Tabletop Review: Elder Sign

Elder Sign
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Release Date: 09/12/2011
Cost: $34.99
Get it Here: Amazon.com

I’m a big fan of Call of Cthulhu and I love the weird spin-offs for it. I own stacks of Mythos cards and board games like The Hills Rise Wild and Cults Across America. However I have yet to purchase anything from Fantasy Flight Games in regards to their Cthulhu based products. I own the original Arkham Horror board game rather than their remake, so I never saw the need to pick that (or the expansions) up. I own Mythos and since no one I know likes card games, I’ve never bothered to pick up the Call of Cthulhu Card Game. I’ve been MORE than interested in both, but since I have the originals I just haven’t seen the point in purchasing the remakes.

So enter Elder Sign, a Cthulhu based card game that plays similarly to the Dungeons & Dragons cooperative random tile games Wizards of the Coast has been putting out for a while (with Legend of Drizzt hitting stores in October). Elder Sign of nothing but cards, chips and dice, but it’s definitely a board game through and through. The end result is something truly unique and charming, which is not a descriptor I ever thought I’d use regarding the Cthulhu Mythos.

Elder Sign can be played by as many as eight players and as few as one. Yes, you can play this game solo and it’s still a lot of fun. The number of people you have playing changes the difficulty of the game. Some things get easier with more players while others get tougher. This means the game’s dynamic is always challenge as well as always changing.

The idea behind Elder Sign is similar to Arkham Horro and a lot of other fantasy based games. You and the other players are working co-operatively to stop a big bad. In Elder Sign‘s case, it’s a Great Old One or Outer God. The stars are right for a thing beyond our comprehension to enter our reality and subjugate it. You and your fellow players are the only ones that can stop it by collect enough Elder Signs to seal the gate it is trying to come through. Characters will die horribly as you do battle with evil minions and test your characters’ sanity and physical prowess in an attempt to save humanity. No pressure or anything though.

Set up right out of the box doesn’t take that long. You’ll have to poke all the tokens and chips free from their cardboard casing, but things can be set up in under fifteen minutes and about five minutes each time you play after that. The bulk of your time will be spent shuffling the various piles of cards that make up the game. You have your Ancient One cards, which determine what beastie you’ll be facing. For example, our first game put us up against Nyarlathotep (Just in time for Persona 2: Innocent Sin!) and our second game gave us Hastur via The King In Yellow. Each Ancient One has its own unique power that affects how the game is played. They also have their own unique “Doom Track” which is basically the amount of time you have before it enters our world. Of course doom tokens are earned (if that is the right word for it…) sporadically so it’s as much luck as it is strategy. If you are unfortunate to have a Doom Track filled, the Great Old One or Outer God enters our world and now you have to do battle with that. Which basically means you die. So good luck when that happens.

Other types of cards include Adventure Cards (which depict various locations your characters can travel to), Other World Cards (which are the same as Adventure Cards, but they must be triggered AND are places not of this world), Common Item cards, Unique Item Cards, Spell Cards and Ally Cards (all things that can be used by players in the game to help them out.) There are also Doom Cards, one of which is played every time the game’s clock strikes midnight. These cards give you new challenges and horrors to deal with. Finally, there are the Investigator cards. You have a choice between sixteen Investigators, each with their own starting equipment, special ability, Sanity Points and Hit Points. Players will quickly discover which characters are the best/their favorites but because you get to go through all the Investigators before it is officially game over, you might start the game with someone else so that the better characters come in at the midway or end point of the game. There’s a strategy to it all. As we never had a game where the initial Investigators survived, we ended up that your second choice may be even more important than your first one. Oddly enough, in each game we played, everyone ended with the same exact characters, so we kind of determined those were the failsafe characters. Especially Jenny Barnes and Gloria Goldberg. I should point out there are so clever homages with the characters. Harvey Walters, the character created in the Call of Cthulhu creation process walkthrough is here, as is a nod to Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers.

So how does one PLAY Elder Sign? Well, first there is a lot of card shuffling. You have eight different “decks” to shuffle after all. After that each player picks their first investigator and pulls starting equipment, sanity tokens and health tokens based on the card’s stats. Because it is a co-operative game, turn order is decided play the players. From there you flip over the first six Adventure Cards and they will make up the playing field. Finally, you set the Clock (a spinner designed to look like a clock) to midnight. Then you flip over the first Mythos Card. Mythos cards are divided into two pieces – the first bit is an effect that occurs immediately, such as adding a Doom Token or playing a monster. The second is either an effect that happens the next time the clock strikes midnight, or is a lingering effect that occurs until then. From there the first player decides what adventure card he wants his player to go to and then he tries to successfully pass the adventure.

An adventure is played by rolling the special dice unique to Elder Sign. You have six green dice, one yellow one and a red one. The yellow and red dice produce better results but you can only roll them via special means. These range from expending an item card to a character’s special ability. The symbols on the die are Scroll, Skull, Magnifying Glass and Terror. The red die has a unique symbol called wild card that can act as any of the four other symbols. Now here’s where things get a bit tricky. The goal is to roll the symbols needed on each adventure card. So it’s a bit like craps. The catch is that each line of the card requires a different roll of the dice and one a die (or dice) has been used towards an adventure track, it can’t be reused towards the other lines that must be completed.

