Elder Sign: Omens, a board game for one, was a permanent fixture on my tablet until I did a Moses and broke the bloody thing at a scene of wild revelry. I own the physical version as well – more of a dice game than a board game – which just goes to show that I’m some sort of miserable Cthuluphile who likes anything with a sanity stat. Hidden among the busy frontpage of the current sale, Fantasy Flight’s digital Mythos-lite game has just been released on Steam, with two sets of DLC included. Below, I shall tell you why I installed it immediately but also why you may want to consider your purchase carefully, no matter how much you might love lurking horrors and the Innsmouth look.
Elder Sign shares some characters and icons with Arkham Horror, Fantasy Flight’s enormous investigative horror board game that is two-thirds a Hobbes quote, being ‘nasty, brutish and really really long’. The theme and setting are also similar, but Elder Sign is a very different kettle of Deep Ones. Where Arkham sprawls across the fictional city and its environs (as well as every inch of floorspace in my sodding apartment), Elder Sign’s adventures are confined to a single building. Well, that and the occasional foxtrot across dimensions and a spot of globe-trotting in the DLC. Forget that though – the point is, Elder Signs is a compact game, perfect to poke at during a long flight or train journey, but not necessarily a decent companion while you’re nestled in the parlour with your mighty PC.
That said, I did just spend half an hour playing. All of my investigators died. Of course they did. That’s what happens.
When the game starts, you choose an Elder One (ranging from an angry Mardi Gras lizard to the heat death of the universe) and a team of four investigators, each with a special ability. Then you’re dumped into the Arkham Museum, which is represented by a map but is really a menu containing various ways to die – the location of rooms doesn’t actually matter. The rooms are marked with icons representing various possible adventures, which involve activities such as being frightened half to death by a ghost, devoured by a reanimated exhibition or driven insane by your own reflection. If you’re really lucky, the room will have a monstrous hand reaching out of it, scrabbling at your eyeballs. That means there’s a monster in there as well as a jolly adventure. Or maybe there’s a fringe of tentacles around the doorway, which means there’s the possibility of triggering a terror event while poking about among the clues.
They should have slapped the Night At The Museum license on the top, replaced Cthulhu with Mickey Rooney and had this bastard thing find its way into a few stockings this Christmas. Every investigator would be represented by a different Ben Stiller role. Kids fighting over who gets to be Zoolander, mum keeping mum and sitting pretty with Chas Tenenbaum while slow-witted Uncle Ichabod is left with Starsky.
We’re in Lovecraft land though so the cast of characters ranges from terrified physicians to gun-toting gangsters. Their abilities and items are confusing to a newcomer. Amanda Sharpe can solve multiple tasks using the same die roll. Gloria Goldberg can take the red and yellow dice, provided they’re unlocked, when attempting any Other World adventure. Got that? Yeah?
Of course you haven’t. Play Elder Sign without learning the meaning of every symbol and process beforehand and it’s about as opaque as the Great Wall of China. Fortunately, that’s because the depiction of the rules is somewhat abstract rather than a case of the rules themselves being overly complicated. Despite the strong use of theme – and the illustrations are mostly lovely in fullscreen – the game is about rolling dice and hoping for the right results at the right time. Objects and abilities allow characters to ‘lock’ a roll, holding it over until the next round, or to roll an extra die, some of which have a greater chance of success.
Every turn, the player sends each investigator into a room, or allows them to rest and recover. The dangers that await can be previewed by clicking on the name of the adventure that has been randomly placed within, so the main tactic is to fit each character to a challenge they are likely to overcome. Easier tasks carry lesser rewards for success and lighter punishments for failure, but are useful in the early game, to gather equipment and power. A simple investigation might yield a couple of random items, which could be weapons or other helpful equipment, while a trickier multi-stage task could reward successful characters with an actual elder sign. Collect enough of those and the game is won.
Failing a task might lead to injuries, madness or the addition of Doom tokens to the Elder God’s card. When those bad boys reach a specific threshold, the bastard thing wakes up and punts our entire reality into the endzone.
It’s a game of firefighting. Incidents appear, some demanding immediate attention because they have an ongoing negative effect, and the player must send investigators to address them. It’s impossible to extinguish all the flames and sometimes dousing one problem will cause another to erupt. Rapid escalation can be frustrating when the dice continually fail to come up with the goods and the nature of the game means that the luck of the roll is a constant factor, but there are also tense tactical desisions to make and enough thematic heft to bring out fragments of narrative. Characters often perish for the greater good and desperation creates unlikely heroes.
As with Arkham Horror, a great deal of the enjoyment comes from the connections between theme and rules. When you’ve become accustomed to the icons, looking at the card for a specific investigation can be pleasing. Of course succeeding will cause me to lose sanity for is it not implied that the character must claw at the exposed and quivering jelly of his own brain? That sort of thing.
The PC probably isn’t the ideal home for the game though. As I said earlier, the artwork looks great and there are no problems with the adaptation (although more tooltips would be welcome), but nothing is gained in the transition to PC. But then if you don’t have a device that will play the tablet version and don’t fancy clattering actual dice across your desk, something is gained simply because the game is now available to you, and on a laptop it could still be a travel companion.
Strong on theme and tactically sound but also reliant on luck, it’s a short and highly replayable diversion. In some ways, it’s no more than a Lovecraft themed fruit machine, with items and abilities supplying holds and nudges, but apart from the results of each roll, the whole game is transparent. When they enter a room, investigators know exactly what they’re going to face, and that lends weight to each decision and makes the rare victories feel well-earned.
The release also gives me hope that Fantasy Flight might consider PC versions to be a viable option, although much of that might depend on how well Elder Sign sells. Launching at £11.99 during a crowded sale might not be the best timing.