Overview: It’s a fact: gamers can’t get enough Lovecraft. From simple press-your-luck dice games to themed Munchkin decks, it almost seems like throwing in some tentacles and mentioning the eldritch Necronomicon guarantees a hit. Fantasy Flight Games is no stranger to the Cthulhu Mythos (see Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness) and they’re back again with Elder Sign, which reunites Arkham Horror designers Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson with the city of Arkham and the world of H.P. Lovecraft.
Ages: 12 and up
Playing Time: 1-2 hours
Rating: An exciting and entertaining return to the dread city of Arkham, but this time, you’re armed with lots of dice!
Who Will Like It? If you like Arkham Horror and you’re looking for something that requires less time to play, Elder Sign is your game.
There is a lot of Arkham Horror in Elder Sign. Thematically, it’s basically the same game. A plucky group of Arkham residents take up arms, spells, and powerful relics to investigate strange goings-on within the city, while an ancient, unspeakable entity grows in power and threatens to destroy the entire world. You kill monsters, complete quests, and hopefully prevent the Ancient One from awakening. If not, you pray that you can defeat it in time.
As part of the Fantasy Flight Games Silver Line, this game doesn’t have the pounds-upon-pounds of flashy miniatures or thick cardstock components inside FFG’s Big Boxen (I’m looking at you, Twilight Imperium and Descent), but it’s also a hell of a lot more affordable. And what components it does have are perfect for the game. The cards are made of good quality cardstock and the chits are all sturdy enough. The clock counter fit together well and serves as a nice centerpiece to the game. All of the dice in my copy were easy to read and colorful, without any apparent defects.
The only complaint I have is about the art. Not that it isn’t amazing, because it is. Just that it’s all eerily familiar. If you’ve played any of the other FFG Cthulhu games, you’ve probably seen it before, several times over. There’s a lot of recycled art, especially from the Call of Cthulhu collectible card game. I understand the cost-saving strategy here, but some new art would’ve been appreciated.
Though it may share artwork and theme, Elder Sign isn’t just a rehashing of Arkham Horror. There are new and interesting mechanics to make the journey fresh and fun.
To ensure that the Ancient One doesn’t wake from its slumber and devour the world whole, the players must race through the Arkham Museum (and through portals to strange Other Worlds) and collect Elder Signs. You move your character token to an adventure card where you roll dice in certain combinations to complete tasks, kill monsters, and gain loot. Roll badly and you lose stamina and sanity. Roll well and you may just get an Elder Sign or two. Grab enough Elder Signs and you keep Cthulhu (or Yog-Sothoth or Shub-Niggurath or one of the other infamous Old Ones) sleeping like a baby. Which is good news for everyone.
Tasks are completed by rolling six green dice. Each die can result in Investigation, Lore, Peril, or Terror symbols, which are then used in various combinations to match with the Task at hand. Characters can gain items that may allow them to add either the red or the yellow die to their dice pool, and each character has a special ability that allows them to cheat the system in some small way.
Good games tend to have lots of interesting choices, and in Elder Sign, it’s all about the dice. You throw your first set, see what results you want to keep, and then move on to other tasks within the adventure. But with each roll of the dice, you lose a die. So if you choose poorly, you can end up with everything you need to complete a task… except for one. It makes each roll exciting, and means that everyone is engaged during the whole game–not just when it’s their turn.
Smart tactics are imperative to winning. If you don’t match up the characters’ skills and inventory with the right adventure, there’s a very good chance they’ll fail, over and over again. And the clock is ticking each and every round. When the clock counter reaches midnight, additional cards are played that typically introduce more monsters to the adventures or even advance the Ancient One’s doom track. If the doom track fills up, the Ancient One awakens. And, trust me: going up against a malicious star-born god with a shotgun doesn’t usually end in success.
Elder Sign is a fun, thrilling dice game set in the ever-entertaining, often-terrifying world of H.P. Lovecraft. The dice mechanics are innovative but simple and make for lots of satisfying moments of anticipation: “Will I get what I need? Should I re-roll?” This results in lots of hooting and hollering from around the table, which may stymie the spooky theme a bit, but only increases the fun.
Certain elements of the game serve as a friendly face to long-time fans of Fantasy Flight’s brand of Lovecraftian flavor, but they aren’t required to enjoy the game. Because it’s easy to pick up, easy to play, and involves a lot of fun dice-rolling, it’s a lot more approachable than other Cthulhu-themed board games.
I love Arkham Horror and I’ll play it whenever I have a chance. Unfortunately, it usually clocks in at over four hours, and that’s a lot of time to devote to saving the world from unspeakable doom. Elder Sign crams a huge amount of that experience into one or two hours, and that makes me extremely happy.
You can buy Elder Sign from your Friendly Local Game Store or from Amazon.
Wired: Who knew dice could be so tactical? Takes the theme and excitement from Arkham Horror and packages it tidily into a much shorter game. Solo play means never having to wait around for friends to show up.
Tired: I could swear that I’ve seen that shoggoth somewhere… because the artwork is recycled.