Arkham Ritual is a social card game in which 3 to 7 players take on the role of journalists who are trying to escape a terrible ritual. The core social interactions this game provokes are great fun, and the artwork is fantastic, however there is some ambiguity as to whether this game is co-operative or competitive. This confusion meant the game took much longer to learn than it probably should have – as we had to experiment with both modes of play to deduce which was more fitting. However, once we decided how we wanted to play (competitive), I had a great time with Arkham Ritual.
Arkham Ritual uses a central mechanic that players of Hanabi will be familiar with. Instead of looking at your own card, all players hold their hand facing away from them, and are only allowed to view it when discarded, or when the round ends. In Arkham Ritual, players are dealt one card from the deck which they hold with the face displayed outwards. The card could be either an artefact, event, character, or the ‘Great Old One’ card – each of which directly affects the flow of play. Most of the cards are artefacts, of which there are 2 blue (sane) cards and 1 red (cursed) card for each of the five item types. Your goal is to finish the round with a sane card as, if you end a round with a cursed card in hand, you lose sanity equal to the number of players who ended the round with a cursed artefact. The first player to accumulate seven insanity tokens loses the . This means that the only way to end (and win) the game is to force another player into insanity. During our games, this led to a ‘mob mentality’ effect – as soon as somebody lost one round, they became way more of a target for the other players.
The event cards are all blue (sane), but cause special effects when discarded. These are comprised of two character cards (Cultist and the Investigator), two Gate cards, and a single Great One card. If you end a round with the Investigator in-hand, you may gain a sanity. The Cultist is a little more complicated as, if you’re holding it when a round ends, the outcome of the rest of the cards is reversed – that is, red cards are safe and blue cards cause sanity loss. The final card – Great Old One – is activated only if a Gate (one of the Event card types) is discarded while the Great Old One is in play. When this occurs, the round ends and the holder of the Great Old One card is safe while all other players lose sanity equal to the number of players minus one.
After all players have been dealt their card, players take turns drawing one card from the deck, peeking at it, then choosing another player to pass it to. The receiving player can either discard their current card face up to the middle of the table and take the new card (without looking at it!), or they can refuse the card and pass it on to another player. If all players refuse the card, the round ends. The round also ends if the deck is .
Card counting is central to Arkham Ritual’s strategy. When cards are discarded they remain face-up in the middle of the table until the end of the round, and it is essential to take note of these cards, and player’s behaviour and reactions towards the cards being passed around, in order to avoid sanity loss.
I like the premise of Arkham Ritual, and all the components are of an impressively high quality for a preview copy of a game. However, I found motivation to chase victory scarce in Arkham Ritual because of the simple fact that no victory condition is provided in the rules – only a losing condition (“The next game is played until one or more players have collected 7 or more insanity markers”). A lose condition and win condition are not the same thing, and the fact that the rules did not clarify whether we should play cooperatively or competitively made it hard to know what I should be chasing. Unlike Hanabi, which makes it very clear that revealing certain information to the other players is not allowed, Arkham Ritual leaves too much to assumption. One would assume that you are not supposed to tell the other players which card they have – I think that much is obvious. However, it doesn’t provide any guidelines as to what kind of information *can* be revealed between players. If the game is competitive, this doesn’t matter – because the players are pitted against each other, there is no trust between them from the beginning, so the truth of anything they say is called into question. However, there are several parts of the rules which point towards the game being cooperative – for example, the story text of the game which states “You and your team decide to investigate the ritual anonymously.” Emphasis here on team. If Arkham Ritual is played cooperatively, and no restrictions are placed on how much the players can communicate with each other, then the game is fundamentally broken unless you create some in-house restrictions.
All this being said, our group had a lot of fun playing Arkham Ritual, and if these discrepancies were ironed out, this card game could become a memorable great. The social aspects of game play, combined with the card-counting driven strategy are a fun combination, and the quality of the game’s components speak of creators invested in releasing the best possible version of their game. I have faith that the necessary tweaks will be made before release that will transform Arkham Ritual into a fantastic experience.
For more, check out the Arkham Ritual Kickstarter campaign.
Note: Since this preview was written, may revisions have already been made to the rules on the advice of previewers and playtesters. The win condition is now plainly stated and the overall clarity of the rules has been greatly improved! The design of the cards has been improved, and the placeholder art on the Great Old One card has been filled in.