[Also published on www.tabletoptribe.com]
If you?re a fan of both Lovecraft and tabletop games then you?re spoiled for choice these days. Whether you want a board game, a miniatures game, an RPG or a card game, there?s something for everyone. But what about Cthulhuesque dice games, or at least an alternative to the distinctly lacklustre Cthulhu Dice? That?s where Elder Sign comes in.
The tip of the iceberg. Cthulhu/Lovecraft fans are spoiled for choice in the gaming arena.
I suppose Elder Sign, from leading publisher Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) is more like a dice/card game cross-breed, but the cards are mostly for information rather than an active game mechanic for players. To determine success or failure in this game, there?s going to be big handfuls of dice chucked around. And everyone loves big handfuls of dice.
For a small box there?s a lot of content.
The game pits players in a co-operative battle against an ancient horror, which must be defeated by resolving adventure challenges using custom dice. Only by gathering enough of the titular Elder Signs from a number of locations in Miskatonic University can the players hope to seal away the mind-bending evil and save humanity? at least for a while.
Elder Sign comes in one of FFG?s medium sized boxes that?s usually reserved for card games. As you might expect (if you?re familiar with FFG), it contains one of their standard crappy cardboard inserts padding out the box around the components, although it?s worth mentioning that if you remove the insert there?s enough room in the core box for all the components plus an expansion of your choice.
If FFG is well known for useless inserts it?s also known for quality components and Elder Sign doesn?t dissapoint. The dice are a good size, with slightly rounded corners so they roll well, and feature engraved rather than printed symbols. There are two sizes of cards, the large ?tarot? style and the US Small that fit FFG?s yellow card sleeves. Incidentally, I?d advise against sleeving ? you?ll need two packs of each sleeve type which will cost you over half the cost of the actual game. The cards are an excellent durable quality and you rarely shuffle them, so unless you?re an obsessively compulsive sleever, don?t bother.
Whilst we?re talking cards, although they feature superb, evocative artwork on every one, and the information that you need is easy to read, concise and not cramped and verbose, the font used for the flavour text on the location cards is? not good.
Enlarged this much it?s fairly legible. Sadly I don?t play with a magnifying glass, however thematic that might be.
I know it doesn?t directly affect game play, but it would add a little thematic flavour to read as you uncovered a new location. As it is, you squint at the text, stumble over the first sentence, and then not bother for the rest of the game. It?s a shame, as an old typewriter font would have been both legible and thematic for the 1920s.
There?s plenty of your Arkham Horror Files favourites to choose from here, but standees would have been nicer.
Apart from that small criticism I?d liked to have seen some standees instead of the investigator ?counters? provided, as they often get forgotten until you need to move them to a new location. Luckily the artwork is standard for all the FFG Arkham Horror Files games, so you could always pilfer some from another title in your collection.
After choosing which Ancient One to face off against from the eight provided, all the monster tokens go in a cup or little bag to draw from during the game. That?s the baddie set-up out of the way.
Yes, you can face off against the Bad Boy himself, if you dare!
Each player then chooses a character and draws their starting gear (a combination a common items, unique items or spells) along with health and sanity tokens and corresponding character tokens (draw one at random to determine player order). The rest of the tokens and small cards are placed within easy reach.
Six card are dealt from the top of the adventure deck (those lovely big tarot sized cards) in two rows of three, and the player?s character tokens are placed on the Entrance Card (basically the Museum?s lobby where you can regroup and recoup to tackle an failed adventure again or start a new one).
Bottom left card: one green dice will be locked from your pool on the card until completed. Bottom middle card: the arrow pointing down means the tasks must be completed in order.
So far I haven?t mentioned the single-handed clock face that?s also included with the game. Players will advance the hand by a quarter hour at the end of their turn (sometimes additionally when directed by an adventure), and when the clock strikes midnight? you draw a Mythos card and things often go rapidly pear-shaped.
To give players a flavour for the horrors to come, the first thing you do before play starts is move the hand to point at midnight and draw a Mythos card, resolving it?s effects immediately. These cards are your constant bane during play, usually hitting you with something nasty immediately, with a lingering effect lasting until the clock strikes midnight again? when you draw another Mythos card and the horror begins anew.
When the clock strikes midnight? Bad Things usually happen.
When I?ve played Elder Sign I?ve usually found it helpful to give the clock to the active player. They advance the clock at the end of their turn and then pass it on, which means you?re unlikely to ever forget a clock advance. It functions like a very flash Active Player token too!
Onto the meat of the game, and each player must attempt an adventure location that might yield items, spells and/or, hopefully, Elder Signs with success, and cost either Health or Sanity (or both) with a failure. Worse still failure might add a token to the Doom track on the Ancient One. Fill that up and the world (and so obviously the game) ends.
