The Power Seep of Skill Cards

Those familiar with other expandable games, particularly card games, will recognize the term “Power Creep”: the increase in overall power level of new product. Power Creep can lead to a bad feeling for consumers, who look back at all of their old product and say “why did I spend all that money?” This is at its worst in a card game when a new card comes out that does basically what an old card did, but better.

The opposite of this is “Power Seep”, or the decrease in overall power level of new product. Consumers can lose interest in new cards if they don’t prove to be as effective as the things they already have; this, in turn, could ultimately affect sales.

Generally speaking, everyone is happiest when new cards come out that roughly match the power level of old cards. This is most true in a competitive game, but Arkham Horror is suspect of this as well.

Of the three main card types, Skills have probably been the most neglected by the general community. Assets have proven to be powerful with their static stat boosts and constant abilities. Events can create exciting power plays or counter game effects. Skills share the one-and-done nature of events, while increasing your odds of success at a single skill test. So why are they the runt of the litter? And why do many players prefer core set cantrips over newer, flashier Skills?

Understanding Skills

Let’s shed light on the matter by analyzing the framework of a skill card. Skill cards…

  • …are free to play commit
  • …do not cost an action to use
  • …apply for a single test
  • …increase your odds of success at that test (except Take Heart)
  • …have a one-time effect

Okay, so, free is good, but you get a fleeting effect. You’re also limited as when to commit based on the icons of the card. It’s worth pointing out that events have a one-time effect as well, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Events can have stronger effects in theory because they can (and often do) cost resources.

So skills have low costs (no resources or actions) with good benefits (increased chance of success, one time effect). This likely means they cannot have effects better than most events, lest they outshine events entirely. However, if they do not have much in the way of icons, the events and assets in our deck will do more for the deck slot. Why include a skill that has a single intellect and agility icon when you can include Elusive and get a very powerful effect instead? Now we have a good range of power level for our skills: not as strong of an effect as events, but more icons than assets or events.

The Cantrip Litmus Test

The neutral skills released in the core set have proven to be a magnificent stroke of design over Arkham Horror’s lifespan. Specifically, I’m referring to the four skills of the primary stats that each draw a card upon success, as well as Unexpected Courage. We will use these as our benchmark for analyzing the power level of skills.

Sidebar: the term “cantrips” comes from a few places. In Dungeons and Dragons, cantrips are small spells so easy to cast that mages can cast them any number of times without expending resources. More aptly, however, are the cantrips from Magic the Gathering, which have a small effect in addition to drawing a card to “replace itself”.

The core set cantrips are simple: +2 on a matching skill test, and a card draw upon success. The card draw is action-efficient, given you didn’t spend an action to play the skill, and +2 is a pretty significant boost statistically. Courage shows us that added flexibility is valuable, but in exchange you lose the card draw – seems fair. I also want to say that neutral cards should be a shade weaker than faction equivalents; if they are not, every deck will use the neutral cards and the meta’s deck diversity will suffer. Okay, this all sounds good; no need to spend extra time discussing how the cantrips are decent.

I’ll also use two other core set cards as a comparison: Deduction and Vicious Blow. They each contribute a single icon to their respective skills test, but success with them grants an additional successful action’s worth of work. Take Deduction: let’s say you’ve a 4 Intellect, investigating a 3-shroud location. You succeed and discover the clue. You spend a second action, test, succeed, and discover another clue. A Deduction committed on the first test saves you both the action and automatically succeeds on the second test. That’s great value! Hence the reduction of icons from 2 to 1. But no one is complaining about the power level of Deduction or Vicious Blow; in fact, some may argue that is the power level skills need to be at to be worth including in your deck.

The Core Set Class Skills

Each class got a single-icon skill in the core set that pertained to their slice of the color pie. I’ve already touched on Deduction[0] (clues for Seekers) and Vicious Blow[0] (fighting for Guardians).

