How do you play Arcadia? Obviously, that is what the official rules discuss. Arcadia’s rules are very simple–they fit on 4 small cards, spread between the Character and Story Packs. (That link, by the way, is not to those rules, but to the extended official rules that were produced, as a 12 page booklet, when The Wyld Hunt was released.) That simplicity is one of Arcadia’s strengths, but there is also a downside to it, as it can make the game seem simplistic. In a way, the most important part of the game, in our opinion, is what happens before you actually start playing: Setup. Setup is covered briefly in the rules, but it warrants some additional comments, as the success of the game largely depends on what happens here.
Arcadia is a collectible card game, but perhaps an unusual one. Unlike most collectible card games there is no “deck building” involved–you do not create a deck of cards that work together from all the cards you’ve collected, and then play each game with that deck of cards. Unlike other collectible card games, you are not playing with your cards against your opponent’s cards, but rather are using each other’s cards to complete your Quest. We’ve learned early on not to treat this as a combative, collectible card game, and we realised that we had more fun if we pooled our cards, and had the same set of cards to draw from.In any case, keeping track of who owns which card becomes quickly difficult to track, especially when Leagues and Waylays (and sometimes even Treasures) become common to both Characters during the game. Trying to keep your cards separate from those of your opponent is going to be difficult!
However, though there is no deck building as such, you do need to sort through your cards before you play, while you set up the game. It is tempting to see this as just a boring preliminary you need to get over with so you can play the game, but what I want to suggest here is that the game really starts there. During setup each of you choose the specific nature of your Character, what he or she will be able to do and attempt to do, where he or she will travel, and what he or she may encounter. The entire game will be determined by the cards you choose during setup, and it is therefore important to choose them carefully.
With Merits you make your Character more powerful and resilient, but it is not too hard to create a Character that is nearly unbeatable, particularly if you have gained sufficient experience points by completing Quests.
We’ve set up the following house rules:
- No Character can have more than 2 Abilities, and you can not select a second Ability unless you also have an Advantage, an Art, and a Treasure. Abilities increase your Might, Savvy, or Resolve and if you use enough of them you have a Character that has a value of 5 for each of these, which makes game play rather boring, as there would be few Waylays that are a real challenge, and hardly any Trial you will fail.
- No Merits (like Ally mounts) that allow you to travel more than one League at a time, for more than a single turn. No Warhorse in our games, in other words.We do play with Merits that allows you to move faster, but limit it to only one (and one that needs to be exhausted to do so). This is because it is too easy to win most Quests against your opponent if you can move quicker through Leagues than she can.
- You need an Art, unless you have a good role-playing reason not to have one. Initially, we often overlooked Arts, as they do not seem to offer as much as an Ability or Advantage, and need to be exhausted to be used. Arts are mostly directed at your opponent. They generally do not help you as much as they thwart your opponent. This means they require more strategy–it makes the game more than a “beat the Waylay each turn” game, which is so much more fun, and allows for much more enjoyable replay.
- If you play multiple Quests with the same Character (using the Chronicle Play rules), especially if you play the Quests in order, you can not start the first Quest(s) with an Ally. This rule has not much to do with game play itself, but more with the storytelling aspect of the game. It just does not make all that much sense that a person with no real experience would already have an entourage, even if only of one. Allies you can only gain with subsequent experience.
- Whatever Merits you chose, they have to make sense. Preference should be given to Merits (particularly Arts) that fit thematically with your Character. For example, I play with a Selkie Character, whose element is water; hence it makes sense to choose an Art that has something to do with water (in my case “Flood”, from King Ironheart’s Madness). Gremlins play tricks, so if you play with one, chose Merits that reflect that.
- If, after a few games, a particular Merit or a combination of Merits, seems consistently unbalanced, we adjust and perhaps remove that card from the game. The game has to be a fair challenge for both players for it to be fun.
- When all your Merits are discarded and you are then defeated by a Waylay, you automatically lose the game. (The opponent still has to complete his or her Quest to win.)
