02 February 2015

Elder Sign Review

At this point, and by this point I mean dangerously close to 41, I don't remember how or what exactly made me get interested in H.P. Lovecraft and his crazy writings. I remember reading his stories while I was in high school, and I was into him enough that my buddy Sean got me a Cthlhu for President sticker before the 92' (American Presidential) Election, so it's been at least that long. 

Anyway, point is I've enjoyed the Mythos for a long time. I've read most all of the stories at some time or another, so naturally when Mythos stuff comes out, I'm interested in it by default. Unfortunately over the years, that's largely lead to disappointment, but there have been some bright spots here and there. 

Elder Sign is one of those bright spots. 

The Game Itself
At it's core, Elder Sign is a dice game. In a way, it's kinda like a Cthulhu-themed Yahtzee! kind of thing. There's more to it than that, but when I describe it to people, that's what I say and it's pretty well nails the main mechanic of the game. Elder Sign is produced by Fantasy Flight Games, so you likely have a few suspicions about it going into it, and in all likelihood, you're probably right. 

Elder Sign has lots of things in common with the other FFG game I play a lot, X-Wing Miniatures. First, like with a lot of FFG games, there are a lot of "parts." 

Game in Progress shot of Elder Sign
(Dig my awesome period set dressing props!)

There are Investigator cards, Adventure cards, Other Worlds cards, Items, Unique Items, Spells, Allies, Blessing, Curses, Mythos, Ancient Ones cards, tokens for Sanity, tokens for Stamina, tokens for Clues, tokens for the Doom Track, Elder Sign tokens, funky dice, a carboard clock... I mean it's crazy. Like X-Wing and other FFG games, they're totally necessary, and they make the game play fairly smoothly by including so many different components, but setup is something of a chore if you're not used to playing these kinds of games. 

That said, once you've played a few times, setup goes relatively quickly and isn't off-putting to the point where you don't feel like dragging everything out after working all week either. There is a fair amount of "stuff" management within the game, but again- not to a distracting degree. 

Another thing Elder Sign has in common with X-Wing is the level of complexity. On the surface, it seems like a pretty simple game; basically, the Investigators try to complete the dice criteria on the Adventure cards. If they do, they get some rewards which help them complete other Adventure Cards and/ or amass Elder Signs to help them win the game. If they don't complete the criteria, they lose Sanity, Stamina, or sometimes even something worse (cue evil laugh). 

Once you've played it through several times though, you start to appreciate the level of depth that's present in the game. I read a couple of reviews of Elder Sign before writing this just to kind of get a feel for the general consensus of the game, and it brought back memories of X-Wing's initial reviews from people about it being too simple to be engaging or something that FFG could reasonably support for a period of time. It's kinda the same thing here. Much like X-Wing, at first, you can't see why anyone would want to take anybody except for a handful of the best (easiest) Investigators, but 10 or 12 games in, you start to see the value in some of the more subtle Investigators and how they can compliment each other. 

Mythos card deck, Ancient one card, stuff

Elder Sign is cooperative for the players and there's no GM or ref running things- you're playing against the game in the form of a clock, primarily, though the actual villain in this game is the particular Ancient One you're battling. Beginning players are probably better off selecting an Ancient One, but as you get the hang of things, it's pretty intense to just choose one randomly to battle.

At the end of each Investigator's turn, the game clock advances a quarter, and when it strikes 12, another token is placed on the Ancient One's card on the Doom Track (among other things). While there are things that make the clock run faster or slower, for the most part, it's inexorable just like in real life, so basically Elder Sign is a game where you're trying to be productive in some way every turn because you're trying to beat the clock. While the amount of Doom Track spots varies somewhat, it's basically between 8 and 12 for most of the Ancient Ones. This clock mechanic also translates into a fairly fast-paced game in real life. Even with much table talk and strategy discussion, games will very rarely go past two hours, and are more frequently around 60-90 minutes. 

If the Doom Track completely fills, the Ancient One awakens and generally you're in for a bad time. I'm not saying it's impossible to win once the Awakening happens, but I've lost more than I've won at that point. Each Ancient One has a different "Attack" that occurs during this out of time battle deal and often it's just kind of luck of the draw when it comes to whether your Investigators are going to survive or if they even have an opportunity to strike back if it comes to this. 

