Elder Sign, a Fantasy Board Game for Lovecraft Fans
Growing up, I loved board games, and I even played some into my college years. But then my interest in traditional games faded; the old standbys like Monopoly and Scrabble didn't satisfy me any more. I had no idea that there were whole new worlds of gaming out there -- but then I saw the web series TableTop and learned just how diverse my choices really were! I particularly loved that there were fantasy options, and that the fantasy elements were integral to the gameplay rather than just window dressing for something traditional (like Lord of the Rings Monopoly).
A lot of the games from the show appealed to me, so it was hard to choose; I wanted Small World, Catan, Munchkin, and a few others, but I decided to go with Elder Sign for my first purchase, partly because the price was lower than some of my other picks. It also had the advantage that it can be played solo or with friends, so I wouldn't need to find an opponent to play.
While there is a bit of a learning curve, Elder Sign didn't disappoint me. Although I've gotten several new titles in the intervening months, Elder Sign is still one of my favorites, and I'd play it more often if it didn't take quite so much time to play. Although I find it very satisfying to handle the cards, tokens, and dice, it does take time to both set up and break down the game; I probably spend close to 15 minutes getting out and shuffling the different types of cards (common items, unique items, spells, mythos cards, and adventures), picking my characters and setting them up with stamina tokens, sanity tokens, and an initial complement of items and spells. Set-up time aside, I think it takes me about 90 minutes for an average game, which is a little long for a weeknight.
What Makes Elder Sign Unique?
At the most basic level, Elder Sign is a dice game: you pick an Adventure card and try to roll the combination of dice the card requires. What makes the game unique and satisfying are the fantasy elements that run through the game. Elder Sign is based on the Cthulhu mythology created by author H. P. Lovecraft. The game is populated by human characters reminiscent of 1920's detective stories: Jenny Barnes (the Dilettante), Joe Diamond (the Private Eye), Michael McGlen (the Gangster) and more. These adventurers have to collect Elder Signs to defeat an Ancient One: Cthulhu or one of the seven other gods and monsters bent on destroying our world.
The artwork on the cards is top-notch and inventive, evoking a fantastic and mysterious world, and the captions and descriptions enhance the atmosphere. I really appreciate the level of detail that runs through the cards; the artwork and story elements keep this game from being more than just a fantasy version of Yahtzee (as one reviewer put it).
While there is a definite element of luck in gameplay, I find that there's enough strategy involved to keep the game interesting and re-playable. You have six active adventure cards at a time, and there are enough of these cards (and mythos cards, which add extra complications) to keep the game challenging and fresh. I carefully choose which adventure card to tackle each turn based on the powers of each character and the selection of helper cards they have available. The fact that I play solo probably adds more strategic decision-making, since I'm looking at the capabilities of all four characters when making my choices.
The Game's Characters
Speaking of characters, I have to compliment Fantasy Flight for providing truly satisfying choices in that area. Given the theme of the game and the time period of the setting, it would be easy to have a concentration of male characters, but Elder Sign is impressively balanced. There's an equal selection of male and female adventurers to choose from, and the female characters are just as powerful as the men. I love having interesting women to play, and after experimenting with different adventurers, I've gotten in the habit of choosing a four-player team solely of women (Jenny the Dilettante, Kate the Scientist, Mary the Nun and Amanda the Student). I've had excellent results with that mix and plan to keep using it.
I can't say that I have many complaints about the game, but in fairness, I'll mention the few I have. For one, I felt like there weren't quite enough cards in the decks of Common Items, Unique Items, and Spells. Luckily, this issue is solved if you get the recent expansion, since it includes more of each of those cards. My other complaint is minor: I wish the box had some way of neatly organizing all the pieces for storage. I got a plastic organizer to corral all the small tokens, but I can't quite fit everything inside the box that way.
To sum up, I think Elder Sign is an excellent choice for board game lovers who want an intriguing fantasy game that can be played in 2 - 3 hours. This game will spark your imagination and provide many hours of fun and entertainment.
Unseen Forces is the first expansion for Elder Sign. It adds more of the cards you already have (characters, spells, unique and common items, mythos and adventures) and adds new elements in the form of blessings and curses. I felt like the original game needed more variety and volume for the spell cards, unique items, and common items, so I'm pleased that those are included in the expansion. And I really like some of the new characters. I've been swapping out one or two of my regular characters for a new one each time I play, and I think I'll start using at least one of the new characters on a permanent basis.
Watch Elder Sign Played on TableTop
© 2013 C A Chancellor