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Subject: Battling the Old Ones with the help of green dice rss

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Branko K.
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An obligatory yet completely unnecessary history lesson

H. P. Lovecraft is a writer from the early 20th century mostly known for his stories about cosmic horror, about terrifying beings from alternate dimensions or times long past which somehow become known to poor human protagonists who usually end up insane, devoured, or both. However, it's less commonly known that not all Lovecraft's stories end up this way. In fact, one of the more popular ones, Dunwich Horror, sees three unlikely heroes in the form of college professors beat unspeakable horror simply by doing some extensive research, finding enough information about the nightmare they are about the face and figuring out the means of its disposal. And despite the fact that subsequent rereadings of the story may reveal that the "horror" from the story's title is actually the real victim in the story, a tragic creature born in a strange world where it does not belong, it's the idea that weird, horrible creatures from beyond may be beaten by unlikely heroes if they do enough preparation through investigation and research that became the basic trope of many boardgames, primarily those being published by FFG and belonging to their "Arkham Horror Files" line, or whatever the common name used for it is.

It's easy to see where the draw is. The early 20th century setting lends itself beautifully to create a quaint, vaguely film-noir atmosphere, and the cosmic horror provides a great, effective, eery juxtaposition. The fact that Lovecraft is a) still very popular and b) in public domain is also nothing to sneeze at. This is the reason why we now have, if I number them correctly, 6 separate incarnations of these Lovecraft-based FFG games, from the slightly antiquated and bloated Arkham Horror, to the newest and most popular Arkham Horror:The Card Game. And even though not all these iterations are named "Arkham Horror", they almost all seem to share the same basic design: it's 1920s, and a horrible ancient creature threatens to devour the world. The setting is cooperative, all players against the game. The clock is ticking, literally, with some sort of a card-based or token-based timer standing between you and the point where all players lose. Players are "investigators", doing some sort of research, and by being efficient they can gather enough clues, or elder signs, or whatever to stop the horror and win the game. Investigators commonly have "life points" in the form of stamina (red) and mental stability (blue), and losing all in either category leaves the investigator dead or insane, which puts them out of the game (but a player can often choose a fresh investigator if he/she wants). The cast of characters is pretty much shared amongst different games, creating some familiar faces for players trying out different games. Gameplay often involves passing or failing a series of tests, which results in various benefit or hinderances. Oh, and the most important thing – almost all the games in this line try to tell a story, and each game session translates to a narrative which vaguely resembles a Lovecraft story, although often a bit more hectic, random and more than a little pulpy.

And one of these games is Elder Sign, which tries to marry all this concepts with Yahtzee.

Cthulhu Yahtzee

One common thing that Arkham Horror Files games seem to share is fiddliness. Being heavily rooted in Ameritrash genre, they almost always overflow with chits, cards, dice and rules. Playing the game involves devoting some serious time to understanding the rules, organizing the components, setting up and then playing the game. I never played the original Arkham Horror (or better say, it's modern revision), but as I understand it's a multi-hour affair which requires some heavy commitment of time (and table-space) and is not something you could easily bring to the table, especially if your friends are not as enthusiastic about playing it as you are.

Elder Sign tries to streamline the Arkham Horror experience by compressing all the various tasks investigators do to simply chucking a set of dice. Everything from moving around, investigating, fighting monsters, closing gates to other worlds etc. boils down to throwing some custom dice and seeing if the results match to a set of symbols which represent the tasks the investigator is trying to accomplish. Investigators still have some chance of acquiring helpful allies and equipment (in the form of small cards), but using them often boils down to stuff related to die chucking – you either get more dice to chuck, a chance to freeze some symbols or manually change them into something else, have more retries etc. This effectively means that the gameplay boils down to – choose a card with a set of tasks you want to try and accomplish, use cards which will give you some bonuses, throw dice and hope for the best. You either "beat" the card, in which case you get a small collection of rewards, or you don't, in which case you suffer some penalties. Yes, there is still an "ancient one" coming, there is still a ticking clock, you can still win the game by collecting enough "research" (now in the form of "elder signs"), and yes, there is still a sorta-kinda narrative experience provided by the art, the flavor text, the specifics of the chosen nemesis / investigators, the "monsters" which occasionally come out and offer additional tasks to beat etc. but underneath it all this game is pretty much a Yahtzee-like dice chucker; when you get your turn you will try to beat the odds and get some luck so the dice show you what you want to see.

So is it any good?

