Review: Elder Sign

Designers: Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Ages: 13+
Time: ~90 mins
Players: 1-8  (best with 5 or less)
Reviewed by:  Matt J. Carlson

When I explain Elder Sign to the local high school gaming group I describe it as a bit like Yahtzee, only it is cooperative, you’re trying to defeat other worldly monsters, and need to collect Elder Sign tokens to prevent an ancient evil from awakening.  The good news is that the ancient evil might not wake up, you (the players) might just die or go insane before that happens.  That’s usually enough to pique their interest and this slimmed-down thematic delve into the world of Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight has seen plenty of play time at the club in the past few weeks.

I’ve long been a fan of the cooperative, exploration themed Arkham Horror but I rarely play the game since it takes a long time to set up and play.  I rarely have that big a chunk of time to spend, and if I do I would prefer to play two or more shorter games instead.  In Elder Sign, the designers have managed to capture much of the suspense and Cthulu theme of Arkham Horror and compress it down into a much more manageable amount of time.

To start the game, players choose a character (from the same 16 available in Arkham Horror – abbreviated AH from now on…), and select an Ancient One to challenge.  Each Ancient One (there are 8 in the game) requires a different number of Elder Sign tokens to be collected and has a special ability that affects the game in some way.  Players need to collect the required number of Elder Signs before the Ancient One’s Doom Track is filled with Doom Tokens.  (Doom Tokens appear roughly every 4 turns or so.)  Collect enough Elder Signs and the players win the game.  However, if the Doom Track fills the Ancient One awakens, players drop everything, and go into a head to head battle with the Ancient One.  Such battles are typically costly and rarely go well for the players.

The heart of the game revolves around six location cards that change throughout the game.  Each card will have a series of tasks that must be accomplished (typically by rolling dice).  Succeed at all the tasks, and a player reaps the rewards listed on the card (including new items, spells, clue tokens, and Elder Signs).  Fail to complete all the tasks on a turn and a player must suffer the consequences on the card (typically losing health, sanity, and/or gaining doom tokens.)  A character that loses all their health or sanity is removed from the game, and that player may restart with an entirely new (unused) character and continue on at the start of their next turn.  Run out of new characters (and bump off all the currently playing ones) and you also lose the game.  Do you sense a theme here?

As mentioned, players attempt to complete investigations of locations by rolling dice.  There are 6 green dice in the game that form the basis of players’ investigations.  Each die has three sides showing investigation symbols (they look like a magnifying glass) along with numbers 1, 2 or 3.  The other sides include a skull, a scroll, and a terror symbol (looks like a little pile of tentacles).  A location card will have several rows of icons representing tasks that must be completed by rolling dice.  A player must roll the dice and have the required symbols appear on a single roll to complete a task.  Thus, if a line had a 4 investigation symbol, a skull, and a scroll a player would need to roll a skull, a scroll, and a combined value of at least 4 investigation symbols to clear that particular task line.  After rolling, a player would set aside all the dice used to complete that task and then re-roll the remaining dice to try to complete another task on the card.  Each time a player rolls and fails to complete a complete task line, one die is removed from the dice pool and the remaining dice are rolled again.  When it is clear a player can no longer successfully clear any remaining tasks on a location, they must suffer the penalties for that location and then end their turn.  (Removed and set aside dice are then returned to the general pool.)  Complete all the tasks at a location and a player gains any listed benefits (which are good overall but can also contain bad things such as new monsters, etc…) and the player is given the completed location card as a trophy (worth 1 to 3 trophy points, depending on its difficulty).  Finally, a new location card is drawn to replace the completed one so there are always six locations available.

To add to the “fun”, monsters occasionally enter play.  They can appear when certain spots are covered by a Doom Token on the Doom Track or can be part of a penalty (even a reward!) on a location card.  When a monster appears, it is added to any location card that has a monster spot – indicated by an area surrounded by white.  Monsters essentially add an additional line of tasks in order to complete a location.  A character may defeat one or more monsters, but still fail at a location.  They then claim any defeated monsters as trophies, but also suffer the consequences of failing that location.  At times, the monsters can be thick enough for a character to go in just to clear a few out, knowing full well they won’t succeed in the location.  During monster placement, if there are no empty monster spots available monsters are placed at the bottom of any location.  This can be important, as some locations require their tasks to be completed in order of top to bottom.  So adding monsters at the bottom of those locations would be an unwise move.

