It is often said that Arcadia did not have any rare or common cards–all were equally distributed. Scrye magazine, which printed card price lists of various collectible card games, gave all Arcadia cards an equal rarity. (Or at least, so I am told; I’ve never actually seen that list. If you have a scan of it, please upload it and share!)
When you opened just a few packs of Arcadia cards, you did indeed get that impression. Cards seemed fairly randomly distributed across the packs, and notoriously badly so–it was not at all uncommon to have two or more duplicate cards in the same pack! But the more serious collector would quickly notice that some cards were indeed more rare than others. Buying King Ironheart’s Madness Story Packs, for example, you’d quickly have several Wyld Boars, or several Time Clocks, but only one General Motors, if you were lucky.
I’ve never seen an official ranking of the cards according to rarity, but I did figure out quickly what cards were common and what cards were not, and noticed that this isn’t random. I’m working from notes I made in the 1990s (more about those later, perhaps), but this is what I noted back then.
A Story Pack contains the following cards: 1 Quest, 7 Leagues, and 7 Waylays. The Quest cards, as far as I can tell, are all equally common. I’m inclined to say the League cards are as well, though I do have noticeably more copies of certain League cards than others (I have 6 Chasm Range Trail cards, for example, but no Aldrich’s Workshop). But the Waylay cards are clearly distributed in a different way: each pack will have 5 Waylay cards with a lower rating (2 or 3 in King Ironheart’s Madness; 1 or 2 in The Wyld Hunt), and then 2 Waylay cards with a higher rating (4 or more in King Ironheart’s Madness; 3 or more in The Wyld Hunt). This makes for frustrating collecting: once you’ve bought a few packs of Story Cards, you’ll have almost all the common Waylay cards, which means you are guaranteed to have duplicates of at least 5 Waylay cards of every pack you buy, and probably of most of League cards as well.
The Character Packs are similarly divided. You’ll have 1 Character card, 4 Flaws, and 10 Merits. The Characters are, as far as I can tell, all equally common. The 4 Flaw cards are always distributed as 1 Weakness and either 2 Curses and 1 Enemy or 1 Curse and 2 Enemies. The Merits are always divided into 3 Abilities, 3 Treasures, and then 4 others (Art, Advantage and Allies). Though there are fewer Abilities per pack than Treasures, the Abilities are more common, because there aren’t that many different ones: in King Ironheart’s Madness there are 30 different Abilities, but 50 different Treasures (or so this card list tells me). I have many duplicate Abilities, but few duplicate Treasures. There are 20 different Advantages, 20 different Allies, and 29 different Art cards. Since there are only 4 of these cards in each pack, and not always in the same proportions, they are also rarer than the other Merits. I can’t tell whether there are indeed rare cards among each type–are there, for example, rare Treasures as well as common Treasures? But I suspect not.
I do get the impression that these cards were mostly meant to be equally common, but that their distribution model went against that. There are, for example, as many Advantages as Allies, but then each Character Pack will have more Advantages than Allies, which makes the latter more uncommon, even if that was perhaps not intended when the game was designed.
Arcadia was released during the height of the collectible card game craze that Magic: The Gathering created, and it really suffered from that. This should not have been a collectible card game, and were it released today, it probably would be a “living card game“, with a fixed and complete set of cards per expansion. That would have suited it much better. It would have created a better and more satisfying game play, as you would not have to constantly substitute cards for cards you miss but need to fulfill your Quest. (It would also mean you did not have to keep track of your cards when playing against an opponent; unlike other card games, the cards of both players get mixed during the game–half of the Leagues will be yours, half your opponent’s; your opponent has your Flaw cards and you have hers; and whose were those undefeated Waylay cards that remain in place? When I played this frequently with one of my friends in the 1990s, we decided to pool our cards and make them common property of us both. It was so much easier, and so much more fun, as it mean we had more cards to chose from, without each having to invest too much.)
Add to this White Wolf’s disastrous marketing strategy of promoting this as a collectible card game for which you need only buy 2 packs (30 cards) to play the game. This was indeed appealing at a time when the market was flooded with collectible card games. But this made for terrible games. I remember trying this a few times with friends: you generally missed way too many cards (Leagues, Treasures, Allies, even some specific Waylays) to complete the Quests of every player, and you generally did not have enough choice of Merits (or Flaws) to make an interesting, balanced Character to play. I remember you often did not even have enough Waylay points in a single pack to match the Waylay points needed to play against your opponent in his or her chosen Quest (nor sometimes the right number of Treasure points), and even if you did, the terrain requirements were often a bad match for the League cards that came in both your packs. This, combined with the unclear–and, for a collectible card game, strange–distribution of cards across each pack, meant that many first-time players dismissed the game after the first try, and the game thus never really took off. Only when you ignored the oft-repeated marketing mantra–“you can begin playing with just one Story Pack and one Character Pack”–and began collecting the cards, despite the frustrating distribution of cards across packs, could you see the potential of Arcadia, and enjoy the game.