Hopefully for you though, it won't come to this. The most common way to win is by collecting a preset number of Elder Signs as dictated by that same Ancient One card with the Doom Track and stuff on it. If you manage to collect that many Elder Signs, you lock the museum back up before the AO can awaken and you win the game. Like spots on the Doom Track, the amount of Elder Signs can vary, but it's generally around 10 or 12- usually a couple more than the number of spots on the Doom Track. 

Investigators can acquire Elder Signs by beating Adventure cards with an Elder Sign icon in the reward section of the card. Not all of the Adventure cards will net you an Elder Sign if you beat them, and they're usually harder to win if they do have an Elder Sign as a reward. 

In addition to the Doom Track getting another token, at Midnight the players have to flip the next Mythos card face up. Mythos cards will produce some kind of in-game effect for the duration of the next turn. Sometimes it's absolutely nothing, sometimes you lose a die for that entire turn. Often there's an immediate effect coupled with a turn duration kind of thing. In any case, the card tells you what's up. 

The clock and the dice

Those of y'all who have messed around with Elder Sign before will recognize the dice in the picture above, but for those of you who are completely new to the game, the black die and the white die get shuffled in with the Unseen Forces Expansion. Yes, there's another thing that Elder Sign has in common with X-Wing- it has Expansions. That said, it's only the one currently, although there's another Expansion coming soon. I plan on doing a separate review for Unseen Forces (and Gates of Arkham when it drops), so I won't talk about it a ton in this review. 

The dice are the main result generating mechanic for the game. Elder Sign includes the six, six-sided green dice you saw above as well as a yellow six-sider and a red six-sider. By default, only the green dice are available to an investigator with the red and yellow becoming available primarily through the use of Unique Items and Common Items respectively, which are represented by cards the player my discard in order to bring in those other dice. 

The green dice, like the X-Wing dice, are not adorned with numbers, but symbols. Namely, the Terror symbol which looks like some tentacles, Lore which looks like a little scroll, Peril which is represented by a skull, then three Investigation results- 1, 2, and 3. The Yellow die is exactly like the green ones,save for the fact that there's no Terror result- it's replaced with a 4 Investigation (thanks +Kaelte Container!), while the Red forgoes the Terror result in favor of a Wildcard face which resembles an Investigator's profile and can be substituted for basically any result necessary. 

When the Investigator whose turn it is decides to try and complete an Adventure card, it goes a little something like this- 

The Lights Out Adventure Card

Again, by default, an Investigator only has access to the 6 green dice, so if the player decides to try and beat the Lights Out Adventure Card, he picks up the dice and starts trying to roll the symbols shown on the card. Remember how I said it was kinda like Cthulhu Yahtzee? 

Now, this isn't quite as easy as it sounds. For each Success you roll, you actually lose that die from your die pool to try and hit the rest of the symbols. For those of you scoring at home, that means for this particular card, you've got to roll those 5 results on 6 dice. Not great odds considering that Lore (the scroll) and Peril (the skull) are only on the green die a single time. 

Making this even tougher, notice the way the symbols are laid out? Ok, so you start at the top and work your way down, so when you make that first roll, no matter what you roll, you can only complete that 3 Investigation criteria. Now yes, internet commenters, there are ways to, "Well, actually..." that statement with Spells or Investigator abilities, but by default, that's the deal. So that first roll, you pick up the six green dice, roll all of them, and if any of them turned up with the 3 Investigation symbol showing (or you have other Investigation results showing that added together equal or exceed 3), you remove it from the pool, place it on top of the 3 Investigation symbol on the Adventure card, congratulate yourself for being successful, pick up the remaining 5 dice and try to roll one of the other criteria. 

The second row is the dual Peril symbols. Making this roll tougher is the fact that on those five remaining dice, you gotta roll two skulls in this next roll- again, a symbol which is only on a single face of each green die. So you pick up the 5 dice you have left (remember, the 6th is on the Adventure card and is out of the pool), roll 'em and if you get two skulls, you take them out of the pool and place them on the card as well, then proceed onto the, in this case, final criteria of two scrolls. With only 3 dice at your disposal (cue foreboding music). 

