Wot I Think: Elder Sign – Omens

By Adam Smith on November 28th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

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.

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34 Comments »

  1. Syphus says:

    I just kind of glossed over the review, but this seems just like big-screen version of the Android version. In which case, I would suggest buying the mobile app and enjoy playing it on your phone instead.

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      Aerothorn says:

      I belive the target market for this port would be:

      A) People who don’t have smartphones, and/or
      B) People who enjoy playing games on a screen larger than said phone (and don’t own a tablet).

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      Rikard Peterson says:

      I just kind of glossed over the review
      If you’d read it instead of glossing over it, you’d have found that point already made.

  2. dancingcrab says:

    ^ Exactly what Syphus said. Get the mobile version. Cheaper initial cost too.

    • gwathdring says:

      Psssssst. Not everyone has/wants a tablet or smart-phone. Some of those people would still buy digital board games. Is that market big enough to make development costs worthwhile? Dunno. But it’s there.

      • Syphus says:

        Then those people can actually buy the real board game. I think there are a number of other FFG games that are way more suited to being ported to the PC, and it’d be a shame if this put them off doing that.

    • Kuuppa says:

      Why would I? I don’t have a smartphone as I have no need for such a thing. I rarely need to play games or browse the web or send email when I’m outside the walls of my home so there is simply no need for an expensive smartphone. Much cheaper and sturdier phones can satisfy my simple needs quite easily.

      But I do have a computer. Several in fact. So I’m gonna buy this.

      Thought I might buy myself a tablet at some point.

  3. malkav11 says:

    It’s so automatic, comparing this one to Arkham Horror, but aside from sharing art and (ostensibly) characters, they really have nothing much in common in terms of gameplay. I also disagree that it is in any meaningful way thematic. It’s a bunch of dicerolling with some cthulhu-y icons instead of numbers on. There are some super light tactics involved in what challenges to tackle when, and some very light decisions to make in terms of which dice to keep when rerolling (be that because of failure or with a spell item), but do not expect a meaty game here and certainly don’t expect the rich thematicity or narrative properties of Arkham Horror.

    That said, I think it works better as a tablet (and I guess now PC) game than it does as a boardgame because every adventure gets cool full screen graphics and ominous music, and there’s funky SFX for the dice and such. It’s still not actually meaningfully thematic or more than skin deep, but it at least has the proper ambience.

    • iucounu says:

      Well, I think there are definite mechanical similarities. Having to attend various locations and pass challenges as all the time stuff ramps up around you is very AH. You don’t have to physically move about, I guess, so that’s a difference, but otherwise it’s not so different.

      • gwathdring says:

        But you could apply that same description to pretty much every co-op board game. Firefighting. Arkham Horror is distinct from other co-op games in a number of ways, and they aren’t really present here. I could describe ghost stories the way you described this … but Ghost Stories is nothing like either this OR Arkham Horror. Very, very different games.

        • iucounu says:

          I bow to experience here, because although I’ve played AH and ES:O a fair bit I haven’t played any other co-op board games – what looks like significant similarity may just be, as you say. fire-fighting.

      • malkav11 says:

        The “locations” are basically just challenges on a checklist – the only mechanical invocation of their “placehood” is that if you attempt a challenge and fail, anyone trying that challenge after you that turn can use you as an additional repository for held dice. That’s it. There’s no movement on either the player side or the monsters, and there’s no spatial connection between “locations”. You never have to sneak past monsters or be delayed in the streets by fighting them. They aren’t similar to Arkham Horror’s version of things in any meaningful way.

        Similarly, in Elder Sign most of the actual ramp-up comes from a failure spiral – the resources you lose and the doom tokens and monsters you spawn by failing some of the challenges. Granted, there is the midnight phase, where there’s one tick of something bad happening every complete go-round, and a few of the challenges have additional bad things they trigger at that time if you don’t manage to close them down first, but it’s not really very similar to Arkham Horror’s Mythos Phase mechanics because you’re mostly just acting against a timer. Whereas in Arkham Horror, in addition to either advancing the timer or spawning monsters, you have monsters moving around and changing the board environment, you have new challenges popping up in the form of gates to close, you’re possibly losing helpful things like allies or stores from the advancement of the terror track, and every card has its own bespoke effect like one time benefits or penalties, ongoing events, and the rumors that represent an additional serious timer that needs to be managed.

        Arkham Horror is a fight against impending and increasingly chaotic doom in a place that must be navigated, harvested for benefits, and defended. Elder Sign is a game of rolling dice to match checklists against a timer.

  4. thekelvingreen says:

    I love playing the tabletop version but part of my enjoyment is working with my friends to defeat the Great Old Ones. I think I’d miss that in the electronic version.

    • Syphus says:

      You can play multiplayer, at least on the phone / tablet, it just involves handing the phone back and forth.

  5. Ich Will says:

    Cue a lawsuit by Bethesda, claiming ownership of the word Elder.

    • Lanfranc says:

      Cue a countersuit by Yog-Sothoth for declarative judgement, claiming ownership of their minds and souls.

    • Tusque D'Ivoire says:

      I thought so too, after first hearing from this game. Surely the world Elder is even more associated with Bethesdas ultra-franchise than those measly Scrolls.

