Arkham is not a safe town to be in, but you’re seasoned investigators used to all the horrors that fall upon this place. This time the danger seems to lurk in the museum at Miskatonic University, and it’s your job to work together to solve mysteries in the museum and close the portal before the Ancient One awakes. So grab your trusted dice, and try to not go insane, because it’s time to play Elder Sign…
Elder Sign is a cooperative game by Fantasy Flight, set in the famous and terrifying world created by HP Lovecraft. The same world in which the mighty Cthulhu lurks, and that has lent flavour and theme to countless of games lately. You might have heard of the games Arkham Horror or Eldritch Horror, both co-ops set in the same world. These are also by Fantasy Flight but they are much bigger, more complicated, and take much much longer than Elder Sign. You can say that Elder Sign is the light quick version of those two. Same characters, same atmosphere, but an easier gameplay. There are still a lot of components to this game, so just be patient and I will do my best to explain it all to you. Once you actually sit down and play it you’ll see that it isn’t as confusing or complicated as it may first seem. It’s a pretty straight forward game that just takes a while to explain. So let’s go!
Setup and components
The game is a race against one of the Ancient Ones, who is stirring. By resolving adventures on the cards that make up the parts of the museums you can access at the moment you can collect Elder Signs. When you have enough Elder Signs (number depends on the Ancient One) the portal will close and you will win the game. The problem is that as time goes by the Ancient One grows more restless and if you don’t have enough Elder Signs when the doom track has filled up, the Ancient One awakes and you will have to go into battle. And let me tell you, winning against an Ancient One is very very hard. You want to close the portal before it gets that far.
At set up each player receives a character. These character all have some kind of special power that will help during the game. They also start off with certain items (which we will look closer at soon) and their respective maximum of sanity (blue brains) and stamina (red hearts) points. If you fail adventures these are the points you will lose. Once a character has lost either all sanity or all stamina, they are devoured. If that happens you, you will have to throw away any items and trophies (resolved adventure cards and monsters) and start over with a new character. At very rare occasions it might be worth it to sacrifice a character (if they have a useless power and very few possessions for example, and their death can help the others). Each character is also represented by a marker that will be placed wherever you want to do something during the game.
I mentioned that characters receive starting items. These come in four different types: common items (yellow gun), unique items (red dagger), spells (purple book), and allies (brown silhouette). These things can help you during the game in different ways. Some grant you a one off dice result change or healing power. Others make it possible to save a die result for the future, but most common are cards that allow you to “purchase” the yellow and/or red die to add to your dice pool. Why this is useful you’ll see when we go through the gameplay. You will receive more of these as you resolve adventures. Other things you can receive when resolving an adventure are clue tokens and Elder Signs. Clue tokens let you re-roll dice, and Elder Signs are simply collected to try to seal away the Ancient One before it awakes.
Each game has one single Ancient One that is stirring. This Ancient One has a special power that is in effect throughout the game. In the example below you can see see the mighty Cthulhu who will decrease each investigator’s maximum sanity by one, right form the start. It also has an Elder Sign count that shows you how many Elder Signs you together as a group have to collect in order to seal The Ancient one away and win the game. On the right hand half of the card you will find the Doom Track. This is filled up by different events throughout the game, and when it’s full the Ancient One awakes and you are pretty much out of luck. The amount of slots on the doom track changes from Ancient One to Ancient One, same as the Elder Signs. It’s the ratio of Elder Signs vs Doom Tokens for the Ancient One that really sets the difficulty level of any given game. Some of the slots have a monster icon on them, and when a token is placed on it a monster appears in the museum.
The Miskatonic Museum in which you are adventuring is made up of six cards. Or rather, these are the six locations or events that you can access at this very moment. The top of an Adventure card consists of a title, a nice picture, and some flavour text. These have no effect on actual gameplay. It’s the rest that matters. The number next to the title is the trophy count. You can use this when buying things at the museum entrance for example. Below the flavour text there might be a square with text in it signifying a potential Midnight Effect or Terror Effect (we’ll get to what that means later). Then there’re the important tasks that you will have to resolve. The icons on these tasks show different dice results which is what you are aiming for when rolling the dice. Some cards have an arrow next to the top task which shows that the tasks have to be resolved in order. At the bottom of the card you will find a red section that shows you the penalty for failing, as well as a white section that shows you what you will gain if you succeed.
Sometimes a portal to an Other World will open and such a card will be added to the museum tableau. These cards are usually a bit harder to resolve than regular adventures, and comes with harsher penalties but also nice rewards (usually Elder Signs). You do not have to resolve these Other Worlds, but it might be worth the risk.
At the start of the game the first Mythos Card is flipped over. These cards have two different effects: an immediate and a lingering effect. The immediate effect is resolved right away. It might be adding a doom token to the track for example. The lingering effect on the other hand can either be something that happens throughout the next four turns (until it’s midnight again and a new mythos card is revealed), or something that happens the next time the clock strikes midnight. This can be either good or bad, like ignoring some bad things for the next four turns, or adding two monsters to the board at midnight.