To clarify, if there are multiple symbols showing in the same row on the Adventure card, you have to roll all of those symbols in the same roll to satisfy that criteria. 

Adventure cards- deck top right, Other Worlds card deck bottom right

So what happens if you blow it? 

You remove a die from the dice pool and try again, and if you want, you can pick out another die from that pool, keep that result, and roll the rest. Rough, huh? If all that wasn't enough to make Lights Out a real tough nut to crack, notice there to the left of the top criteria is a stone looking arrow. That symbol isn't on every Adventure card, but when it is, you have to not only hit all those criteria, you also have to hit them in the order that's on the card. It can make for a tough night, I'll tell ya. On the bright side, cards that don't feature the arrow allow you to hit the order however you want. For example, if we pretend like Lights Out doesn't have the arrow and you rolled a couple of Perils (skulls) on your first roll, you could go ahead and pluck them out of your pool to satisfy that second criteria even though they're second on the list. 

If at the end of all the rolling you manage to satisfy all the criteria on the card, you reap benefits which are dictated by that little white field on the bottom right corner of the card and return to the Souvenir Shop, which is kind of the home base for the museum all these shenanigans are taking place in. In the case of Lights Out, the Investigators would be awarded an all-important Elder Sign and a Spell card, the Adventure card is awarded to the Investigator as a Trophy, and it's replaced with a new Adventure card. If you don't manage to beat the Adventure card, it remains in play, the Investigator stays in that location, and the bad stuff that's represented in red on the lower left corner of the card happens. In this case, that'd be the loss of Stamina, an outside of Midnight advancement of the Doom Track, and the loss of a second point of Stamina. 

As you might have noticed in the pic above, there are always six Adventure cards in play with a few cards generating or removing Adventure cards (including those extra funky Other Worlds cards), but by default it's six. 

Joe Diamond, Private Dick (Huh-huh-huh. Hey Beavis- he said, "Private.")

Investigators are the personas the players adopt while exploring the Museum in Elder Sign. Generally, a player controls a single Investigator, but there's no reason you can't play multiples if you want. Me personally, I think Elder Sign is tougher with fewer Investigators than many because each Investigator has some kind of special ability. Ol' Joe Diamond up there gets two re-rolls instead of just one every time he plays a Clue token, for example. Like I said, some of the abilities are pretty straightforward in their application (think Wedge), while some are more subtle (think Jan Ors). In the beginning, I selected my Investigators, but now I draw randomly just to mix things up a bit. 

Investigators all have a Sanity and Stamina value they start at as shown on their card and represented by the appropriate tokens. Usually, this is some combination that adds up to 10 meaning that while some Investigators are fairly evenly split between their Sanity and Stamina, most are skewed more towards one value than another. As you'd expect your brainy, bookworm types have more Sanity while the fighters in the group are heavier on Stamina. The splits are usually 6 to 4 or 7 to 3 in either direction. 

The Investigator card also outlines what equipment the player's Investigator begins the game with. In Joe's case, that'd be a Common item (the symbol that looks like a .45) and a Clue token (the footprint). Clue tokens let a player pick up as many dice as he'd like (including every single one of them if so desired) and roll them again upon discarding. The effects of Common Items, Unique Items, Spells, and Allies all vary, but are fully explained on their card text many of which will look very familiar to folks who have played any of the other Mythos-themed FFG games. 

If a player's Investigator manages to drop enough Sanity or Stamina to hit zero (or less), that Investigator has been devoured and is removed from the game entirely along with all of the items and whatnots that Investigator has managed to acquire throughout the current game. Earned Elder Signs stay, because once awarded, they don't remain in the player's inventory, per se. Good news is there are some items that will either offset loss of Sanity and/ or Stamina, and some will heal or calm a player in need. There's a couple of characters that also have healing or calming as their special ability, and worst case scenario a crazy or hurt Investigator can receive treatment at the Souvenir Shop at the cost of exploring that turn. You can get a point of either back for free, or you can pay to get more and/ or both, but again- you're playing against the clock in this game so don't get the idea you can just fart around in the Souvenir shop for three or four turns to get fully healed and there not be any consequences!

