Elder Sign is a cooperative dice game, set in the ever-popular Lovecraft universe of creeping dread, mysterious artifacts and sanity-testing terrors.
It’s an adaptation of the classic Arkham Horror, intended to give players a slimmed down, quicker experience while keeping alive some of the creepy theme.
But how well does it work, and is the game challenging enough?
First up, I’ve never played Arkham Horror, so I can’t offer comment on how well adapted the game is. But I can certainly talk about how the game plays in isolation, and, as a fan of Lovecraft, how well the theme is implemented.
The fantastic artwork of this game – it’s a typical Fantasy Flight production, with great production value – brings the theme to life from the moment you crack open the box.
Like any quick game, particularly dice games, the theme is in danger of being lost if you don’t take the time to appreciate it.
It’s well worth reading the flavour text on the cards, admiring the artwork and putting some spooky music on while you’re playing.
The game sees players taking on the roles of investigators at the Miskatonic University Museum. Anyone familiar with Lovecraft lore will know it’s no place to be after dark.
Unfortunately, the game takes place overnight, and the museum is home to an Ancient One, styled after various Lovecraft monsters.
The aim is to explore the museum, solving puzzles using dice, to earn elder signs used to prevent the Ancient One from awakening. The mechanics used in the dice games will be familiar with most tabletop gamers, think Yahtzee / Zombie Dice etc. Dice can be re-rolled, locked in position if you roll a particularly important one you need on the next turn, etc.
The game area is an ever-changing collection of six basic rooms and scenarios, and monsters appear at various points throughout the game, needing to be defeated before the rooms and scenarios can be outwitted.
As you’d expect, investigators have various special abilities, and you’re able to purchase special abilities in the museum lobby (sitting out one turn of the game if you do so) using the game’s ‘currency’ – trophies won from outwitting monsters and rooms.
One great element of this game is the clock which ticks ever-onwards towards midnight as each player ends a turn. At the stroke of midnight, a card is drawn which has both immediate effects, and lingering ones which last until the next time the clock reaches midnight.
Occasionally, losing a challenge, or the clock hitting 12, will result in a doom token being placed on the game’s doom track – a way of counting down to the appearance of the Ancient One. It’s a race to acquire elder signs before the Big Bad, think Cthulhu or The King in Yellow, acquires all its doom tokens and appears for a battle (or not in one case, simply appearing causes the game to end. Good luck with that one).
Does it work with two players?
I’ve played it with both two and three players so far, and have played through a few times so I’m starting to get a good feel for the game and its strengths and weaknesses.
I think three or four players is probably the max I would recommend, as there is some downtime between turns. Players can assist each other in a small way to defeat monsters, rooms etc, but there’s not much in-game interaction.
But this is a co-op game, and there’s no doubt that cooperation is needed in order to succeed. It pays to think ahead a few moves, to utilise every player’s special abilities properly, assigning them a particular challenge to defeat as a result.
As with any dice game, there is a large amount of luck involved, but this is minimised through the use of the special abilities and bonus cards you can acquire throughout the game. As the game progresses, it does feel less like luck that is getting you through the game than skill.
Luck also comes to play in the selection of rooms / challenges available. Cards are shuffled and drawn as the game progresses. You may have a run of good luck, picking cards you can defeat fairly easily, or you may have a nightmare of a game.
Having more than two players can certainly help, there are more opportunities to benefit from investigators’ special abilities, more brains at the table to think through puzzles. But two players does work, and work well. The game is quicker too if that’s your thing.
It can also be played as a solitaire game, which I fancy trying when I can, but I imagine going up against a game like this with just one investigator would be tough.
So the game itself is more than a small, filler dice game, but it’s certainly not a lengthy, three or four hour marathon. There’s lots to think about, plenty to enjoy in the artwork and production, and it’s good fun.
Check out the official game page here.
See Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop play through the game here.
Fantasy Flight’s overview can be seen here on YouTube.
The ever-reliable Dice Tower review is here.