Fearless[0] doesn’t directly relate to spells, but horror healing is a Mystic mechanic, and Agnes specifically wants more sanity. Comparing to Guts, we lose and icon and a card draw. Healing is (rightfully) expensive in this game, so the designers felt that the heal was worth the loss of icon and card draw. And sometimes I find that the healing is really important to my characters’ build, so I don’t think they were wrong. It’s hard to pass up Guts in a mystic deck, however, and it’s hard to find room for Guts and Fearless sometimes. But I don’t think this was a bad choice.

But now we’re in the garbage can. Survival Instinct[0], at the cost of an icon and a card draw relative to Manual Dexterity, disengages you from all enemies and gives you a free move. The disengagement is exceedingly rare, as killing enemies is always preferable to not killing them. Rarely will you have multiple enemies engaged with you without the help of Taunt. Maybe during 4 player games? Or if you are playing evade-all-the-baddies solo? I play mostly 2-gator games, sometimes 3, and there’s just never opportunities for this effect to shine. But you also get a free move, saving you an action. That’s useful, certainly, and Manual Dexterity gives you an action’s worth of draw, so that feels equivalent. If I were to design Survival Instinct now, I would consider the move to be equivalent to ManDex’s card draw, and the rarely-useful disengagement worth the cost of being in a class (remember that neutrals should be weaker than faction cards). The end result? Two Agility icons.

Opportunist[0] compares poorly to Courage. The chance of returning the skill to hand if you draw a good token isn’t worth the loss of icon and gaining a class. Opp[0] probably should have simply been “succeed by 2” instead of 3. I don’t think 2 Wild Icons and “succeed by 3” would be out of the question (the chance of returning to hand being worth the addition of class), but I’m afraid it would happen too consistently for a 0xp card.

The Dunwich Skills

Dunwich brought us 2xp upgrades to the core set skills, include powerful versions of Vicious Blow and Deduction. Both of these prove to be very strong; +2 damage or +2 clues condenses an entire turn’s worth of actions into a single test, provided you’re 2 or more above the difficulty. Fearless[2] continued to be a good Agnes card (or if you’ve gotten some trauma, or if you’re on Shriv[5]). But Opportunist[2] is what Opp[0] should have been (maybe Opp[2] should have gained the extra wild icon, or is now “succeed by 1”) and Survival Instinct[2] exhausts enemies in the rare circumstance where it applies. The good stayed good, and the bad stayed bad.

Inquiring Mind and Rise to the Occasion both give us an extra wild icon relative to Courage – surely powerful! – in exchange for adding a class and restrictions on when to play them. Inquiring is situationally useful, but not necessarily a bad card. I think many players go back and forth on if the natural Seeker rhythm of move-investigate-investigate allows for Inquiring to be helpful. At the very least, Inquiring is Deductions 3 and 4 in Rex. Rise, on the other hand, only applies to tests you’re naturally bad at; this is in opposition to good deckbuilding, where you play to your strengths. Interesting idea, but a little too restrictive – maybe “at least 1 higher than your base skill” would have been more usable. As-is, it’s pretty rare to actually take a test you’re naturally bad at, so Rise becomes a niche Calvin/Finn/Preston card at best and unplayable otherwise.

There’s some winners in Dunwich, too. Double or Nothing is an iconic rogue card and allows for awesome combos. Quick Thinking is one such combo, although I’m not a fan of it outside of a DoN combo. The chance for an extra action is really hard to land unless you throw everything you have at the test, and then that extra action can be hard to do much with because you’ve spent so much on just getting the QT action in the first place. Stroke of Luck, if you embrace the Exile mechanic, can be an extremely powerful tool as well.

Defiance[0] is deceiving because you’re losing an icon relative to Courage, so it seems bad. But if you commit cards to increase your odds of success by turning fail tokens into success tokens, Defiance can do that when well-timed. It doesn’t feature well in Zealot or Dunwich, but Carcosa, TFA, and Circle each have potential chaos bags with multiple special tokens of the same type, so Defiance can probably get you two additional success tokens. In those scenarios. Assuming the modifiers on those tokens would fail. And if the extra effect of the special token would negatively effect you, you can avoid it. See, the situational nature of Defiance holds itself back, unfortunately. I think Defiance would be great with an additional icon – maybe a Willpower instead of a wild, if playtesting proved it to be too superior to Courage.

