It’s time for another game day blog, and in celebration of 40 plays with the game, I’m once again talking about Elder Sign, and the second expansion for the game, Gates of Arkham! Released back in 2015, this was the expansion that blew the game right open, taking us out of the museum and into the wider town. As such, the gameplay, while broadly similar, does have some significant changes along the way. We have a massive stack of adventure cards, but they’re double-sided now, and colour-coded with red for hard and green for easy (relatively speaking), as well as a passive effect that could be something that is beneficial, or could be an ‘At Midnight’ or similar effect. When set up, there are three cards face up, and three face down, although the adventure card stack is kept face down as you’d expect. I quite liked this idea of having some inkling of what is coming up next, whether it’s a green or yellow (or red) adventure, and it can allow you to plan for where you might want the card to go (more shortly).
This ‘Streets of Arkham’ mode brings us the classic locations that we know and love from the Arkham Horror board game, so it definitely gets me right in the feels for that. The game mode uses its own mythos deck, because there is a greater emphasis on opening gates to Other Worlds in this one, as perhaps the name would suggest. These Other Worlds now enter play through gates, which can be brought into play via the mythos deck, or by the Ancient One’s doom track or monster defeats. When the Other World is drawn, a gate token is placed on it, and a corresponding token placed on one of the adventure cards. If you ever try to move to that adventure, instead you have to encounter the Other World, and if you succeed at the tests there, you close the gate and place a seal marker on the adventure card. It’s a bit convoluted, if I’m honest, but it does bring the gates mechanic from Arkham Horror into this game, which is nice to have I guess.
Also new are Events, another deck like the mythos deck which can be drawn if an adventure has the event icon. These cards are an almost equal mix of good and bad effects, and you never really know if you’re going to get the red dice for free, or if you cannot use unique items and spells for this adventure. In this expansion, we have the option to join the Silver Twilight Lodge, or the Sheldon Gang, which will grant bonuses when trying to complete some adventures (as well as allowing us to auto-complete some tasks without rolling the dice), but the mythos deck can penalise us for being members. This is where the face-down adventure stack comes into play – if you know you want to join the Sheldon Gang, and Hibbs’ Roadhouse is up next, you might go for a face-down adventure in the hope of completing it, so that it will be replaced by a face-down Hibbs’ Roadhouse that you can then use to join the gang. Finally, we have a new Skills deck, much like the common and unique items decks. These skills are quite useful, allowing you to draw two events and discard one, for example, or allow another investigator to recover sanity or stamina on your turn, etc. They are good to have, for sure, but I feel a tiny bit sad that they’re not backwards-compatible with the museum setting, too.
The adventures in Streets of Arkham mode are a definite step-up from the base game, I would say. There aren’t quite so many Terror or At Midnight effects going off, but in general the adventures will have flat restrictions on them, like “skip your movement phase” so you’re stuck there until you complete it. There is also a wider range of rewards and setbacks for completing or failing adventures – there is a lot of ‘don’t advance the clock’ effects, as well as recovering sanity and stamina for completing the adventure. They can also be quite difficult, because you can potentially be forced to discard assets for failing. Also, cursed/blessed is back, though in a somewhat subtle way. I do love the mechanic, but it does mean you need to have Unseen Forces for the dice, unless you particularly want to be re-rolling your green dice to stand in for them.
All in all, it is a solid expansion, and takes the game in a very different direction from the base game. Subsequent expansions have followed this model, from what I can tell, and provide a completely new adventure deck for the game. I’ve only played Omens of Ice up to this point, but it looks like all the other expansions also have a solid brick of adventure cards to work through.
So I’ve worked out that I’ve played Elder Sign 40 times now, since first picking it up in 2012. That isn’t really a lot of games for 11 years, I’ll grant you, but I suppose there was a lull in games generally from 2015. I often find that I have lots of peaks and troughs with this game, though. In many ways, I think it could actually be one of my absolute favourite games – it’s pretty self-contained, even accounting for the expansions, and I think I have had so much enjoyment from the base game alone, that I don’t always feel the need for any expansions to make it good. Of course, the expansions are always welcome, but it surprises me at times how I don’t automatically think to play with any of them.
Last week, I played with Gates of Arkham three times in a single day, mainly because I had the time and inclination to get an expansion out for the game, but it surprised me just how much I was enjoying the Streets of Arkham mode. I’ve now played with the expansion more in the last week than I have in the eight years since it was released! I think more than anything, I enjoyed getting back to the Arkham locations, and my first game (Finn Edwards and Norman Withers vs Atlach-Nacha) was such a washout that I had to shuffle up and re-set. I next went with my most recent duo in Arkham Horror LCG, Mandy Thompson and Tony Morgan (which was fun to dig into the next expansion, Omens of Ice, for his card), and that was a great game, very wide-ranging, with Mandy joining the Silver Twilight Lodge and Tony racking up quite the body count during the course of the game. Indeed, it was Tony’s soujourn into Ry’leh that gained three elder signs at a critical moment to ensure Mandy was able to pull out a win.
For the big 40, I had a bit of a composite game with investigators from Unseen Forces and an Ancient One from the base game, playing in Streets of Arkham mode, and it was really glorious. It helped, somewhat, that there weren’t a great deal of elder signs coming up as rewards, so as Hastur needed 13 to seal him away, the game went on quite long. But that just helped to really immerse myself in the proceedings. I was playing as Mark Harrigan and Diana Stanley, a classic combination that I enjoy ever since I had read the brief intro text in the Eldritch Horror rulebook. Having such a long game allowed me to experience more of what the game has to offer, although I was bizarrely rolling exceptionally well, to the point where it almost became boring – Diana was blessed early on, and re-joined the Order of the Silver Twilight. Mark was able to get so many items, and keep getting them, as well as a huge amount of clues, that it was never really a problem for him, either. I do like his passive ability to complete tasks in any order, regardless of an arrow – I think him and Amanda Sharpe from the base game (who can complete any number of tasks simultaneously) would be quite a potent combo.
There’s no doubt about it, the Streets of Arkham game mode is a lot more involved than the regular museum game. There is so much going on, it is a definite improvement on the base game in that sense. I suppose you could say that the base game will draw people in, but this expansion is the one that makes Elder Sign a real board game. Well, it’s all cards and dice, but you know what I mean. A lot of people online have said that it’s the only way they would now play the game, and I can see why they would say that. It definitely feels like the Arkham experience, and I think I want to try and mix-and-match more stuff from across the base game, Unseen Forces, and this one for some hefty games going forward!