Fantasy Flight Games
1 to 8
- Good pace compared to previous Cthulhu games from Fantasy Flight Games.
- Relatively simple mechanics make picking up this game straighforward
- A bad random set-up can leave players with an uphill battle from the start
- Some of the admin tasks feel a bit tacked on, meaning they often get missed
Designer – Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson
Number of Players – 1-8
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” – In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
HP Lovecraft is known as a master of the mysterious dark, the enigmatic horror that lives in the space between worlds. With such a rich backdrop to call upon, it’s no wonder publishers Fantasy Flight games have based several games on the iconic franchise, including Mansions of Madness, Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror. These games however tend to be a bit heavier, which whilst adding to the desperation and epic-ness of the game does mean it takes a while to get to the end game. Hence my personal choice, Elder Sign!
Elder Sign is set in a museum in 1926. Strange things are happening, with monsters and cultists trying to unleash an Ancient One into our world. It’s up to the players to find elder signs (you don’t say) to hopefully seal away the evil entity.
At the start of the game, players take an investigator card each, and choose an Ancient One to battle. Each investigator has a special ability and a set amount of health and sanity, which varies from one to the next. Ancient Ones also have abilities based on whether they are ‘Asleep’ or ‘Awoken’ (P.S. Awoken gods are bad news), along with a track called the Doom Track. During the game, certain events such as failing a challenge will cause the Doom Track to fill up; if the Track becomes full, the Ancient One will awaken and attack the investigators, usually with fatal results! With 16 different investigators to choose from, plus 8 different Ancient Ones, no two games need to be the same. However, there is definitely a difference in power level between some of the investigators, so experienced players will tend to play the same ones, thus mitigating the ‘variety’ built in to Elder Sign.
The game is based on several decks of cards, representing rooms in the museum, magic spells, common items and unique items. During their turn, a player can choose a room to move to and attempt to complete the challenges printed on the room card (more on how this is done below). If the player is successful, they’ll receive rewards based on the difficulty of the challenges, including the aforementioned items, spells, clue tokens (spent to give rerolls) and even elder signs themselves. But if you fail, the price is going to be high, with players losing health, sanity and even inadvertently releasing a new monster into the museum!
The rooms are random and come from a large stack, so you won’t see every one each time you play. Unfortunately, the set-up of six random rooms can leave the players with challenges that require a heavy dose of luck to complete. The problem can be self-perpetuating: players can’t complete the rooms without extra items or spells, which they can’t get unless they complete the rooms. Players do have the option of ‘going to the entrance’ and trying their hand at getting a new item, but again it comes down to a dice roll meaning luck plays a role in every facet. Frustration can set in if every turn is spent facing the same challenges.
To complete the challenges, players use the custom dice. Each challenge will have a list of symbols which they must roll on the dice, setting them into their position on the card as they spot the right symbols. If the player doesn’t spot the right ones, they have the chance to roll the dice again, but they have to roll with one fewer. Players continue in this fashion until either they complete the room, or they run out of dice, at which point they fail. This system creates a lot of tension, as not everything is under the player’s control. It does take a bit of getting used to though, as players have to remember when they can lock in dice, or when they have to discard one. With practice it becomes intuitive but don’t expect to get the hang of it straight away.
So how does this game not devolve into a roll-a-thon of pure luck? Remember those items and spells I mentioned? Well, some of these will add extra dice to your pool, giving you more chances to spot the symbols you need. Other items and spells can be used to lock other dice you spot in place, allowing you to use them on later rolls (normally, players can only complete one challenge at a time). On top of this, players can assist each other by locking dice as well so long as they’re in the same room, or using their investigators’ abilities to give rerolls; this gives the game a more communal feel, with players actively contributing outside of their own turn, keeping them more engaged. That said, more is sometimes less so I’d recommend having less than the maximum of 8 players, and try to not allow the more experienced players to take control.
To ramp up the tension further, at the end of each player’s turn a clock dial is given a quarter turn. At each stroke of midnight (basically every fourth player turn), a Mythos event card is revealed. These generally cause horrible things to happen to the investigators, like rooms suddenly becoming harder to complete, or adding tokens to the Ancient One’s Doom Track. This adds a nice touch to proceedings, as with each card flip players hold their breath waiting for some new horror to be visited upon them. On the flipside it adds another layer of admin to a game that tries to be Arkham Horror-lite. Along with the common co-op game problem of experienced players taking over and talking through every player’s decisions, any extra admin can sometimes be forgotten, meaning lengthy back tracks and changes in circumstance as players suddenly find the board has filled with monsters or rooms with ‘At midnight’ effects trigger.
The artwork has a healthy pedigree from the previous Call of Cthulhu games by Fantasy Flight, and Elder Sign doesn’t disappoint. The artwork is beautifully rendered, but unfortunately it gets kinda lost on the room cards, being squeezed into the top quarter. Whilst the rest of the card is laid out sympathetically and maintains the low key colouration of the rest of the artwork, I would have preferred a bit more of the picture itself. Card stock and the tokens are built to last, with my own copy showing no wear after many play sessions.
In summary, Elder Sign is a game with a decent variety and a clever set of mechanics bedded in a rich and stygian theme. Some niggles do exist in the forms of incongruous admin tasks and the risk of too high a difficulty at the start leading to successive poor turns. This is rare however, and the game moves a good pace if all players work together (whatever you do, DON’T LET SOMEONE TAKE THE LEAD, you’ll lose a lot of the enjoyment of making your own calls). Wrapped in a darkly fascinating box, Elder Sign is my choice for Lovecraftian gaming goodness!
Thoughts? Opinions? Lovecraft love affair? We’d love to hear from you!
Images courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games and Boardgamegeek. For a playthrough of the game with the legendary Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day, chck out this video at Tabletop!