Lastly, I want to comment on Leadership. A skill card that’s worth more to allies than to you is a great concept. Let’s look at best case: you commit Leadership to an ally’s Willpower test and they gain a +3. Pretty good! But it can be hard to guarantee you’ll be at their location when they are specifically taking a Willpower test. When you commit it to a different test, the ally gets +2 wild icons instead. That’s a Courage, with the downside of it never being as good for yourself. Leadership therefore compares poorly to Courage, where the upside of rarely giving an ally +3 doesn’t outweigh the loss of icon for yourself and the addition of class. It would need to tweak the icons, where it’s two Willpower for yourself, but gains two wilds for the ally, or it’s a Willpower+Wild for you, and those double for the ally. Essentially, more situations where it’s okay for you and where it’s easier to play for someone else.

The Carcosa Skills

I’m not going to continue to dig into each individual skill card. Thus far, I wanted to give you a sense as to my thought process when evaluating skills.

The main theme of Carcosa Skills are a set of 3 varying icons with a strong effect. Note that this is a slight downgrade from a single wild icon, as there’s now one kind of test you can’t commit this to. Single wilds I’ve criticized include Leadership, Defiance, and Quick Thinking. So these skills better be an improvement.

Let’s start with Eureka. You get a filtered card draw upon success – a step up from a simple cantrip draw. Compared to something like Perception, you also gain more tests to which you can commit it. Flexibility is good. In exchange, you lose an icon and gain a class. All this adds up to be… just good enough. Eureka can be great, but it doesn’t increase your odds of success dramatically. With Minh’s wild icon it’s very good; I don’t think it’s overpowered at that point, however. Honestly, for this kind of effect, I would have considered putting that wild icon on the card. Or make the filter deeper – 6 or 9 cards, maybe. It’s close, but not quite as good as Deduction or Vicious Blow, and I’d rather have a cantrip for the added chance of success.

Resourceful is maybe the best one, as its effect is incredibly strong. Bringing back an xp card or a powerful event can be game-winning. A third or fourth Will to Survive, Waylay, or Lucky can make all the difference. Resourceful is essentially an auto-include Survivor card because it is extra copies of your best cards. Oh, right, and there’s some icons on it. But the icons don’t really matter – you’re slotting this card for the effect! So maybe this is a little strong on the curve, but I’d rather have an effect I want than to rationalize why yet another skill card isn’t worth it over everything else I have.

Inspiring Presence – that’s the one that heals and readies an ally – isn’t nearly as inspiring of a card as you’d like. Maybe it’s because we don’t have allies that can make the most of the effect. The best pairings in-faction are Beat Cop[2] and Agency Backup; you can exhaust BC2 or AB for the damage, fight with Presence, then exhaust BC2 again for a 4th/5th damage. But outside of that interaction, the exhaust effects of allies are too situational for this to have much of an impact. I’ve seen it used with Duke or Renfield before, and those are neat, but a one-time resource gain from Renfield is competing with Emergency Cache more than anything else. I think IP desperately needed an additional wild icon to have some kind of relevance in the current card pool.

Speaking of competing with Emergency Cache, “Watch This!” is essentially a money card. I don’t commit it unless I’m pretty sure I can pass, and in return I get 3 resources without spending the action. It’s certainly effective, and the theme of betting resources is on point.

The common thread between these is: when you have a single icon, you’re including the card for the effect, not the icons. This leads me to an important conclusion regarding skills: Single Icons are for Events and Assets; Multiple Icons are for Skills. If it’s a skill that only gives you a +1 on your check, it should have the power level of an event (following the guidelines we set out with still, of course).

The Forgotten Age Skills

When Hatchet Man was released, some content creators in the community were relatively warm towards it. It’s like Vicious Blow, right? Except it’s not because it doesn’t do anything on its own. You need to combine it with another successful fight test or a damage-dealing event like Sneak Attack or Coup de Grace. Combo cards are inherently weaker (it takes more effort to get them in hand at the same time), so to keep it on par with Vicious Blow, it should have an additional Agility icon.

