Strange things are happening at the museum. Signs and fearsome portents betray the stirring of some ancient evil. Horrific creatures have been spotted roaming where they should not be. Though many are blind to the coming darkness, a few brave and intelligent souls have spotted the clues and decided to study the madness, search for its cause, and prevent the mighty and destructive Ancient Ones from breaking back into our world to wipe out all of humanity.
In Elder Sign, you will take on the role of one of these adventurers, and attempt to work with your companions to find out what is happening and seal the coming portal to have any hope of putting an end to this legendary evil.
How It Plays
The goal of Elder Sign is similar to it’s older brother, Arkham Horror (set in the same universe, based on the Cthulhu mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft) – that is, seal off the dimensional rifts that will lead to the awakening of monstrous and alien creatures known as “Ancient Ones,” who are bent on the destruction of humanity. Failing that, you must defeat the Ancient One in direct combat. In this case, players will be exploring the mysterious happenings at Miskatonic University Museum.
Each turn, players can move to any location. There’s a “marketplace” area where players can spend trophies earned from previous challenges to get healing, restore sanity, or obtain more items, spells, allies, and even additional Elder Signs.
Most of the locations, however, are rooms in the museum. In a room, a player must take on a set of challenges by rolling 6 dice. These dice are printed with symbols – Terror, Scroll, Skull, and Investigation with values 1, 2, and 3. Each challenge has a series of tasks; each task has a number of symbols that match up with symbols on the dice.
Each time the player rolls the dice, they must complete one task by matching symbols rolled on the dice to the same symbols in the task. Then, they will roll any remaining dice to complete the next task, until all tasks are completed, at which point the challenge is complete and a reward is earned. Rewards include receiving clue tokens, items, or spells, and most importantly, Elder Signs. In some cases, completing a challenge will open up a gate to one of the many Other Worlds (essentially opening up a new “room” to face with its own set of challenges, penalties, and rewards).
Each time a player rolls and cannot complete any tasks, they must discard a die and then roll again. If they cannot complete the remaining tasks with the number of dice they have left, they fail the challenge and there are penalties. These penalties often include losing health and/or sanity, adding monsters to the board, and adding tokens to the doom track.
Players have a number of tools to help them on their quest. Items give players access to the red and yellow dice, which not only increase the size of the dice pool, but offer better icons and in the case of the Red die, a “wild” icon that can be used as anything. Spells allow players to save dice for later. Allies give bonuses or abilities that can be used several times. Each character has a special ability.
After each player takes a turn, they must advance the clock 3 hours. Every 12 hours, a Mythos card is resolved which has an immediate effect and a lingering effect.
If the “doom track” on the Ancient One is completely filled, it awakens and the players must fight it. Dice are rolled just like a room challenge, but must match symbols on the Ancient One. For each matching set, the Ancient One takes 1 damage. If the players are killed or driven insane before they defeat the Ancient One, they lose the game. If they defeat the Ancient One, or seal it with Elder Signs before it awakens, they win!
Adventure of a Lifetime, or End of the World?
Elder Sign really is like the offspring of Arkham Horror. Set in the same universe, a universe based off of short stories written by H.P. Lovecraft, both follow a very similar story arc.Yet Elder Sign stands completely apart from its big daddy as far as gameplay goes. Whereas Arkham Horror gives plenty of thematic context for every action and allows exploration and the pursuit of many different avenues to seal up the Ancient One, Elder Sign is a significantly more compacted, and accessible game. Unlike the small novel you have to read to understand Arkham Horror (and you probably STILL don’t have all the rules correct), the rules for Elder Sign are actually pretty streamlined. It’s easy to teach and explain witihin a few minutes, and the game generally takes about an hour; maybe 90 minutes if things aren’t going too well.
You won’t get the same experience at all between the two games, despite their shared theme. Elder Sign has you exploring a single building over an entire city. Everything is more compact, including the variety of special abilities, the actions you will take, and even the rules to remember.
Whereas Arkham focuses on exploration, planning, and preparation, Elder Sign is about taking risks. It’s about looking at the challenges in front of you and deciding whether to take on something easier with a greater chance of success, or something more challenging with a much greater reward.
Fortunately, Elder Sign does give you the choice. Every once in a while you will be faced with a set of all difficult rooms or all easy ones, but most of the time you can decide how risky you want to be (so, in a sense, the game does contain some push-your-luck elements).
The game could be one of “each player does his own thing,” but it rewards cooperation. Players in the same room can help each other by holding on to one die after a failed roll. Since each player can also save one die for themselves, this increases the likelihood of succeeding even after a bit of failure.
I like that the item and spell cards keep it pretty simple. There are no insanely complicated, convoluted, or obtuse action cards; most of them just give you extra dice, and a few have other straightforward and helpful abilities.
Monsters are a clever way to mix things up as well. On many occasions, Monsters can actually make a challenge easier, if they cover up a particularly tough task (replacing it with the symbols printed on the monster card itself, which can be less demanding). At the very least, if you complete a Monster task you kill the Monster and get its trophies even if you don’t complete the rest of the task; trophies that can be saved and spent for extra items, allies, or even Elder Signs.
The game moves fairly quickly, even at its lengthiest. Sure, there isn’t much a player can do when it’s not their turn, but it is exciting to watch other players roll and hope they succeed. I wouldn’t recommend playing with the full player count, but up to 6 players is still enjoyable for all. The clock is a nice touch; it keeps the game active at a regular pace regardless of players. Unlike the “something bad happens at the end of every players turn!” that can quickly turn into massive chaos with larger groups or the “something bad happens after all players have moved” that can be quite… dull… with larger groups, the fact that a major event happens after every 4 turns regardless of the number of players gives the game a good pace.
A significant part of success in this game relies on rolling the right symbols at the right time. It seems like this could easily devolve into a simple luck-based affair, but the well-developed scheme for rolling and maintaining dice works well to balance out the luck. Conserving resources is the name of the game, so the real tension comes in deciding whether or not to use up your precious item card to get that yellow die, or to give up your last clue token to re-roll. It’s always exciting to be on that last roll, that last chance to get the symbol you need to complete the final task of a challenge, but when you get to that point there is little you can do but hope and pray in order to affect the outcome.
Oddly, despite the heavy involvement of luck within the game, Elder Sign’s biggest flaw is perhaps that it is too easy. Successes happen far more often than failures, in my opinion. There are enough “easier” challenges that give players a chance for trophies and item rewards, the chance to heal up and recover sanity, that it outweighs the failures. Those failures do happen, and there will be tense moments as you watch the doom track fill up more and more (spoiler alert: if the doom track reaches capacity and the Ancient One awakens, you are almost guaranteed to lose. The chance of defeating the great monsters in physical combat is very, very slim indeed), but in a majority of the games I have played, winning has happened with a bit of wiggle-room left over. We have lost, and lost gloriously, but more often we have a victorious outcome.
Fortunately, the game is built around the fact that it is pleasing to roll handfuls of dice; that dice with special symbols are cool; and that it is fun to team up with your friends and pit your wits against the ancient, encroaching evils. If you don’t have time for Arkham Horror, if you enjoy the theme, and if you enjoy dice-rolling, you’ll probably get a lot of enjoyment out of Elder Sign. It may not have the depth and scale of it’s daddy game, but it does have a lot of cool-looking dice and an ancient museum of wonder, magic, and horror to explore.