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Sunday, 4 December 2011

An Electronic Elder Sign

If you play board games, owning a good smart phone or a tablet is an excellent device to add to your games collection. Although neither will replace the social aspects of playing a board game nor the pleasure of handling a game’s physical components, a good version of a board game adapted to either device will capture exactly the feel and tactics of its play whilst handling the game’s mechanics. Such a good version should also offer solo play as well as play against other opponents, or if a co-operative game, allow the participants to play together. The version of Rio Grande Games’ Carcassonne adapted by exozet games is excellent example of the former, whilst Elder Sign: Omens is an excellent example of the latter. It is available on the Android and iOS platforms, this review having been done on an Android tablet.

As the title suggests, Elder Sign: Omens is the electronic adaptation of Elder Sign, the third co-operative board game of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Fantasy Flight Games. Where Elder Sign has up to eight investigators exploring Arkham Museum to prevent the strange goings on that herald the coming of an Ancient One such as Azathoth, Cthulhu, or Yog-Sothoth, Elder Sign: Omens has a team of up to four investigators exploring Arkham Museum to prevent the strange goings on that herald the coming of the Ancient One known as Azathoth.

The game has the intrepid investigators visiting the various parts of the museum, some of which might lead to other dimensions, and casting glyphs that will counter to stop the strange goings on in each location. The investigators will each have their own special ability that will help them in this casting as various spells, items, and clues that in turn enable then investigators to hold onto glyphs between castings, add more glyphs, and re-cast the gylphs. If successful, the investigators can gain more spells, items, and clues as well as the all-important Elder Signs that they need to accumulate in order to prevent the coming of Azathoth. If unsuccessful, the investigators can suffer deleterious effects to their health and sanity; have monsters appear particular locations that need to be dealt with before the tasks there can be attempted; and let Azathoth gain more of the Doom Tokens that mean that the Outer God is closer to Earth.

Elder Sign: Omens begins by asking the players to assemble an investigation team, either by selecting from one of the sixteen available or by taking a random team. Each of the investigators is illustrated and is accompanied by a description of his or her ability. For example, Harvey Walters can alter Terror glyphs to Lore glyphs, whilst Carolyn Fern is a Psychologist who can help restore her own Sanity or that of another investigator. From there, the investigators can proceed to the Museum itself, shown by a map upon which are marked the first of the game’s many bizarre incidents. These can be scrolled through and examined before going there, enabling the players to make a choice as to which ones they tackle.

At each incident, an investigator will be confronted by one or more tasks. Sometimes these have to be done in a certain order, but most can be completed in any order. Either way, only a single task can be completed with a single casting of glyphs. These are cast to match the symbols on each task, the glyphs either being used to match the symbols or re-cast to get the ones needed. Re-casting the glyphs is usually done at the cost of losing a glyph on the next casting. Consistent quickly leads to the investigator failing to deal with the incident and suffering various effects as described above.

The players need to accumulate fourteen Elder Signs if they are to prevent the coming of Azathoth, who only needs to gain twelve Doom Signs. This is not an easy task, especially if monsters appear that make tasks more difficult or even prevent glyphs from being cast until they are dealt with. In addition to the growing number of Doom Tokens, a sense of urgency is built into the game with a clock that regularly strikes midnight and heralds further terrible effects such as more monsters appearing or Azathoth acquiring yet more Doom Tokens. The players’ choice of investigators will ease or hinder this task, with investigators who can re-cast glyphs tending to be easier to use, if not being more useful. With sixteen investigators to choose from, Elder Sign: Omens has the capacity for the players to experiment to get the right combination of investigators that they are happy to explore the museum with.

Physically, Elder Sign: Omens is very well presented. The artwork, much of it seen in previous games of Lovecraftian investigative horror from Fantasy Flight Games, is used to great effect with some of it animated as certain events occur. In fact, on a tablet device, the artwork is better presented than in the actual Elder Sign board game, where the artwork, although very good, is too small to be really appreciated. Elder Sign: Omens also handles the physical mechanics of the game, such as the clock striking midnight and the appearance of new incidents, with a pleasing deftness that makes the game flow uninterrupted. Together, the removal of these mechanical processes away from the players’ gaze and the removal of the clutter of components that can be an issue in Fantasy Flight Games titles, combined with the use of the map to guide the investigators around the museum serve to give Elder Sign: Omens something akin to a narrative flow, which unfortunately, is somewhat lacking in the board game itself.

If anyone has played the Elder Sign board game, they will notice certain differences between it and Elder Sign: Omens. Most obvious is that fact in casting the glyphs to attempt tasks, the players are not actually rolling dice as they are in the board game, but the removal of the dice gives the play of the game much more an immediacy. The other noticeable differences between Elder Sign and Elder Sign: Omens are that only the one Ancient One is ever faced in the current version of Elder Sign: Omens and that it is not possible for the investigators to have Allies in Elder Sign: Omens as they can in Elder Sign. Neither of these should be seen as actual omissions, but rather as a streamlining that eases the flow of the game.

The final major difference is that in Elder Sign it only matters whether the investigators prevented Azathoth from coming to Earth or not, whereas in Elder Sign: Omens, not only does that matter, but so does how well they did. At the end of each game, the performance of the investigators, and thus the players, is scored. The game keeps a record of the scores, so everyone can check to see how well they have done.

For anyone new to the game, Elder Sign: Omens comes complete with a tutorial that guides you through the game with the aid of a nicely ominous voiceover – this voiceover also narrates various events throughout the game. To chilling effect. The tutorial itself needs careful attention to fully grasp how the game is played, and is probably worth watching again after at least one full play through of the game. Fortunately, the tutorials can be reset to watch again. Overall though, anyone who has played Elder Sign will have an easier time in playing Elder Sign: Omens than someone who has not.

As a playing experience, Elder Sign: Omens is an excellent solo experience. It also plays well with two participants, their discussing various courses of action and deciding what each investigator will do and what each will do with their glyphs. With more players, the game slows a little essentially because everyone is sat around a small screen and the decision making process takes a little longer. Nevertheless, having the tablet makes the game feel faster and slicker, as well containing everything needed in one easy to hold package.

Just like the board game it is based on, Elder Sign: Omens offers a pleasing balance between decision making and luck, the latter in the form of the casting of the glyphs. As an adaptation, it is a polished and assured version of Elder Sign, one that every fan of Lovecraftian gaming should enjoy. Is Elder Sign: Omens a sign of things to come that other Fantasy Flight Games titles might be appearing in electronic format?