True Understanding is a cousin of Deduction, as each gets you a testless clue. It’s a bit harder to time TU because of the scenario card restriction, but it rightfully has a wild icon instead. I think this one is fine.

Intrepid is such an interesting card to me. If you succeed, you get +1 to most of your tests for the rest of the turn. In practice, you’re going to get that bonus on only 1 test, maybe two. That bonus is kind of like a wild icon, but for a different test than the one you committed. So I would treat Intrepid as having a Willpower and a “Wild” with no added effect, which makes it worse than Courage or Guts. I think two willpower would have been fine (comparing to Guts), roughly equating the +1 to other skills effect to the value of a card draw and adding the class.

Stunning Blow is another Vicious Blow template. Single icon, success grants an additional successful action’s effect. Its lower popularity is related to how situational evasion is relative to straight damage, but the design is sound nonetheless.

Does Enraptured need another icon? Charges are supposed to be a bit hard to come by. But you’re only getting a single charge, and faction cards should be more powerful than their neutral counterparts. So I’d again compare this to Perception, rate a single charge as being equal to or slightly more value to a card draw, and say that Enraptured would have been a great two-icon skill.

Custom Skills

Enough of me complaining about skills that exist. Time to try my hand at crafting up a few of my own! These are each modeled after one of those core set skills I keep coming back to.

Intuition is a Perception clone. Perception gives an action’s worth of work upon success, so Intuition does the same, with a small discount for the addition of class. It provides some sorely needed economy for Guardian (particularly at level 0), with the added bonus of cool interactions with Backpack and Charles Ross. I kept it limited to Item assets so as to not encroach on Ever Vigilant too much.

Piecing It Together is sort of a cross between Perception and Courage, with a decision tree built into its (elegant, if I do say so myself) design. If it is committed to an Intellect test, it either gives you a +3 on the test, or just a +2 and draws you a card. Because the draw is before the test and guaranteed regardless of success, it is better than the Perception draw – but it should be better due to the addition of class. If the test isn’t an Intellect test, it’s either a Courage or it only gives the +1 but with a draw. Because of all the flexibility it offers on top of those numbers, Piecing It Together could possibly be a 1xp card, but I don’t think it needs to be much more than that.

Surge Arcana is a Mystic take on Vicious Blow, but I tried to differentiate it slightly and lean into the flavor of magic being unwieldy in the Arkham Files universe. Initially I thought it would be cool to incorporate a chance for the magic to backlash against you if you draw a special chaos token. I chose test failure as the trigger instead, as things could get pretty swingy if spell effects start to compound (but then again, maybe triggering off of special tokens encourages the inclusion of Eldritch Inspiration more, so either way is probably fine). With the added downside relative to Vicious Blow, I opened up the kinds of tests Surge Arcana could be committed to (from Fight actions to Spell actions). This allows for wacky plays like killing Whippoorwills or Acolytes with Rite of Seeking or Alchemical Transmutation. While the backlash chance merits this increase in flexibility, I thought it might be a little powerful still, so I made it an xp card to account for it. This also means that someone like Zoey or Ashcan can’t splash for it – you have to be an actual caster to supercharge your powers.

Skill man wants more skills!

So what do you think? Are Skills in as dire need of a power boost as I believe they are? Are the custom Skill cards presented here too busted to print? What are some abilities you’d like to see on Skills in the future?

7 thoughts on “The Power Seep of Skill Cards

  1. I picked up Survival Instinct (2) when playing a 4-player Return to the Dunwich Legacy campaign as Rita Young, and it was great. The move was very strong, and so was the ability to Evade multiple targets. It’s particularly good when you need to evade enemies at multiple locations, which happens quite a lot.

    Like

    1. It probably pairs with playstyle. I used to think the ability on SI was garbage, but as I played evasion characters I found it was more useful. I still don’t know if the level 0 card is worth the slot, but the level 2 version seems handy. Idk if it’s worth 2xp though. Personal opinion – maybe I need to play solo Rita and see how it goes.