    • Bahlof says:

      Damn you stole my joke before I could say it!

  6. LVX156 says:

    *sigh* Fine, fine, I’ll buy you. *grumbles*

    I wish someone could put out a really good RPG or adventure game set in the Cthulhu Mythos world. I’ve played pretty much every single one there is, but I want more. Imagine an open world RPG set in and around New Orleans, sort of like the first Gabriel Knight game. Except in RPG form. And huge. And with gameplay that gives you more XP for exploration and research than from combat.

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      Cyphran says:

      Have you tried The Secret World? Check out the RPS WITs. Now that it doesn’t have a monthly it’s worth a look if that made you nervous. Interesting world, crafted with detail. Combat isn’t amazing, but exploring and investigating are a lot of fun.

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    strangeloup says:

    It does look quite interesting, and although I do have a smartphone, it’s not got an especially big screen, so I think I’d rather like this version.

    I keep wanting to have a go of Arkham Horror, as well, despite rumour having it that a single game of it can last roughly the same amount of time as a cricket match, and require an equivalent amount of space. Whether the Elder Gods understand cricket is another question entirely.

    • gwathdring says:

      If you don’t mind fiddly complicated things and you do like thematic challenges that work both single player and co-op and you like pretty artwork and Lovecraft? You will like Arkham Horror. You can always set it up in a corner and take a break when you feel tired of it and do it in two or so moderate length sessions instead of one 2-3 hour session. :)

      Also still wanting to try it despite having been warned is a pretty good indicator that, whether or not you’ll like Arkham Horror specifically, it’s generally your kind of thing.

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        strangeloup says:

        That sounds like all the things I like!

        I didn’t know that you could play Arkham Horror solo, and that tidbit of information has made me want to acquire a copy. I’ve always been rather a fan of Lovecraft, and the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG captures it rather well, but it tends to be fiddly to arrange a game. Seems like Arkham Horror would be a happy medium.

        • gombicek says:

          You can use Vassal, http://www.vassalengine.org/ . It has a module for Arkham horror, you still need an original boardgame for cards.

          And yes, it’s perferctly playable solo as pretty much every other cooperative boardgame. You just simply play as the other players investigators, or if you feel for a challenge you can play as a lonely investigator:), but then the game is pretty hard.

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            c-Row says:

            Not sure about the scaling factor since we always play with 3 or 4 players, but going solo in Arkam Horror must be close to suicide.

  8. orangetruck says:

    The tablet version is alright. I played with a friend (hunched over the tablet) and while we figured out the rules, and died, Yig scrambled our minds. Much fun. But after a few games, the relative probabilities became a bit too straightforward. I stopped playing because there’s a more or less optimal approach. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but there are some strong combinations of characters and items which make the game quite easy. I came here to have my mind fried by unimaginable horror, not reduce the unfathomable mysteries of Cthulu and gang to the maximization of a limited combination of probabilities.
    The joy will wane after a few play-throughs, and then victory becomes so routine that there isn’t even much reason to celebrate the triumphs of your plucky little gang of investigators. Procedural content please?

  9. mwoody says:

    I strongly recommend The Occult Chronicles over this thing. I found Elder Sign: Omens boring and shallow on Android, and a far cry from the delightful Arkham Horror it resembles.

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    Big Murray says:

    I played it on iOS, and it’s a very fun game … but once you’ve figured out how to “game” it (i.e. once you figure out the odds of completing a quest based on how many dice it requires and you also figure out how important the items which give you yellow and red dice are) it becomes rather easy to beat. I had the same experience with the board game, it’s just too simple now that I’ve figured it out.

    Fun for a few hours, but limited replayability.

    • SmokeSeller says:

      That’s true to a point, but I would counter that the DLC Ancient Ones really spice things up and ramp up the challenge. The Cthulhu, Ithaqua and Nyarlathotep campaigns change the game significantlly and are both thematically fantastic and rather hard to complete. Find the game too easy? Try braving the forsaken north against Ithaqua with a full 4 investigator team, and prepare to fail over and over again.

      I loved the Android version. The ambience is top notch, with haunting music and beautiful imagery. That said, I’m not sure if I will get this on Steam, because paying 13€ again just to play the same game on a different medium doesn’t sound fair. Hurry up Gabe, and bring Steam Play to Android already!

  11. Kohlrabi says:

    With boardgames like Terra Mystica, Android: Netrunner, Agricola and so on out there, why do we PC gamers have to make do with tripe like this one or Talisman? Even iOS has a much bigger and better selection of boardgame conversions (Eclipse!!!).

  12. james.hancox says:

    Don’t forget, some tablets are also PCs! If I had a Windows 8 tablet this would go down a treat.

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    Ant says:

    Hoping that was a deliberate reference to the Infocom text adventure sneaked in there (also possibly Darkest of the Hillside Thickets).

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    c-Row says:

    Looks nice but I’d rather play the “full” game instead. My friends and I are scattered all over the globe by now due to work/studying but we have embraced asynchronous multiplayer games lately to keep in touch. A proper PC version of Arkham Horror would be great!

  15. Life Glug says:

    I just want to say that “I did a Moses” made me laugh. What a lovely image.