Given that it’s Halloween week, I want to do another game blog, and what could be better than to take a look at one of the greats! At least, one of my all-time favourites: Elder Sign!
Another addition to the Cthulhu line-up of games from Fantasy Flight, Elder Sign is a dice game set in the shared universe, where you play an investigator on the trail of the weird goings on in the museum in Arkham.
The investigators are looking to stop the emergence of the Ancient One by searching the museum for enough Elder Signs to seal him up forever. The investigators perform their search through the museum’s halls, which are represented by the adventure cards…
These cards have a series of tasks on them that the investigators accomplish by throwing dice, which need to match to the symbols to complete. You can only complete one row of tasks at a time, though you can complete them in any order (unless, as shown on the Lights Out card above, there’s an arrow determining the direction you must complete them). When you get them all on your turn, you’ve completed the adventure and take the card as a trophy, as well as the rewards shown in the bottom-right corner.
If you don’t match any of the symbols, one die is removed and you try again until you can’t feasibly complete the challenge, whereupon the failure effects on the bottom-left take effect. In addition to Elder Signs, you can gain stuff to help you along the way – common and unique items, spells, and clue tokens. The items most often provide you with ways to get the yellow and red dice into your dice pool, while the spells allow you to lock dice, so that you can keep results for future tasks.
The adventure cards can also lock dice, however, making it that much more difficult to complete the tasks…
Some tasks are highlighted in white (or, as in the case on We Need to Find Help above, an area will be highlighted) – this denotes a space where a monster can appear. Monsters generally make the adventure more difficult, by replacing comparatively easy tasks with much more difficult – or costly – ones. You generally want to clear these out as soon as you can, though monsters are often also worth points as trophies, so it is something of a balance…
The game features the area mechanic of the Mythos deck, which is a timer of sorts…
A new Mythos card is revealed each time the clock reaches midnight, where the top portion of the card takes place immediately, while the bottom portion functions as something of an area effect, such as locking a die as mentioned earlier.
Among the rewards are also Other Worlds, which function in a similar manner to the adventure cards, but the tasks are a little more difficult, with the rewards a little better.
The whole point of the game, as I said, is to collect enough Elder Sign tokens to seal the Ancient One away forever. Certain effects – particularly Mythos cards and adventure failures – add tokens to the Ancient One’s doom track and, should that track fill up, the Ancient One awakens, triggering the final battle.
Should it come to this, the Ancient One functions a little like an adventure card in that it has a single task that the investigators must complete – if they do, a doom token is removed, and if the doom track is empty, the final battle is a success! If not, then the Ancient One will attack, as shown on the card.
Unlike its cousin Arkham Horror, you generally don’t want to confront an Ancient One in this game, as they can be particularly tough. One of the mechanics of the game allows an investigator to ‘focus’ a die following a failed task, where he chooses one from the pool to keep for later use: you can’t do this in the final battle. Elder Sign is a co-operative game, and if you fail a task, another investigator can come and assist you: you can’t do this in the final battle, either. (Personally, I feel this is a bit of a silly rule – thematically speaking, of course you’d all be working together to defeat the Ancient One!) Sure, it’s possibly to defeat the Ancient One, but it’s not advisable, and the main point of this game is to prevent the awakening.
I find this game just so immensely satisfying to play. It scratches my Arkham itch when I can’t face an hour’s set-up time, and I have had a lot of tense and exciting games! A lot of people will tell you the game is easy, but a lot of that depends on the luck of the card draw: if you get adventure cards that don’t give you Elder Signs, but a load of Mythos cards that add doom tokens, then it can pretty quickly become curtains for mankind.
Of course, there is the contentious issue of the Gift Shop. The game comes with a “museum front end” card that shows the other actions you can take on your turn, such as healing, or buying items. Each adventure card, when completed, becomes a trophy with a value – earlier, the Plateau of Leng card, for example, is worth 2 points. For 10 points, you can buy an Elder Sign at the gift shop (that’s some kind of gift shop), meaning you can quite easily go about the game by buying your way through. The Unseen Forces expansion fixes this, but I personally don’t have a problem with house-ruling that Elder Signs must be found and not bought when I’m playing the base game.
This brings me onto the tangent of rules and house rules, though. Arkham Horror is, for me, famous in this respect. The game’s designer Richard Launius (who is also responsible for Elder Sign) has publicly released a set of his personal house rules for his game, a document whose introduction really resonates with me. If you haven’t clicked the link, Launius explains that Arkham Horror is all about the adventure, and not winning and losing, but it’s also about fun. He likens the game to a RPG, where the rules will usually have an element of flux to them for the sake of telling a good story. As a GM myself, I suppose this way of looking at something comes very naturally to me – I’m not going to play a game that constantly whups me, as it won’t be fun.
So why not fudge the rolls? I’m not talking about out-and-out cheating, and as much as it’s not fun to play a game you always lose, it’s also not fun to play a game you know you’ll be winning. Instead, if something happens that is completely unexpected and you’ve almost ruined your game night, then just step back a bit and try again – or better yet, bring out your deus ex machina and let your characters live to tell the tale. What I’m trying to say is, I’m not above suppressing rules here and there if it means a more enjoyable experience for everyone. This doesn’t mean the same thing as making sure everyone wins, though.
Drawing the conversation back to Elder Sign specifically, I don’t think the ability to buy Elder Signs makes this game “too easy”, that the rule is “a flaw”, or anything similar. Some people might find it a real blessing, but if you feel the game is “broken” because of it – leave it out! It’s really very simple.
Anyway, I’ll dismount the soapbox now.
I really enjoy this game, as I say, and it’s something that I look forward to when I haven’t managed to play it in a while. It’s very strongly tied into the mythos of Arkham Horror, which will you’ll probably know by now is one of my favourites! If you still need convincing just how fun this game can be, why not watch Wil Wheaton and co playing the game?
Anyway, I hope you’re all having an excellent week, and come back soon for more!