      Like

  2. Intuition and Piecing it Together seems very VERY broken for level 0 cards. Essentially having a crossbreed of an Inquiring Mind and Perception without restrictions should at *least* be 2 exp, and Intuition both saving an action and a resource instead of gaining a card like Perception WITH the added benefit of 2 intellect seems like it should be 1 exp. Perception may as well be obsolete in both Guardian and Seeker builds.
    Meanwhile Surge Arcana seems pretty underpowered compared to the other 2, and it costs 1 exp while also having a restriction. Even if it costed 0 exp I couldn’t see it having much competition with Guts or Fearless because of its restriction and potential drawback of failing the test, and it has 1 less Will icon.

    All in all, I could see myself running a 2 exp Intuiton in my Roland, Joe, or Carolyn, and if I could take a 2 exp Piecing together I’d definitely replace my Unexpected Courage or Perception, hands down.
    Surge Arcana’s definitely going into the collection though. Maybe change the Will icon to a Wild, remove the restriction and replace that restriction with “IF Surge Arcana was commited to a skill test from an ability on a spell card”.

    Like

    1. All great points. Obviously these cards would need to be playtested, and hopefully that would reveal glaring balance issues.

      Upon reflection, PIT is a Courage at worst, with flexibility and upside. So that for sure should be an XP card (although 1xp may be enough).

      A reader made a comment on Intuition being too strong because of the icons. Seekers are the Intellect experts, and Guardians traditionally have Intellect as their 3rd best attribute after Combat and Willpower. So this might be better as Willpower icons, or keep the intellect icons but lose the discount. Either way, I don’t think this is a strict replacement for cantrips because it does something different. It also loses its bonus effect if you don’t have Items to play in hand. I do think you upgrade this to Ever Vigilant, especially if it remains as intellect icons.

      I think the fact that you can commit SA during a Mists or Rite check and still kill a Whip makes it unique to Vicious Blow and worth an XP. But maybe playtesting would yield that it is fine at 0xp.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      Like

  3. PERCEPTION is the most powerful card in Arkham Horror: The Card Game — and to print cards that match, let alone exceed it’s power would be very dangerous indeed.

    Okay, I’m being hyperbolic, but only in that there are a variety of ways to asses the strength of a card. If I could run ten copies of PERCEPTION in a high-intellect investigator’s deck, I probably would. And I only say ‘probably’ because of the “Max 1 committed per skill test” text on the card; I would certainly run at least five.

    You can’t have too many cantrips in a deck, cantrips that cost nothing in resources or actions to use, until you have enough to effortlessly mould your hand into whatever you want. I single out PERCEPTION among core set skills because there are always intellect tests available that need to be taken to advance the game.

    Weaknesses are no deterrent, drawing cards is a net positive as anyone who has played the game knows, and many weaknesses benefit from being drawn early. Nor is the one point of horror from running through our cards — our deck should contain more than one point of horror healing, soak, or cancellation, so cycling it is also a net positive.

    EUREKA! and RESOURCEFUL are pushing it in terms of adding more free cantrips to the game, but they at least do not have internal synergy as strong as PERCEPTION has. The latter grants us a very significant boost towards passing our test and thus benefiting from its own text.

    I like the design of the core set cantrips, but only because they are core set cards — we have always had access to them. They feel good to play: they are a kind of raising of the stakes, a way of gambling one of your cards. Various ones can be included in a deck to emphasise any of the four abilities. But alternatives to PERCEPTION should not be printed because they would not be alternatives, they would be run in addition to PERCEPTION. They would work to undermine the effect that a randomised player deck has on the game.

    This was a good article and an interesting read. And for some reason it made we want to write a seven paragraph comment to argue that PIECING IT TOGETHER is a bit too strong.

    Like

    1. Great thoughts! You have good points. I don’t run Perception much anymore but you are right that intellect is universally useful. And yeah, upon reflection Piecing It Together is pretty much a strict upgrade to Courage and so it needs 1 or 2 XP to balance it.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s