A to Z Gaming: Elder Sign

We tried to save the world from being devoured by an Ancient One in Elder Sign, the next game in our A to Z game-shelf play-through.

Basic Info: Elder Sign
Players: 1-8
Time: 90 Minutes
Designer: Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson
Artist: Dallas Mehlhoff
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

 

 

In Elder Sign, players take on the roles of investigators racing through a museum’s collection of exotic and supernatural curios in an effort to find Elder Signs which will prevent the walls between our world and ancient evils from crumbling. It is a cooperative dice game where players work together to search rooms of the museum, or the Alaskan wilds in Omens of Ice expansion, the sea in Omens of the Deep and Egypt in Omens of the Pharaoh expansion.

Players first choose the Ancient One who is threatening the world – this sets the difficulty of the game. This Ancient One will have a “doom track” – which is essentially a timer on the game – to which players add tokens as they fail missions or in response to Mythos cards drawn each midnight. If the track fills up, the ancient one awakens and there will be a final showdown. To win, players must earn the number of Elder Signs indicated on the chosen ancient one.

Each player chooses a character – we usually deal two or three character cards to each player and then talk about which ones will be the best combination – and takes that character’s starting items, which could be Common Items, Unique Items, Spells, Allies, Clues, or Skills. (Some of these come into play only once you’ve added the Unseen Forces or other expansions.) And they take the appropriate number of stamina and sanity tokens.

The “museum” is a tableau of six room cards, each with tasks for the investigators to complete – combinations of dice rolls. The room cards also identify rewards for completing all of the tasks, which can include drawing new items, gaining clues, regaining sanity or stamina, or becoming blessed. Of course, there are also penalties for failing including gaining doom tokens, adding monsters to the museum, losing sanity or stamina, and becoming cursed.

Players set the clock to midnight, draw and resolve a Mythos card, and then start investigating the museum.

On each player’s turn, they first, optionally, move to a new room (or to the lobby). If they are on a museum or Other World card, they next attempt to fulfill the tasks by rolling the dice. They start with six green dice – unless some are locked by another Museum card, Spell, or Mythos card – and can add a red and/or yellow die if they have cards or abilities that let them do so. With each roll of the dice, the player must complete one of the tasks using dice with the correct symbols. If they are unable to complete a task, they discard a die and roll again. There are also ways to mitigate terrible die rolls – Clues allow you to roll any number of dice again, Spells allow you to lock in a die until someone uses it, and other special abilities can allow you to turn a die to a specific result.

If the player succeeds in all tasks on a card, they take the rewards and the room card (which has trophies that can buy items in the Lobby). All investigators on that card return to the Lobby. If they fail, they pay the penalties on the card and remain in that room. The clock is advanced by three hours and play moves around the table. Whenever the clock strikes 12, a new Mythos card is drawn and resolved.

Play proceeds until either the doom track on the Ancient One is filled – which triggers a final battle with the investigators – or until investigators have gained the required number of Elder Signs to keep the Ancient One at bay and save the world.

We picked up this game shortly after seeing it played on Tabletop. This game scratched the dice-rolling itch while allowing some strategy and mitigation of the luck factor. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Cthulhu mythos, but I do like the dark themes and the art really brings that home.

Even though the game often feels tight, we’ve won far more often than we’ve lost. In fact, we didn’t lose a single game until we played an Ancient One that eliminates rooms when you fail without replacing them, and triggers a final showdown when the museum is empty. We have also lost every single game of Omens of the Deep we’ve played. I like coops that feel like you need to work to win – I don’t want it to be so easy that you breeze through the game, and I don’t want it to feel absolutely impossible.

The special powers of the different investigators help inform which tasks you should move toward, and by choosing a balanced team, you can cover many of the different rooms that will come out. Combining those abilities with Items is key to succeeding at the various tasks. I’ve also learned not to hoard too many items – use them when you’ve got them, or you’ll start losing tasks and be unable to earn more Items.

I’ve particularly enjoyed many of the expansions that have come in the past few years. They replace the Museum with other locations and often there are additional things to pay attention to besides earning Elder Signs. For example, in the Omens of Ice expansion, you are on embarking on an expedition in the Alaskan wilderness. However, first you need to spend time at one location to build up a cache of expedition supplies, which will be necessary for your survival and become scarce in later locations. There is a balance between how long to stay in that location and when to move on. The Doom Track continues to fill up, but there are limited Elder Signs in that first location.

All in all, the base game is fun by itself, but it’s made even better with the expansions.

How is it as a 2-player game?  I’ve found that this plays well at nearly all player counts, though I prefer it at 4 or fewer. As a 2-player game it plays well, though you need to remember that some of the character abilities only trigger once per day, which means they’ll only work every-other turn. With 2 players you don’t have as many different abilities in play, but you get more turns and much less down-time.

How about the art and component quality?  I really like the art – each card has unique art that evokes the old film noire style. However, I find that the cards end up being just too busy. There is flavor text, which we rarely read because it’s too small and stylized. The different investigator chits get lost in the art, making it hard to tell where everyone’s investigator is. That said, the iconography at the bottoms for the rewards and penalties is clear, as are the tasks.

The custom dice are nice, with different symbols for each die result, and they’ve got a nice feel when you chuck them. And the cards are decent quality, as are the various chits for Sanity, Stamina, Doom, Clues, Elder Signs, etc.

Will this stay in my collection?  Absolutely. I’ve liked this game from the beginning, and it gets even better with every expansion.

 

 

 

One Reply to “A to Z Gaming: Elder Sign”

  1. I also really love Elder Sign. There are more complicated games in the same family, Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness. I’ve watched playthroughs of these and have no urge to get them because they seem to be more complicated but not actually more fun. Elder Sign just hits the sweet spot of rule complexity vs. speed, and has a good sense of tension without seeming impossible.

    The dice are fun, and the game mechanics let you decide quickly on a course of action — is this room worth adding a yellow, a red, or a yellow and red? The blessed and cursed dice add an advantage or handicap, and it’s interesting to watch the other players make their rolls and decide what to do.

    I’m also annoyed by the unreadable flavour text on the room cards; I like reading text that gives the effect of a randomly generated story, but the letters are so tiny and the font so hard to read that I rarely bother. Another irritation is that many of the tokens are so small, especially the tiny little doom tokens and clue tokens.

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