Thursday, March 6, 2014

Elder Sign? Elder as in old or superior?


The definition of Elder in the title of this game review will sum up the dichotomous feelings that people experience when playing it. Some feel that the definition is surely of the "old" variety in that the game is "old hat." It's a Lovecraft themed Yahtzee they say. Others take the approach that Elder is meant to mean superior as in superior to other games in this genre, mainly Arkham Horror or other co-op games.

Granted, when people play the game they are not pondering what the word Elder should mean in the title but it is interesting that people have come to align their views of this game with one of the two definitions of Elder. But which definition holds true when the game is played out? Which one defines Elder Sign?

The Buildup

"Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places." - The Picture in the House, 1921 - H.P. Lovecraft

The year is 1926, the height of the "Roaring Twenties." Everywhere tensions are easing as the after math of the Great War resolves and economic prosperity increases exponentially. Jazz rules the music scene as automobiles, moving pictures and radios proliferate into the populace announcing the arrival of "Modernity," forcing traditions to the side and causing a general feeling of discontinuity. All things seemed possible with the arrival of such marvelous technology.

Behind all this glitz and glam though some can hear the ringing of false notes. Some can feel what is coming and are actively trying to combat it. They are called insane or strange but what they know is the Truth. The Ancient Ones are stirring, aching to enter into our realm and reduce all of our glam to cinders.

Several of these Investigators have arrived at a local museum in a town that is on the edge of bursting with madness. They have discovered that on this very night an Ancient One will use the strange artifacts and occult items within the museum to rip aside the fabric of reality and enter into the world in it's full and terrifying glory.

As one of these investigators it is your job to enter into the dark and terrifying museum to uncover the clues and weapons necessary to collect the vital Elder Signs and use them to prevent the portal to the Ancient One from opening. If you should win, the world will go on and none will know the difference. If you should fail, the world will burn in ash and all will be consumed.

The Game

At the beginning of Elder Sign the Ancient One is chosen, either randomly or intentionally, from one of the 8 Ancient One cards. This will have a significant affect on the way the game is played. Some Ancient Ones will require several Doom Tokens, tokens that are placed usually at the stroke of Midnight, to awaken while others won't, meaning that they will awaken faster. Also present on the cards are the number of Elder Signs required to seal the gateway and prevent them from entering the world, an ability that affects the entire game such as Yig's Anger below. They also have rules for how to successfully attack them and what they do to the Investigators when they attack. 

Next the players choose their starting Investigators, either randomly or intentionally. Each investigator gets a number of Stamina and Sanity tokens equal to the number next to the heart and brain respectively. They also get their starting items with the book being a spell, the gun a common item, the dagger a unique item, the footprint a clue token, and the man with his hand up an ally. These are drawn from their respective card decks. They also have an ability that can help them deal with the horrors which they are about to be subjected to.

Once these are setup, the clock is set to midnight and the first mythos card is drawn. The clock moves forward three hours after each Investigator's turn. Once it strikes midnight, a new mythos card is drawn. Mythos cards have both immediate effects, like add a Doom Token to the doom track, and lingering effects, like the next time the clock rings midnight each Investigator must lose 2 sanity. These add tension and a hint of the unexpected each turn helping to keep the game fresh.

At this point, the Investigators start in the entrances room.

Six adventures have been laid out from the adventure deck representing the areas within the museum that the Investigators know for certain there are clues to the Ancient One awakening. Each in their turn, the Investigators go to an adventure card and attempt to complete the assigned tasks on the cards by matching symbols on the custom dice to the symbols on the task. The tasks can be completed in any order unless there is an arrow on the left hand side of them pointing down. If that is the case the tasks must be completed in order.

The current player rolls the six green dice attempting to match the symbols. If they achieve all of the symbols necessary to complete one task, they "assign" these dice to the adventure and roll the remainder in an attempt to complete the remaining tasks. If they Investigator fails, then a single die is removed from the dice pool and one my be "focused" meaning that if you rolled a symbol that you needed but didn't roll everything to complete a task, you can place one of these dice on your Investigator chit to use when you want. You can also use this mechanic if another player is on the same adventure card by allowing them to "assist" you.

This continues until either the adventure card is completed or the Investigator runs out of dice. If the adventure is completed then the Investigator receives the rewards on the adventure code, in the white area at the bottom, and can use the number of trophies, the black number on the front of the card, at the entrance. The Investigator also returns to the entrance and draws a fresh adventure card so that there are always six on the table. If the adventure is failed, the Investigator suffers the consequences listed in the red area on the bottom left of the adventure card and stays on the adventure card.

When an adventure is completed you may acquire the awards which can be common items, unique items, spells, allies and clue tokens. You may also have to place a monster or some other negative thing as a reward for certain adventures. Monsters are placed on the spider web looking parts of adventure cards and generally make them harder to defeat. They may also lock a die causing it to be unusable until the monster is defeated.

As a result of completing and adventure card you may also be awarded an Elder Sign. These are stacked on top of the Ancient One's card and once the required number of Elder Signs have been accumulated, the Investigators are victorious.

If the Investigators fail to accumulate the required number of Elder Signs before the Ancient One's doom track fills up, then he awakens and the Investigators must attempt to defeat him in combat. If they fail, they are all consumed. They win if they defeat the Ancient One in battle.