Overall, our main rule is this: if your Character is rarely defeated by a Waylay, and has no difficulty with Trials, you have to recreate your Character, or adjust your Merits. (The same applies if you are never able to defeat a Waylay!) Some cards we have put aside entirely, others we’ve learned to use with great caution. Again, the storytelling or role-playing elements are important here: no one is perfect, everyone is flawed in some ways. Especially,
Your Character needs a Flaw. The rules make this optional, but we’ve found it much more fun to make this compulsory. In our house rules, your opponent chooses your Character’s Flaw, and this has to be a major one–not the 1 point Enemy cards that have little effect on the game! In selecting the Flaw, though, storytelling is again important: it has to fit whatever else the Character already has, and there has to be some background story to go with it. If we are creating a new Character, we sometimes assign each other a Flaw before we choose the Merits, as that helps not only to compensate for the Flaw, but also to make a more realistic Character–someone who struggles with this particular Flaw, but found a way to make it livable.
According to the rules, each player must select 5 Leagues, and then place these one at a time on the table, to create the map or board on which you will play. Depending on what Leagues each of you chose, this can create a very exciting map, or one that will be very difficult to play, because adjacent Leagues have to match. For example, if I select a lot of swamp Leagues, and my opponent selects a lot of mountain Leagues, it might be difficult to make these match.
We’ve worked around this in two ways: either we select 10 or 15 Leagues at the start, and, as we are building the map, play 5 of these; or we draw from any of the Leagues we have, as we are building the map (perhaps also trying to make a “perfect” map, one where every League border connects neatly with the adjacent ones). Often if we do the latter, we ignore what I mention in the next paragraph–our main interest is to create a nice map, the details of which we will discover as we explore (neither of us remember the specific details of any Leagues, even after all this time, and so moving into a League is always a bit of a surprise.) If we do the latter, we often also make slightly bigger maps, sometimes of up to 20 Leagues.
It is in your interest to place Leagues that will help your Character, or hinder your opponent’s. For example, I generally play with the Selkie from King Ironheart’s Madness. She is strong in water–she can turn losses into stalemates when on a water terrain–so I will try to get as many Leagues with water (rivers, lakes, ocean) on the table as I can. Or, if you play with the Nymph, you benefit from forest and rivers, and some Merits also benefit from certain terrains. It is thus in my interest to get as much water in play as possible, and in my opponent’s interest to place as few of those as possible (if her Character does not benefit from those). If my Character’s Resolve is weak, I probably don’t want too many Leagues that have Resolve Enter or Leave Trials. Leagues that allow me to recover Merits I possess are naturally good for me (even if also for your opponent).
Alternatively, you can also play using the map of Ardenmore or Middlemarch, though to make it fun, you should make sure that your Quests will keep you both in the same area of those realms, so that you’ll have to cover at least some of the same Leagues (and hence possibly Waylays). Recently we’ve tried to play the same Quests (in order, starting with The Wyld Hunt’s first Quest, “Prove Yourself”), but starting from different Base Camps. This generally means our Characters have to go to the same Leagues, and race to get the Treasures we need to complete the Quest–or try to steal it from each other. The few games we have played in this way have been a lot of fun–particularly as it makes the Quest feel less random–but we’ll have to see how it works out with the rest of them.
During setup, choose your Waylays carefully. Obviously, you will select Waylays that can actually be played on the Leagues in play. But also look for Waylays that are a challenge for your opponent. Is his Character weak on Savvy? Make sure you have enough Savvy Waylays! Will she have to return to Base Camp? Make sure you have Waylays that remain on the League they are played, so she will have to encounter them twice. This last one is tricky, though, since your own Base Camp is not assigned until after you have chosen the Waylays: when you play them, you’ll have to make sure you will not need to pass them too.
We’ve found it good to select some higher point Waylays, alongside the weaker ones. You’ll be able to select fewer Waylays, but they will provide a better challenge to your opponent, if chosen carefully, and will force her to retreat or be stuck in a League for a few turns.
Taking all this into consideration as you set up the game will take more time than you perhaps normally do. But we’ve found it really pays of on two levels. 1) Starting with the story telling here, during the creation of your Character and the building of the world you will roam, means that more of this element will surface naturally during the rest of the game. 2) Strategy becomes essential–what you play when is crucial, and comes to determine the outcome of the game as much as the random luck of the dice throws.
I’d be interest to hear of your own strategies and house rules, if you have any. What have you found to work well and be particularly fun in playing Arcadia? Leave a comment if you have any tips!