Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Night at the Museum, Lovecraft Style - A Review of Fantasy Flight's Elder Sign Game

So, let's just get this right out of the way. I work at Noble Knight Games, so when I do game reviews, the links that I'm going to provide to where you can get the game are going to be links to Noble Knight. That's just the way it is.

Now, it took a little while for this game to finally come in to the store. But, anyone who knows me knows that I love me some Lovecraft and I love me some gaming, so Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror line is right up my alley. So I was pretty excited about this one.

Was it justified? Let's find out.

Naomi from Mind Stain came over yesterday morning to play Elder Sign with me. Neither of us had played before, and I only gave a very cursory glance at the rules before going to bed the night before. I figured that would be a good way to gauge things like ease of learning the rules. But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Elder Sign is a card- and dice-based cooperative game for 1 to 8 players ages 13+, designed by Kevin Wilson and Richard Launias (who might be the man who has ALMOST won the Spiel des Jahre more than anyone else) and published by Fantasy Flight Games. While it has Fantasy Flight's well-known production quality, it is part of the Silver Line, so it doesn't have that over-the-top-ness of their bigger releases. Still, it's a gorgeously produced game that's going to wow newcomers and satisfy long-time FFG fans.

If I may indulge a tangential thought (and you really can't stop me), I've recently heard that in an effort to keep the price point on their games low, Fantasy Flight will be moving the bulk of their new games to the box size of their current Silver Line games like Elder Sign and the revised edition of Red November. Whether or not this will have an effect on their usual component quality remains to be seen, but it's something that I'll be keeping an eye on.

The basics of Elder Sign are pretty simple: you and the other players are investigators resolving strange events in and around a museum; Events that presage the awakening of one of the Ancient Ones who will burn the world to a cinder. In order to stop the Ancient One, you must collect Elder Signs to seal them off from this world. Of course, collecting the signs isn't easy, and if you fail to stop it from awakening, you will have to fight a desperate and nearly hopeless battle against the Ancient One.

If you've played any of the Arkham Horror board games, or the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game, or the Mansions of Madness board game, you'll recognize most or all of the investigators in the game. Anyone familiar with those games, or just with the Lovecraftian Mythos, will also recognize the Ancient Ones: Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur (Hastur! Hastur!) and more are all here to try and turn our world into their own apocalyptic party house.

One of the coolest components of the game is the clock. The clock starts at midnight, and at the end of every player's turn, the clock is advanced three hours. Every time the clock hits midnight, certain card events trigger, and the Ancient One (usually) gets one step closer to our world.

The brilliant thing about this mechanic is that it will make games with more players very difficult as midnight will come around more and more often. It also lends itself as an incredibly easy way to change the difficulty of the game. Want an easier time? Simply advance the clock two hours (or even just one) instead of three. Want a tougher and more desperate game? Advance the clock four hours at the end of each turn. These variant rules aren't presented in the book, but should work to fine tune the difficulty of the game.

Setting up the game for the first time can be a little bit confusing. Like most Fantasy Flight games Elder Sign has a lot of different types of cards and counters, and like many of their games, the rules simply aren't as complete and laid out as well as they could be (I'm looking at YOU, Death Angel), and are at times somewhat vague. As an example of this, the rules provide a very helpful "Anatomy" of an Ancient One card and an Investigator card, but fail to provide anything similar for the Adventure cards, which would have been a big help in setup and in game play in general. It took us about 30 minutes to set Elder Sign up, but this will likely be cut down to no more than 15 minutes the next time we play.

Each investigator has different starting equipment and different special abilities. We played using randomly drawn characters, with Naomi playing the magician and me playing the doctor. Right off the bat, this illustrated that not all character abilities are created equal in this game. The doctor has the ability to heal one stamina on any investigator (including himself) at the beginning of his turn. The magician gets to draw an extra spell card whenever he would normally draw one. I used my ability on every turn of the game while Naomi got to use hers only once or twice.

The layout is pretty simple. The museum is made up of six cards laid out in two rows of three underneath an entrance card. Each card is a room or area in or around the museum and has specific tasks that must be completed before the card can be resolved and a new one drawn in its place. The entrance card is a sort of "safe" area, where investigators can heal and get items or spells. The actual layout of the cards are actually kind of meaningless, as investigators can move freely to and from whichever cards they choose.

While this freedom of movement does allow for strategic options on which rooms to face at any given time, it also has two distinct drawbacks. First, it detracts from the feel of actually exploring a museum by moving from one room to another. Second, it can bring on a bit of "Analysis Paralysis" as players figure out which of the cards is the best option to attempt to resolve each turn. I am actually working on some variant rules that changes the movement a bit, making the game more challenging and interesting.

Each room in the museum has a number of challenges that need to be resolved in order for the card to be completed. These challenges are represented by a symbol or series of symbols that correspond to the faces of the specialized dice that come with the game. The dice mechanic is really the meat of the game, and is somewhat reminiscent of Steve Jackson Games' Zombie Dice game.