Well, yes. Yes it is. While it's easy to dismiss it as a "simple dice chucker", it actually manages to provide a light, fun, engaging experience easy to grasp even by people you would call "non-gamers". I would even dare to call this a good "beer and pretzels" game, cause I can almost see it being brought to a bar and played over a round of drinks (the small chits and cards coupled with slightly larger table-space requirement that I would prefer do not make this feasible though; doable, yes, but there are probably many more practical bar games then this). The oversized cards are high quality and pleasing to the eye, the art is nice to look at, throwing dice is usually exciting for everyone and the turns go by rather quickly. There is little to no chance of "analysis paralysis" by being overwhelmed by various choices; players check out the offered tasks and may either play it safe and go for the easier ones, or get reckless and try the difficult ones, an obvious yet satisfying risk vs reward process.

It also helps that the game fits in a small box and is (relatively) easy to set up. Replayibility is high, too, with plenty of investigators to choose from and 8 different Ancient Ones to try to beat, with always different combinations of offered cards, "Mythos" cards which provide various (often nasty) effect after each round etc. Various choices influence the game's difficulty, so you can grab the (arguably) "best" investigators and choose the easiest "boss", or get cocky and try to beat the big baddies with sub-par investigators. Sure your first few games will probably be the most interesting with all new cards to look at, but the game does have staying power; if you enjoy it, it will not get stale soon and can easily be played over and over again.

Finally, this is a cooperative game without the dreaded alpha-player issue. You can suggest other player where to go, remind them of their bonuses and whatnot but all players will always definitely feel they are actually playing the game, and not just doing what the chief player is telling them to do.

So.. should I buy it then?

Umm.... well. Ahem. I... don't know. Exactly.

Personally, I owned this game, but then I sold it without regret... for the following reasons.

Firstly, there is an "Elder Sign: Omens" app which is rather cheap and does provide a relatively good digital representation of the experience you get while playing the game. While it's not a 1:1 copy, having some rules changed, some portions of the game completely missing etc. it is still close enough to give you that "Elder Sign" fix should you feel the need for it. Especially if you crave a solo experience.

Secondly, I kinda like the Lovecraft theme, and with Elder Sign I just don't feel it. For me, this is a game of chucking dice and seeing if I got what I wanted. While the game does try its best to paint an "investigators vs the Old Ones" theme over all the dice chucking, to me it all feels too mechanical, and I can easily see a version of the game with the theme completely stripped off and all the various locations and monsters and whatnot simply being replaced with pieces of paper denoting what D6 combos I need to get to acquire points. And yes, that's Yahtzee. And I kinda... don't really like Yahtzee that much to be honest.

Thirdly, I think the gameplay is often lacking. Most of the time I just use up all the bonuses and then guesstimate which card provides me with the best rewards while still being relatively doable. And that's it. I throw dice a few times and ultimately I either succeed or fail. If I made a good, conservative choice based on the bonuses I had I usually succeed. But if I fail, not only did I suffer immediate penalties, I am also probably screwed for the following few turns, since I need to find a way to not only get all the bonuses again to be effective, but also to try and heal up if I am too damaged. Also, which is very important to me, in this supposedly cooperative game the actual cooperation is pretty much non-existant. Most of the interaction happens if the investigator fails, and then if another comes to the same location, he/she can use the previous investigator as an extra dice-freezing option. Now take into account that failing tasks is something skillful players avoid, what you get is a multiplayer solitaire where players who do badly get to keep doing badly. Not ideal. Maybe this game should have been at least semi-competitive, with some rubber-banding mechanisms to help the players who had some very bad luck. I don't know. But I am sure that the cooperative aspect is simply not there.

Fourthly, and this is the big one, is.. I think Arkham Horror:the Card Game makes Elder Sign redundant. I mean, sure, those are different games. Elder Sign accomodates more players. It's more friendly to new players or non-gamers. It's cheaper. It's lighter. But AH:LCG manages to provide me all the things I want from the Elder Sign game, only far better: the theme does not feel pasted on, the explicit narrative provides a great Lovecraftian experience, there are far more interesting choices to make and the gameplay feels much, much more engaging. Playing AH:LCG leaves Elder Sign feeling shallow and empty. And while I will probably always be willing to play an Elder Sign game (especially if it involves trying out one of its many nail-bitingly difficult expansions), I just don't see a reason to own both Elder Sign and Arkham Horror: The Card Game since I find the latter much, much more enjoyable (and I can always play the former in the app form).

But this is just my opinion. If you like light games, you enjoy dice-chucking with a Lovecraft theme, you commonly have friends over who you think will like the experience Elder Sign offers, you will definitely not make a mistake by purchasing it. If you feel you REALLY like it, then you will also have an option of purchasing some of its expansions, which are really rather excellent. It's just that ultimately it was not for me, although for a while I was sure it is.

Or just play Yahtzee and pretend the Ancient One will devour you if you don't score at least 270 points.

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David Murray
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Thanks for your thoughts, we play and enjoy both. Elder Sign is much better value for money. The card game whilst good is a bit of a money sink, we have the first two complete adventures, not sure if we will collect anymore due to the cost. Picked up the latest omens (pharaoh) have played 6 times and still have many options to try, it was a quarter of the price of a card game complete adventure. Although they are pretty different experiences.
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Tom Eklund
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baba44713 wrote:
I think Arkham Horror:the Card Game makes Elder Sign redundant.


