Elder Sign and Elder Sign: Unseen Forces Review


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Posted by Byron on Mar 30, 2015

Talk about unspeakable horrors. It's a sad thing when the digital version of your board game—a dice game, no less—outshines the physical game in virtually every way. At least it indicates that Fantasy Flight Games, somewhere along the line, actually realized the travesty they'd wrought.

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice game for 1-8 players set in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Donning the trilby of one of 16 arcane investigators, 1920s pulp archetypes familiar to anybody who's played FFG's Arkham Horror or its other spinoffs, the players must work as a team to conquer the maddening terrors of...a night at the museum. No Ben Stiller in this production, but there is an otherworldly, all-powerful Ancient One attempting to rupture the membrane of time and space. In the town of Arkham, that's called "Tuesday."

After selecting their Ancient One from a lineup of the usual suspects (Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth and other polysyllabic nightmares), players will investigate the six tarot-sized Adventure Cards, drawn from a sizeable deck, depicting the weird goings-on at Miskatonic University Museum. You might get lost in the hedge maze, find something lurking in the koi pond, or stumble on a secret gathering of cultists.

Completing these Adventures is as easy as rolling the right symbols on the game's six custom green dice. Each die has three special icons—terror, peril, and lore—with the rest of the faces providing varying amounts of investigation. Most Adventures have 2-3 separate tasks, each requiring a specific mix of icons and/or investigation value. If your roll matches any task on the card, you may cover that task with the matching dice and reroll any dice that remain. If you can't match any tasks, you lose a die before trying again. Since you must complete all tasks in one go, losing a couple of dice this way usually means losing the entire Adventure. Of course, the Items, Unique Items, Spells, and Clues you earn from the Adventures can tip the odds back in your favor. Once you use them, though, they're gone for good—and if you still fail, you'll suffer the Adventure's penalty, often a hit to your investigator's stamina or sanity or the appearance of a monster tile. Monsters lurk on Adventure cards, adding additional tasks.

The rarer, harder Adventures up the stakes, tantalizing players with an Elder Sign, usually at the risk of adding a Doom Token to the Ancient One's track. Players win if they can collect enough Elder Signs to seal away the Ancient One before its Doom Track fills; otherwise, they'll face the big bad in a last desperate battle for the survival of the human race. Both investigators and Ancient Ones have unique stats and abilities that add to the game's replayability.

At first blush, this is an accessible, atmospheric entry into the Arkham Horror family. The flavor text and artwork do well to convey the intimate and naturally creepy setting of a museum after dark (although the cramped and dingy illustrations can't compare to the blown-up, high-definition versions in the digital game). An innovative clock mechanic, also known as "It's never noon in Arkham," balances the game for the entire range of suggested player counts, which can't be said for its older brother Arkham Horror.

However, Nyarlathotep is in the details, and the details in Elder Sign...well, they kind of suck. The most commonly cited complaint is that the game's just too easy. The doom counter creeps forward while investigators stuff their pockets with Elder Signs. All you need is time, rather than skill, to beat this game—in this case, about a half hour longer than a dice game this simple ought to last.

This lack of difficulty is only a symptom of the game's underlying neurosis, though, which is that it's not actually very interesting. There are precisely two meaningful decisions to make per turn: which Adventure to tackle and how many assets you're willing to spend to beat it. The former is a simple risk-reward calculation, and the answer to the latter is almost always "as many as it takes," since winning the Adventure usually refills your inventory anyway. Most damningly, both these decisions occur before you even start rolling—for the rest of the turn, you're pretty much on autopilot.

Some people call this game "Cthulhu Yahtzee," but that's an insult to Yahtzee, which combines its hold-and-reroll mechanic and multitude of scoring categories to spawn tactical decisions during each roll. Elder Sign lacks even the basic tension of free rerolls; you'll need to spend Clue tokens, a rare resource, to even approach the strategic depth of Yahtzee. Without that hold-and-reroll choice, it's just a dressed-up skill check.

The decks of Items and Spells are equally boring. They have thematic names and illustrations, but nearly every card in each deck is identical, providing you either a powered-up yellow die, an even better red die, or the ability to lock dice between turns. They're certainly useful—most Adventures would be impossible without them—but this sameyness kills off any excitement you might get from earning these "rewards."

If this still sounds like a game you'd enjoy, it's pretty much mandatory to purchase the first expansion, Unseen Forces. It adds new, more challenging Ancient Ones like Shudde M'ell, who permanently reduces the number of Adventures every time you fail one; a few new items and spells (and a lot more filler); and more difficult Mythos cards that have the players choose between two equally terrible effects. It also replaces the original's Museum Entrance card, fixing some unbalanced or game-slowing elements, and introduces Blessings (roll an extra die as long as you keep winning Adventures) and Curses (randomly remove a die from your pool until you stop losing). If Elder Sign's original vision of a dicey museum excursion sounds like fun, this is pretty much the only way to play. All the same, this expansion does little but plug holes that shouldn't have existed in the first place. Elder Sign didn't need to be rebalanced; it needed to be a completely different game.

On a conceptual level, this feels like a 2am brainflash that somebody should have looked at the next day and realized, "Hey, this design makes no sense." Attempting to bridge the gap between thematic adventure game and light dice game, the designers (both industry veterans with big games under their belts) created this abomination of disconnected or dead-end mechanics that doesn't really succeed at being either.

And then they shrugged their shoulders and published it anyway. As Lovecraft once wrote,