Let’s give an example. Say a player is on the card “Another Dimension.” This card has two adventure track lines. The first is a Scroll and a Magnifying Glass. The second is a Terror symbol and a Skull. The players then rolls all six green dice to try and complete one or the other tracks. Some cards require you to do tracks in order while others don’t. In this example, “Another Dimension” does not. I roll the dice and I get 3 Terrors, 1 Skull, 1 Magnifying glass worth a single point and another worth 3 Points (three of the six sides are magnifying glasses – each worth a different point amount). Because of this roll, I can complete the second track on the card. So I place one of the dice showing a terror symbol and the one showing the Skull symbol on the card. This leaves me four dice to try and roll a Scroll and a Magnifying Glass. I roll again and I get a skull, and one of each of the three kinds of magnifying glasses. So I don’t succeed with the last adventure track. Now I have two options. I can either choose to give up and take the penalty show on the card (lose 1 Sanity Point and 2 Hit Points) or I can try again. As I don’t want to take horrible amounts of damage, I choose try again. This means I must give up one of the dice that I rolled. So now I am down to three dice instead of four. Then I have the option of Focus/Assist, which lets me keep one of the dice as is. I choose one of the magnifying glasses and set that on my character card. That means I now have two dice in which I hope to roll a Scroll. Down a bit from the original six, eh? I roll again and get…a skull and magnifying glass. Well, piss. I give up another die and that means I have only one die in which to roll a scroll, which is basically a one-in-six chance. I roll it and…HOLY CRAP I GET A SCROLL! WHOO HOOO! That means I pass the adventure and there is lots of cheering and excitement amongst the players. Because I passed the adventure, I get to keep the card, which is worth 2 trophy points (experience points), although this number will change based on the card you win. I also get all of the rewards shown on the card. In this case it is a spell, a common item and an ELDER SIGN. That means we are one step closer to defeating the Great Old One. Of course one battle does not win a war and so we continue on. The Adventure Card is replaced by another one from the deck if it is a regular card or not at all if it is an Other World card (the gate to that otherworldly place is no more) and the game continues anew.

Besides playing out an adventure card, you can also stay at the home base of the characters and trade in your trophies for healing or prizes. These prizes range from clue tokens that let you reroll to ally cards (cannon fodder) and even Elder Signs. Don’t underestimate how much it is worth saving up your trophies for one of those Elder Signs as that’s how we managed to beat Nyarlathotep. The catch is that once an Investigator dies, the players loses all their items and trophies, so if you have a character not long for the world, try spending what you have so you can go out with a bang. Hoarding the items you collect from winning adventures is definitely not a good idea, so use them freely to make everyone’s life a little easier.

After a player goes, you move the clock forward three hours and begin the next player’s turn. Repeat until you hit midnight when you flip over another Mythos card and the cycle begins anew. Of course with more than four players, some players won’t get to act on a day’s play. That might make the game a little frustrating for some players, along with the high difficulty threshold of some adventure cards, but that’s par for the course with any Mythos-oriented game. Because the game is just as much about the fun of LOSING as it is winning, it might take a certain mindset to play this game. If you’re SERIOUS BUSINESS about winning games, than you might want to look elsewhere as beating an Ancient God is definitely an uphill battle here. If you’re a big fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos in general or you can easily laugh off the fact that your character was just eaten by a dimensional shamble in a koi pond, then you’ll have a lot of fun here.

Each play through lasts an hour and the game is immensely fun. Although it involves a lot of luck via what you roll, there is still a great deal of strategy involved. What combination of investigators you have can determine how easy of a time you have, as does making sure you do adventures that are the best match for your character. An example of this is with Other World adventure cards. Gloria Goldberg gets to roll the special yellow and red dice for free when she takes on an Other World card. So why wouldn’t you have her player do every one of those that comes up. Free bonus dice! Another example is with the aforementioned Harvey Walters. His special ability is he can change any one Terror result into a Scroll, so if he is playing, have him tackle Scroll heavy adventures as he has a one-in-three chance instead of a one-in-six one of getting one. Other strategy aspects include making sure the adventure’s benefit is worth the risk. Sure the adventure might have an Elder Sign as a reward, but it might be insanely hard with an extreme penalty. You might be better off tackling that when you have items and spell to influence your result there. The most important thing is that everyone needs to work together as a team if you’re going to win Elder Sign.

I honestly have to say that Elder Sign is an amazing game. It’s brilliantly executed, easy to learn, but still pretty deep, and it’s half the cost of most RPG style board games. At only $34.99, it’s an incredible good deal. My girlfriend, who has never played a tabletop RPG in her life, said this was her favorite board game ever and wanted to know when we could try it again. Although Elder Sign isn’t *my* favorite board game of all time, it is the best new tabletop game of 2011 by far. I love that it is extremely portable (and affordable) compared to other games of its kind. The Cthulhu motif plays out wonderfully here and there is so much randomization that the game will never play out the same way twice. Sure the sense of dread and foreboding doom remains the same, but you never know what Lovecraftian terror you and your friends will have to fight off next. If you enjoy board or card games at all, Elder Sign is definitely worth picking up as soon as you can.

You can learn more about Elder Sign by visiting its official home page here. You can also download the rulebook here.

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