[Also published on youre a fan of both Lovecraft and tabletop games then youre spoiled for choice these days. Whether you want a board game, a miniatures game, an RPG or a card game, theres something for everyone. But what about Cthulhuesque dice games, or at least an alternative to the distinctly lacklustre Cthulhu Dice?
Thats where Elder Sign comes in. 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, theres going to be big handfuls of dice chucked around.
And everyone loves big handfuls of dice.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.
ComponentsElder Sign comes in one of FFGs medium sized boxes thats usually reserved for card games. As you might expect (if youre familiar with FFG), it contains one of their standard crappy cardboard inserts padding out the box around the components, although its worth mentioning that if you remove the insert theres enough room in the core box for all the components plus an expansion of your choice. If FFG is well known for useless inserts its also known for quality components and Elder Sign doesnt 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 FFGs yellow card sleeves. Incidentally, Id advise against sleeving youll 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 youre an obsessively compulsive sleever, dont bother.Whilst were 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. I know it doesnt 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. Its a shame, as an old typewriter font would have been both legible and thematic for the 1920s. Apart from that small criticism Id 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.GameplayAfter 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. Thats the baddie set-up out of the way.
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 players character tokens are placed on the Entrance Card (basically the Museums lobby where you can regroup and recoup to tackle an failed adventure again or start a new one).
So far I havent mentioned the single-handed clock face thats 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 its 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 Ive played Elder Sign Ive 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 youre 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. 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 cant, 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. 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 its possible for active players to attempt tasks with compatriots at the same location, utilising them to lock dice before rerolls. 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 Ones 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. )If youre wondering whether everything happens within the confines of the Miskatonic Univerity, youll 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 Lovecrafts less terrestrial locations.
These can often be more dangerous but usually yield far more Elder Signs than the usual museum fodder.The Low-downIf youve ever played the FFG game Age of War, then youll feel right at home with Elder Sign, but unlike Age of War there are plenty of ways to mitigate your luck so that you dont 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 Ive found it usually works best with no more than four to avoid too tedious a downtime between turns. Its a great two player game, and rocks a pretty good solo game too (yeah! Friday night!
Rocknroll!). Whether you enjoy Elder Sign is going to come down to the usual game considerations: theme, mechanics and play style.
If youre 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 youll 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. Finally if you like your games merely competitive, then you might be turned off by Elder Signs co-operative nature to which Id 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. Its a good medium weight choice regardless of whether Im looking for solo play or a game for a small group. Its thematic, the artwork is gorgeous, the components are top notch, and theres palpable suspense both when rolling the dice and as the clock ticks away towards seemingly inevitable doom.
It also doesnt 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.Its also supported by a number of excellent expansions that dont just add new content to the base game, but dynamically change it for the better, so if you like Elder Sign but feel its lacking a little something, then try mixing it up with Gates of Arkham or its fellow expansions, after all, what have you got to lose but your sanity?Pros:Fantastic components that weve come to expect from FFGGlorious artworkSolo playableGreat bang for buckWell supported with unique, game-changing expansionsCons:That flavour text font.
It may as well say I! I! Cthulhu fhtagn!
Doesnt 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 theyre almost essential purchases