“Do you fancy a new hobby?”
I suppose that’s the best place to begin with this endeavour, and that for me is where it all began twenty one years ago now. Ironically it was the same question in another format (“would you like to try this hobby?”) that seriously hooked my partner six years ago. It was that simple! I was asked once, took a look, and then dove in with both feet and I’ve been plummeting in one position or another ever since. I can safely say that I have enjoyed the fall ever since and am still greatly enjoying it. So here we go, if you're reading this you’re either thinking about it or if you have just stumbled here by accident, now stood on the edge of a cliff of what you like the look of. This next question is for you.
“Do you fancy a new hobby?”
Welcome to the fall guys and girls, don’t grab onto anything just let it happen. First up some introductions are in order as well as some thanks. My name is K (ok, not my actual name, but my name is Christopher Kirkpatrick and when we were younger playing football that’s quite a mouthful to shout out on the pitch which coincidentally had four other Chrises on it) and my partner's name is Nik (no special associated back story naming here). We’ve been followers of the Old Oilhouse in one way or another for years and we're friends with many of its members like Adam, Gary, Ross, Stu, Billy and Rob. So when Adam put the question to us, "would we like to do this and join?" the natural order of things was to say yes. I don’t actually think I hesitated for more than a second before my answer came out, and Nik's answer was shouted immediately at me in the car, ow! It’s something we respect and we're happy to become a part of this excellent world. However before we do, a big thanks for allowing us to do so, and we aim to deliver the same awesome to you that the OOH guys have delivered to us over the years.
So, subject matter, as you have probably guessed, what we’re going to be talking about each fortnight is... GAMING! Not your typical brand however. Not the high graphic resolution of new age works of art, not the classic pixelated dreams of Italian plumbers and hedgehogs that you grew up with. We’re heading into the physical. We're taking those games out of the TV and onto the table. We're looking at turning your ability to talk to your mates over headphones to sitting across a table from them and looking into the whites of their eyes as they betray or aid you in an adventure of your minds making. We’re talking board games, table top wargames, roleplaying games and card games.
How’s your fall so far? Liking what you hear? If so, continue!
We are possibly stuck in one of the luckiest times to be a hobbyist of any form right now, its perhaps the biggest and strongest push of material from companies producing these subjects over the last few years. Classic companies are reinventing their wheel to supply their gamers with the things they have been demanding for years. Smaller companies are being brought to life and growing exponentially in this 'Kickstarter age' as we fund the dreams of everyone with an excellent idea in their head, and profiling for this has never been higher with popular franchises and companies producing more videos and coverage than ever before. This revival of sorts has those 'old family backups' becoming regular and chosen past times in homes and clubs all over the world. This is a great thing! Creativity, imagination, social interaction, problem solving, and buckets and buckets of fun. What’s not to like exactly?
We’re not going to waffle forever though. We hopefully have plenty more episodes and articles and videos to do that for you guys. We’re going to get straight into it. So we thought we would do that by reviewing our all-time favourite game, the game we first sat and played together as a couple and went “You know what? We love this. Let’s do this again more and more!” which - while this might not be that game for you - we hope will show you the reasons why we fell in love with the game and what to look out for in your own play through.
Without further ado, we are going to review “Elder Sign” in our first review, hope you enjoy!
Elder Sign is a cooperative dice game of supernatural intrigue and horror with a great theme for one to eight players by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson - the designers of the popular and flagship Cthulhu game, Arkham Horror. Players take the roles of investigators racing against time to stave off the imminent return of an Ancient One. Armed with tools, allies, and occult knowledge, investigators must put their sanity and stamina to the test as they adventure to locate Elder Signs, the eldritch symbols used to seal away the Ancient Ones and win the game.
To locate Elder Signs, investigators must successfully endure adventures within the famous Miskatonic Museum and its many environments. A countdown mechanism makes an Ancient One appear if the investigators are not quick enough, making the investigators battle the Ancient One after arising from their eternal slumber. A clever and thematic dice mechanism pits their exploration against monsters whilst coping with the sheer difficulty of staying sane and healthy, all within the standard game duration of one to two hours.
