Game Title: Elder Sign
Designer: Richard Launius & Kevin Wilson
Manufacturer: Fantasy Flight
It had previously taken a considerable amount of cunning to infiltrate the museum after dark. I'd all but given up on getting in tonight after the death of the night-watchman yesterday. You'd expect a police presence, you'd expect nosy reporters, but there were none... unless you counted me. How could they have covered it up? There were paintings drenched in the man's blood, you can't just clean that up before opening time! But tonight I could practically waltz right in, where there was normally an unnaturally muscular guard, tonight there was no-one. I took my opportunity and sprinted through the museums back doors, taking a glance behind me to check that no-one had seen, I almost missed what was in front of me. This wasn't the same back room as the night before and that disgusting statue wasn't... did it just move?
Elder Sign is a cooperative horror game where you take the role of a detective investigating occult activity emanating from a museum. The game has a heavy H. P. Lovecraft theme, ultimately your goal is to seal away one of the big, bad, world eating, unpronounceable horrors before it awakens and starts lunching on cities and flossing with power-lines. To do this you need to collect a series of Elder Signs before you amass a critical number of doom tokens. There are several Ancient Ones that you can face, each has unique powers, requires a differing number of Elder Signs to seal away and a different number of Doom tokens to awaken.
The game has a strong focus on dice rolling, each Adventure card in the museum (of which there are usually 6 open to explore) has a different set of tasks, rewards and punishments on it. In order to complete tasks you need to roll dice (of which you have a base of 6) and match symbols with the symbols on one of the Adventure’s tasks. Should you fail to do this you have several choices. You can accept defeat and take the Adventure’s punishment, usually in a form of a loss to your vital stamina and sanity supplies (run out of either and your character dies). Or you can elect to roll again, but the cost of doing so is to lose 1 dice for your next roll, in addition you may lock 1 dice for every person on the same card as you. A locked dice is removed from the pool you roll, but keeps your result on it, useful if you partially completed a tough task. Should you succeed in a task you place the dice on the card and roll again (with no loss of dice) against any remaining tasks on the Adventure card, If you manage to complete all the card’s tasks then you can take its rewards, often useful items or elder signs.
|The main game setup with the clock, dice, Entrance sheet, 6 Adventure cards and an Other World card at the bottom.|
To make things a little more complicated many of the Adventure cards have extra tricks to them, ranging from having to do the tasks in a set order, ‘sticky’ areas that attract monsters (which act as an additional task) or having an active effect that occurs on bad rolls or each time the clock strikes midnight. Some tasks also require unusual resources to complete, such as spending time by moving the clock forward, or costing health/sanity. If you manage to complete some tasks, but not clear a whole card then that still counts as a complete failure, you can’t partially complete an Adventure one round and finish it the next (with the exception of monsters which do stay dead after you finish their task).
As you investigate time ticks steadily on, at the end of each turn you turn the clock forward a quarter of a turn, every time it completes a full rotation and reaches midnight again it triggers any midnight effects on all open Adventures, then you draw a new Mythos Card. Mythos Cards have 2 parts, an instant effect that occurs either now, and a lingering effect that may hinder you until the next Mythos Card replaces it. Very rarely the cards can have bonuses for you, though often the main bonus is it’s not as bad as the last one was, they are also one of the main sources of doom tokens that cost you the game.
|An Ancient One card with two doom tokens, a pair of elder signs and the ability to devour people instantly should it awaken.|
Ultimately should you fail to seal away the Ancient One you are fighting then you will have to… well… fight it. Obviously 4 people drawn straight from a noir film don’t have much of a chance against an unspeakable elder god, even one that’s still groggy from a 40,000 year nap, and the game pretty much represents this. Fighting the ancient ones acts as a normal task, repeatable as many times as you can manage, each time you succeed the elder one loses a doom token and should it run out then you have managed to seal it away and win.
It won’t run out.
You won’t win.
The game is a nice experience for 2-4 players, but it does have a few flaws. Getting good equipment in the game leads to completing tasks more, which leads to getting more good equipment, this leads to a Munchkin-esque disparity between the haves and have-nots. Sure this issue is mitigated by the fact that it’s a co-op, but it’s not the most fun to be the person with no items to your name when all of the museum Adventures are particularly hard. While the elder ones do vary in difficulty as a general rule the game does get easy after a few plays, luck can always shoot you down, but I would say if you know the game then you should expect to win most of the time.
The game is deliciously themed, from the artwork, to the little bits of flavour text on each of the Adventure cards, the game really portrays a world where things vary from being not-quite right, to downright wicked, and yet no-one seems to know or care, bar your band of detectives. The game does a lot for replay-ability with a plethora of playable characters with unique bonuses, Ancient One with unique abilities, and monsters that vary from laughably easy to dice stealing *%$!s who lock dice away until you kill them because they hate you and everyone you ever loved!