“There is a monster under your bed, right now. It IS going to kill you… and there is nothing you can do about it.” With that sentence, comedian Joseph Scrimshaw (check him out, seriously…) provided me my non-canonical introduction to the writing of author H.P. Lovecraft, presented hilariously in children’s book format. Of course, I had heard of Cthulhu before this experience, but the length and breadth of my knowledge on the matter was that it (he?) was evil, tentacle-y, and according to a good friend of mine, the only reason Aquaman might ever walk around the Hall of Justice with any street cred.
Despite this geek-shaming lack of knowledge about the Lovecraftian mythos, I decided to jump in with both feet and buy a game released by Fantasy Flight Games called “Elder Sign”. Sometimes, as a budding game enthusiast, I look at a game’s story as the driving point behind my purchase; other times, as was the case with Elder Sign, I looked at the game mechanics, and the story be damned.
The thing about Elder Sign’s design that drew me in to give it a go was the simplicity of the gameplay itself. At its core, Elder Sign is a game about rolling dice and matching symbols to achieve certain goals. As a father who regularly plays games with my 6-year-old son (you’ll be hearing plenty more about him, I assure you…), any game that I can explain, and that he can understand reasonably easily, has the potential to be a big hit in our house.
Elder Sign is a purely cooperative tabletop, which means that the players are competing against the game itself rather than each other, and will ultimately win or lose as a group. It wasn’t my first experience in cooperative gaming, having previously played co-op games like Pandemic and Castle Panic, so I was easily able to get into the “all for one” mentality that a game like this requires of its players. There’s just something refreshing for me, being a fairly competitive player, in trying to out-game the game itself rather than my friends and family. Unfortunately, my typical experience with cooperative board games is that the game takes far longer to play than it should. This is due to the “analysis paralysis” of having multiple opinions chiming in during every player’s turn.
The game elements themselves are generally what you’d expect from a modern hobby board game – the dice don’t feel light or cheap and have nicely-rendered customized symbols, the large tarot-size game cards are printed on high-weight card stock, and the game’s many tokens are thick cardboard punch outs. My first criticism of the game though comes by way of its item cards. There are 4 different varieties of items: common and unique items, spells, and allies, all of which are produced on rather flimsy card stock, and are much smaller in dimension than they need to be. These kinds of cards can be easy to lose or damage through routine gameplay, especially in the hands of young players, and other than possibly saving some table space in a large-scale game session– the game supports up to 8 players– I just don’t see the purpose of micro-sizing the cards.
Another criticism of the game’s elements involves the sheer amount of cardboard tokens, some of which aren’t all that necessary. The game allows players to earn “clue” tokens, which allow a player to re-roll dice at strategic times. The game designers elected to use cardboard footprint tokens to represent these clues when I think item cards would have done the job just fine and wouldn’t run the risk of being less visually obvious. This has led me to simply forget I had earned them to begin with on more than one occasion.
The players are also represented by cardboard tokens, which are about the size of my pinky fingernail; under direct overhead lighting, it’s very difficult to tell which token is which because of the glossiness of the tokens, and they blend in easily with the card art at times. I think small plastic tokens would have been a better representation, but I do understand that cardboard helps keep the cost of production down, so I’m willing to live with that design decision.
The overall premise of the game works well from a story-telling perspective—the players take on the roles of investigators, trying to find special signs to seal away the “Big Bad” before he awakens by successfully completing tasks on various adventure cards that turn up during the game. The tasks all involve rolling dice to match a certain die symbol or combination of symbols. In this sense, the game is very reminiscent of dice games like Yahtzee or Farkle.
Things really aren’t that simple though. Most adventures require completing 2 or 3 tasks, and some must be completed in a specific order. Every time you complete a task, the dice you used are “locked” and can’t be used to attempt other tasks on the card. Considering you only start your turn with six dice, and many cards require a bare minimum of five dice to complete successfully, this can be daunting. If you roll and cannot complete a card’s task, you fail the roll and have to discard one die before trying again. Some cards also have a “terror” effect that has all kinds of nasty penalties if you fail a task roll and any of your dice show the terror icon.
