Friday, October 1, 2021

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Murder at the Excelsior Hotel"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

The term “investigator” is so redolent to Arkham Horror: The Card Game that it has evolved to simply “‘gator” in online discussion. (Who’s your favorite ‘gator?!?!) But in terms of P.I.-type private investigation, there hasn’t been a major focus on delivering such a specific noir-esque experience. Certainly strong elements of the detective motif exist throughout the scenarios and campaigns released thus far, particularly the Path to Carcosa campaign, but a true murder mystery with a dark and stormy night, bloody murder weapon, corrupt police, damsels in distress, and the like has not been done. “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel”, a standalone scenario, fits that niche, however.

Action beginning in situ, investigators in “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel” start the scenario in the awkward position of holding what seems to be a murder weapon in a blood-spattered hotel room. Putting the knife away and moving out into the corridor, the guests and hotel staff give you strange looks, and it isn’t long before the police arrive. In the course of your investigation, it becomes apparent that something strange is afoot, and you’ll have to use all of your gumshoe cleverness to get to the bottom of the crime scene, even if it means implicating yourself. The story which involves from here is Agatha Christie… and more.

It’s clear that each Arkham Horror: The Card Game product is trying to occupy some niche. And with “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel”, that niche, on top of detective noire, seems to be ‘variety and options’. More than any scenario released to date, stand-alone or part of a campaign, this offers the most resolutions. Fitting for a murder mystery, there are ten possible endings.

At this point in the evolution of Arkham Horror, it’s difficult to find any faults in the game. And the same applies to “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel”. It’s yet another clean, challenging, engaging, fresh experience in the game’s universe. If I had one nit to pick, it would be the number of endings, however, or more specifically, the setup which makes ten endings possible. Driven by random cards draws rather than player choice, the variety of endings can feel like plug-n-play rather than player agency and consideration, and as a result undercuts the overarching story’s integrity—if you have too much time on your hands to think about it, like me. That being said, while I personally would have been happier with a tighter, more focused experience complementing the story’s intro, I recognize for players who like branching paths of story, regardless of method, this will be satisfying. Nobody can say variety does not exist in this scenario. In fact, this scenario is cited by many as their favorite stand-alone.

In the end, “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel” is classic Arkham Horror: it works with first principles excellently while presenting new mechanics and story for a unique experience. For Arkham players who may (secretly) lament the invasion of the massively, horrifically fantastic into their campaigns, this one keeps things largely realistic—emphasis on “largely”, resulting in something resembling a classic noir-ish detective story which is more than tentacles in space. One of the most replayable stand-alone scenarios, it offers the largest number of endings to any such scenario to date, meaning players who enjoy finding the paths to different endings will have a field day but may experience some frustration given that the paths are only explorable via randomness rather than player agency. Regardless, this scenario delivers an Agatha Christie meets Lovecraft experience that many players will enjoy.

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