Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 23 October 2011

Dicing For Sanity

The focus of so many exotic curios and occult artefacts at the museum is the cause of a new threat to Arkham. They weaken the barriers to the beyond, letting Gates open and monsters in, and laying a path for an Ancient One to make its way to Earth and lay waste to mankind. Only a number of dedicated investigators have the knowledge and will, and perhaps the allies and the tools, if not necessarily the time, to locate a sufficient number of Elder Signs that will seal the portals and prevent the arrival of the Ancient One. This is the set up for Elder Sign, the latest board game from the designers of Arkham Horror that uses the same art work and trade dress as seen in both Arkham Horror and the recently released Mansions of Madness.

Fantasy Flight Game’s third board game of facing Lovecraftian horror, Elder Sign is, like Arkham Horror, a co-operative game designed to be played by between one and eight players, with a playing time of between one and two hours. The co-operative element means that the opponents faced by players are not each other, but by the game itself and its mechanics. It also means that there is a time component to Elder Sign, not only in terms of a time limit before the Ancient One arrives, but also in terms of events (of a random nature) that occur regularly throughout the game’s play. In order to counter the effects of these events, and eventually, the arrival of the Ancient One, the Investigators will explore the Museum and have Adventures within its confines, the aim being to marshal the resources necessary to save the world.

Elder Sign is comprised of several sets of large and small cards, various tokens and counters, a card clock, and a set of customised dice. The large cards are divided between decks of Investigators, Adventures, and Ancient Ones, whilst the small cards are divided between decks of Common and Unique items, Spells, and Allies – all beneficial to the Investigators, whilst Mythos cards describe the events and effects that occur every time that the clock strikes Midnight and linger until the clock strikes Midnight again.

There are sixteen individual Investigators to choose from. Each one gives an Investigator his maximum Sanity and Stamina, his Starting Items, and a special ability. For example, Dexter Drake is a magician who whenever he gains a Spell card during play, he always gains an extra one, whilst Gloria Goldberg is an author whose Psychic Sensitivity grants her extra dice to roll when visiting Other World Adventure Cards.

During a game, the Investigators will face one of eight Ancient Ones. They include Azathoth, Cthulhu, Hastur, Ithaqua, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Yig, and Yog-Sothoth. Each one gives the number of Elder Signs needed to prevent it from being awoken, which occurs when the Doom Track on the card is filled; a special ability that applies throughout a game; a means of Attack once it is awoken; and a Combat Task that must be completed by the Investigators to weaken and eventually banish it from the Earth. So for example, for Cthulhu, the Special Ability is “Dreams of Madness,” which reduces every Investigator’s maximum Sanity and Stamina by one. Thirteen Elder Signs are needed to banish this Ancient One, but it only needs eleven tokens for the Doom Track to be filled and Cthulhu to be woken up. When Cthulhu does Attack, it reduces each Investigator’s Sanity or Stamina by one and adds another token to his Doom Track. The latter is a problem because in order to defeat an awoken Ancient One, the Investigators have to remove all of the tokens from the Doom Track. To remove a Token, an Investigator has to roll the given Combat Task.

Each Adventure Card has a title, a Trophy value, some flavour text, a set of Tasks that need to be completed if an Investigator is to succeed at the Adventure itself, and a set of Penalties for if an Investigator fails to complete the Adventure and a set of Rewards if he does. Some Adventure Cards also have a Terror effect that occurs if an Investigator does not complete a Task on each roll and some stipulate that their Tasks have to be done in order rather than the order of a player’s choosing. Most of the Adventure Cards take place in the Museum such as “Remains of the High Priest” and “The Gift Shop,” but others take place off world, like “The Dreamlands” and “The City of the Great Race.” In general, the Rewards and Penalties for the Other World Adventure cards are greater and they are also harder to complete.

Penalties on an Adventure Card can deduct Sanity and Stamina from an Investigator, cause a Monster to appear, advance the Clock, or add another Doom Token to the Doom Track on the Ancient One Card. Rewards can grant Items, Spells, and Allies as well as Elder Signs and Clue Tokens. They can also open Gates to Other World Adventure Cards. Not all of the Rewards are good – sometimes they are mix of the good and the bad.

The small cards represent Common and Unique items, Spells, and Allies as well as Mythos effects. They add extra dice to a Task attempt or alter dice rolls; enable an Investigator to restore Sanity or Stamina; or in the case of some Spells, let an Investigator store dice results between attempts at a Task. Allies grant another special ability, such as Richard Upton Pickman’s being able to change results on the dice in a certain fashion. Each Mythos card has two effects. The first occurs as soon as it is drawn, whilst the second lasts until the next Mythos card is drawn. For example, immediate effect of “The Stars Align…” is to add a Doom token to the Doom Track, whilst the lingering effect, “…Before Reason Fails,” lets the Tasks on Adventure Cards be done in any order, even if they stipulate that they must be done in order.

