Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters, Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then. – H. P. Lovecraft
In Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep, you take on the role of a crew member (or crew members if playing solo) aboard the seagoing vessel Ultima Thule. Her voyage is being driven on by the crew’s attraction to a curious calling that emanates from a mysterious figure carried on the ship. As the perilous journey unfolds, the crew must overcome unnaturally stormy weather and frequent attacks from marine monstrosities, such as the vicious fish-bodied aberrations of the Deep One Legion. The crew must stay alive and sane as they battle against terrifying odds and horrifying evils to discover ancient and mystical elder signs. Having gathered enough elder signs, the crew can prevent a fate worse than death and halt the fulfilment of the infamous figure’s siren call: the awakening of the Ancient One.
New Changes to the Great Old One
Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep plays using the Elder Sign base game, keeping the mechanics of the ever-ticking clock, the green, yellow and red dice, and the various items, spells and allies. However, Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep also adds several unique, expansion- specific components that make some big changes to the standard Elder Sign game.
The Adventure Deck is replaced entirely by a deck of specialised “Pacific Adventure Cards”. These cards are double-sided. On the one side is the usual fair: the title, image, flavour text, tasks and rewards or penalties. Flip the card over and you see a green, yellow or red icon indicating whether the adventure is easy, normal or hard respectively. The base of the card back also lists either an immediate effect that happens when it is initially explored and flipped over (some cards will help and others will hinder when explored) or a lasting effect that triggers every time the clock strikes Midnight. The card effects aren’t the only thing to worry about when the bell tolls; the Mythos Deck is replaced by this expansion’s Staged Mythos Cards.
The Mythos Cards are unique in that they are constantly forcing the players to make tough choices. Each card has two options, often neither choice is good, but one choice might have dire consequences when compared to the other. The players must negotiate each choice at Midnight and work together to pick the safest route through the perilous grey waters of the pacific.
The Deep One Legion monsters are also new, presenting an awkward enemy that will just as soon sink into the murky depths as leap from the water to attack you. Should too many of these monsters attack the ship Ultima Thule at once, she will be wrecked. The Ultima Thule card replaces the Entrance Card and it features a reverse side featuring the “Wreckage of Ultima Thule”. The destroyed ship offers the players precious few options compared to when the vessel is at her full strength. It is imperative that the crew fight off the hordes of Deep One Legion monsters to keep the ship running smoothly.
As well as these adaptations to the base game, there are new cards for the ally, spell, unique and common item decks. Also, there is a whole new deck of skill cards. The skill cards give your characters new skills in addition to their starting skills. Missions are special monster markers added to the monster cup at setup, and they act just like monsters without being removable through spells and cards that specifically affect monsters – making them much more formidable than the standard monsters. And there are eight new investigators who are ready to take on any one of three new Ancient Ones – Dagon, Hydra and the nefarious Cthulhu.
A Tale for the Ages
The expansion is packed with new components, as you can tell, and that all helps to make this a quite the different experience when compared to the Elder Sign base game. Perhaps one of the most important parts of this expansion, however, is not just that it has new components. The components are enhanced by their working together to create a story. Now, Elder Sign has story to it, of course. The standard “a museum houses an artefact that is actually an evil icon which must be locked away using unfathomable and ancient magics before an unspeakable horror is unleashed upon a helpless world” story is a great one, of course. Yet, in Omens of the Deep there is a genuine plot built into the mechanics of the game itself. The developing plot is achieved through the decks of staged cards.
Stage One is the story’s beginning. The first adventure that is known as a “Special Adventure Card” is set alongside the standard Pacific Adventure Cards and Other World cards. The adventure, “Calling”, details the beckoning call of a mysterious totem. ‘It called to me as I slept,’ the card’s flavour text reads, ‘its enticing whispers drawing me ever closer to the sea.’ If this adventure is resolved, then a new Special Adventure Card takes its place and the story continues. Leaving the Calling unanswered, however, only stalls the voyage and brings you closer to doom – the ship must keep moving. During Stage One, your progress through the story is tracked via a scenario card.
The scenario card is first set up on the side that reads “The Dark Waters” and this represents the voyage of the Ultima Thule as she and her crew attempt to stay afloat and on course amid the chaos of the violent sea. Should Ultima Thule linger too long on the ocean, she could be wrecked by the Deep One Legion monsters and this spells disaster for her journey. However, if the ship stays true to her course then the crew can advance to Stage Two.