The Cursed/ Blessings, Common Items, Unique Items, Allies, and Spells decks

The Game Over Hangouts
Elder Sign works pretty well over Hangouts. Typically, one of us "runs the game", that is, they have the master set, so to speak and any cards drawn are drawn from the stacks in that master game and the result is replicated on the slave games the other players maintain to keep track of what's going on. It's a little work, but it's not bad. The main thing that's tough to deal with in playing games online is movement, and since the players are just going from room to room in the Museum, that's a snap to deal with. Basically, you're mainly just keeping up with token accounting, and even then you're really only dealing with the Investigator's tokens (Stamina, Sanity, Clues, etc.) and the game tokens like the Doom Track and Elder Signs. 

One could make do with playing by camera, with the camera showing the play area of the master game and the rest of the folks could just make do with that view without maintaining their slave copies, but you'd need some veterans who know a lot of the card text off the top of their heads, a high resolution setup on both ends, or just not really care. 

A lot of the strategy of Elder Sign comes from trying to maximize the Investigator's turn. There's rarely a clear cut, definitive, correct path forward, and it's very contextual based upon the Adventure card's requirements, the rewards, the penalty for failure, the Investigator's special ability, and the items and whatnot they currently have available, as well as the risk/ reward in trying to down the inevitably more difficult Adventure cards to gain Elder Signs and win the game. In other words, it's a great cooperative game because there's potentially a ton of discussion to be had about who does what, when. While video isn't really necessary if everyone runs their own copy, audio is a must. I can't imagine trying to text or type these kinds of strategy discussions with any effectiveness, though like most things, I'm sure if you wanted to bad enough, you'd find a way to make it work. 

There are some dice apps that could be made to work over Hangouts and the like, or you can just call out results like we do. Note that with Clue tokens, Spells, and Investigator abilities in play, it's beneficial if not necessary to actually call out the results of each die in each roll. There are times when another player might have an option to help the current investigator in some way, so it's important to know what exactly is going on. 

I really like Elder Sign. Its rules are simple enough to explain to a person who is completely new to the game and is fairly easy to get the hang of. I've taken it along to National Team matches and played it back at the hotel after the game with brand new people and a few beers in me, so it's not that tough to get your head around. Also, since most of it is symbols, you could play it with your kids too if the artwork isn't too scary for them. 

To put it another way, much like how X-Wing is a great gateway drug to get your friends to actually play a miniatures game, Elder Sign is a great way to introduce those non-gamers in your life to try a game that's a little more involved that what's typically on the shelves at your local chain retailer. Don't discount this game though- in the reviews I read, I saw people complaining that the game is too easy. Having played this game quite a bit, with and without the Unseen Forces Expansion, I can say they've either become very good at the strategy of this game or they're doing it wrong. Being as how most people on the internet tend to review things after the first or second time they use it/ play it/ whatever, I kinda think it's the latter. 

If there's any cons to the game I'd bring up, it's that- there's a lot of management that can be tough to remember at first- the clock advancing, flipping over a new Mythos card, etc. There's a decent amount of stuff to keep track of, and you'll have those games where the clock strikes nine during the first game turn and you realize you forgot to draw a Mythos card (don't laugh- that happened to us just last Saturday) at the start of the game, but after you've played it a few times, it becomes much easier to run. Like most games, this one is much easier to learn if you've got some buddies who play, but it's not impossible to learn on your own, cold either. The FFG support page for Elder Sign has copies of the rulebook (and also the rules for Unseen Forces and the upcoming Gates of Arkham Expansions) as well as a FAQ, so if you're stuck, check it out. There's also a video tutorial which I didn't even know about until tonight. 

One way you can kind of test drive Elder Sign (or get your fix in-between game sessions) for cheaper than the relatively low retail price is Elder Sign Omens available in the Apple App Store as well as the Google Play Store. The game handles all the necessary number and result-crunching and really does give a pretty accurate representation of the game on your mobile device or tablet. 

It ain't a substitute for the real thing though- the game itself is just too cool, man. Typically high FFG production values are well represented here from the amazing artwork present throughout the game to the tarot-sized Adventure, Investigator, Ancient Ones, and Other Worlds cards. It's a really nice looking setup and when you've got it all strung out on your table mid-game, it really comes together nicely. I could totally see breaking this game out, turning off all the lights in the house, and lighting some candles (maybe not in that order) on a stormy night when my kids get a little older. 

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