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.