Well, this started as a short post, but I've been meaning to write about on this topic for some time because there have been a lot of players asking for advice on which game (LotR or Arkham) they should play. So here is my overly long epic. Maybe I'll repost this as an actual blog post someplace. Anyway, hope it helps with your decision.
Ah the inevitable question of which game you should play: Arkham Horror LCG (I'll call it Arkham), or Lord of the Rings LCG (I'll call it LotR). Although they may seem similar, the fact is that they are quite different games that exist in the same genre. In my mind the best way to decide which game is for you is to look at these major structural differences to see which appeal to you more. Below I go into what I see as the biggest differences between the games and discuss the pros and cons of each game. Just to note my own bias, I own and play both, but prefer LotR for a number of reason. With that out of the way, here are the big differences that I see:
1. Game Narrative:
Both games actually have a very strong narrative component. LotR is a bit more like reading through a book in that you keep playing a scenario until you are successful and then you move on to the next. In the end you have a really neat story (the later expansions do a particularly good job of telling a seamless story). Arkham is more similar to an RPG in that success and failure are both options – the game specifically urges you not to simply replay individual scenarios until you win. And some scenarios don't have truly "good" resolutions, forcing you to pick the “less bad” outcome, as is appropriate to the Lovecraft universe. Arkham also has you keep track of certain choices you make during the game, and these decisions can come back to haunt or help you. So if you fail to kill a boss enemy in scenario 1, it's likely that they'll show back up in the future.
In my estimation, Arkham has a more compelling narrative because you have at least some control over the story. But this benefit comes with logistical... issues. A single story lasts through one deluxe expansion and 6 mini-expansions. This means that it takes about 8 months for a single story to come out. Since each scenario is dependent on the former (in several ways), it means that you can only continue a campaign or start a new one. Continuing your campaign has issues because, again, it takes 8 months for the whole campaign to be released. You will quickly be forced into a position where you either set aside the game for a month until the next scenario is released, or you have to start a new campaign. Simply playing the latest scenario with a new deck isn't an option. LotR has none of these problems – when you sit down, you can pull out any scenario and play it.
2. Character Progression:
The next big difference is that your investigators in Arkham will actually grow and change while you play the game. This growth is reflected in the contents of your deck, which will change in some good ways and some bad. Some of the changes will be as a direct result of the events of the story, and some are more like leveling up in an RPG (pick your new power). LotR has no progression – you build your deck and it remains static unless you elect to change it. This provides the feeling that your LotR characters are at the height of their power and experience, while Arkham investigators are slowly experiencing the horror of their world. Again, I think both systems reflect their source material. I should note that the Saga expansions of LotR (which play through the events of the book) have optional campaign rules which do allow you to make slight modifications to your deck (you might find a cache of treasure or be given a gift from Galadriel that you can keep in your deck). It kind of feels like Arkham-light.
On the surface, the progression system in Arkham system is the clear winner. But again, it comes with significant logical issues. The fact that your deck changes means that it is impossible to keep ready-to-play decks on hand. Your deck is either unmodified (meaning that it can only be used for the first scenario of a campaign), or modified (meaning that it can only be used for the scenario immediately after the one you just played). So when I sit down for a game night of Arkham, I am limited in both the deck I can use and the scenario I can play. LotR just doesn't have this drawback – I can pick up any deck and play it against any scenario.
3. Feel of the Gameplay:
I think the games feel very different. LotR is much more reminiscent of a traditional customizable card game – you build your deck build around specific combos and synergies. Of course the major difference is that you aren't working against the other players at the table. It almost feels like the most friendly game of Game of Thrones (or Magic, or L5R, or ...) that you've ever played. Some of this likely comes from the fact that LotR has a much larger card pool than Arkham, so more synergies and combos exist. On the other hand, Arkham feels more like an RPG in that you are a character inside a party with a role to play. The synergies often come between decks rather than within decks. Working well with the team might be more important than pulling off your deck's super combo.
Arkham also deserves special mention for its board-like system. Locations are played on the table like a board, and you have to actually move your investigator around to specific places. It solidifies some of the abstraction that exists in LotR.
The final gameplay difference worth talking about is player scalability, by which I mean the degree to which a scenario keeps its degree of difficulty regardless of the number of players (1-4) playing. Arkham does this better because of the "per investigator” rule. LotR would tell you to advance to the next part of the story once you've made X progress (regardless of the number of players playing), but Arkham says to collect a total of X clues per player before moving on. The scaling in LotR is ok, just not perfect. I'd say 2-3 players is the sweet spot for LotR.
4. “Action” Resolution:
This is kind of a sub-category of gameplay. In Arkham, actions are resolved by counting up your total skill points (which you can add to for a given check by discarding cards) and then drawing a tile out of a bag with a negative point value. If your check is above the target number, you succeed. It feel a bit like rolling dice, which fits with its RPG roots. LotR is more... well... “mathy” is the best way I have to describe it. You add up your total number (like willpower of questing characters), and subtract the enemy's total number (like threat in the staging area). In higher player count games of LotR, I keep a threat dial around with the express purpose of keeping track of numbers. This hasn't been necessary for Arkham.
5. Core Box Experience:
This is unfortunately LotR's Achilles heel. The designers just didn't have as much experience when they made it as they did for Arkham. Not only is LotR the the older game, but it was the first cooperative customization card game of its type ever made (that I'm aware of). While the early scenarios aren't bad, they are somewhat inconsistent. As an example, the core set has three scenarios: one of which is the excellent learning scenario that you are unlikely to play once you understand the game; the second is one of the very best in the game to this day; and the third is widely considered one of the worst and most frustrating in the game (there are debates on whether it is beatable with only a core box if you are playing solo). I should note that the scenarios rapidly get better, and if you focus on some of the more recent expansions, you'll find some real gems. Arkham benefits from being the more recently designed game – it clearly learned from LotR. The core box includes three very good and fun scenarios.
Personal final thoughts:
I think that which game you play will depend on how you weigh the different factors. For me, I value having a box of decks sitting on hand that allow me to instantly play any scenario (a new one, or an old favorite). The fact that Arkham doesn't let me do this means that it often gets overlooked in my household. But when I do have the energy to coordinate deck construction and play through an entire campaign without stopping (maybe after everything's been released?) then I do enjoy it. Gun to my head, if I could only have one game, it would be LotR without question.
TL;DR: Highlights for each game: LotR:
Can play any scenario with any deck at the cost of slightly less compelling story and no real character progression.
Decks can be build independently because much of the synergy happen inside the deck.
Action resolution can sometime feel “mathy.”
The game scales 2-3 players extremely well, but can be tricky with 1 or 4 players.
Core experience is a bit weak, but becomes amazing with expansions.
Extremely limited in what you can play and the deck you can play with. But this means that you gain some control over the narrative, and your character progresses over time.
Decks should be built together in the same way as a good RPG party.
Action resolution feels a bit like rolling dice.
Game scales 1-4 very well.
Core experience is quite good.