The game includes Sanity, Stamina, Investigator, Clue (these allow re-rolls of the dice), Elder Sign and Doom Tokens. There are also Monster Markers, little card strips that when summoned can replace Tasks on an Adventure Card to make them more difficult to complete. Each Monster Marker has a piece of flavour text on the reverse and a Trophy value.

The final components are the card Clock, used to measure the passing of time and determine when new Mythos cards are drawn; the Museum Entrance card; and the dice. The Museum Entrance card represents somewhere where an Investigator can go to “Receive First Aid,” “Search the Lost & Found,” or “Buy A Souvenir.” This usually requires an Investigator to expend Trophy points won by completing Adventure Cards or defeating Monsters, or to expend various tokens or items.

The dice are the heart of the game, rolled by an Investigator to try and match the symbols listed for each Task on the Adventure cards. They come in three colours. The six green dice are the most common and all of them are usually rolled when a Task is attempted. The yellow dice gives better results than a green die whilst the red dice gives better results than the yellow die. It usually takes the expenditure of a Common Item card to add the Yellow die to a player’s roll and the expenditure of a Unique Item card to add the red die. There is only the one yellow and one red die in the game.

Game set up is quick and simple. Each player selects an Investigator and receives its starting items. An Ancient One is chosen and placed on the table where everyone can see it along with the Clock – which is set at midnight, the Museum Entrance card, and six Adventure Cards. The first Mythos card is drawn and takes effect.

On his a turn, a player sends his Investigator to the chosen Adventure Card. He takes up the green dice and the yellow or red die if he decides to use an Item or has a Special Ability. The Tasks are arranged on each Adventure Card in lines and with each roll of the dice, a player must match the symbols on a single line with those on the dice. He can only attempt to match the symbols on one line at a time and if he does, he places those dice on the symbols on the card. He can then go on to roll for the Tasks on the other lines. If he fails to roll the right symbols for a line, he can continue rolling, but must discard a die each time he fails to match the symbols. On some Adventure Cards, there is a Terror effect for failing to match any symbols and rolling a Terror on the dice. If the player completes all of the Tasks, he receives all of the rewards at the bottom of the Adventure Card. He also receives the Adventure Card to keep as a Trophy which can be spent at the Museum Entrance for various effects. If he does not complete any of them, he suffers the penalties also given at the bottom of the Adventure Card.

Alternatively, a player could have sent his Investigator to the Museum Entrance. As soon as a player’s turn is over the Clock is advanced one quarter of the way round its face. When the Clock reaches Midnight a new Mythos Card is drawn and its effects applied. Since the two effects on the Mythos Cards vary greatly, often the players will find themselves hoping for one with less dangerous effects. So drawing one every fourth turn is another way in which Elder Sign can turn up the tension.

Our sample Adventure Card is “Lights Out.” Harvey Walters’ player decides that the reward of an Elder Sign is worth going for. The individual Tasks on each line are not difficult in themselves, but the Arrow symbol beside them means that they have to be done in order. Harvey has at his disposal one Unique Item – a copy of “Cultes des Ghoules” that lets him add the red die to a Task attempt, and one Spell card, the spell “Flesh Ward,” which lets him store a die roll between attempts. Harvey decides that he will use both, meaning that he rolls both the green and the red dice.

On the first roll, Harvey gets the results of 1 Clue, 2 Clue, Scroll, Scroll, Skull, and Tentacle on the green dice. On the red die, he gets the Wild Card symbol, which can be used to match any other symbol. The 1 Clue and 2 Clue symbols are enough to complete the Task on the first line and places those dice on the Adventure Card. He takes the red die and stores it on the Spell Card. This leaves him with just four green dice to roll.

On the second roll, Harvey needs two Skulls, but is unlucky and gets neither. He is forced to discard one of the green dice leaving him with three to roll. He gets 1 Clue, 3 Clue, and a Skull. He needs another Skull, so uses the Wild Card symbol on the red die that he stored earlier to match the symbols needed to complete the Task. This leaves him with just two dice and needing two Scrolls to complete the third Task and the whole Adventure Card. He rolls a Scroll and a Tentacle. Ordinarily this would not be enough, but Harvey’s Special Ability allows him to change a single Tentacle result on the dice to a Scroll, and as soon as he does he has completed all of the Tasks and the Adventure Card.

As a reward, he gains an Elder Sign and a Spell Card plus the Adventure Card to spend as a Trophy. A new Adventure Card is then added. If he failed, he would have lost two Stamina and added another Token to the Doom Track on the Ancient One’s card.

When the Doom Track is fully filled on the Ancient One’s card, it awakes and comes to Earth. At that point every Investigator has to face it, battling to remove the Doom Tokens from the Track. This uses the same dice mechanics as for the Tasks on the Adventure Cards.

