Welcome to Board Games With OB, a somewhat profane, possibly semi-regular feature where OregonBeast gets a board game he likes and briefly explains how to play it and hopes you would be interested in playing it, too. Because board games are fucking awesome.
Lovecraft. Lovecraft everywhere!
Well, at least it seems that way in board games. Games themed in world created by early 20th-century fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft have become so commonplace it’s pretty much lampooned as a generic go-to for theming a game (see: Zombies, trading in the Mediterranean, etc.)
It’s not necessarily that board game people are all into Lovecraft (I’ve never read anything he’s done cover-to-cover), but the mass amounts of the Lovecraft universe you find in board games is simply a matter of convenience: Since all of Lovecraft’s pre-1923 work is in the public domain, anybody and their creepy uncle can theme a game with Lovecraft and have this rich, deep, somewhat well-known universe to utilize in the design without having to pay a cent of royalty of your profits to anybody.
Arguably the crown jewel of Lovecraftian board games is Arkham Horror, a rich, detailed, exciting cooperative game where a team of adventurers fights off the impending invasion of a Great Old One in a quaint little Massachusetts. It’s popular, enthralling, and can take ABOUT FOUR FUCKING HOURS TO PLAY. I’m not exaggerating. Approximate game time on the box says 240 minutes.
So, you might need to crunch down the time it takes to play. That’s where Elder Sign comes in. Published by Fantasy Flight, the same company that prints Arkham Horror, Elder Sign is also a cooperative game where investigators battle against a Great Old One, but play is speeded up with the use of dice. Yes, it increases the luck element, but there’s still enough strategy element involved to make it more than just a bunch of dice rolling.
Congratulations. You’ve been accepted to Miskatonic U. Let’s play Elder Sign.
Game: Elder Sign
Players: 1 to 8
Playing Time: 90 minutes
Designers: Richard Launius & Kevin Wilson (USA)
Key Mechanics: Dice rolling, cooperative play, character abilities
Story: It’s 1926, and strange things have begun to happen at a museum in the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Evil things. A portal to another world is beginning to open, which could harbor the awakening of a Great Old One, evil aliens that desire nothing more than the destruction of say, Earth. That would be shitty, but a team of investigators will brave the danger to try and seal the gate for good and save humanity.
What do you do? The game of Elder Sign is centered around each player’s character, the Great Old One being fought, and the rooms of the museum, represented by cards.
At the beginning of the game, each player chooses a character. Each character has a different amount of stamina and sanity levels, along with a special ability that give them some leeway around restrictions that can come up during the game or make it easier to complete certain tasks.
The team also draws which Great Old One they will be battling. This battle consists of a race. The investigators are working to collect Elder Signs, while the Great Old One is collecting Doom Tokens. Each side has a target number of their item they are looking to collect. If the investigators reach their target number of Elder Signs first, they win. If the Great Old One collects their Doom tokens first, shit gets real.
How is this done? With six green dice. Each side of the die has symbols: Terror (tentacles), Lore (a scroll), Peril (a skull) or Investigations (a magnifying glass, with either a 1, 2 or 3). On occasion, a player can also use special items collected during the game to access two special dice: a yellow die that replaces the Terror symbol with a 4-investigation symbol, or a red die that is like the yellow die but the 1-investigation symbol is replaced with a wild card that can be used for any symbol.
The importance of the dice symbols? That’s where the rooms of the museum come in. On a player’s turn, they explore a room of a museum, represented by a card. Each room card shows a number of tasks (combinations of dice rolls) that must be completed by the investigator. So, a player picks a room and rolls the dice. If the some of the dice rolled match up with a task, you place those dice over the task and move on to try another task. If a task cannot be completed, the player must discard a die and try again. In addition, a player can choose to “focus” or not re-roll one of the die to make the re-attempt easier.
If the player successfully completes the tasks on the room card, they claim the card and various goodies associated with it. What are the goodies. They could be special items that can used to get the yellow or red dice on a turn, regain health or access to magical spells that can help in the quest. Maybe they are clues, which allow a free re-roll of dice on a turn without having to discard one. Or maybe it could be an Elder Sign, which gets the team that much closer to victory. Sometimes, the cards also provide access to an “ally” non-playable character that can provide assistance, or it could also open a gate to an otherworld room, which is just like a museum room, but completing tasks there will always provide one or maybe even multiple Elder Signs. Each room card also is worth a certain number of points (1-3) that when accumulated can be traded in for items, recovered health, or to buy an Elder Sign.
But just while success brings good things, failure to complete a room’s tasks brings consequences, with normally comes in three ways: You character could lose stamina or sanity, the Great Old One could collect a Doom Token, getting closer to awakening, or it could trigger the arrival of a “monster”: Sinister creatures loyal to Great Old One who dwell in museum rooms and must be defeated, normally through an extra or more difficult task in a room.
So, a player does their turn, then it goes onto the ne...aw shit, I forgot to tell you about the clock. There’s a clock that is moved ahead a few hours after each turn. Each time the clock strikes midnight, a card is drawn from the Mythos deck. What is on those cards will either not affect the players, or just shit on the parade by maybe depleting health, adding more doom tokens or monsters, or maybe adding stipulations that make completing room cards more difficult.
Plus, sometimes, the museum rooms themselves have stipulations to fuck with you. Often this is done through “terror effects”: If you do not complete a task on the roll, and one of the die is showing the Terror symbol, you get screwed with. You might lose health, have to discard additional dice or just automatically fail the task. It could be a “midnight effect” which means Bad Things every time the clock strikes midnight and the card hasn’t been completed. Sometimes the cards (or individual tasks, or certain monsters) have die locks, which means one of dice is not available to be used until the task(s) are completed.
So, yeah, a lot of shit to deal with. Welcome to world of cooperative games.
How to taste sweet, sweet victory: Collect the Elder Signs needed to seal off the gate, the players win. If the Great Old One awakens, the players can (usually) still win by doing battle with the Great Old One itself through dice rolling and try to deplete down all of the Doom Tokens collected. The players lose if they are all devoured (having either their stamina or sanity depleted to zero).
So, what makes this game awesome?
- The unique player abilities play into strategy. These abilities can make some rooms easier to complete for some characters as opposed to other, or make failing some rooms riskier for some characters. So the players have to talk it out and decide who is going to go after what in which room.
- While Lovecraft is cliched in the board game world, this game is themed quite well. It has a very mysterious, noir feel to it.
- The luck element can create some drama when you’re down to one die and need one very specific face to show up to win.
- Like most cooperative games, the game has the ability for some single-player action.
More ways to play: Fantasy Flight has a rep for having good app versions of their game, and Elder Sign is no different. The app version is fantastic, and also includes extra investigators not in the board game version.
Watch it played: Elder Sign is a little more complicated that many games I talk about here, so take a look at a game being played during Season One of TableTop.