benefits when starting the next scenario.
Supplies themselves are another strong thematic tie to TFA that I don’t think will be making a return in its current iteration. That corresponds directly to the first purpose of supplies that I listed above. I do believe we will see the other two purposes I listed return in future interludes. Dynamic choices for different playthroughs are much more interesting than simply glorified campaign resolutions that many other interludes were in previous campaigns. Armitage’s Fate, for example, is essentially a delayed resolution to whichever scenario you played first in Dunwich.
You might be relieved to hear that you won’t have to relive the pain that was “i brought a compass and chalk and all I got was this trauma” from your first blind playthrough of TFA. Unfortunately for you…
Trauma will continue to be given out in ways other than defeat
I actually find defeat pretty rare in my plays of Arkham. This is most likely due to me replaying a lot of scenarios on solo. As a result, trauma is also pretty rare. The few times I do get a point or two of trauma, it doesn’t matter much. Your investigator doesn’t get any worse because they have damage. The only point of damage that matters is the point that defeats you.
All that to say, I felt trauma was an underutilized aspect of the game. Enter The Forgotten Age. On my blind playthrough, my Akachi with two Arcane Research started the second scenario with 4 mental trauma. Remember when I said a point of damage didn’t matter? It pretty much doesn’t. But it sure as hell does when it adds up.
So what did I do? I spent 7xp on two copies of Fearless  and a Moment of Respite. Later scenarios involved tactical decision trees of “if I draw a Rotting Remains, I could be toast, so instead of doing XYZ i’m going to draw twice and try to find some horror heal.” That’s something I never did in Dunwich.
My point being that trauma can be an interesting aspect of the game. As the card pool grows and we have more healing options (particularly xp options so you can efficiently purchase them in reaction to gaining trauma), we can deal with the damage without being hamstrung by it. I fully expect trauma to make a reappearance, especially in future interludes. If we had another campaign with as much trauma as TFA, I’d also be okay “healing” some of it by adding a nasty token or two to the chaos bag. Just a thought.
3-Health Enemies are the New 2-Health Enemies
I think the original design of the game was to make easy enemies that even your seekers could handle 1-health, and the standard, “we need a weapon” enemies would be 2-health. This way Agnes could stab with a knife for 1 damage and then ping with her ability for a 2nd damage, killing someone without burning Shriveling charges. Also, if Rex gets pinned with an enemy and no one is there to help him, he can theoretically knife his way out at the cost of 2-3 actions.
There’s a few problems with this system, however. It makes 2-damage weapons insanely efficient. A guardian with a machete can dish out damage twice as fast anyone else, and can do it really consistently. It also means that if you don’t have a weapon, you’re better off avoiding combat altogether and just waiting for the combatants to pull enemies off of you. Also, if there are too many 1-health enemies, someone like Agnes can simply look at them while making money off of Forbidden Knowledge and they fall over. Basically, it’s an all-or-nothing approach to combat. Either you have the tools and it’s too easy, or you don’t and it’s rough.
The significant increase in 3-health enemies in TFA causes combat to take on a totally different tone. First, in your classic Guardian-with-a-machete example, it makes even a standard Brotherhood Cultist more than just a speedbump. You might have to spend TWO actions to kill someone? With TWO tests? Preposterous! Second, cards that deal an odd point of damage become incredibly valuable. Vicious Blow is really really good, and Mano-a-Mano becomes playable. Zoey’s Cross and Agnes’ damage become incredibly valuable in the right situation. Lastly, you might actually need to coordinate attacks. I’ve had Akachi use the Athame to attack someone just so the Guardian could finish it off, instead of just letting the Guardian go first and clean the area of monsters.
An example of how a 3-health enemy makes combat much more interesting:
You’re Jenny with a Derringer and Lockpicks. You draw a Brood of Yig (2/3/2). Your guardian has to move, then engage, then attack – but that won’t kill the Brood! So do they just attack without engaging? What if they’re on Machete and can only do 2 damage if engaged? So does the Guardian go first, do their 2 damage, and then just tank the hit? What if you shoot the enemy while it’s engaged to finish it off? What if you miss? What if you go first and shoot twice with your Derringer, hoping that one of those shots does its extra damage? What if you don’t and there’s still one health left, and now you have to burn through your last ammo? It’s better for the group if you have one action to use Lockpicks. Okay, so if the guardian goes first, moves…
The decision trees grow so much more than with only 2-health enemies. I love it. Although this makes it even harder to handle enemies if you don’t have a weapon, I don’t think that’s a detriment. If you want something to defend yourself with, you have to think of that when deckbuilding. So I’m hoping the design team agrees with me and continues to give us 3-health (and 5-health) enemies moving forward.
Difficulty for future campaigns will hover between Carcosa and Forgotten Age levels
Everything I’ve discussed so far plays into the notion that The Forgotten Age has been the hardest campaign released. Will we continue to see the game heighten in difficulty? Lord of the Rings LCG players tell tales of their game’s scenarios demonstrating notable power creep as the card pool grew. An argument for this is the fact that your decks become stronger when you can optimize from a larger pool of options. The counter-argument for why power creep should be avoided is to keep the game welcoming to new players. If you need to buy everything released so far in order to get through the scenarios in the 5th deluxe box, you’re looking at a $400+ buy-in. That’s an expensive board game (and that’s coming from a guy with a Warhammer Fantasy army).
So how difficult is too difficult? I think a new player should be able to buy two cores (considered to be the “full” base game) and a deluxe, and have a shot of getting some success in that deluxe on solo. If a scenario is much harder than that, you’re going to turn people off to your game. Most players only break out the game occasionally and can’t afford the time, money, and effort to optimize decks just to “beat” a scenario. I get that the Mythos is supposed to be a challenge to overcome (a concept Dark Souls fans will appreciate). As a game company you’ve got to lean into the ability for your game to scale in difficulty and accept that people still play games for “fun”.
I don’t think The Forgotten Age is too hard, but I do think it tests the limits of what most players are willing to buy. And I also think the design team at FFG is tuned-in enough to its player base to recognize that. So I fully believe that future campaigns will be somewhere between Carcosa- and TFA-levels of difficulty. Dunwich will ultimately be known as the “easy” campaign because it served as an introduction to the game and it was developed before the core set was even published. Let’s cross my fingers and hope that I’m right.