These two games are completely different. The only similarity is their theme. I like them both and will continue to play both.
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Klaus Gunther Herzog
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I too like the app better than the board game. Especially with the 3 add-in purchases which gives you more Old Ones, more investigators, and more locations to visit. It's also one of the few apps where I'm not tempted to turn off the background music ASAP, because in this case it really adds to the theme. My only bugaboo is the bloaty 300MB+ of required RAM, most of which is for introductory video that you might watch once or twice.

We actually STARTED with the app, and then my friend the Yahtzee lover bought the tabletop version. It's a nice compromise when he's in the mood for a dice-fest marathon, and we no longer have to reach for his box with the Y on the cover.

But man alive, after being used to the app, it's hard to get past the level of fiddlyness in this game. And this from a guy who prefers his game physical, not electronic, when possible. So many really SMALL tokens to try to pick up with big hands (and lose - we already lost the doom tokens and replaced them with blood-red cubes instead - marked improvement).
 
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Branko K.
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Azikin wrote:
baba44713 wrote:
I think Arkham Horror:the Card Game makes Elder Sign redundant.


These two games are completely different. The only similarity is their theme. I like them both and will continue to play both.


They are both cooperative games where players collectively win if they manage to win enough "good" tokens and lose when enough "bad" tokens pile up. They both share the same character roster where characters have unique bonuses special to them and may die or go insane by gaining enough damage or horror which eliminates them from the game. In both games you progress through a push-your-luck mechanism which involves mitigating risk by using cards offering short-term or long-term bonuses, yet still relies on a random element so there are never guarantees of winning. You also have monsters representing short-term hindrances that pop-up randomly which make solving your long-term tasks harder. You are free to choose the tasks you want to solve by moving your investigator token to various locations represented by the location cards. The turn structure is practically identical with players having their turn followed by the "mythos phase" where random bad things happen and which is governed by a separate deck.

So yeah, I think games share a bit more besides the "theme".

 
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Sergei Chavo
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baba44713 wrote:
Azikin wrote:
baba44713 wrote:
I think Arkham Horror:the Card Game makes Elder Sign redundant.


These two games are completely different. The only similarity is their theme. I like them both and will continue to play both.


They are both cooperative games where players collectively win if they manage to win enough "good" tokens and lose when enough "bad" tokens pile up. They both share the same character roster where characters have unique bonuses special to them and may die or go insane by gaining enough damage or horror which eliminates them from the game. In both games you progress through a push-your-luck mechanism which involves mitigating risk by using cards offering short-term or long-term bonuses, yet still relies on a random element so there are never guarantees of winning. You also have monsters representing short-term hindrances that pop-up randomly which make solving your long-term tasks harder. You are free to choose the tasks you want to solve by moving your investigator token to various locations represented by the location cards. The turn structure is practically identical with players having their turn followed by the "mythos phase" where random bad things happen and which is governed by a separate deck.

So yeah, I think games share a bit more besides the "theme".

Many Arkham Files games share the same roster of monsters/characters and even has similar phases, such a Mythos phase. But the core engines of the games is very differents.
 
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Daimond wrote:
baba44713 wrote:
Azikin wrote:
baba44713 wrote:
I think Arkham Horror:the Card Game makes Elder Sign redundant.


These two games are completely different. The only similarity is their theme. I like them both and will continue to play both.


They are both cooperative games where players collectively win if they manage to win enough "good" tokens and lose when enough "bad" tokens pile up. They both share the same character roster where characters have unique bonuses special to them and may die or go insane by gaining enough damage or horror which eliminates them from the game. In both games you progress through a push-your-luck mechanism which involves mitigating risk by using cards offering short-term or long-term bonuses, yet still relies on a random element so there are never guarantees of winning. You also have monsters representing short-term hindrances that pop-up randomly which make solving your long-term tasks harder. You are free to choose the tasks you want to solve by moving your investigator token to various locations represented by the location cards. The turn structure is practically identical with players having their turn followed by the "mythos phase" where random bad things happen and which is governed by a separate deck.

So yeah, I think games share a bit more besides the "theme".

Many Arkham Files games share the same roster of monsters/characters and even has similar phases, such a Mythos phase. But the core engines of the games is very differents.


Yeo. Same IP setting doesn't mean same games. It'd be like saying all ww2 games are the same because of the allies and the axis. ES and AH LCG couldn't be more different in fact: it's story driven vs dice driven, deck building vs fixed decks, campaign game vs single session, story goals vs collect tokens and so on.

And for what's worth, ES is no yahtzee either. One requires strategy, the other one is just sheer luck.
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