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Elder Sign

Like the Co-op game Arkham Horror but haven’t got 3 hours to play it? Like lots of flavour in games? Like the elation and frustration of dice games? Enjoy that slightly liberating feeling of losing one’s mind? Then this could be the game for you.

Stuff and things or Bits and bobs:

Elder Sign is one of Fantasy Flights silver line range of games, meaning that it comes in a smaller than usual box, this means that unlike some of their games (cough Lord of the Rings LCG cough) the box isn’t 95% air.

In the box we find, 5 decks of small cards (half playing card size), these are the Mythos deck (the bad stuff that happens to you in the game) and 4 decks of item, spells, weapons, etc cards (the good stuff you can find during the game). Digging deeper we find 4 decks of over sized cards (approximately 2 times playing card size): character cards, locations, other world locations and lastly the Ancient ones (the bad guys). Finally we get a museum entrance card.

All the oversized cards have stunning art work on them, a small amount of flavour text, but the small cards are a little bland, the art isn’t great and there is Zero flavour text on them, may be if they had been playing card size there might have been space for the flavour. The cards feel a little on the thin side and the oversized ones have a bit of a curl on them. The icons are clear, easy to read.

As it is a fantasy flight game we get loads and loads of cardboard tokens, these are nice and thick, full colour and tiny, except for the monster tokens. We also get a clock face with only one hand.

Then we get to the good sized dice, 6 green, 1 red and 1 yellow. These have easy to read symbols on them, have a nice weight to them. What more can I say, they are dice shaped and randomly generate sets of symbols.

“How do I win?” or playing the game:

Whether you are playing the game co-operatively (the games can take up to 8 players) or solo the way you win the game is by collecting enough elder signs by completing tasks at various museum locations to beat the Ancient one before it awakes. Or if you let the ancient one wake up because its doom token track is filled, kill it be before it kills you.

Let me explain how you do this by running though an example turn. First you take your character token and place in on the location card you want to attempt this turn. For example


Then take all the green dice and after shaking well roll them. The roll is: skull, skull, terror, lore, 1 investgation and 2 investigation. The symbols are then compared to the tasks on the card, for this location then tasks must be done in order starting with the top line of symbols (at locations most tasks can be done in any order). The first task needs a total of 3 investigation, which you rolled, the 2 dice are then placed on the task next to the row to show that it has been done.

Looking to the next task it needs 2 skulls which were also rolled, however you can only complete 1 task at a time, so you can’t assign the two skulls to that task. You can now if you want to choose to focus (store) one dice on your character token locking it to that symbol so that the next task might be easier. As the next task needs 2 skull symbols, you decide to store one on your character. Taking the 3 remaining green dice, given them a blow for luck, a shake and a roll this time the roll is: terror, terror and a skull. You complete the next task as you have 2 skull symbols.

You then take the last 2 green dice, feeling confident you roll them, getting: Skull, lore. This is not enough for the last task which needs 2 lore symbols. As you failed the task, you have to discard one of the green die; the penalty for failing a task is always discarding a green dice. As you how only have 1 green dice to roll it is impossible for you to complete all the tasks at this location. This means that something bad happens to you. On the bottom left hand corner of the location card in red is the bad stuff symbols in this case your character takes 2 wounds (the heart symbols) and loses 1 sanity point (the brain symbol).

If you had been lucky enough to roll the 2 lore symbols needed for the last part of the task, the location would have been completed. This time something good happens to your character, on the bottom right hand corner in the white box is the good stuff symbols in this example your character would get 1 spell (the book symbol) and an elder sign would be placed on the ancient one (the pentagram symbol). Next you move the clock on 3 hours and your turn is over.

Instead of attempting a task you could decide to go to the museum entrance. Here you can “buy” items (by spending the trophies you get by completing tasks and killing monsters) or heal your character. Once you have bought stuff or healed yourself you move the clock on 3 hours and your turn is over. The item and ally cards generally allow you to add extra dice (the red or yellow ones) to the dice pool, or kill monsters and make it easier to succeed in the tasks at hand but other than allies they are all one use only.

