In 1987, Charlie Krank, Richard Launius, Sandy Petersen, and Lynn Willis designed a board game called Arkham Horror, a game historically important as one of the earliest cooperative games. The game made use of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which became popular in a ton of games. Fantasy Flight’s reproduction of the game in 2005 set new standards for the system, and they’ve been cranking out annual expansions. With this year’s release of Mansions of Madness, FF took the universe in a new direction. Now they’re heading back to the well with:
Elder Sign was co-designed by one of Arkham Horror’s designers, Richard Launius, who has been on somewhat of a roll recently. He didn’t really design anything between the two Arkham editions, but in 2010, he came out with Defenders of the Realm, which has been a pretty popular game. This year, he’s got Dragon Rampage, Run Fight or Die, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, an expansion for Mansions of Madness, and now Elder Sign. His co-designer was Kevin Wilson, the man behind most of Fantasy Flight’s big properties, including the Arkham Horror reboot, Descent, the Cosmic Encounter reboot, Sid Meier’s Civilization, etc. This game is for 1-8 players aged 13 and up, and takes around 2 hours to play. Much like AH, this is a cooperative game based in the Cthulhu Mythos where investigators are trying to prevent the return of one of the Ancient Ones. Rather than sealing gates that keep popping up around the town of Arkham, this one involves trying to find Elder Signs in a museum.
Elder Sign comes with a cardboard clock; an entrance reference sheet; eight dice (6 green, 1 red, 1 yellow); 80 large cards (16 Investigators, 8 Ancient Ones, 48 Adventures, and 8 Other World Adventures); 76 small cards (12 common items, 12 unique items, 12 spells, 8 allies, and 32 Mythos cards); and 144 cardboard tokens (16 Investigator markers, 30 sanity tokens, 30 stamina tokens, 15 clue tokens, 22 monster markers, 5 mask monster markers, 12 doom tokens, and 17 Elder Sign tokens).
At the start of the game, you’ll be choosing one of the Ancient Ones to be the big bad for the game. Monster tokens go in a monster cup, and six adventures are dealt out face up. Each player gets a random investigator, and the first player resolves a Mythos card. Mythos cards have two effects – immediate and lingering, which I’ll explain more later.
On a turn, the active player goes through three phases: move, resolve an adventure/wait at the entrance, and advance the clock. To move, you’ll put your Investigator marker on either an adventure card or the adventure reference sheet. If you place on an adventure card, your next phase is resolve an adventure. If you go to the entrance, your next phase is to wait at the entrance.
To resolve an adventure, you roll the six green dice. Each card shows one or more horizontal rows that give you the criteria needed to finish it off. These are tasks. Some dice may be locked, so you can’t use them. The card showing here requires an investigation value of 3 or more, two peril (skull) results, and two lord (scroll) results. After your roll (adding the yellow or red die by spending common or unique items), you see if you’ve fulfilled any of the tasks. If so, place your dice on the spaces on the card. You can’t partially fill a row – it’s all or nothing, and you can only do one task per roll. If there are any remaining tasks, you roll the leftover dice and attempt to fulfill another task. If you’ve fulfilled all tasks, you’ve completed the adventure. You take rewards and the card, replacing it with another from the deck. If you fail to complete a task, you must first resolve any terror effects on the card (as long as one of the rolled dice had a terror result). You can then either attempt the task again, or fail. If you want to try again, you have to try with one less die which you may not roll again this turn. You could also choose to focus one die from your previous roll by placing it on your (or another) investigator token. If you fail because you can’t roll any more, you take the penalty listed on the card.
But you don’t have to attempt an adventure. Instead, if you went to the entrance, you do your waiting step. Here, you can heal, search lost and found by rolling a die, or buy a souvenir. Cards you receive by beating adventures are trophies that can be spent here.
Finally, you advance the clock. Basically, the first player moves the hour hand ahead three hours. Every time the clock strikes midnight, you have to resolve a new Mythos card. Mythos cards, as I mentioned before, have immediate and lingering effects. Immediate effects are usually either adding tokens to the Doom track, or drawing a monster. Monsters go in so-called monster tasks, which are spaces on adventure cards surrounded by white borders. If there are no adventure cards with monster task spaces, you basically are adding another task that must be overcome. Lingering effects are nasty events that will stick around until the game ends, or until fulfilled.
The game ends in victory if the investigators collect enough Elder Signs, as specified on the Ancient One card. However, if the Doom track reaches its final space, you must do a final battle with the Ancient One. The Ancient One has a combat task, and every time an investigator beats it, one doom token is removed from the Doom track. After each attack, the clock advances three hours. Every time it crosses midnight, the Ancient One attacks back. During the final battle, the investigators win by removing all doom tokens. They lose by all getting devoured.
Let’s face it – this is Arkham Horror: The Dice Game. That right there should tell you everything you need to know. The theme is virtually identical, though on a smaller scale. There’s no board to move around on, and not quite so much stuff. However, there’s a similar flow – you have a limited amount of time to complete tasks and accomplish your objective before the Ancient One awakens and kills you all. Your skill in dice rolling may be the only thing between you and armageddon. One of the things I love about Arkham Horror is how deep the theme is, and how you’re skating by one inch from doom the entire game, but I’ll admit that the game is incredibly random. With AH, you’re looking at more of a story experience than a really strategic game. Elder Sign looks to be just as random, but at least you know what you’re getting into with the adventures instead of having a blind card draw. I don’t know how intense the theme will be, and won’t until I give it a try – I think some friends snagged a copy at GenCon, so maybe I’ll be able to play soon. For now, I’m hesitant about the game. There’s a lot of dice rolling, and I feel like there might be even less control than in AH. Who knows, it might be the greatest thing ever. Only time will tell. Thanks for reading!