Cardboard Children – Elder Sign: Gates of Arkham

Hello youse.

I’d avoided Elder Sign, because I’d heard that it was a weak game. A dice game drawing on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos (more accurately, a game drawing on Fantasy Flight’s other Cthulhu game Arkham Horror), I’d heard that it lacked bite. As much as I love rolling dice, and I DO love rolling dice, I just felt that Elder Sign was a game best left on the shelf. However, last year’s expansion “Gates of Arkham” was said to improve the game hugely. I thought I should probably take a good long look, now that the game was being called “the game it always should have been”. So what did I think?

Elder Sign: Gates Of Arkham

Okay, so remember – this is a review of Elder Sign with the Gates of Arkham expansion. This isn’t a review of vanilla Elder Sign. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that. I dunno. Nae idea.

But this fully expanded Elder Sign? Well, here’s the deal – you have a Great Old One, a baddie, who is going to eventually wake up if you don’t collect enough elder signs to seal him away. As the game progresses, certain effects will cause doom tokens to be added to the baddie’s doom track, and when that track fills the baddie comes alive and hammers everybody into dust.

You deal out some location cards – some are face-up at the start, some are face-down. The point of the game is to visit these locations and try to complete the tasks printed on the cards. To complete tasks you roll dice and try to match the results to the printed symbols on the cards. You assign the matching dice to the symbols, then keep rolling to try to complete all the tasks on the card. Complete them all and you pass that “adventure”, gaining some rewards (items, elder signs, etc), fail to complete all the tasks and you fail, taking some kind of punishment (losing sanity, doom tokens being added to the track…)

On that really basic level, it’s a little bit like Cthulhu Yahtzee, right?

But it’s all the extra layers of stuff on top of all this that makes the game interesting. Location cards vary wildly in difficulty, and some of them are very difficult. So difficult, in fact, that you’re very unlikely to succeed with the standard six green dice in your dice pool. So you need to get the special yellow and red dice into the mix. You do this by using items and spells and allies. Different player characters have different abilities too – one, for example, allows you to always use a red and yellow die when you’re exploring Other World locations. Characters all have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Oh, on Other Worlds – these are extra locations that are connected to the game’s real-world locations by Gates. When a gate opens somewhere, you can’t visit that location until you seal that gate from the other side – the Other World. And open gates are usually a very bad thing in this game.

God, it sounds like there’s a lot to explain here.

In a turn you move to a location (choose the dice tasks you want to attempt), make an attempt at that, get rewarded or punished, and then time advances. There’s a cardboard clock that advances three hours with every turn, and every time it hits Midnight some crazy stuff triggers. You draw a Mythos card that changes the game’s conditions. Any cards that have some kind of “At Midnight…” instruction do their thing. So a card might say “At Midnight, add a token to the doom track for every open gate.” That’s a terrible thing. That’s why gates are usually a very bad thing.

This is a game all about keeping track of the game’s state, and assessing risk. A face-down card might have a horrible “At Midnight” effect printed on it. So you might want to explore that location so you can solve the tasks and get rid of that card. But the face-up effects of that card might be worse! Or the face-up card might make you draw an event card!

Event cards too? Yes. As if there wasn’t already enough going on in what I called “a dice game” a bit earlier, some locations make events occur – maybe good stuff, maybe, but often bad stuff like gates opening or your mind unhinging or monsters appearing.

Oh yeah! Monsters appear too. Lots of cards trigger monsters. These monsters are drawn from a bag and attached to a card as a new dice challenge, making those locations even more difficult to complete. And remember that every game effect has a potential knock-on effect on every other game effect. An additional monster could cause another doom token to appear at Midnight. You might be instructed to add a monster to every location with a gate. This might cause that, which might cause this and that.

And so you are watching, watching, watching. Maintaining. Surviving. Whittle down those monsters. Close that gate so you can visit that place so that you can maybe get that reward you need. Visit that place so you can get that membership to that organisation that will let you solve that task on that location that will end your game at Midnight.

This is definitely not a game that lacks bite. Not now.

I’m impressed with Elder Sign: Gates of Arkham. I’m particularly impressed by how difficult it is. I mean – it is HARD. The game can tip away from you super-quick, if you let it. And it actually tells a little bit of a story too, which is more than you can ask from a dice game. There’s a genuine sense of fear too, when you visit new locations and draw new cards, because you’re always on the brink of disaster. It doesn’t take much in this game for your legs to get kicked away from under you. The bonus dice get locked by cruel enemies, events turn against you, and suddenly you’re spiralling into oblivion.