With this adventure, failure (left, red) results in sanity loss, whilst success (right, white) means two clues (rerolls) and an Elder Sign! Yay!
Every adventure card features rows of symbols that represent a task that must be completed in order to succeed in the adventure. To attempt a task players roll the six green die and try to match the featured symbols in one roll. If they can?t, they discard one die and roll all the dice again until they either succeed or run out of dice. Complete all the tasks and the adventure is a success.
Obviously at this point you may well be thinking that the entire game is just one huge luck-fest, and I suppose it is, as much as any dice game. However, that luck can be mitigated in a number of ways.
The Museum entrance. The place for licking your wounds, sticky-taping your sanity and buying yourself some luck mitigation.
First there are the abilities of the individual characters, that might allow you to change certain die faces, or gain rerolls. Second there are the item and spell cards that can lock dice in place for future rolls (even for another player), or perhaps even add the valuable yellow and red dice into the mix, which are subtly different to the standard green dice and usually more help in task attempts (although not always!). Lastly it?s possible for active players to attempt tasks with compatriots at the same location, utilising them to lock dice before rerolls.
Good old Harvey. Weak in body but handy for changing die faces!
This means that by working together, utilising items and spells and attempting the right tasks with the right characters, you can vastly improve your chances of success and keeping safe your body and mind.
As players work to complete adventures before the Ancient One?s Doom track is filled, they constantly face mythos horrors drawn from the Monster cup/bag that increase the difficulty of tasks by adding or changing symbols. Also making life tricky are locked dice, where an Adventure or Mythos card (or even a Monster) can keep a dice out of play until a task is solved (or creature defeated etc.)
Monster tokens usually occupy white-outlined spaces on adventure cards, but will be placed even without them!
If you?re wondering whether everything happens within the confines of the Miskatonic Univerity, you?ll be pleased/horrified to discover that there is a second deck of Adventure cards ? Other World cards ? that come into play in various ways and allow players to travel and adventure through some of Lovecraft?s less terrestrial locations. These can often be more dangerous but usually yield far more Elder Signs than the usual museum fodder.
If you?ve ever played the FFG game Age of War, then you?ll feel right at home with Elder Sign, but unlike Age of War there are plenty of ways to mitigate your luck so that you don?t feel so frustratingly at the mercy of fate. It also gives you a more narrative reason to roll in the first place, although due to the practically illegible flavour text on the Adventure cards this could have been so much more immersive.
The game claims that it supports up to eight players, but I?ve found it usually works best with no more than four to avoid too tedious a downtime between turns. It?s a great two player game, and rocks a pretty good solo game too (yeah! Friday night! Rock?n?roll!).
Image: Fantasy Flight Games (game mat not included)
Whether you enjoy Elder Sign is going to come down to the usual game considerations: theme, mechanics and play style.
If you?re sick to death of Cthulhu games or have no interest in Lovecraft in the first place then the theme might fall flat, although if you treat it like a generic horror sleuthing game to save the world you should be fine. If you find dice-rolling randomness unappealing as a primary mechanic then you also might not give Elder Sign a second look, but I think you?ll find enough ways to mitigate your luck so as to make the experience feel somewhat tactical and not merely in the lap of the (Elder) Gods.
Common and Unique items, Spells and Allies all help to mitigate Lady Luck.
Finally if you like your games merely competitive, then you might be turned off by Elder Sign?s co-operative nature? to which I?d perhaps suggest you not be such a curmudgeonly killjoy and show some love for your fellow geeks!
I find a lot to love about Elder Sign. It?s a good medium weight choice regardless of whether I?m looking for solo play or a game for a small group. It?s thematic, the artwork is gorgeous, the components are top notch, and there?s palpable suspense both when rolling the dice and as the clock ticks away towards seemingly inevitable doom.
It also doesn?t take up much space compared to many Cthulhu game offerings so is great to pack away and enjoy either as a solo traveller or as a family/group.
Not only is the game well supported, the expansions are really rather good, and make the game even better.
It?s also supported by a number of excellent expansions that don?t just add new content to the base game, but dynamically change it for the better, so if you like Elder Sign but feel it?s lacking a little something, then try mixing it up with Gates of Arkham or it?s fellow expansions, after all, what have you got to lose? but your sanity?
- Fantastic components that we?ve come to expect from FFG
- Glorious artwork
- Solo playable
- Great bang for buck
- Well supported with unique, game-changing expansions
- That flavour text font. It may as well say I! I! Cthulhu fhtagn!
- Doesn?t necessarily scale well to the claimed higher player counts.
- The Unseen Forces and Gates of Arkham expansions changes the game so much for the better that they?re almost essential purchases.