Monsters can appear in a few different ways (some of which I’ve already mentioned). Monsters are tasks that have to be resolved just as any other adventure task, and they can even replace regular tasks. They all have trophies on them, or in a few cases no trophies but you gain clue tokens instead. How to deal with monsters will be explained further in the Gameplay section.
Lastly, the most important components of the game are the dice. These are what you use to resolve the adventure. Mainly you will be rolling the six green dice. The different faces of them are: investigator icons (magnifying glass) ranging in value from 1 to 3, a terror (tentacles), a peril (skull), and a lore (scroll). There is also a special yellow die where the terror icon has been removed and replaced with a 4 point investigation icon. And finally there is a red die which is the same as the yellow, except the 1 point investigation icon has been removed and replaced with a joker in the shape of a man with a gun. This can be used to represent any die result (including a 4 point investigation).
There is no proper board in this game. Everything is made up of cards, but it takes up a lot of space – especially since you also need to roll dice.
Actual gameplay is pretty straight forward. You take your character marker and place it on the card with the adventure or Other World you want to resolve (this is the movement phase). Then you take the green dice and roll to solve the adventure. This is called the resolution phase. Each adventure has two or three tasks. Unless there’s an arrow they can be resolved in any order, but only one per roll. If you succeed you place the corresponding dice on the card and proceed with the next roll. If you fail you have to remove one die from the dice pool and can then roll again. Once per adventure you can focus a die if you fail a roll. This is done by taking a die that was rolled with a result you will need later for the adventure, and placing it (unchanged) on your character token. You still have to remove a die from the dice pool though. Clue tokens can be used to re-roll however many dice you want before failing the roll. This means that you can save a few dice with the right result and pay to re-roll the rest. Some tasks require payment in the form of sanity or stamina, and sometimes a movement of the clock arm, instead of dice results. In that case you have to pay the price when solving the task (which will always include at least one die as well), even if you later fail the overall adventure.
During the resolution phase you can use any of the items or spells you have collected. The yellow and red dice can be purchased at any point during the adventure, so for the easier ones it’s usually good to try to only use green dice to start off with and save your precious items for when they are truly needed. Some adventures require more than six dice and for those it’s obviously good to purchase the extra ones.
Dice can also become locked. Some adventure cards have square dice icons with a padlock on them (see the monster picture in the previous section). If such a card comes up you have to place the appropriately coloured die on it, and it will remain there until the adventure has been resolved. Monsters can also cause dice to be locked. If a monster is defeated the die will be released and can be used for other tasks on that adventure if any are left. A die can be locked on several adventures and/or monsters. If that happens the die is just moved to the next lock once it has been freed from the first one.
Some adventures have so called Terror Effects. This clearly marked by a square under the flavour text that says “Terror:” and what the effect is. What this means is that if you fail a roll and you roll at least one terror (tentacles) result the effect comes into play. They are never ever good. Sometimes you automatically fail the adventure, other times you lose sanity or stamina, or have to remove dice. However, if you succeed a roll and you’ve rolled a terror you’re fine.
If you fail an adventure you will have to face the consequences. The lower left corner shows you icons with a red background. This is what has to be done if you fail. It is most often loss of sanity and/or stamina (sometimes a lot of it), sometimes you have to add a doom token to the doom track, and sometimes you have to add a monster to an adventure. If you are reduced to zero sanity or stamina you are devoured! A doom token is added to the doom track and you lose all your items, spells, allies, clue tokens, and trophies. However, on your next turn you get to draw a new character card and will continue the game with full sanity and stamina. If you succeed with an adventure however, you get the rewards of the right corner with the white background. This could be items, spells, allies, clue tokens, and what we want the most: Elder Signs. However, a monster can also be a “reward” and you can also open a portal to an Other World (which sometimes isn’t the best thing).
When a monster appears a monster marker is drawn from the so called Monster Cup (it doesn’t have to be a cup, even if I personally like to put them in one) and placed on an adventure or Other World. Some adventures have specific tasks marked with white creepy border. In such cases the monster marker replaces the task with the border, sometimes making it easier and sometimes harder. Some adventures have empty slots with white borders. In such cases the monster is placed on that empty monster task and the adventure suddenly requires much more work. When there are no specified white bordered monster tasks free on the board, a monster is added to the bottom of an adventure card that doesn’t already have a monster on it. If such an adventure has an arrow icon on it and therefor has to be resolved in order, the monster task becomes the last task. Once a monster has been defeated you get to keep it and use the trophy points it awards just as an adventure card. Monsters can appear as punishment, rewards, due to mythos cards, or when adding a doom token to certain spots on the doom track.