It’s definitely worth checking out now, as a tough, challenging dice game with a whole lot of mood. And I’ve been enjoying playing it solo, too, which is a rare thing for me. I like to play with people. But Elder Sign is an inviting challenge for a quiet night alone when you feel like driving yourself a little bit crazy.

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25 Comments

  1. gwathdring says:

    Hmm. It doesn’t sound all that different from the game of vanilla Elder Sign I played. Anyone who has tried both care to weigh in on how significant the impact is?

    • Askis says:

      I’d say quite significant.
      First off, the shop, cathedral and first aid station are out, replaced with a “Streets of Arkham” location where you spend your trophies, two trophies either heals you a little, just one stamina and sanity, or allow you to flip or discard an adventure card.
      You can’t buy items, spells or companions anymore, but you can use one of these effects, then move to an adventure card.

      In vanilla, all the adventure cards are face-up, so you can pick and choose where to go, in the expansion, you start with three face-up and three face-down cards, any new ones are dealt face-down.
      The hidden adventures have a red/yellow/green indicator to roughly show the difficulty to complete them and a location that has an effect you can trigger upon visiting (and thereby flipping) the card, for example fully healing your sanity or spending a full clock-cycle to gain a companion.

      Then there’s the events that are drawn as soon as an investigator is at an adventure with an event symbol, these vary wildly from not too bad to utterly crippling.

      One new elder god is imho worth mentioning (can’t recall the name):
      Fail to complete an adventure and the adventure card is discarded, no new one is drawn in it’s place, once all adventures are gone, you loose.

      The expansion definitely bumps up the difficulty, but also the randomness, where vanilla often allowed you to plan out your next few actions, Gates often forces you to react and it can spiral out of control very quickly.
      If you liked Elder Signs, I’d say the expansion is worth it.

      • Bull0 says:

        Thanks for your comment, I wasn’t really getting a sense of any differences from Rab’s write-up but those all sound like fair improvements to a game that personally I already like quite a bit.

      • gwathdring says:

        Thanks. :)

        Sounds like it’s still not quite my thing, but sounds a lot more significant than I was thinking.

  2. thekelvingreen says:

    Aside from the event cards, that looks like ready salted Elder Sign; I’ve always liked the game, even if there’s a massive gap between the mechanics and the theme. It is dead hard; the Android version seems even harder.

    • Hieronymusgoa says:

      I like the Android Version a lot. It’s like gaming meditation with statistics for me. I replay all the Old Ones all the time. I would even say that it shines much more as a single player game than as a cooperative one because what one player does seems so insignificant and not at all so spectauclar like in Arkham Horror. But if it is you playing all four then it feels a bit like an RPG even to some extent with a group. Hope that one here gets a mobile version, too.

  3. kibblesahoy says:

    The expansion is tough as nails, but Elder Sign was already a great cooperative game — which necessarily means it’s designed to feed you to the Elder Ones nine times out of ten. The expanded character abilities and adventure rules are well-thought out and add dimension to the game, but Elder Sign is always going to be the kind of game where failing a single adventure might well sink your chances of winning.

    I hope they port this to the computer version of the game; playing on a computer takes out all of the fiddly setup parts of the game and lets you concentrate on being devoured by Cthulhu.

    • Bull0 says:

      I agree, there’s a lot to remember in the upkeep and trigger conditions – midnight effects, doom and peril effects, character specials, etc – which requires concentration to keep track of. Having the computer take care of all that for you so you can focus on your investigators’ actions is a blessing.

  4. Shiloh says:

    Hmm, I may need to pick this up at some point – I’m a big fan of Eldritch Horror and could do with another Cthulu-themed dollop of “Losing is fun”.

  5. qribba says:

    Bought the game for the same reason, was surprised how much I enjoy this game(even just the base game). Thought it was going to feel too random and I don’t like Arkham Horror. Gates of Arkham expansion seems to make the game better, it’s just so damn hard/impossible that I haven’t gotten far enough into it :)

    • Fenixp says:

      Oh Arkham Horror only feels too random when you don’t know the game particularly well, I’ve managed to turn around and achieve about 90% win ration on that when I’ve properly learned the ropes with my wife. … It’s kind of easy now, we have to use some house rules to make it more difficult.

  6. Fenixp says:

    Well Arkham Horror is still around and kind of amazing

    • Fenixp says:

      Yeah that was supposed to be a reply to Shiloh’s comment, but whatever, my point stands alone as well :-p

    • Skeletor68 says:

      Do you know of any good videos or tutorials on this board game? We’re a time poor couple and we gave up on it after learning how monsters move across the board with something to do with the moon… I know I’m an idiot but would appreciate your help!