With all the “fun” of monsters and location tasks to complete, the players would have a hard time completing any but the easiest locations.   Thankfully the game provides investigators some additional resources to help in completing tasks.  Many investigators start with (and can gain for successes) common or rare item cards.  Common item cards typically grant players the use of an extra yellow die for one turn while rare cards often grant the use of an extra red die.  In addition to increasing the number of dice available, the yellow die is intrinsically better than a green one since the terror symbol is replaced by a 4 investigation icon (while players may sometimes want to roll a terror symbol, some locations may cause additional penalties any time a terror is rolled when a task is failed.).  The red die is like the yellow die, but the 1 investigation icon is replaced with a wild card symbol.  Other tools that can be used include Allys that grant special powers, or spell cards that help players store up dice rolls to be used later.  Players can even store a single die on their own card (called focusing) but only once per turn and even then only after they fail a roll (and thus also need to lose a die from their pool.)  Finally, investigators may also use a clue token to reroll any number of dice in the active pool.

With these additional tools available, investigators can take on harder challenges but need to be wary of a “rich get richer, poor get poorer” dilemma that can occur.  Using up resources can help characters complete harder locations and acquire still more resources, but a few bad rolls of the dice can cause a failure while simultaneously using up all of one’s resources.  If a player has no extra toys to help with investigations it can be a difficult job to complete a location – especially if there are no “easier” ones in play.  Heaven help you if you encounter a location or monster that “locks” one of your dice (green, yellow, or red).  Players must then complete tasks and fight monsters without using that die until they manage to clear it from the board and retrieve it.

If a character has gained some trophy points (from completed locations or defeated monsters), they can take a turn and spend them at the central entrance location that is always available.  In practice, I have mostly seen a few points spent to regain sanity or health (or both), or in large lots of points to purchase an extra Elder Sign or two to end the game.  If a player is truly at a loss for actions they can even “search for treasure” at the entrance tile and have a roughly even chance of finding something useful or taking a bit of damage.

Final Thoughts:
Obviously, the greatest feature of Elder Sign is its ability to provide an Arkham Horror style cooperative experience in a much shorter (and less complex) timeframe.  Yes, there is a fair bit of narrative lost with the removal of location cards, etc.. but this is compensated by the more compact time frame.  Whether the game scratches that “Arkham Horror” itch will depend on your gaming group.  If the players are willing to put forth a bit of effort to imagine and flesh out the actions and events occurring in the game, Elder Sign can provide a nice moody challenge.  If your players tend toward the dry, analytical types, the game can be entertaining but it will lose a bit of its luster.

The box declares the game plays with 1 to 8 players, but this is an extremely optimistic number.  There is almost nothing for players to do between turns so any number of players beyond 4 or 5 will suffer significant downtime.  I haven’t played with more than 4 players but with just 4 the game manages to move along at an acceptable clip.  While there are mechanisms that attempt to keep the game balanced for any number of players (for example, there are event cards that come into play every 4 player turns rather than every full round of play) the game does seem to be slightly easier with larger number of players.  Taking on the game with single character can be a challenge (although the penalties for dying are not very harsh and thus a solo player could simply burn through several characters in a single game…).   I suspect some of this advantage for more players comes from having more characters over which to spread damage along with the special powers each character possesses.  (Thus, more characters give you more special powers and items to use.)

There has been discussion on the Internet about the game’s difficulty.  While I will freely admit this is no Ghost Stories, where new players are punished even on the simplest difficulty setting, I think the game provides a fairly reasonable challenge for casual and/or new players.  I suspect one of the culprits at work are the rather incomplete rules.  The rules are nice and brief, but any game that contains so many special exceptions and situations needs to have plenty of examples to help players understand what is going on.  The rules give a decent overview of how to play the game, but many important details can get lost in just a casual read-through of the rules.  In a few cases, it seemed to assume players had previously played Arkham Horror and would then be able to extrapolate how to proceed in Elder Sign.   I know I misinterpreted rules (a new one each time) in my first three games, and gamers in the local high school club did several similar mistakes as well.  In each case, misinterpreted rules were of slight (or greater) benefit to the players, not making the game harder.  I do not have enough plays under my belt but I also think the randomness of the game setup (locations, characters, Ancient One, etc…) can make for easier or harder games.  My first game I lost (even with some favorable rules) due to sub-par play combined with an overwhelming number of monsters appearing.  My most recent game ended with us all winning and losing at the same time (we finished a location which granted our last Elder Sign, but also granted a Doom Token – filling the Doom Track and causing an immediate end of the game).  If that’s not a nail-biter ending, I don’t know what is.  (Of course, it would have been nice for the rules to tell us whether we get to count that as a win, or a loss.)

