What on earth possessed me to get a dice game? Those of you who’ve read some of my previous posts will know that dice and I simply don’t get along. From Necromunda to Risk to Snakes and bloody Ladders, dice love to troll me to the maximum possible extent. It must, therefore, have been a moment of true madness when I picked up Elder Sign, an Arkham Horror offshoot from Fantasy Flight that is played with cards and dice. Dice! What was I thinking? Well, as you’ll no doubt be aware I’m a fan of the Lovecraftian mythos. I’m also a big fan of Fantasy Flight’s take on it via Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness. It seems like a logical step to grab another Lovecraftian game, right? …Right?
Elder Sign is a co-operative game for one to eight players in which you take the part of an investigator attempting to stop a Great Old One – a horribly powerful creature from another dimension – from breaking in to our world. You do this by collecting spells, items and clues, by defeating monsters and by searching for the mythical Elder Signs which will allow you to seal away the Great Old One for good. So far, so Arkham Horror. Indeed, if you’ve played Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness you’ll instantly recognise the playable characters and their accompanying artwork. You’ll also be familiar with the notion that each of them has a stamina and a sanity rating.
Where Elder Sign begins to differ from its big brother is that it’s a much more focused setting. The whole game takes place at night inside a museum. This has enabled the designers to come up with a richly themed deck of locations from ancient exhibits, to dusty archives, to mad and evil curators. The museum theme gives the game some focus that it might otherwise lack, and if you take the time to read the flavour text on the cards and immerse yourself it’s also incredibly atmospheric. A friend of mine once confessed that one of his worst nightmares would be to be locked in a museum overnight. I didn’t really understand that fear until I played Elder Sign – though that could be to do with the zombies, vampires and even more nightmarish creatures that stalked me through the halls!
We’ve all come to expect quality components from Fantasy Flight these days, so it shouldn’t surprise you when I tell you that everything about Elder Sign is lush. From the full colour rulebook, to the cardstock counters to the absolutely incredible artwork on the cards, the game looks delicious. My camera shots aren’t the best but I hope they do it justice. This visual richness only serves to enhance the atmosphere as your investigators embark on their journey. I heartily recommend turning down the lights and whacking on a bit of Indigo Prophecy to enhance the mood!
But no matter how much theme and immersion you have, sooner or later you’re going to have to play the game. Sooner or later you’ll have to reach for those dice and roll them. What happens then? In a game with dice, it often comes down to how much choice you have, versus how important the randomness of the dice is. Incidentally, this is the major dividing line between ‘Eurogames’ and ‘Ameritrash’ (the latter being an insulting and unhelpful title but one that seems to have, unfortunately, stuck). The ultimate Eurogame has no randomness and is therefore won purely on the strength of the choices the player made throughout the game. The ultimate Ameritrash has lots of randomness and dice flying everywhere for maximum unpredictability.
Surely, then, Elder Sign is Ameritrash in the extreme, since it is a DICE game? Well, not so much. You see, the designers have left the canny player a great deal of tools with which to control and manipulate those tumbling cubes. Common and unique items add more dice to your pool, making success more likely. Spells allow you to capture favourable die results for use in future rolls, or directly influence the outcome of a roll. Even an investigator with none of those helpful tools can still focus to save results, or even call upon the aid of other investigators to make success more likely. In the end, it’s still very possible to fall victim to a bad roll or five but you can mitigate the risks through the choices you make. And there are choices aplenty. During your turn, you will decide which ‘adventure’ you will send you investigator on. You will then try to complete that adventure by resolving the various tasks on it. Essentially this is done by rolling the symbols on the dice that match up to the task. The catch being that once you’ve committed dice to a task, they are no longer available to roll for the rest of that adventure. You can retry a task as many times as you like, but each time you fail you lose a die out of your pool. If the adventure becomes impossible to complete you fail the whole thing and suffer the consequences, such as a loss of sanity, or perhaps doom tokens being placed on the Great Old One’s doom track. If you pass it, you take it as a trophy, get whatever rewards are associated with it, and a new adventure is drawn to replace it.
At the end of your turn the clock is advanced three hours. When it strikes 12, a mythos card is drawn and all manner of bad things can and do happen. As well as adventuring, your investigator might also spend their time at the museum lobby, either recuperating or spending trophies to purchase items, allies, or even the coveted Elder Signs. You have to be careful you don’t hang around too much, though, because the clock is always ticking.
There are two ways you can win the game. Firstly, you can screw up and allow the Great Old One to awake, then defeat it in combat. Secondly (and more commonly) you can collect enough Elder Signs to seal it away. As soon as you have the requisite number the game is over and the investigators win. I’ve never seen an ancient one awaken, so I don’t know how difficult fighting one would be. This is my biggest beef with the game though. It’s too easy. In the first game we played I didn’t really know what I was doing and had some horrendous rolls, so the first two investigators I played (Amanda Sharpe and then Mandy Thompson :( ) both got devoured. My wife who was playing with me did fine, and thanks to her we breezed through in the end. Since that first game we’ve barely broken a sweat and we’ve had a good few games now, including one against the mighty Cthulu himself. The game just doesn’t have that nail-biting sense of tension that the other Lovecraftian games do. Once in a while, the dice might be very unkind and you might find yourself in a temporary pickle, but it’s normally easy enough to get out of. That’s my primary complaint about Elder Sign. It just doesn’t have the sense of achievement that comes with Arkham Horror.
The other major criticism I’ve heard levelled at it is the rule ambiguities (of which there are one or two) and the lack of an official FAQ. These are irritants to be sure, but many of the rules questions are solved with a bit of thought or a judicious houseruling. Not ideal, I know, but FFG will come through with the FAQ eventually. In the meantime, let common sense prevail. Sadly, asking entitled boardgamers to use their common sense seems to be as good as asking Napoleon Bonaparte to exercise restraint if some of the Boardgame Geek threads are anything to go by…
Putting aside complaints about difficulty and the rules questions, there are a couple of major plus points that this has over Arkham Horror. The first is the price tag. Shop wisely and you’ll pay half as much for this game as you would for AH. Secondly, it takes much less time to set up, play and tear down. You can have it all done in an hour to an hour and a half. Time is precious and this is a major consideration for my wife and I when faced with the choice of what to play.
It’s difficult for me to recommend this game unreservedly simply because of the difficulty. However, that might prove an advantage if you’re looking for an in-road to Lovecraftian themed gaming. It would certainly be an ideal game for a beginner. Arkham Horror veterans might be left feeling a little cold, but this is by no means a bad game. I believe it’s sold well so expansions are likely just around the corner and I’m sure they’ll add to the difficulty. So to conclude, it’s great for beginners, and for people who just want that great co-op fix in a quick bite size fashion. It’s got great components and wonderful, wonderful artwork with a really immersive atmosphere. However, if you come in to it expecting Arkham Horror levels of challenge and satisfaction you’re going to be disappointed.
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