Instead of resolving an adventure you can choose to stay (or go to if you failed your previous adventure) at the museum entrance and take your action there. The image below shows you what you can choose from and how much it costs. During all the games I’ve played no one has ever used the middle column. We only ever use the museum entrance to heal or to purchase Elder Signs. But at times it might be useful to do something different. In the expansions the entrance has been changed an you cannot purchase Elder Signs anymore, which changes your strategy a bit I must say.
Once an adventure has been resolved (or failed), the clock phase commences. This means that the clock hand on the nice cardboard clock is moved forward three hours. So after four turns it is midnight once again (we can’t be in the museum during business hours). Some adventure cards have so called midnight effects that happen each time the clock strikes midnight. They are always bad. At midnight a new mythos card is also drawn and replaces the previous one. The immediate mythos effect is resolved (maybe some monsters appear, or doom tokens are placed on the doom track) and then the game continues as normal with the next player.
You win the game if you manage to collect enough Elder Signs to seal the Ancient One away before its doom track is filled and it wakes up. As soon as someone gets that last Elder Sign needed the game is over and you can celebrate. If the doom track fills up, well then you are in trouble…
The Ancient One awakes if you haven’t managed to collect enough Elder Signs before that last doom token is placed, but you still have a tiny chance to be victorious. You simply have to fight! The mythos cards and all the Adventures, Other Worlds, and monsters are removed from the table and replaced with the Ancient One. If any dice are locked on cards or monsters they are taken out of the game. So be sure to free the dice! Each Ancient One has a battle task – a set of dice result icons, just as a regular adventure task. During each player’s turn they try to roll matching results, remove a die for each failed roll – just like normal. Any items, spells, and clue tokens can still be used. For each successful set of dice results one doom token is taken off the doom track. When a player has rolled the dice as much as possible (following normal game rules), the clock is moved forward as per usual and then the next player steps into battle. Once the clock strikes midnight no new mythos card is revealed. Instead the Ancient One attacks. Each Ancient One has a specific type of attack that you have to defend yourself from. Yog-Sothoth for example requires you to discard one trophy. If you fail to defend yourself you are devoured, and a doom token is added back to the doom track. Your friend will have to continue the fight without you. If the final doom token can be removed from the track by rolling the dice you have defeated the Ancient One and you are victorious.
I know, unless you’ve played games similar to this before you must be confused and a bit apprehensive about giving Elder Sign a try. Don’t be. Yes there are a lot of components to the game, but they all work together in a way that makes sense. The rulebook is pretty good (even if a bit confusing at times), with thorough explanations and examples of gameplay. However, this makes the rulebook quite long as well. The first couple of times you play the game you will want to keep it close at hand to look up things here and there, but you’ll quickly find that you don’t really need it anymore. I do implore you to look through it once you get the game, even if you’ve read this post. I have skipped a few tiny things that I just felt would make you even more confused, and that don’t matter when trying to get a grasp of what the game is about and how it works.
I think that Elder Sign is a great american style co-op with a good strong theme. I haven’t read much Lovecraft at all, but for some reason I’m still drawn to the theme when it comes to board games. If you’re curious about Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror but find them too intimidating (I don’t blame you! I’ve played the former and it’s always an experience to say the least) it might be worth it to start off with Elder Sign and ease into it. They are of course very different games, but you’ll be more comfortable in the world and the style of the game. There is no heavy strategy to this game, so even if there are many components you don’t actually need to keep them all in your head to work out winning strategies. And since it is a cooperative game you all help each other!
The component quality is good overall. All the tokens are of nice thick cardboard and well printed on both sides. The cards are also of good card stock and beautifully printed with great art. While the items, spells, allies, and mythos cards are very small it is actually good since you will have to keep several of them infront of you all through the game. In contrast the Adventure, Other World, Ancient One, and character cards are nice and big. All the cards have wonderful art that’s really nice. The dice are engraved rather than painted or having stickers, so they will stand a lot of intense gameplay. It’s a solid quality game, and only the box leaves a bit to be wished for. But few games have perfect boxes.
There are currently three expansions to the game. In Elder Sign: Unseen Forces more investigators and Ancient Ones are added, and blessings are introduced along with curses. The horrors expand beyond the museum walls in Elder Signs: Gates of Arkham with new location cards (that remain secret for most of the game!), and of course more Ancient Ones and investigators. This expansion also introduces secret societies and investigator skills that can help you throughout the game. Just in March this year a third expansion, Elder Sign: Omens of Ice, was released which moves the investigators from Arkham to the Alaskan wilderness to fight new chilling Ancient Ones while dealing with harsh weather conditions.
I really recommend Elder Sign. It has a great deep theme and a fun but challenging gameplay. You really have to work together to seal the Ancient One where he stirs, and as with all dice games you just have to hope that Lady Luck is on your side tonight, and not Cthulhu’s…
- Title: Elder Sign
- Designers: Richard Launius & Kevin Wilson
- Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
- Players: 1-8 (yes you can play solo!)
- Time: 90 min
- Type: dice (with cards)
- Size: medium box, somewhat large table space
- Release year: 2011