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Nate Beeler (1 play): Elder Signs, as taught to me to (which I have to assume is the way the rules are printed) seems way too easy.  I wanted a brutal edge-of-your-seat style experience like Ghost Stories always seems to provide.  Instead, my friends and I waltzed through the museum with barely a scratch.  One of us did go insane eventually, but the penalties for that were minimal, and it didn’t slow down our easy march to victory.  And from my teaching friends’ experiences, this is the commonly the way it goes.  I have heard from others there are “fixes” already being put out (lose the major penalty every time you fail a single roll, for instance).  There were also a lot of questions about exactly how things happen.  Many times we had to guess at what to do.  I’ve heard a FAQ longer than Ythogtha’s tentacle beard is being compiled.  These are good things, no doubt, but I’d be a lot happier with the game if they had been done that work before the game was published.  Having said all that, the game isn’t terrible.  I kind of like the main mechanism (I liked it in Risk: Express, too).  The Lovecraft theme is almost always a winner, and the art is wonderful, as usual.  All told, I wouldn’t buy the game, but if someone suggested we play it I wouldn’t eat their face off in their sleep, either.

Ted Cheatham (2 plays):  Yes, it is a dice set collecting game.  The ideas to store dice, random events, and monsters should be a big plus.  All this said, please understand where I am coming from when I say I really like thematic games but, I never pay attention to the details.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone has said, “wow, did you see the artwork on this card?” for me to say, “hey, would you look at that.  I never noticed”.  With those comments in mind, for my two plays of the game, the theme was totally not important.  Roll this to solve a puzzle was all that went through my mind.  I don’t even think I read any text on the cards except for the random events.  Let me not put you off by this.  From my opening comment, there are some different ideas here that make this a unique dice game, in my opinion.  And, it does a nice job with the mechanisms it puts forth.  If you like horror and want a fun dice game, I think you would be very happy with this execution.

Brian Leet (1 play): I’m prone to liking these sorts of set collection with re-rolls dice games and this one throws in just enough twists to keep me interested. I have only played from verbal explanation, so we didn’t confront the issue of rules clarity. We just made our assumptions and moved on. In terms of challenge the game presents some interest, but didn’t seem terribly difficult. We only had one moment where a player came close to losing a character. That said, I like the theme and ideas and we had a good time, so it left a favorable first impression.

Jonathan Franklin (2 plays): This is a very good thematic weeknight game.  It lasts long enough to not be filler, but is not that taxing either.  I have not played enough to weigh in on the minutia of the too easy/too hard debate, but found that it was less thematic than I had hoped.  I sort of wish there were more of a spatial element to it and that the die sides had more story to them.  What does it mean to get mask, scroll, scroll?  What happened?  It is a bit hard to spin a story of what is happening, other than I rolled the dice and succeeded or failed.  That said, I enjoyed it and look forward to more plays.  It is to Ameritrash as Ra: the Dice Game is to Euros.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!…
I like it…  Matt Carlson, Stephanie Kelleher, Ted Cheatham, Brian Leet, Jonathan Franklin
Neutral… Nate Beeler, Mary Prasad
Not for me…

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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5 Responses to Review: Elder Sign

  1. Melissa says:

    I’ve got to say, I am loving having my guts handed to me by this game on the iPad. Don’t know about the physical game, although I hear that the difficulty has been ramped up for the various apps, but I hope to soon as it has stormed up my wishlist. I’ve not yet managed a win but will keep at it.

  2. Dan says:

    Just bought it for iPhone, playing single player, it’s a lot tougher than the board game sounds as described.
    Took me 4 runs at it to win a game, and I’m pretty good at these sort of games (though I’ve never played any of the board games mentioned)
    I do wish the iPhone version had been modified a little to turn it into more of an RPG type feel, where you continue on through games, possibly unlocking characters, and getting more powerful characters (and challenges, to balance) as it went along, with some sort of solid storyline, so I can’t really recommend it as the iPhone app as is, unless you love the board game, or have friends you want to play with (it does have a multiplayer mode, but I’ll probably never use it)

    • flynn says:

      I found the digital version to be easier in some ways. Mostly because you always have 4 investigators to use (I use 2 when playing the board game). But also it pretty much tells you what you can and can’t do on each turn. For example, if you have a special ability to change a terror to a lore, the game will flash that ability for you in the left lower corner of the screen. In the real game, paying attention to little things like that does add a bit of challenge (at least while you are learning the game). In the regular game I can’t tell you how many adventures I failed for simply not paying attention to items or abilities I had lol.

    • flynn says:

      *update* Just figured out you can play with less than 4 players on the iphone/pad. So disregard a portion of my comment :P

  3. flynn says:

    Just a question for people who say this game is too easy. I am wondering which Ancient One they are fighting? and how many investigators they are using? I can say playing solo using 2 investigators, the game seems to have a perfect challenge for me (aside from the easier Ancient ones). From what I can tell, playing with many investigators doesn’t scale that well as you have way too many special abilities to tackle a lot more varying adventure types using minimal strategy. As a solo or 2 player game though, the difficulty/strategy needed seems perfect to me. Which is a a shame because I would really like to play this with at least 4 players and still have a challenge. (8 plays)

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