Should either the Sanity or Stamina of an Investigator be reduced to zero, he deemed to have been devoured! His player must start afresh with a new Investigator, including new Starting Items. He loses those previously held by the now devoured Investigator. If an Investigator is devoured by the awakened Ancient One, no new Investigator can join the fight against him.

Winning a game of Elder Sign is not easy, but it is made all the harder when certain Adventure and Mythos Cards and Monsters appear that have the Locked Die icon on them. These temporarily remove a die that matches the colour on the icon from the game, thus reducing the number of dice each player has to roll on his turn until the Adventure Card or the Monster that has confiscated the die has been dealt with, or the effects of the Mythos Card have been replaced with a new one when the Clock strikes Midnight. Fortunately, in addition to using Investigator Special Abilities and the various Spell and Item Cards to give themselves an advantage, players can do things. First, Clue Tokens allow players to re-roll dice. Second, they can Focus a die – saving a die result for a subsequent Task, but at the cost of discarding another die, or Assist another player on the same Adventure Card – giving them a die result that they can use on their turn in attempting the Tasks on that Adventure Card. The downside to this is that it reduces the number of dice every player has to roll until the Assisted player’s turn.

Physically, Elder Sign is up to Fantasy Flight Games’ usual standards. Everything is of a high quality as you would expect, and the illustrations, all of which will be familiar to players of Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness, are excellent. The rulebook is perhaps a little succinct at twelve pages, with some more examples of play being needed to better get the play of the game across. If there is an issue with the components, it is that some of the components are just a little too small for easy handling and thus some of the artwork’s effectiveness is lost.

Elder Sign is described as a co-operative dice game, but whilst the dice rolling lies at the heart of mechanics and game resolution, the game is really a “co-operative dice and decision” game. The players have to decide where their Investigators have to go and which Adventure Cards they should attempt to resolve, this decision usually being influenced by the number of Elder Signs available as Rewards on the current Adventure Cards or the Adventure Cards or Monsters with the locked dice on them. Of course, sometimes a player will attempt to resolve an Adventure Card for the Item and Spell Cards that it would reward him. They also need to decide how to apply their dice rolls, and in all of this, a player is free to solicit advice from the other players. This then, is the game’s “co-operative” element.

In comparison with Fantasy Flight Games’ other titles of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Elder Sign is simpler, more direct, and quicker to play. It is less location focused than either Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness, so it has less of a narrative structure to it, but because a player is rolling the dice multiple times during his turn, it actually feels like you are doing more than in either of those games, especially in Mansions of Madness where a player’s actions feel severely limited.

The combined effect of the reduced narrative structure in comparison to Fantasy Flight Games’ other Lovecraftian board games and the focus on the dice rolling to resolve the Adventure Cards is to make Elder Sign feel mechanical in play. It is possible that much of the game’s flavour and colour could fade into the background if the players do focus too much on the dice and the mechanics. That said, this is not necessarily an issue for the more casual player.

With eight Ancient Ones to face and forty-eight Adventure and eight Other World Adventure Cards, and sixteen Investigators to play, the core set for Elder Sign offers plenty of replay value. Plus, the format is ripe for expansion. The actual downtime between turns is not necessarily high, but of course with more players there is a slightly longer wait. When it is a player’s turn, the rolling of the dice to resolve the Tasks of an Adventure Card can be quite tense, which just adds to the atmosphere and feel of the game seen in the art.

Above all, Elder Sign captures much of the tension and atmosphere of fighting desperately against the Mythos. That it does so in such a self-contained and time constrained manner is a sign of a good design, at the heart of which is the clever, tension inducing dice rolling. Not too complex for the casual player, but still evocative for the Lovecraft devotee.


  1. And yet another positive review. I have been on the fence about this one for so long that I had to start making Sanity checks everyday I woke and checked yet another review. The small card/small print issue has surfaced almost everywhere, but hey, that's what these new glasses are for. :)

    I finally booked my transport to Arkham yesterday and expect to be in a padded cell by late Wednesday night. Thanks for confirming my suspicions.

    And just one question-is there a visual guide to setting up the game, besides the excellent video from FFG, on the table surface? I have some massive double sided sheets of hex/square paper (an ancient purchase) and thought I would just do a layout on the square side to aid set-up. I've been looking but even the rules, as you mention, are a bit light on examples.

    And thanks again for the review. Your reputation alone for this subject adds a +10 to the review :)

  2. Thank you for your kind comments.

    As far as the layout goes, I would follow the advice given in the rulebook and also look at Boardgamegeek.com where you will find various video guides worth watching. That was how I learned to really play the game.

  3. I kinda had a feeling...

    I had downloaded the rules from their website and have been studying them and noticed no layout and the descriptive text sounds different from the videos I have watched.

    Just glad I still had that old pack of hex/grid from SJG (and I mean this stuff is OLD-BitD old :)

    It will only take me once to set it up...then I just follow the happy squares...into madness! :)