There are six types of cards in Arcadia, spread across the Character Pack and Story Pack: Characters, Merits, and Flaws; and Quests, Leagues, and Waylays. Below is some information about each of these and (briefly) how they are used in the game.
Each expansion–The Wyld Hunt and King Ironheart’s Madness–has its own sets of these cards, and each has its own narrative. Each expansion can be played independently, but together they tell the story of Arcadia (with the events in King Ironheart’s Madness following those of The Wyld Hunt). In theory you could easily mix these cards, for example, by complementing one set of cards with cards from the other expansion. In practice, however, this is not so easy with all of these. Aesthetics aside (each expansion has its own mood), mixing the cards of both sets can, in some cases, make the game either too difficult or too easy to win. Waylay cards in King Ironheart’s Madness are generally more powerful than those in The Wyld Hunt, as are the Merits and Flaws. Quests in The Wyld Hunt require fewer Waylays, because the Waylays of that set are valued lower than those of the later set, so they are best not used with Waylays from the latter. Mix them as you please, but make sure that the game remains fair and fun to play.
The Character cards represent, well, your character. Each Character has its own race and gender, specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as some special abilities. The official rules encourage you to give your Character a name, and to create a background story, as this will enhance the role playing element of the game. Though you could play each new game with a different Character, the game becomes richer if you stick to the same character, particularly in “Chronicle Play“, so that your Character grows with each new Quest and gains in experience. Before the game starts, the basic stats of your Character are modified with Merits and Flaws.
The Character cards are three dimensional–rather unique in card games–and are used to move around the Leagues. They are perhaps the most striking visual feature about Arcadia.
Merits are positive attributes of your character. They can be either Abilities, Advantages, Allies, Arts, or Treasures, as outlined in the rules. If you use the game to tell the story of your chosen Character (that is, if you keep playing with the same Character and play the Quests in order), the Merits of your Character remain the same, though new ones can be added with experience gained from each successful Quest.
Flaws are the opposite of Merits: they are attributes of your Character that will make your Quests more difficult to fulfill. These can be qualities of your Character (like clumsiness, for example), the result of events in the past (as in enmity with certain groups or individuals), or curses that your Character suffers. Though you can create a Character without Flaws, it is encouraged to pick up some, as it makes your Character more realistic, and makes game play more interesting. But, to compensate (and to encourage you to take some Flaws), you can outbalance the Flaws with extra Merits.
These three types of cards are contained in the Character Pack, and shape the character you will play during the game. The Story Pack contains the cards that will created the narrative of the game. There are three types of these cards: Quests, Leagues, and Waylays.
The Quest cards detail the objectives of your Character during the game. These are summarised under the illustration, with a more detailed description and background narrative provided on the other side of the card. Quest cards also determine how many Waylays you are able to encounter while on this Quest and how many treasures you can collect while roaming through Arcadia during this game (in The Steam Drake’s Lair, pictured above, this is 31 points and 4 points respectively).
During a game, each Character pursues one (or more) Quests, and the first player who completes the Quest(s) of their Character wins the game. The Quests can be chosen at random at the beginning of the game, but they can also be played in order. Each Quest has a number, given in roman numerals on the bottom of the text (in this case, number 20). When played in order, the Quests tell the story of each expansion: the search for Lord Gamine, in The Wyld Hunt, and the rebellion against Ironheart (and the encroaching Darkening) in King Ironheart’s Madness. The experience points given for each Quest (1 for The Wyld Hunt Quests, 2 for those of King Ironheart) are only used when you retain the same Character throughout each game, as in “Chronicle Play“.
The League cards are land cards, that will form the “board” on which you will playing–the land that you will be roaming through on your Quests. At the beginning of the game they are placed text-down on the table, and turned over, as a Character moves into it, revealing the specifics of that part of Arcadia (a brief description of its general nature and (sometimes) history, and what you can, can’t, or have to do there.
Each game creates a new map with League cards chosen by each player, thereby illustrating the fluid nature of Arcadia, the land of the fae withing “the Dreaming“. However, when taken all together, the League cards form a map of Arcadia: of Ardenmore in The Wyld Hunt, and of Middlemarch, which lies South of Ardenmore, in King Ironheart’s Madness. Moxtaveto thus created a nice map of both realms. Below is Ardenmore (here is a a high resolution pdf file of this map). Further details about each part of Ardenmore can be found here.
And here is the map of Middlemarch (here is a high resolution pdf of this map):
Playing Arcadia on this “fixed” map, or at least part thereof, can be particularly fun when playing it on your own, but it can make for less interesting games when playing it with someone else, as your Quests may take you to very different parts of the realm, so that there could be little chance of your Characters encountering each other, or of your Character being attacked by the Waylays that you yourself played.
The Waylay cards represent the obstacles your Character has to face during his or her Quest. They can be various creatures or enemies he has to fight, situations she has to overcome either through might, savvy, or resolve, or natural disasters that the Character encounters (such as a hurricane). Most Waylays are specific to certain Leagues–you are not likely to encounter Forest Spiders in a city League, after all–and these are indicated on each card, between the text and the illustration. Each Waylay has a value (Hurricane, picture above, has a value of 3, Duke Bane a value of 4), which are used to determine how many Waylays may be encountered on each Quest.
Some particularly powerful Waylays are specific to certain Quests (such as Aldrich, the Mechician in King Ironheart’s Madness, which should be used in Quests 23), and are better not played outside those Quests, but most Waylays are not scenario specific and should be used freely.
Though Arcadia is a collectible card game, all cards are equally common or equally rare, and distributed randomly across the packs. There are no commons, uncommons, or rare cards, as in most other collectible card games.
If you are new to the game, and buying new cards (there are still some, new and used, for sale online), know that having more Story Packs makes for a more exciting game. Though the game was promoted with the claim that you need only one Story and one Character Pack to get started, having but a few Quest, League, and Waylay cards–which are contained in the Story Pack–can make for a difficult game. Having a greater variety of Characters, Merits, and Flaws–the type of cards contained in the Character Pack–is undoubtedly great, but it is easier to play an enjoyable game with just a few of these, than it is with just a few of the others. The story telling aspect of Arcadia depends mostly on the Quests, which both individually an collectively tell the story you will be playing, and the Leagues, which form the land of Arcadia you will be exploring during the game.
Arcadia has some stunning artwork, that really contributes to the narrative of the game by setting the mood. The cards of King Ironheart’s Madness, for example, are considerably bleaker than those of The Wyld Hunt, and help to create its distinctly quirky, dystopian mood. Richard Uyeyama created an “index” of the artists that worked on both sets of cards on his own homepage: see here for The Wyld Hunt, and here for King Ironheart’s Madness.
Below are links to the personal pages of some of the artists who contributed to the game. If you know of more, please let me know.