Welcome to another game day blog here on spalanz.com! As Halloween approaches, I thought I’d get in the spirit of things with a feature on the first expansion to that classic of dice/card games, Elder Sign – it’s time for Unseen Forces!
This expansion was first released in 2013, and was one of the first new games that I bought following moving into my new flat. As a result, I have certain fond memories of this game that perhaps override any other feelings I might have towards it. But anyways! It was an eagerly-awaited expansion to a game that had been out for two years already, and a lot of people had begun to feel was stale and easy. Perhaps as a result of this, the expansion features a lot of things that seem specifically engineered to make it harder than the base game, though also a lot of the new stuff is super thematic that it still manages to appeal to me. Let’s take a look!
In addition to new heroes and new ancient ones, we have a plethora of new location cards, and these are one of the ways the game tries to make things harder. The tests are tougher, there are more locations where monsters appear, or that have at midnight effects and so forth, so that generally you have a much harder time in the museum this time around.
There are very few actual new mechanics in the expansion – in fact, if you’re going to remember this expansion for anything, it’ll be just one: cursed/blessed. This is something that is very present in Arkham Horror of course, but hadn’t been explored in the base game for Elder Sign. If you’re an Arkham Horror fan (or if you’ve read my blog on that game), you’ll know that cursed investigators only achieve a success on the roll of a 6, while blessed investigators achieve success on a 4, 5 or 6. So how to implement that mechanic in a game with no basic six-sided dice? Well, the method is actually quite effective.
We have a black die for cursed, and a white die for blessed, and they have exactly the same sides as the normal green dice from the base game. However, while the white die is just a generic bonus that gives you a greater chance of achieving your tasks, the black one removes any result it matches from your pool, which can sometimes be completely innocuous, or other times completely treacherous and, well, cursed! It’s a really fun way to implement an old favourite mechanic in a new game, and I’m really glad they kept it in the second expansion, Gates of Arkham!
In the spirit of making things harder, we also have two small tweaks to the Mythos deck. First is the “mythos insight” mechanic (shown above in the top rank of cards), which allows the investigators to choose what happens when the card is revealed. You must choose something that can actually happen, so in the above example you can’t choose to discard an Other World card if none are in play. This does add to the tension somewhat, as the lower option is usually much, much worse than the upper portion. Secondly there is a small number of “master mythos” cards that can be shuffled into the deck. These have a red-tinged border, and generally provide a tougher experience for players.
What other fun times do we have in here? Oh yes…
The entrance card is now four separate cards for each section – because certain card effects can close these sections, either temporarily or permanently! While this is a fairly big change of course, the bigger change is that you can no longer purchase elder signs at the souvenir shop, which in many gamers’ minds – mine, included – is a very sensible decision. Anyone who has seen the Tabletop episode will know that this potentially game-changing mechanic is actually quite un-thematic. I mean, elder signs are supposed to be powerful and rare artifacts: would they really be on offer among the other novelty keyrings and paperweights? Hm. Good move there, I feel.
It’s not all bad, of course, as we see there have been some interesting changes made to the common items, unique items and spells. Rather than merely providing bonus dice, or ways to lock down favourable rolls, we have more cards that do actual stuff – of course, not as many as Gates of Arkham provided, but certainly enough! This has definitely taken the expansion line in the right direction.
If you’ve been reading this overview thinking “this is just more of the same”, then you’re absolutely right. Like many board game expansions, this one provides a slew of more components to add to existing decks, with very few actual gameplay tweaks. A lot of game lines start off this way, with future expansions providing the really game-changing stuff, and of course Elder Sign is no different there. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Yes, it comes across as possibly one of the most generic expansions of any board game ever, but as I have discussed a lot in previous blogs, there is actually a lot to be said for these types of expansions. While Arkham Horror fans often delight in the maddening complexity of using multiple expansions with the base game to create an enormous gameplay experience, and I’m certainly one such fan, sometimes a game is enjoyable enough that having just more of the same is more than enough. This is particularly true of any game with an exploration element to it – games like A Touch of Evil, Runebound, and yes, Elder Sign. Of course, the nature of the base mechanics of Elder Sign means that continued expansion in this manner is perhaps unwise, and Gates of Arkham was without a doubt exactly what the game needed to freshen it up, but I feel that the totally game-changing nature of that expansion has left Unseen Forces somewhat overshadowed now.
If you’re new to the game, I can definitely recommend this expansion over Gates of Arkham for providing new gameplay options without the weight of a massively-changed system. Aside from the Dunwich Horror throwbacks, it has a lot of small tweaks that enhance the experience from the base game while remaining playable right out of the box. Don’t be tempted by the allure of the new, as this one still has a lot to offer!