Stage Two sees the mythos deck and pacific adventure decks replaced with their respective Stage Two decks (Stage One Adventure Cards remain out for now and are replaced if they are completed). The Special Adventure cards are replaced by new Stage Two cards relevant to the next “act”, as it were. The scenario card is flipped over to reveal a curious artefact: The Amulet of R’lyeh. The amulet locks three dice (green, yellow and red) and the broken pieces of the amulet must be uncovered to release the dice, help collect elder signs and prevent the completion of the terrible and ominous machinations of destruction. Find the risen city of R’lyeh, complete the amulet, gather the elder signs and seal away the Great Old One of the deep and treacherous sea once and for all – what could possibly go wrong?
The addition of a structured plot makes you feel as though you are moving through a story and have an integral role in the development of that unfolding timeline. Your choices don’t just spell success or failure, they have an influence on the developing narrative as it unravels before you. Setbacks can be disastrous and yet racing through the journey can leave you woefully unprepared for the challenges you face upon reaching the fearsome corpse-city of Rl’yeh.
The choices are difficult to make and have a real impact on the gameplay, and that’s why this such a wonderful expansion. The trope of “bad thing must be stopped by gathering elder signs” is in some way stepped back from and instead of something that is good yet generic, you find yourself playing something good and thematic. Deliberation and difficult decisions are the backbone of this expansion. When combined with the reliance on good dice rolls, it starts to feel like the stakes are made much higher.
The story scales well, too. It doesn’t feel as though the transition between stages in the story is too dramatic. The early adventures can prepare the characters for the tougher encounters to come and this prevents the players from feeling as though they are falling at the first hurdle thanks to a collection of adventures that cannot be realistically completed. The designers clearly took time and effort to make sure that there is balance in the adventures. However, that doesn’t mean that this is a well-balanced game.
The monsters can pile up quickly. Missions, monsters and Deep One Legions can rapidly amass and make even the easiest adventure insurmountable. If this happens early on, when the crew are just starting to get their sea legs, it can quickly devolve into a defeat. Some of the cards provided by the expansion do help with this, providing ways to eradicate swathes of monsters in one go. However, those cards must be acquired first, and with so many monsters and cards which lock dice this can be difficult to do – especially if those locked dice are then protected by a plethora of eldritch creatures from unspeakable dimensions.
When you consider the source material for this game, however, it quickly makes sense that – quite simply – this is not meant to be an easy game. Monsters accumulate fast, the roiling sea goes against you with increasing vehemence and the Ancient One uses all the powers available to them to prevent you from thwarting their plans of world domination. In Lovecraft’s work, things rarely go the way of the protagonist. So, don’t be shocked if sometimes the game stops your progress in its tracks and deals you a hammer-blow – that’s part of the dangerous world these investigators live in.
Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep is more than a collection of shiny new components (which is already a winner in my book). This is a comprehensive restructuring and reframing of the original and it is done brilliantly. The artwork is gorgeous and thematic. The flavour text is delightfully terrifying. The quality of the components is great (the rusted, submerged look of the Mythos cards is a lovely touch, for example). I see this as an adaptation of the original Elder Sign; they are two games similar in style but quite different when it comes to the feel and play of the game.
One of the aspects I like most about this expansion, given that it is based on the “The Call of Cthulhu” expansion for Elder Signs: Omens mobile game, is how it plays like a story. You are thrown headlong into the story of The Call of Cthulhu and driven onwards by the call of the mysterious figure stowed away on board the ship. Once the journey is begun you must press on through the tumultuous sea and all the hideous fiends it throws at you and then desperately scramble to assemble an ancient pendant of inconceivable power. If you enjoy the base game for its theme and the feeling of trepidation and urgency that it builds up, along with the cries for joy or defeated sighs when trying to complete tasks, then you will get all of that in excess with this expansion.
The expansion adds a number of new components to the original, but is really intended to borrow some parts of the base game to allow for an entirely different experience of Elder Sign to be played. New adventure cards and mythos cards add a subtle variation lending to the story aspect of the game, which is reinforced by the scenario card and the ship’s card, which replaces the entrance card.
The game is divided into two acts called “stages”, and these allow for the plot to develop and help the game travel along the trajectory of an epic story inspired by Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu.
While the progress of the players can be quickly interrupted and suppressed by certain cards and growing numbers of monsters, this is to be expected when considering the source material for the story.
The expansion is a great addition to the base game. It gives the original game a new dimension and replayability that makes it a worthwhile purchase. Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep breathes new life into the already excellent base game.
Fun fact: Ultima Thule is a Latin term that means the farthest point reachable or the limit of any journey.