Another murder in our actually pretty quiet town. Again, there seem to be uncanny forces at work. Witnesses are hard to find and those I can track down prefer to swallow their tongue rather than talk to me. Strange signs appear everywhere and are like a puzzle whose overall picture I do not know. I work day and night until I almost collapse from exhaustion and my thoughts just go round and round. It is already dark and I sit alone in my office in Arkham. I feel I have very little time left…
I admit it: I don’t have much experience with solo playing, but with Yves Tourigny‘s Arkham Noir, the subject matter appealed to me so much that I took the step and still managed to get it on my table. In the small box there is nothing more than a few cards. It’s about Case 1: The Witch Cult Murders, in which we as investigators have to create an overall picture, which is created by playing puzzle cards. That sounds easier than it is.
It had not yet become clear to me what the attraction of playing solo was. Until recently, only a few small puzzle games from the Brains series and a few escape games managed to catch my attention. Therefore this review can be considered as one from the perspective of a solo game newcomer. Since I lack the comparison with other solo experiences, I have to rely heavily on my own gaming experience. And one thing in advance: I didn’t think it could be so difficult.
Topic, topic and again topic
As I said, the topic was one of the main reasons why I decided to work with Arkham Noir. Three stories by H.P. Lovecraft are mentioned as inspiration: “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933), “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933) and “The Unnameable” (1923). Of the stories themselves, little comes across. The subject of the exchange of bodies and the horror when a friend becomes a stranger because his body is stolen from him, from ” The Thing on the Doorstep“, I felt here just as little as the slowly drifting mind of Walter Gilman, who cannot cope with strange dimensions and horrible but powerful beings, from ” The Dreams in the Witch House“. All in all, there is also not much room in Arkham Noir to do a lot of storytelling. There are mainly the illustrations on the maps, which show different characters, events or places in a kind of linocut-look. These have the names from the stories, but without knowing the stories themselves, no story of their own is told here. There is no further flavortext.
The rules booklet gives only a short introduction, in which we ourselves are introduced as a detective named Howard Lovecraft with knowledge in the field of the occult. Children have disappeared, as happens every year in the city of Arkham, probably before Walpurgis Night. We are supposed to solve mysterious murders of students of the Miskatonic University, who are connected to it, before the traces get lost again after Walpurgis Night.
How to solve a witch cult murder
The card deck contains a number of cards that serve as markers on the table, indicating which area is used for which cards. This is quite handy and after a few games the setup is quite fast. The game aids give a compact overview of the game move as well as an overview of all effects and the distribution of the important symbols on the evidence cards.
You begin with two victims whose deaths you are to clear up. Your objective is to collect five different evidence cards with a puzzle symbol in closed, i.e. successfully solved, murder cases. There are always five evidence cards in the clue row, and the card furthest to the left must be used next. You take this card and decide what to do with it.
- You have the option of taking them into your hand where you already have three evidence cards at the beginning of a game. However, since you have a hand limit of three, you can’t do this without discarding a card. This can be useful later in the game, though.
- You can also assign the card to one of the open murder cases instead. The rule is that the symbol on the right side of the card must match one of the symbols on the left side of the new card. This means that you will lay out a series of clues over time, following the domino principle.
- You can also discard the new card from the clue line to close a case. You can only do this if you have at least five different types of evidence cards in a case. You can only discard a puzzle card if you have at least five different types of evidence cards in a case, so the card must also be present.
- You can also simply discard the new card from the clue line and instead place a card from your hand on an open case.
However, discarding cards has the disadvantage that you must discard cards with a time symbol in a separate area. If there are at least five cards in this area, a new Murder Victim has been found and you must reveal one of the Murder Victim pile. If you can’t because the pile is empty, you lose. A new Murder Victim must also be revealed once you have used up your draw pile, and must reshuffle the discard pile. Again, the danger of losing the game lurks when there is no new victim card left.
In addition, Arkham Noir also offers several card effects of a positive and negative nature that occur when a clue card is placed on an open case. They let you swap, pick up or discard cards, hopefully manipulating the order of available cards in your favor. Also, if there are too many cards in a case, so-called stability tests must be performed. Here you take the risk to accumulate cards in the stability area. If there are at least five cards here, you have also lost, as your mental health has been affected by your occupation with the occult.
A thin line between madness and triumph
As in many cooperative games, Arkham Noir offers many ways to lose, but only one way to win. I really like puzzles and riddles and since the theme is so little prominent despite coherent illustrations, I soon had to concentrate on the puzzle in front of me. Because Arkham Noir is nothing else than a puzzle, which confronts you with the task to use the available cards as efficiently as possible to get the required combinations of symbols. This is a quite a demanding task. However, the level of difficulty can be adjusted. You can increase the number of cards in the victim pile to make it a bit easier. The fewer there are, the more difficult the task is.
An friend of mine told me that he had solved it without any problems the first time at the SPIEL 19. But he had also played with 6 victim cards, so that it is relatively easy to get his 5 puzzle symbols, because you have one card as a buffer, so that you can put it on when the draw pile is empty. Already on standard this is no longer possible and you have to adapt your strategy more. The stability area becomes more important to be able to collect perhaps two puzzle cards in a victim row. This is more difficult, because some symbols are less common and you need at least seven cards on the table. But it is this requirement that makes the game so attractive. I can’t just lay out whatever fits. I have to plan and, ideally, calculate which cards are still in play. The random factor due to the order of the cards always creates different conditions, even if the deck itself is always the same. Victories become rarer and thus an achievement for which one can congratulate oneself. But just as fast despair can grab you if the one card you need to complete the last case is simply not available.
Awaken the fun of playing solo?
All in all, the puzzle game alone is not enough for me as an impulse, however, to offer lasting fun at the table alone. It’s a nice little game for in-between, but it doesn’t manage to offer a long-term motivation. I liked the graphic conversion of the author Yves Tourigny, who created a very own style for the game with his black-and-white-linolium cuts and thus brings out some atmosphere, which the game would have missed completely otherwise.
The other parts of the series have already been published. Will the second case Called Forth By Thunder be able to lure me to the gaming table alone again? I am really not sure yet. There are supposed to be some new mechanics and even if it only offers some evenings of entertainment, it is just a small box that neither takes up much space on the board game shelf nor tears a big hole in the board game budget.