There are six green dice, one yellow die, and one red die. Any time a task is attempted, the player rolls all six of the green dice. If the player has one or more combinations of dice that match one of the tasks shown on the card, they can choose to complete one task per roll. If they successfully complete a task, the corresponding dice are set aside on the card, and the player may choose to roll the remaining dice in an attempt to complete another task. If a roll does not result in a combination of dice that complete a task, the player may choose to attempt again by setting one of the dice aside and rolling again. This goes on until a card's tasks are all completed or the player is unable to complete any further tasks. Rewards for success and penalties for failure are listed on the cards with fairly simple and easy to remember iconography.

There are additional rules elements that will let players add the yellow die or the red die to their rolls, or let them re-roll single dice or entire pools, or let them "save" die results for later. Some of these are pretty straight forward while others are somewhat vague, but in all, it's a very strong system.

Monsters are fought using the same system as completing the adventure cards, with each monster having sets of symbols needed to defeat the monster. Like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign uses as "Monster Cup" to randomly draw monsters when they are encountered. Our main issue with monsters was that the rules seemed somewhat unclear on where monsters were placed when they were drawn, and how they interacted with tasks in the rooms that they appeared in. I'm sure that after another game or two, it will make a bit more sense, but it was a little confusing the first time around.

There are, of course, other rules and elements to the game, but these are the basics that everything else is built upon.

Our two-player game lasted about two hours, including set up time and time spent figuring out rules as we went. We were fighting against Shub-Niggurath, who adds an extra requirement to every monster in play, making our game pretty tough, as we had a glut of monsters appearing almost every time the clock struck midnight. We didn't get a chance to finish, but at the time we ended, Shub-Niggurath's doom track was about half-filled, and we only had about one quarter of the elder signs needed to win. Had we had enough time to play the game out to its conclusion, it probably would have been a very close game.

So let's get to some numbers. I'll be rating games that I review in a number of categories using a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very, very bad and 10 being amazingly good. Let's see how Elder Sign stacks up.

Graphic Design/Presentation - 8
Like all Fantasy Flight games, Elder Sign's components are very nice and well-designed. The graphic design is simply beautiful on this one, but being a Silver Line game, the components are just a little less spectacular than bigger games like Talisman, Mansions of Madness, and Arkham Horror.

Ease of Learning/Clarity of Rules - 3
This is the area where Elder Sign falls very flat. Simply put, this game is going to take a little time to grok. The rules, as I've previously mentioned, are sometimes a bit opaque. I would suggest having someone read the rules thoroughly a couple of times before playing this game, and maybe even play a solo game to have a good idea of how things work in order to explain to other players. If your group picks this up and plays it out of the box, there will be a lot of questions and missed rules for a number of turns. Hopefully, FFG will be quick on the draw to post some rules clarifications or FAQs on their site.

Ease of Play/Mechanics - 7
Once you've figured out the rules, the game usually moves pretty quickly. There are some moments of "Analysis Paralysis" as players gauge their chances at completing the available adventure cards, but this is balanced, in my view, by the coolness and fun factor of the dice rolling mechanic.

Theme/Feel - 6
Elder Sign falls a little short here. As it's part of the Arkham Horror line, the theme is nothing new, and there's not enough in this game to really set it apart in a manner like Mansions of Madness. That being said, the Arkham Horror/Call of Cthulhu theme is one that never gets old for me, so it's not a major flaw. However, the game doesn't quite hit the mark on feel. While the flavor text on the cards is as good as anything else in the Arkham Horror family, the ability to move wherever you want on a given turn really detracts from the idea that you are exploring a museum.

Fun Factor - 9
All issues of feel and vague rules aside, Elder Sign is a lot of fun. Even with two players, there were moments when Naomi and I had a good cheer when making an especially important roll, and groans of disappointment when we failed. Once you get the rules figured out and running smoothly, you WILL have fun.

Replayability - 8
With a good number of different investigators, Ancient Ones, and adventure cards, it's unlikely that you'll ever have a game that plays exactly the same as one you've played before.

Value/Price - 7
At a retail price of $34.95 (NKG has it available for $29.95), Elder Sign isn't going to break the bank or be a major investment like Mansions of Madness. With the game's good replayability rating, you're going to stretch your money as well. You definitely get your money's worth with Elder Sign.

Overall Rating - 7
This is a game you or someone in your group should pick up and play. You're going to have fun, even with the steep curve. If you're a fan of the Arkham Horror line, and looking for a game that won't take quite as long as a typical game of Mansions of Madness or Arkham Horror itself, Elder Sign will fill that niche. It's dice mechanic is unique enough to keep it from getting Jones-Theoried in favor of other games in the genre, and it's a game that you'll be able to play time and again. If you aren't already familiar with Arkham Horror or other cooperative games, this is actually a pretty good way to get your foot in the door with either. If you have a great time with Elder Sign, you're also going to like Arkham Horror and other co-op games like Pandemic, Defenders of the Realm, and Castle Ravenloft. If you're looking to pick up a copy, head to Noble Knight Games to get yours now.

Thanks for reading this far into my first game review here on Libram X. I'll be playing this one again, and will be posting my thoughts about further sessions of Elder Sign in the future. I'll also be writing up some proposed variant rules to change the game's difficulty level and add more feel to the game with limited movement.

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