Something else that bothered me about the game: many of the game cards refer to symbols by their name (terror, peril, lore, etc.) but there’s no quick reference system to remind you which symbol matches which name. In our game sessions we usually refer to them by their images.
With so many game elements working against you, it may seem almost impossible to complete an adventure card, and oftentimes you’ll find yourself needing an inordinate amount of luck to do so. Fortunately, you do have some options to increase your odds of success. First, there are the item cards I mentioned earlier. These cards can give you additional dice on your turn, change die results, or even “freeze” a die result for any player to use on any turn. Second, each investigator has a unique ability that can sometimes help in completing tasks. Lastly, any time you fail a task attempt, you can “focus” one die to use at a later part of your turn, effectively locking it for use on another roll.
These items and abilities can really help in cases where you need several dice to roll your way at once to complete a single task. The items and clues can be won frequently enough on adventure cards, or bought through the special “entrance” card, though the expense of an entire player turn to do so means that option is rarely used in game sessions. My experience so far has been that you either end up collecting quite a few items at a time, or can’t seem to get any at all. I’m chalking that up to luck of the dice, and group size, more than an unbalanced game issue.
To win the game, your team needs to collect a certain number of “elder signs” through successfully completing adventure cards. So, how does the group lose then? In this game, time is your primary enemy. Every time a player finishes a turn, the game’s clock (a cardboard clock face with plastic hour hand that, frankly, isn’t stable enough on the game table) moves ahead three hours. Every time the clock strikes 12 (typically every 4 player turns, but certain game events can progress the clock as well), a new card is drawn from the “mythos deck”, which causes all sorts of nasty stuff to happen.
Through the mythos deck, monsters can appear, which serve as extra tasks required to complete adventure cards. Players can lose stamina or sanity, which is the game’s hit point system. If you lose all your stamina or all your sanity, then your investigator is out of the game. Most damaging though is that tokens can be added to the Big Bad’s “doom track”. Once the doom track is filled, he awakens and the players have to attempt an almost-impossible direct attack against him to win. Trust me when I say that a handful of people defeating an ancient god hand-to-hand is about as likely as it sounds.
Ultimately, Elder Sign is about teamwork, strategy, but above all else, luck. If the dice just aren’t rolling your way, there’s nothing anyone can really do to keep you sane and standing, since each adventure card has nasty effects upon failure. I’ve noticed in my game sessions that if the investigators play conservatively early, avoiding failures and accruing a few helpful items, the game becomes much easier to win. Also, the fewer players you have, the more turns each player gets relative to the game clock, which concentrates the number of item cards each player can earn and play. I have yet to lose a 2-player game, but again luck could be a big factor there.
Is it family-friendly? I absolutely believe it is. Any game that requires you to work as a team inherently works well when parents and children sit down to the game table together. The subject matter isn’t all that disturbing, the game art is dark but not particularly frightening, and the best chuckle I got out of the game so far was hearing my 6-year-old son say “I’m going to use this whiskey so that I don’t go insane” (bear in mind, I consider myself fairly liberal when it comes to what my son is exposed to in life). The gameplay itself is simple to grasp, and boils down to “pick a card, roll the dice, try to match the symbols”.
Elder Sign is a creative game that forces strategic, cooperative thinking and a fair-to-unbalancing amount of luck to succeed. The game take about 60-75 minutes to play, setup isn’t too obnoxious (outside of all the little cards and tokens), and unless you’re playing with a nit-picky sort of group, turns don’t usually drag on. I do wish the game clock wasn’t managed in such a deterministic manner; I feel a house rule where game time flows according to the difficulty and success of your action would make the game more strategic.
The replay value is pretty high for its price point (MSRP: $34.95), with 8 different Big Bads and 16 different investigators making each game experience sufficiently varied. I don’t necessarily recommend playing it with 2 players, or more than 6, but it seems to work very well with 3-6 players at the table.