If at any time an Investigator's health or sanity drops to 0, they are devoured. Their card is discarded along with all items and monsters are returned to the monster pool. A doom token is added to the doom track and the player draws a new Investigator.

The Review

Rules - 8 / 15 

The rules for this game are very simple, in concept. You roll dice attempting to defeat adventures to gain Elder Signs to trap the Big Bad in his own dimension and save the world. The rule book, however, is atrocious. There is no table of contents, no index, and very little heading work within the actual text making it extremely difficult to find something during game play and generally leaving you wondering if you were doing things right. There are several relatively useful pictures though displaying how to go about assigning dice and what all of the pictures mean. Overall I believe this to be a sub-par showing by Fantasy Flight. Good news is that they seem to have released a revised edition of the rules for this game which resolves most of these issues with the original rules set. This can be found here:  Revised Rules

Gameplay - 10 / 15

This is what has caused all of the commotion surrounding this game. People who love Arkham Horror call this game Yahtzee due to the constant rolling of dice and those who hate Arkham Horror believe this to be better due to its simplicity by comparison. Old hat versus Superior. The definitions of "Elder." 

I have covered the majority of the game play above but some details have been left out. Overall, the game flows fairly smoothly once everyone knows how to play. There are meaningful decisions to be made regarding what adventures to pursue based on your Investigator as well as how to spend trophies, when to use items and spells and where to place monsters. It is easier to learn and play than Arkham Horror.

However, I think the reason that people compare it to Yahtzee is that despite all of the strategy and choices you have available, you are at the mercy of the dice. If you are rolling poorly, your sense of agency and belief that you can change the game environment wanes and you cease to enjoy it. I personally like to play this game but when I am rolling poorly, it is a difficult game to play. This is also compounded by the reward system being based on defeating adventures. If you can't beat an adventure, you can't re-arm or get trophies to heal leading to a slow and suffocating demise as you are drained of life while trying to get the dice to cooperate.

Components - 13 / 15

Fantasy Flight is generally the king of components in my experience and you can usually buy with confidence when it comes to this aspect of their games. Elder Sign is no different. The artwork is wonderful and the large cards and chits are made of quality stuff. The big concern on this part is the smaller cards as they feel a little thin and may wear faster than one may like. Also, the flavor text on some of the adventure cards is a little too vague. I know that H.P. Lovecraft had a tendency to be vague with his descriptions of things and the goal was to carry this style over into the game but it seems to me they went a bit too far and described nothing on some cards.

Re-Play Ability - 12 / 15

With several different Investigators, each with their own special ability, eight Ancient Ones, and dozens of adventure cards this game lends itself well to being played again and again. It will take several plays before the game itself, not the mechanics, begins to feel a bit stale and even then, you will probably continue to play if you have played it that many times. 

After a while though the constant dice rolling can be a bit of a bear despite all of the built in strategic and tactical choices allowing you to modify the dice in your favor. After a couple of games in a row where the dice hate you, you will probably need a break.

Theme - 10 / 15

The theme for Elder Sign greatly depends on the players. The art work is fantastic as is the majority of the flavor text, but in a game centered around cards it can be difficult to get into to a level of complete immersion. Reading what flavor text is available is a must and perhaps narrating your character's moves could be beneficial but without this kind of extra work put in, it isn't so much scary as annoying or frustrating when yet another monster appears within the museum.

Fun - 14 / 25

Elder Sign is a fun game. I like to play it and it always seems to hit the table when a group of us get together to game. It is easy for new people to learn and is a great co-op game. However it is limited in fun value based on the weakness of the theme without the above extra work mentioned and the way that a purely dice based game can batter you with the bad luck stick. I will play this game, and I will enjoy it, perhaps even more so understanding the limitations of the game.

Overall - 67 / 100

Final Thoughts

Dice are an ancient mechanic. We've all thrown dice more than we would like to admit. Almost all games rely on dice to some extent to introduce that random unexpectedness. So why do we keep throwing dice despite being such an old hat idea? Well, I think it is because newer games have found ways to increase our chances of sustained agency in the face of bad dice roll. By allowing re-rolls and giving rewards even if the dice perform poorly we continue to believe that we can have a desired affect in the game. Elder Sign has some of this with the spells storing dice, assists from other players, focusing on ourselves, clue token re-rolls etc. However, when the dice are performing badly despite all of these built in mechanics, you exhaust your ability to manipulate the dice through them as your items, clues, hope are all sapped. Without beating adventures you cannot replenish the core things the game relies on the give you agency. That can lead to a sour playing experience.

Another reason that we continue to throw dice is that when we do so in modern games, we aren't throwing dice to throw them. We are throwing them to achieve a certain kind of success, a success that is built into the theme of the game. The stronger the theme and the clearer it is to perceive how throwing the dice is incorporated into the theme the less we are likely to mind throwing dice to begin with, even if they roll poorly. Elder Sign has a relatively weak theme in relation to other games which has a tendency to leave the dice rolls out in the wind as naked mechanics. It is much like the Wizard of Oz telling us to not pay attention to the man behind the curtain but it is difficult when the curtain is thin or non-existent.

All of this being said, I believe this to still be a great game a lot of fun to play, but also with a lot of room for improvement. It is "superior" to Arkham Horror both in ease of play and time required but certainly falls into the "old hat" category with the dice rolling mechanic allowing the sapping of agency by poor reward placement and weak theme.

Thanks for reading!