When I first got back into board gaming and joined a games group, one of the early experiences that is still clear in my mind is my introduction to co-operative gaming through the dice-based game, Elder Sign.
One of the group members suggested it and in the buzz of excitement I asked about the theme and someone told me it was from the “Lovecraft universe” and the “Cthulhu mythos” - I assumed that Lovecraft was the name of a film or comic book until I found out (when I got home through a quick Wikipedia search) that Lovecraft was in fact the name of an author who wrote most of his stuff almost a hundred years ago!
I also found out that the universe he created has transcended from his books into films, video games and pop culture. And on further examination I found that Lovecraft is a pretty ubiquitous theme in board gaming, with Elder Sign being a somewhat lighter/simpler introduction into the Lovecraft mythos than Fantasy Flight’s other offerings in the universe, such as Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness.
In keeping with Lovecraft’s stories, Elder Sign has a very dark theme and one can feel oppressed and strung-out whilst playing it (in a good thematic way of course!) The game takes place in the large ‘Miskatonic University Museum” in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, where between one and eight players take on the roles of investigators in a struggle to combat one of the Ancient Ones – hideous, giant, god-like monsters that dwell in the space between dimensions and would just love to have a party in our back yard!
The object for all players is to work together to seal the Ancient One away before it awakens. To do this, the investigators must undertake adventures in the museum in order to collect Elder Signs, which seal the dimensional cracks like a mystic superglue. If the Ancient One awakens, the investigators undertake one last epic face-to-face battle in the vain hope of defeating it before it consumes all in its path
Sorry about all the doom and gloom, but that’s the theme of this game and it really comes across well.
Night at the Museum
On a player’s turn they would typically move their investigator to an Adventure card and attempt to resolve the tasks on the card by rolling the custom dice. Tasks are completed by rolling symbols or groups of symbols (Investigation, Peril, Lore, Terror). If you complete a task on the adventure card you “dock” the dice on the card and re-roll your remaining dice, hoping to pass the other tasks. If you fail, you discard a dice of your choosing then roll again. After failing a task you can “focus” a die, which allows you to keep a die result for use on a later roll.
Winning an adventure allows you to collect the reward, which can include such things as Elder Signs, clues, spells, items and allies to help you in future adventures (including the use of the better yellow and red dice), but triumph may also spawn monsters. You also gain trophies for winning adventures and defeating monsters, which can be used as currency in the shop on the museum entrance sheet.
Losing an adventure can take its toll on your stamina and sanity – if you drop to zero in either your investigator dies and takes all their items to the grave with them – you’ll then take the role of a new investigator, who comes without any adornments.
While all of this happens the clock ticks, and at midnight Mythos cards can bring both immediate and lingering effects to the game, and the Ancient One casts its shadow over the whole affair with game-altering effects.
If you manage to collect ten Elder Signs before the Ancient One’s doom track is filled you win, but if the doom track fills first the Ancient One awakens and attacks – usually with harrowing and game-ending results.
Fun in the Gloom?
This game feels like it’s been doused in a bucket of theme, and the heavy, tense atmosphere is often punctuated by relief as your team completes adventures and sometimes shattered altogether by triumph if you manage to seal the Ancient One away and win the game.
Elder Sign is easily played solo, whether you decide to play as a single investigator or manage a team. Although I always have a bit more fun when playing with one or two others as you really feel the brinkmanship and share in the ecstasy and (more frequent) agony.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend playing at the higher player counts of five to eight as downtime creeps in and rewards are spread thinner, and so does your chance of success.
Feel the Terror
The components are decent enough, although I feel the solid-coloured dice would’ve benefitted from less garish colour tones, or perhaps they could have looked into providing wonderful ink-drop dice (like the one in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu).
Also, the little investigator tiles often get lost amongst everything and I feel the game would have benefited from them being Arkham Horror-style standees or even plastic minis – I have been known to substitute the investigator tiles with the investigator minis from Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu…
My last little moan about the components are that the doom tokens can sometimes look a little camouflaged on the doom track, as they show the same hooded figure that they’re meant to cover up – there needed to be a better attempt at differentiation so you can see the current doom token status at a glance.
However, all of the above are aesthetic nit-picks and don’t impact or spoil the gameplay itself.
Final Thoughts on Elder Sign
I previously had a somewhat mild animosity of dice but I didn't realise, until I played Elder Sign for the first time that these days clever game designers have come up with interesting mechanics to utilise dice in different ways (see Pandemic: The Cure, King of Tokyo, Sagrada and Sentient for some more examples).
While I don’t play Elder Sign as frequently as other games, this game has a permanent place on my shelf as I can’t imagine my collection without it. I even invested in the Omens of Ice expansion, which takes the adventure out of the museum into the wilds of Alaska – the wilderness theme sings to me!
Finally, I’d like to share my favourite memory of playing Elder Sign, which has to be when I played it with my eldest daughter in a log cabin in deepest darkest Wales – it felt so thematic. That day the icy winds of Ithaqua blew, but we gave our all and had victory snatched away by the jaws of defeat… Or something like that…