Elder Sign (Game Review)

Elder Sign box cover

Elder Sign

Most horror-themed board games disappoint me for reasons similar to those for dungeon-crawlers: The cool theme takes precedence over game design, and it ends up being broken in some way. Richard Launius’ games avoid the worst of these problems, but usually feature overly complex rules and still have a few annoyances that betray the theme. Despite the complexity, they also seem to be solvable at some level: I’ve never lost one of his cooperative games. I don’t like Arkham Horror, the popular game he designed with Kevin Wilson, at all. It’s with some surprise that I found their latest effort, Elder Sign, to be fairly tolerable. It’s a clever take on themed Yahtzee, and while I think the mechanics have more potential than this game realizes, my two plays of this were enjoyable (even if I knew I was winning the whole time).

A selection of cards in the center of the table provide challenges. On your turn, you’ll choose one and roll dice to beat it. After each roll, the symbols on the dice must match one of the rows shown on the card. It’s easy at first, but gets harder as you set those symbols aside and then roll again to match the other rows. If you can’t, you must discard one, making it even harder. (You also get to “focus” one symbol to keep it without re-rolling, though.) If you can match all rows on the card, the encounter is defeated. Each one offers different rewards when defeated, as well as punishments if you fail.

Close-up of dice and cardsThere are, of course, many more quirks to the game. Some encounters have additional ways to punish players who fail rolls, and monster tokens can make encounters more difficult. Reminiscent of Arkham Horror, each player has a character with stamina, sanity, and a special ability. There are different categories of items and cards, which can be used to change symbols, add more powerful dice to the roll, and so on. But the group must draw from a deck with harmful events every few turns, and some of the encounters will also cause problems until they are defeated. Also similar to Arkham Horror, each game pits the players against one of Lovecraft’s elder gods, with different special effects depending on the particular enemy.

To win, the players need to collect a certain number of Elder Signs before a number of Doom Tokens come out. If they fail, they get one last chance to banish the evil god with dice, but it’s very difficult, unlike Arkham Horror’s embarrassingly easy “kill Cthulhu with tommy guns” end-game. Even so, this victory condition is underwhelming. Good cooperative games usually involve tension increasing as you near the conclusion. In this, beating an encounter for the final Elder Sign rarely feels any more eventful than the first one you got.

Though I think that the gameplay is better than Arkham Horror, the theme is much more arbitrary: Even if you try to take the time to read the flavor text and tell stories about it, there is little feeling that the encounters (“Don’t Fall Asleep” or “The Hedge Maze”) are anything more than an excuse to match symbols. Also, there is very little player interaction here, making this feel less like a cooperative game and more like solitaire with long delays and a sudden conclusion. I feel like the mechanics could have been used in a different way. Admittedly, I don’t have any good suggestions: In a competitive game, it would probably be too easy to fall behind due to one bad roll. It’s better to falter as part of a team. Still, it feels like the game needs more ways to affect each other.

Despite all that, the basic dice-rolling mechanic is fun.  It is interesting to decide when to spend resources to improve your odds, as well as which encounter to choose from the ones in the middle. I do wonder if there is a better way to use the system, but I still found the game interesting.

Grade: C+

(Images above from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the original and photographer credit.)

Since I said above that I have never lost one of Launius’ cooperative games, I should probably explain more: I’ve only played Defenders of the Realm once, and I’ll admit that I got lucky that time. I think it would be a challenge if I replayed it, but I have no desire to try it again unless someone finds a way to take at least an hour off the playing time. I have played Arkham Horror at least ten times, and never lost. The best strategy is just to focus on preparing for the endgame rather than getting distracted by the chance of ending the threat early by sealing gates and killing monsters. Yes, that means ignoring the bulk of the game and focusing on the infamous “tommy guns vs. Cthulhu” aspect, but that’s part of why this game isn’t fun. Some friends have assured me that it becomes more challenging with the expansions added in, but I’ve still won the few times I’ve played with those.

As for Elder Sign, it seems that if you have a couple bonus items, you’ll be able to pick an encounter with a 90% chance of success. And most encounters will give you new items that replace the ones you just spent. So make sure you get a decent start, and then just attack whatever you need without worrying about saving resources for later. If you do lose one, you may feel that you need to take risks to make up for lost time, but that will just get you deeper in a hole. Take a turn or two to collect resources without going in to encounters; It may not seem helpful, but it’s better than trying and failing again. Once you have a couple items, then you can return to the fray as strong as ever.

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