Saturday, July 20, 2013

Elder Sign

Fantasy Flight board games are notorious for their number of pieces. They use separate tokens for health, sanity, stamina, coin, treasure, victory points, monster health, enemy movement, player turn order... And if you can use one token to represent two or more elements, don't suggest it to these guys, as it'll fall on deaf, piece-loving ears. Add in expansions, and suddenly you're carrying multiple boxes for a single game, with components and tokens scattered across the various containers.

Arkham Horror is one other biggest board games we own. Even just the base game components won't fit on our 1.25m x 1.25m gaming table, and we require two side tables to hold the elements that don't get used every turn. Heaven forbid you include the Dunwich Horror game board, and suddenly players don't even have room to place their character boards on the main table!

Elder Sign is based in the same universe as Arkham Horror, inspired by the mythos conceived in the deranged mind of H.P. Lovecraft. The story follows the players as they attempt to stop a great old god from being brought into our world, battling supernatural abominations, cultists and powerful occult leaders along the way.

If you've played Arkham Horror, you'll be familiar with the characters and artwork, as player character portraits are reused, giving a nice sense of continuity. Similarly, Health, Sanity and Clue tokens are all identical to those in Arkham, though Clue tokens differ in use between the two games. Amazingly, despite being from Fantasy Flight, and the same family as Arkham Horror, Elder Sign strips the components down, replacing Arkham's enormous board with location cards, and streamlining the experience down to a much faster game overall.

But both games differ dramatically beyond the general look. Arkham Horror is a massive undertaking, regularly clocking it at over five hours, not even including the hour or more you just need for setup! Elder Sign is much closer to 90 minutes to two hours, and setup time is around the three to five minute mark.

This is another of those a co-operative games I'm enjoying a lot recently. The player characters are exploring a museum during the closing hours, moving from room to room and combating the horrors within. The core mechanic is dice rolling, requiring you to complete objectives on cards by rolling matching symbols on the custom dice. Fail to complete a step in the card objective, and you simply discard one of the dice you're using and reroll the rest, a dice down, but still in with a chance. Succeed in getting all the matches and you collect the printed reward. Fail and you suffer the card's penalty. You can use items or spells to add extra dice to your hand for a better shot at the good stuff.

Everyone is working as a team trying to reach a set number of Elder Signs before the elder god awakens. Signs are usually won through the defeating room cards, while the Doom tokens that slowly waken the god most often appear as penalties on rooms. There are a bunch of gods included in the basic game, each with its own required number of tokens, as well as abilities and rules for when it awakens.

The basic game does seem a little easy to me. We've played a lot of games of this, especially in the months after we first go it, and I found I was winning maybe 4 out of 5 games, maybe even more. As you complete rooms and kill monsters, you hold on to the tokens and cards and can use their Trophy value to purchase a variety of things from the entrance sheet. This includes restoring Sanity and Health, finding items or spells and even buying those Elder Signs. What generally ends up happening is that everyone just saves up for the Signs and never buys anything else.

However, the recently released expansion, Unseen Forces, removes the ability to purchase Elder Signs, and adds in Blessing and Curse dice. Characters who are Blessed get to roll an extra dice. Those who are Cursed have a chance of losing a dice in a roll. Get double Blessed and you are gifted an item card. Get double Cursed and you are Devoured!! Although we've had the expansion since the day it was released here, we haven't had a chance to try it out yet, as the weather is unnaturally glorious, and it's hard to find an excuse not to go outside as much as possible. I am hoping that the expansion ramps up the difficulty a bit, but we'll have to wait and see.

Our house has been a big fan of Arkham Horror since we first played it many years ago. It was always one of Claire's favourite games, and she immediately fell in love with Elder Sign. Elder Sign allows us to play in the Arkham world, but in a faster, more accessible game. It hasn't entirely replaced Arkham Horror, which gets pulled out and played every few months, but Elder Sign gets played on a monthly, and at times, weekly basis.

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