|Interaction||Components & Design|
The clock just finished striking midnight as you enter the exhibition hall of the museum. You never realised just how creepy this place would be at night. The moonlight coming in through the high window is just enough to highlight the artifacts in the showcases without really illuminating them. Your own footsteps on the marble floor echo three times in the vast, silent halls. You know your companions are around somewhere, searching through the other rooms of the museum, but right now it’s so silent that you can hear your own heartbeat. And so cold that you can see your breath. Wait, cold? Why is it so cold suddenly? And what is that eery, squamous noise coming from behind that exhibition case with rare 16th century cheese graters? You jump back just half a second before the wet tentacle hits the spot you were standing and draw your Tommy Gun.Who ever said that museums were boring must never have been to the Miskatonic Exhibition Hall and Great Old One Fast Food Joint. Actually, the second part of the name is more significant, because one of the Old Ones is about to wake up inside the museum, and you know how they get without a decent breakfast. Unfortunately, the Arkham Priming School for Girls could not supply the required virgin for a complete, healthy Old One breakfast, and so you and your associates went into the museum to make sure He stays asleep instead. Who He is, or who you are, for that matter, is randomly determined when setting up Elder Sign, but if you played Arkham Horror you will find no surprises here: the slumbering Old Ones are the same and so are the Investigators. Even the special abilities both parties bring to the table are similar, adapted to fit the different rules, of course, but lending the same flavour to the characters in both games. It’s not so surprising, of course, since Elder Sign was created by the same designers as Arkham Horror, Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, for the same publisher, Fantasy Flight Games, in the same setting: Lovecraft’s Mythos.
Elder Sign is, for all intents and purposes, a light version of Arkham Horror: it takes less time to play than it takes to get the rules straight in Arkham Horror, typically 60-90 minutes, it can be played on a regular living room table instead of a snooker table, and if you have to read up on something while the game is going on, the other players don’t have to plan an exhibition to sunken R’lyeh to pass the time. Unlike Arkham Horror with its hideously blasphemous rule book, this one actually helps you play the game. And the area of play is much smaller, too: you never leave the museum for your adventures.
But that’s okay, there are many ways to die inside these walls.Whenever it’s your turn, you pick one of them. I mean, you pick one of the six available Adventure cards. It’s not certain you’ll die yet, unless you’re a champion of the dice like some of our playtesters that would manage to get crushed by the snack machine in the basement, if that was an actual adventure card. Because the way you pass adventures in Elder Sign is by rolling dice to complete tasks. Each adventure card has one or more tasks to complete, each task has one or more symbols for you to roll in order to complete it. To do that, you start out with six green dice showing one to three magnifying glasses, a scroll, a skull and a tentacular thing called Terror. You roll them, and if you can complete one of the tasks on your adventure, you place the matching dice there to do so. Reroll the rest until you completed all the tasks and you complete the Adventure. That’s how it goes for some people, roll, roll, roll, get your reward, next player please. Others… not so much. If you can not complete a task with your roll, you lose one die before you roll again. Pretty quickly, you don’t have enough dice left to complete the adventure, bad things happen to you for your failure and then you’re forced to tell the other players: “Guys, I just lost two sanity trying to buy a sandwich.” At least, just like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign allows you to spend Clue Tokens to reroll some or all of your dice before you have to consider your roll a failure. Also, you can save exactly one die after a failed roll, making your job slightly easier. If another player is hanging around on the same adventure as you, he can help you out by saving another die for you, but that’s as far as cooperation goes here, for a coop there is little interaction in Elder Sign. Even with those details to help you, though, you are still playing Yahtzee against Cthulhu, and if you’re unlucky with the rolls, you’ll be devoured faster than the last onion bagel at playtesting brunch. Especially when you are on an adventure with Terror effects, extra bad stuff that happens every time you fail a roll but rolled a Terror.
Leaving wet footprints all over the clean floor, you splash your way back to the Entrance Hall. Fighting two Shoggoths in a bath room, who said you don’t know how to have fun on a Friday night? It’s time to see what you can get for them at the Gift Shop. The old lady there always seemed a bit creepy, but since she told you that she’ll give you all kinds of stuff for monster corpses and artifacts you find on your adventures, your seriously wondering if she isn’t the reason for all the weirdness at the museum. The term Old Ones fits, and what sane person would hand out a Revolver at a museum gift shop in exchange for two monster corpses?
