Elder Sign is a 1 – 8 player cooperative board game that finds players racing against time to seal away Cthulhu and his legion of Ancient Ones. Does it provide the chills and thrill of a true Lovecraftian Horror experience? Or, like Cthulhu, will you be snoozing in R’leyh?
When I try to describe this game to my friends or introduce someone to it, I simply say, “It’s Yahtzee, but with Cthulhu.” Sure, there is a lot more to it than that, but it isn’t a bad analogy. To play, each player takes the role of one of the game’s “Investigators” and attempts to traverse the halls of the museum, which is represented by Adventure Cards. Each Investigator can move to a room and attempt to clear it by rolling the green dice. Each room has a different requirement and its own rules. One room may inflict Stamina damage in order to complete it, and one room can end your turn if you roll a Terror (read: tentacles). Succeed, and you reap the card’s rewards as well as the card itself. Fail, and you can try again by holding the dice you want to stay the same (like in Yahtzee) and re-roll the rest. Every time you do this, however, you have to discard a die, meaning that you only get so many tries before you have to take the penalties. These range from Stamina or Sanity damage to unleashing a monster upon the museum.
Notice the clock in the photo? When I said it would be a “race against time,” I was not exaggerating. Each player must advance the clock by 3 hours before they make their turn. Once midnight strikes, a Mythos card (the one with the clock on it) is drawn. The first effect is immediate, usually affecting the players negatively. The second effect can either be a boon for the players for the next four turns, a new rule that hinders the investigation, or an even worse effect that will occur the next time midnight comes around. In most cases, these Mythos cards add Doom tokens to the Ancient One.
There are 8 Ancient Ones included, and each one has a special rule that can make or break your game. Cthulhu cripples your Investigators by lowering their max Stamina and Sanity by one, Yog-Sothoth threatens players that use the bountiful Other World cards, and Azathoth just ends the game as soon as he awakens. If he awakens, that is. The whole point of Elder Sign is to collect enough of the titular signs to seal them away. Yog-Sothoth, for example, requires 12 elder signs to defeat him, but he awakens once ten Doom tokens are added to his card. Collect enough signs, and you all win the game! Awaken the Ancient One… and you and your merry band of Investigators have one final showdown with the Ancient One. Yes, you CAN throw dice at Cthulhu and knock him out. No, it is not easy by any means. In fact, it is down-right impossible to defeat them–which, you know, make sense given their pedigree. In all of my games, I’ve only ever managed to defeat an Elder God once. Granted, we all forgot about its effect for the first half of the game…
…Which leads me to the first of Elder Sign’s problems. There is a large learning curve for this game, as there are a lot of rules, effects, and variables to the game. Even after a dozen games, I still found myself forgetting about something (like the Ancient One’s ability) or consulting the rulebook for a specific situation. The rulebook does have a Quick Reference Guide on the back that goes over the basics, but it isn’t enough to ease new players in without frustration. I recommend playing the game on your own first–the game is 1 to 8 players, after all–in order to get a hang on the general flow and all the rules.
That being said, Elder Sign is also not the type of the game you bring to large events. While the game has enough pieces to accommodate eight players, the pieces themselves are rather small and easy to lose. I haven’t lost any (yet), but I wouldn’t recommend taking it further than a friend’s house. That being said, the cards and pieces all are well-crafted. The pieces, though tiny, are dense enough to take a fair bit of use without wear. The cards are also fantastic, each sporting great artwork and a wonderful texture. The Adventure cards and Other World cards have delightful flavor text that helps immerse the players in the Lovecraftian universe. The smaller cards still feel high quality, but they substitute the lengthy explanations for very brief blurbs or an icon that represents what it does. If it has a yellow die on it, you can trade the card to use the yellow die, which is superior to the green die. The same goes for the red die, which has a Wild icon that can take the place of any die result. Speaking of, the dice are also nice, feeling both weighty and smooth to the touch.
For all of its faults, Elder Sign plays well once you have the rules down. In a decent group of four, the game does run at a fast pace, and it is exhilarating to watch as your buddy needs one last Scroll to get the last of the elder signs and is down to their last green die. With the different Ancient Ones, the numerous Adventure cards, and the randomness of dice, you are guaranteed a unique game every single time. Of course, that also means that some of those games could be absolutely punishing for the players. All of the Adventure cards could have nasty penalties and require extremely lucky rolls, the Mythos cards could rack up Doom tokens faster than the Investigators can get elder signs, or Nyarlathotep’s super-powered monsters might pop up quickly and often. That, or everything goes your way, leaving you with a rather quick and mundane game. Most of the time, though, you and your fellow comrades will be on the edges of your seats as you settle in for one more night in the museum.