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Giant Fire Breathing Robot
Ah, Arkham Horror. One of the first games I reviewed when I was a wee reviewer without any Robot to call home. It combines dramatic elements, cooperative play, variable (but generally high) difficulty, and Lovecraftian horror into a time honored and highly enjoyable package. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a horror in itself thanks to the numerous chits, rules, and exceedingly long play time. That’s where Elder Sign comes in. It promises a Lovecraftian experience, in ninety minutes or less, using dice. But does it deliver?
The Basics. As co-designer Kevin Wilson mentioned on House Rules, Elder Sign started off when Richard Launius walked in with a design he called “Arkham Horror: the Dice Game.” And, largely, that’s what Elder Sign is – a cooperative game set amidst the Cthulhu Mythos as the players battle an Ancient One intent on coming in to our world. Players are Investigators in the Arkham Museum. Six adventure cards are laid out each revealing specific tasks that must be completed through die rolls.
The players generally use six custom green dice to complete tasks. The sides have one, two, and three investigation symbols, a terror, a peril, and a lore. To complete an adventure, the player must roll the indicated symbols. Usually, this is completed in a few separate rolls. Once one task is completed, those dice are set aside and only the remaining dice are used. If all tasks are successful, then the investigator completes the adventure and gets the prize. If he or she fails, however, then they receive a penalty.
Just as in Arkham Horror, a specific Old One is selected that influences the game. Each has an ongoing power that interferes with the investigators, and each is fought in a different way if it awakes. And, as in Arkham Horror, that doom track fills steadily until the Ancient One enters your realm.
Through the adventures, the players can accumulate clues (re-rolls), items (with special effects and additional dice), elder signs (needed to win), and trophies to help assist them on future adventures. But, the investigators are not alone in the museum. Monsters also walk among them. Occasionally, an adventure or a card will require monsters to be added to the game. Mechanically, they work quite well. They simply add or overwrite the tasks on an adventure. Thus, they tend to make easy adventures difficult, and hard ones insane.
Where Elder Sign really brings in the tension, though, is in the adventures. If a task is completed, those dice are set aside and the investigator continues with the remaining dice. But, if a task is failed, then the investigator has to set aside a die and try again. Now, there are only five dice left to complete the adventure. This makes things more and more difficult and often things come down to a final do-or-die roll.
The Feel. Elder Sign is less than half the time of Arkham Horror and provides about 85% of the enjoyment. All in all, it is a great trade off. Essentially, it distills Arkham Horror down to the skill checks. You get a similar (if slightly inferior) experience, while the shorter play time allows this to logistically come off the shelf at more reasonable intervals. The only potential negative in comparison to Arkham Horror is that Elder Sign is significantly easier. In my half dozen plays, I’ve never lost – and I’ve only come close to losing once. Not only is gathering the needed elder signs easier than sealing gates, but even going toe-to-toe with the Ancient One is less difficult than it is in Arkham Horror.
OK, so what if you’ve never played Arkham Horror and all these comparisons are essentially meaningless? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Elder Sign does a fairly good job of bringing out the Cthulhu Mythos in a dice game. Each adventure has flavor text that set the tone. Ultimately, though, everything revolves around the dice. So it requires a little more imaginative effort from the players. You definitely get a good Lovecraft feeling, but I wouldn’t say Elder Sign is immersive at all.
Yet, despite the strong dice element in the game, the players are not without options. First, each player has a special power that they bring to the table. This helps to differentiate them so that certain players are more apt at certain adventures. Also, the items can help to swing things in a player’s favor. So a few bad rolls aren’t going to spoil everything. The most danger in the game is to lose your first adventure after using up your starting items and be left with nothing. Completing adventures without assistance is challenging.
The game is not without difficulty, but overall you are likely to experience more success than failure. Often, one or two ridiculously difficult adventures will come out and the players just treat them as unsolvable and forget about them. They focus their remaining efforts on the more reasonable tasks.
The biggest negative, though, is the rules. Holy mackerel. The rules have substantial gaps that can lead to confusion in certain situations. In fact, mere months after the game first debuted, the publisher already created an official Errata for the game. In some instances, the Errata rules directly contradict the manual from the game. Anyone not aware of the Errata will have an especially disappointing experience, and even with Errata in hand, it’s annoying to have to search two sets of rules if a question comes up.
Components: 4 of 5. The custom dice are just the right size and have a nice weight to them. The cards (though most are the annoying small kind) are on good stock and have a good protective gloss. The artwork is great, though it is all liberally borrowed from Arkham Horror. There is very little original artwork to Elder Sign, but at least they snatched from a good source.
Luck/Strategy Balance: 3 of 5. Elder Sign is a dice game. A lot of the fun and tension is created through the dice and the luck they create. Sometimes you go into an adventure confident – then a bad roll makes things a lot more scary. Sometimes you are down to a final die and you make that one-in-six roll you needed. These moments are replete and give the game an appropriate feel of uncertainty. While players are not without influence over the dice, this game relies on luck to bring the tension.
Mechanics: 2 of 5. Ugh. Elder Sign has some brilliant mechanics. The way monsters are incorporated is fantastic. And the game is tuned so that an evil Mythos card is drawn every four turns instead of after all players take a turn. This way, the game stays at about the same level of difficulty no matter the number of players. A huge refinement for a co-op game. But, balance this against the atrocious rulebook and need for an Errata. Plus, a player who fails that first mission may have almost no way to get back on track.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Elder Sign has a lot of life in it. The difficulty can be changed by merely selecting a new Ancient One to battle. Some are more difficult than others, and all bring a unique power to the game that changes gameplay and hurts the investigators in some way. Additionally, the dice keep things fresh from game to game. Since the players never know how a particular encounter will go, the game is different each time. Similarly, the monsters are different each time as they are also drawn randomly from the box.
Spite: 0 of 5. As a pure co-op game, there is no spite.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. Elder Sign is not a perfect game. Especially when it comes to the rules, there are several places where you’ll just have to do what seems right and hope for the best. That said, Elder Sign is a fun game. It combines Cthulhu lore with interesting decisions and tense dice resolution. It provides a lot of the Arkham Horror experience while being playable in a much shorter time frame. If you like Cthulhu and dice, then this is one to check out. If you abhor dice and have no love for the Mythos (no love for Lovecraft?!?), then this will have limited appeal for you.
(Originally posted, with pictures, on the Giant Fire Breathing Robot)
Great review! I recently ordered Elder Sign in an effort to pave the way with my girlfriend to playing Arkham Horror and am really looking forward to its arrival now.
The difficulty level will work great with my girlfriend who hates to lose, especially to a board, and when I play solo I should have plenty of fun making up house rules to brutalize my investigators with (I look forward to losing a hard fight about as much as winning it).
Unfortunate to see that the rules are so full of holes, here's hoping that the errata works well enough!
Again, great review... from March of last year, whoops. Well maybe this will bump your thread and garner your blog a few more views