  7. Fade2Gray says:

    This just sounds like more of the same Elder Sign I already regretted buying. For me, it was equal parts boring and frustrating and thoroughly unenjoyable.

    • Moe45673 says:

      RAB’s explanation is terrible at explaining why GoA makes the game a new and revamped one. For the record, I found Elder Sign, even with Unseen Forces, a random compilation of unrelated features, all surrounding a very indirect goal (the GOO you must seal away). I bought base and both expansions once I finally got to play my friend’s copy and borrowed it for a month, played muchly, because GoA is so great.

      1) You no longer need to miss a turn to visit the entrance. The “entrance” (Streets of Arkham) lets you discard trophies for a small reward, but then you get to take your turn as normal to visit and Adventure/OtherWorld
      2) Adventures are facedown and can either be bad (“At Midnight, do this”) but are usually pretty good (“Discard 3 trophies to gain a common item”). This also balances out the weakness of the entrance card. Finally, from a narrative standpoint, it’s awesome how you can visit the docks and have a hideous monster rise out of the waters, or visit the asylum and maybe find something in the library or perhaps have a mad psychiatrist diagnose you as psychotic and lock you away until you solve the adventure. Each cardback has a location and the adventures on the other side are thematically tied.
      3) The Gates mechanic. No longer are OtherWorld cards just some weird buildup of adventures that you can ignore (or not) at your whim. Now they forbid you from going to a regular adventure card (where the gate appears) and they come out facedown. You can go through the gate and see what’s on the other side, then try to fight it. If too many gates open, bad things happen (monsters appearing and such). There can only be three. So now you MUST close those OtherWorld cards, they can no longer be ignored. Secondly, once you close the gates the location gets a sealed marker added to it. If you cannot open a new gate when instructed because every location either has a gate or a sealed marker, even worse things happen. I’m speaking doom track, son.

      The game now feels a lot more like a cohesive disaster management game (A La Pandemic, for example) than the loose collection of barely related mechanics the vanilla game has.

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    HunterFrank says:

    I like co-op games and I like dice-rolling/Yahtzee-style games, but Elder Signs has just way too much downtime and drags on forever. When I played it (which was 1 or 2 years ago), every turn felt the same. There was no real build-up of tension or some kind of developement towards a big finale.

    My go-to Yahtzee-a-like is Qwixx: 10-15 minutes, no downtime (you can also score dice during other players’ turns), trade off between aiming to finish versus ramping up points. It is purely abstract, though.

  9. Kefren says:

    I played Elder Sign on Android/Kindle, it sounds like the rules are identical. I never liked it though. It was just a case of picking a room, then rolling dice, and often not getting the rolls needed and having nothing left to do but fail. It seemed just too random, difficult, and unrewarding: I played it to get my money’s worth, never out of fun. Physical games-wise I prefer Mansions of Madness, since I like a physical place to explore, not unconnected scenes.

    • malkav11 says:

      Pretty much my feeling too – particularly about the way the game tends toward doom spiral, since most of the time you need to spend consumables to succeed and you only get more on successes, so if you fail anyway, you’re out resources with no way to replenish them and it’s all downhill from there. Moreover, while the app has a lot of lovely cosmetics to enhance the Cthulhu feel, the actual gameplay has little to no connection to the theme and it very much feels like a slightly more involved Yahtzee with the Cthulhu skin draped casually over it, instead of an actually thematic game. It was sold to me as a lighter, quicker Arkham Horror but almost the only thing it has in common with that game is that FFG reuses a lot of the art between the two. Well, and you roll a lot of six-sided dice.

      I was thinking maybe the expansion improves that in some way but based on the description from another commenter above it sounds like it just makes the game more arbitrary and punishing, which isn’t what it needs at all.

  10. jonahfalcon says:

    Er… welcome to 2014. Gates of Arkham’s been out for a long while.

    • gwathdring says:

      Since when was RPS (or even specifically Cardboard Children) only about new releases?

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      Thulsa Hex says:

      Shite! I didn’t realise that I wasn’t supposed to buy games more than a year after publication! Guess I’ll have to throw away my copy of the Battlestar Galactica board game now, lest I become irrelevant. Cheers for setting me straight.

  11. Deano2099 says:

    Yes, it’s essentially vanilla Elder Sign with the cards face down. And harder. I really like both though.

    Equally the two Hobbit games scratch a similar itch (the Knizia designed dice games). They were oddly unsuccessful commercially, which is a shame as it’s a really neat design (and more accessible/simple than Elder Sign).