Game Review: Wrapping Our Tentacles Around Elder Sign

Cthulhu, Yog-Soggoth, Shub-Niggurath, and friends are all here. The Ancient Ones have come to drive you mad, but don't worry, you'll have strength in numbers when playing this co-operative board game. It's everyone versus the Ancient One in this new title from Fantasy Flight Games that aims to take the gameplay of their mega-popular epic Arkham Horror and condense it into a quick-playing dice roller. Will Elder Sign feel like the perfect appetizer or leave you hungry for the real meal? Read on for the full review to find out.

Just the Facts:

Players: 1-8

Playing Time: 60-120 minutes

Age: 13 to adult

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

MSRP: $34.95

Release: September 12, 2011

The Gameplay:

At it's core, Elder Sign is a series of smaller push-your-luck dice games. In the quest to prevent the arrival of an Ancient One, players can choose one of six or more different adventures on their turn. For every adventure chosen, they must roll the dice shown on the associated adventure card.

The eight dice of Elder Sign. You'll be rolling these a lot, it is a dice game after all.

It's not as simple as just rolling and praying, though. The dice requirements are listed on separate rows, which represent individual tasks. After every roll of the dice, the player can fill only one row, and must re-roll the rest before filling an additional task. If a player ever fails to roll enough symbols to complete a task, they'll have to remove one die and try again, or give up on that adventure completely.

An adventure card with several rows of symbols that match those found on the Elder Sign dice. Here, a player has already matched symbols with one task and has placed the dice on top of the card accordingly. Now they must re-roll the remaining dice with hopes of matching the other task.

There are many different positive and negative effects to completing all of an adventure's tasks or giving up, respectively. The most important two though are the Elder Signs and Doom Tokens. During the game's setup, a single Ancient One is chosen, and the Elder Sign and Doom Token ratings on it's card will set the game's victory and failure conditions. (You'll have to play the game again if you want to face a different Ancient One).

If players collect enough Elder Signs, they'll win the game. If the Doom Token track is filled first, though, players will enter a direct conflict with the Ancient One in a last-ditch attempt to drive it away. Even the rule book warns that "combat against the Ancient One almost always ends in failure and death" so don't get your hopes up.

So far, the players have earned six of the required thirteen Elder Signs, but also have four Doom Tokens.

The whole concept of rolling dice to match the symbols seems rather simple, but like any good heavily-themed American-style adventure game, Elder Sign adds a boatload of rule-bending effects and special abilities granted by the character you play as and the equipment you are carrying. Each player chooses the role of a certain investigator (the game includes 16), which dictates a starting ability, equipment, and stats such as insanity and stamina.

Aside from getting Elder Signs and Doom Tokens from completing or failing at adventures, players will also be granted positive effects such as additional equipment and clue tokens (which grant re-rolls), or negative effects such as lost sanity and/or stamina, or even the appearance of a monster which takes the form of an additional dice-rolling task. If a player's stamina or sanity ever drops to zero, that player loses all of their progress and must join back in as a new investigator.

A look at Joe Diamond, one of the sixteen investigator. His card contains stats and abilities, while his Tommy Gun can be used to add extra dice for one turn. The footprint represents a clue token.

The final aspect of gameplay is the mythos card deck and clock. At the end of each turn, the clock advances three hours. When it reaches midnight, a mythos card is drawn, and players must deal with it's game-changing consequences. Depending on which adventures are still uncompleted on the table, additional negative effects may manifest at midnight, so there is a definite sense of tension as time advances.

The clock represents the one fiddly piece of Elder Sign though. For something so important, it is incredibly easy to forget whether a player remembered to advance the clock or not, resulting in head-scratching re-tellings of the past few turns. While effective at creating tension, it can leave players wishing for a more elegant method of punishment.

This is a general overview of how the game plays, but there are a laundry list of smaller details that come together to make Elder Sign what it is. If you're interested in a deeper look, I suggest checking out the game's preview video on Fantasy Flight's official YouTube channel, or downloading the actual rulebook pdf and taking a look for yourself.

The Components:

  • 1 Cardboard clock
  • 8 Customized dice
  • 1 Entrance Reference sheet
  • 80 Oversized cards
  • 76 Small cards
  • 144 Cardboard tokens and markers

Elder Sign is part of the revised Silver Line of games from Fantasy Flight, representing games with shorter playtimes and smaller boxes. Compared to past Silver Line releases such as Red November, Citadels, and Death Angel, the box for Elder Sign is more than four times larger than that of its predecessors. Still, at 10"x10"x2", it's a game that will fit in just about any backpack or bag.

You won't find any of Fantasy Flight's signature plastic miniatures in Elder Sign, but the box manages to contain an impressive amount of cardboard. This thing is stuffed to the brim with cards and counters of all different shapes and sizes. Compared to other games of its class, Elder Sign provides the best bits for your bucks.

Final Thoughts:

The good news is that Elder Sign does an incredible job of taking a 4+ hour game of Arkham Horror and distilling it into a 60-minute dice roller. If you loved Arkham Horror and the above description is of a game you've been longing for, you can probably stop reading right now. I can assure you that you won't be disappointed. For players on the fence though, continue onward.

As a descendant of Arkham Horror, though, Elder Sign also brings along some of that game's problems. While most of our Elder Sign games wrapped up in a clean 60 minutes, the game showed that it can drag with too many players. If you take a look at the player count and expected play time at the top of this post, you'll see it scales all the way up to 8 players and 120 minutes.

In that scenario, players experience an incredible amount of downtime between turns. There's not much to care about when it's not your turn, either, so this is a recipe for disengaged players that are checking their phones, running to the bathroom, or more worried about dinner.

The other major criticism is the game's difficulty. Most co-operative games, Arkham Horror included, are known for taking the player and kicking them in the crotch. In the absence of true competition, co-op game designers use the allure of an almost-insurmountable challenge to keep players coming back. In that regard, Elder Sign is more likely to lay down and have the player's steamroll it. Just as with the player count though, it's not a game-breaking flaw, as an aware player group can easily tweak the difficulty in the game's favor.

Interestingly enough, Fantasy Flight Games has already demonstrated that the game's difficulty can be amped up, as they have done exactly that with the recent iOS and Android release of Elder Signs: Omens. In this digital version, players can only face Azathoth, the most powerful Ancient One. Also, the negative effects of mythos cards and monsters have been increased, while the ally card deck has been stripped out.

Elder Sign is not a bad game, far from it actually. There are just a few pitfalls that must be avoided along the way. With gamer's beginning to tire of co-op play, these hurdles can cause Elder Sign's appeal to be a bit limited, but if the Mythos is your bag, then this is a must-own title. Just thank me for the advice later.

Disclaimer: MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game