Lastly if you attempt the task and other characters are already at that location, then they can help you out if asked (although) they aren’t forced to do it, by focusing dice for you. However if you still manage to fail the tasks, then they will lose either 1 wound or 1 sanity. Focusing for other people is the only thing you can do during other player’s turns.

Other world locations tend to have harder tasks on them, but yield much higher rewards and are especially good for collecting elder signs.

Every time the clock goes to 12, the next Mythos card is revealed. Most of the time this adds either, a doom token to the ancient one you are trying to stop, or a monster token to a location. The doom tokens act as the game timer building up to the moment the ancient one awakes. Monsters are added to locations and make them harder as they count as extra tasks that need to be completed.

This carries on until you either collect enough elder signs to stop the ancient one from waking up, or the doom track fills with the doom tokens and the ancient one awakes. At this point the locations and tasks are ignored as the ancient one is the only task/location in play. Each turn you attack the ancient one, by trying to complete the task, moving the clock on like normal. When the clock gets to 12 the ancient one gets to fight back. All the ancient ones are really hard to beat this way, as they can kill players if they fail the attack stipulations.

Finally there is no player elimination in Elder sign, if your character dies, just get another and start a fresh (until the ancient one wakes then it is every character for themselves).

Is it any good?

Short answer:

Multiplayer: No
Solo: Yes, it is brilliant.

Long answer:

The negatives: Multiplayer wise it is no Arkham Horror (I know that they are different games). I find that multiplayer this game falls flat, the game is lost to group think of trying to complete as many tasks as possible, as quickly as possible with multiple characters all attempting the same location one after another, to get the best use of focusing. Rinse and Repeat. Nobody seems to get into character, unlike Arkham Horror where I hear I’m not doing X because my character wouldn’t do that often banded around the table.
Having virtually no flavour text anywhere in the game, means that a lot of the wonderful theme of the Arkham Horror setting, lost to the mechanical nature of the game, this is a shame; because we all play these sorts of game for the theme not the mechanics.

The positives: Solo play this game is brilliant. I don’t have the time or want to spend the time playing Arkham Horror solo for 3 hours (for 3 hour games I need company or I get bored). This means I can hold off the terrors and shakes getting my Arkham fix in under an hour.

I also find that by making the death of my solo character end the game, things become a lot tenser. The decisions of it is nearly 12 and I have two locations which trigger bad stuff at 12 which I do I attempt, or do I go to the museum entrance to heal or burn the healing spell I’ve just got really start to matter. This I find really draws me in to the story that the game is trying to tell far more than when I’m playing it in a group. I have even found myself choosing not to do certain locations just because they don’t seem to fit with the character I’ve drawn; an example of this can be seen in the session report here. As Amanda is a student and the picture shows that she is in a laboratory, I chose every location that felt like it had something to do with research and wherever possible avoided any that needed strength to complete even if it meant something bad would happen at 12. Only when her boy friend turned up did I try and attempt physical tasks. The story just seemed to flow that way.

Some people have commented on the “ease of the game” claiming that it is easy to beat. Yes some o the characters are a little imbalanced and powerful compared to others. This is a game of chance, both from cards and dice, both can be helpful and hurtful. Some days you can roll like a god and the next the dice hate you. Currently I have a 50% win rate and don’t think that there is an issue.

I cannot really recommend this game for multiplayer games but for solo players I recommend it in a heartbeat it really is one of the best solo games I’ve played in a while (there seems to be a shortage of good ones that can be played in under an hour). Solo Elder sign is not the prefect story telling game, I’ve yet to find that even Arkham Horror doesn’t get that award, however it is one of the best I have played.

Thanks to everybody that provided the images that I used for this review.

Andy Gordon