Failing an adventure comes with some harsh penalties: losing health and stamina is pretty much standard, but some also summon a monster which adds another task to one of the adventures, or even add a Doom Token to the Old One’s Alarm Clock of Doom that will wake him up when it’s full. But completing an adventure brings rewards. Why else would you do it? The most beneficial reward is the titular Elder Sign that will seal the Old One away for another millenium or so once you collected enough. But other rewards are not to be sneezed at, either. There are the Clue Tokens to be gained, but also the Common Items, Unique Items and Spells you know from Arkham Horror. Here, most of them let you add the yellow die or the red die for Common and Unique Items, respectively, while spells often give you a chance to save a symbol you rolled even beyond your turn. Some “rewards”also summon monsters and add doom tokens, but if you were expecting a happy ending, then you haven’t been reading much Lovecraft. In additionto all those, you also get to keep the adventure card as a trophy, which you can later redeem for valuable prices in the Museum’s entrance hall.
But all that stomping around in the museum, trying to foil his plans, you didn’t expect the Old One to take that lying down, did you? Well, technically, you can expect him to, he’s still sleeping. But he’s nevertheless fighting back. Atfer every player’s turn, the big museum clock advances by three hours, and every time it strikes midnight bad things happen. Adding doom tokens, locking a dice for the next day, losing health and stamina. The Old One is fighting back hard, for a sleeping guy. (Although its main weapon may be the clock itself, which will drive you insane if you think about it too much: every time the hand hits twelve, it’s midnight. There is no noon, ever. The manual tries to explain that with you only being in the museum outside of opening hours, but then the museum would be open from midnight to lunchtime… I guess living in Arkham does make people a bit weird.)
And so you continue completing adventures until you either have enough Elder Signs to put the Old One back to sleep. Or until you run out of Sanity or Stamina, in which case you draw a new investigator and keep going. Or until the Old One gathers enough Doom Tokens to wake up, in which case you still have the chance to put him back to sleep by more direct means. That’s the part I dislike about Elder Sign, just like I disliked it in Arkham Horror. First off, if one of the Old Ones wakes up, you’re screwed. And your neighbours are screwed. The museum gift shop is screwed, the little grocery store down the street is screwed, your favourite bar is screwed, your state is screwed and quite likely the rest of your continent is screwed, too. It just doesn’t make sense to put those guys down with a Colt 45 and a good wallop with your walking stick. But even worse, it’s just a giant dice fest: you keep rolling dice, trying to complete the ancient horror’s battle task as often as you can, and if that was often enough before he puts you in his breakfast cereal, you still win the game. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s boring. But the same can’t be said for the rest of the game. Right up to the point where Cthulhu or one of his mates wakes up, it’s a very tense game that does, obviously, require luck with the dice to win, but won’t let you get anywhere without some tactics, either. Using your gear and abilities well, sending the right people to the adventures – it’s nowhere close to being a puzzle game, but it’s not mindless, either. Elder Sign is not as thematic as its big brother: there is flavour text on all the cards, the illustrations are great, but its not telling an epic story like Arkham Horror. On the other hand, there isn’t a bunch of rules that only apply in special situations, unless one of their exceptions applies: mechanically, Elder Sign is more streamlined and much easier to get into than Arkham Horror ever was. It is Arkham Horror light, in many ways, but it’s also more palatable to fans of european style games, at least those that don’t mind the dice rolling, and it’s certainly fun to play. Unless you are dice-impaired and repeatedly fail an adventure titled Public Lavatory. That one actually exists. And if you fail it multiple times, you won’t be having fun, but you will give everyone else a great time laughing at you, trust me.
Bleeding from many wounds, almost going mad from some of the things you saw tonight, you drag yourself back through the portal from R’lyeh carrying the three Elder Signs you have been fighting for. Just before the crazy clock strikes midnight, you slot them into place in that weird, non-euclidean artifact that they said was causing Azathoth to stir in his slumber. As you do so, just before you collapse, you have a brief vision of a gigantic form turning in its sleep, holding what you think may be a house-sized, multi-tentacled teddy bear. Maybe it’s time for a long, quiet vacation somewhere…