Firstly we are going to talk about the theme of the game. It’s dark, it’s gritty, and it’s great. If you are a Lovecraft fan and have collected works (or even if you’re just wondering who he is and what all these tentacles are about), then this is a great starting point for you. The themes of mystery and caution support the game as your group collectively takes on tasks attempting to gain knowledge and power to take on monsters from classic Lovecraft culture with ease. You want to stop Cthulhu from rising from the deep as he slowly eats your sanity whilst battling his cultists in the university. You want to see Hastur – the King in Yellow – awaken in all his resplendent glory and deal with the harrowing decrease in magical ability for the game. You don’t want to know what other horrors come with the other Ancient Ones!
The contents are lovely both quality and design-wise. Fantasy Flight are a company well known for producing quality components and getting them just right, and this game is a prime example of them earning their bacon. A moveable clock face will represent turns, moving forward in an environment where time itself stands still to allow the passage of an elder god into this world. The unique dice are crafted with symbols are results so you can send your investigators on task, increasing their odds with the addition of powerful items they find to aid them in the university, which in turn can add more dice to help the team.
You can see that you’re dealing with a quality game in terms of components and gameplay so you get the feeling that you’re working together in the university, fighting off the unknown in a desperate attempt to stop an unspeakable horror from awakening upon the world.
As mentioned above, the game typically comes in with a play time of one to two hours which varies slightly based on a certain factors. First is the number of players. As previously mentioned this game houses an impressive one to eight players and feels comfortable anywhere in between. From personal experience from having at least twenty or thirty games of this between Nik and I with our gaming group, we’ve found that this game is really comfortable with two, four or five players ideally and is excellent as a solo game too. Bringing in four investigators is a good standard base for the game. This allows for a little bit of flexibility as every investigator brings a special ability that will help the team ranging from powers, allies, and items.
Second is the big bad boss that you’ll be facing. This is the big one. In the game you will be given a choice of up to eight infamous Elder Gods that you are able to try and stop from devouring the world. Some iconic names already mentioned are Hastur (the King in Yellow), Azazoth (the Eater of Worlds), and obviously it wouldn’t be a Lovecraft game without the Great Old One himself, Cthulhu. Each god comes with a certain number of elder signs set as his difficulty rating - the higher the signs needed, the higher the difficulty to lock him away as you have to spend more time completing the task. You collect these elder signs by completing challenges and events or defeating monsters exploring the university and applying them to the elder god’s card.
Note that while you are attempting to lock him back into his eternal prison with Elder Signs, his followers are trying to break him free by gaining ‘Doom’ tokens. These are awarded to the god for you failing challenges or failing to meet requirements thrown up by affects that the university can have on its players. When one track reaches its maximum, the game will end and your god will either be locked away or will have taken over the world. It’s often a fine balancing act between taking on really hard challenges for a better reward in the game, knowing that failure could result in being one step closer to defeat, or worse, character death. For me, this is a great system for rewarding those willing to invest and spend their items to help defeat the baddie. From a co-operative game, remember you’re all working together so you will spend a bit of your time strategizing with your party in order to work out where you stand the greatest chance of succeeding. For me again, the feeling of working together and accomplishing things is so rewarding it’s hard to not pass up.
Characters, as mentioned above, each have a unique story and theme that come with them as well as personal stats and equipment to help them on their tasks in the university. Each character has health and sanity levels ranging from one to seven each. The higher the number in each, the higher the associated amount of damage that person can take before death or madness, either option removing the character from the game. During the course of events in the university characters can (and probably will) lose their health and sanity when facing the horrors of the darkness in order to accomplish the tasks they need to lock away the god that is trying to awake. All of this adds such a personal connection to me for the characters and the way you will use them in the game.
And finally we come down to the best part, how you accomplish everything. The simple answer is: through DICE! In Elder Sign, each puzzle, mission, quest, or event that you have to deal with can be solved by the investigators rolling a set number of dice and matching the symbols they roll to the corresponding requirements on the mission cards. When the right symbols have been rolled, you are successful, if you fail to meet what you need you will lose dice from your pool and then roll again, hoping for success with fewer dice. You will either be successful and gain the adventure rewards, or fail and suffer the consequences on the card. Items and clues you earn let you buy more dice or have re-rolls to help you achieve your goal, and your party members can also lend their abilities and items to help you out as you battle the unknown together.
As well as the massive amount of content you get with the core game there have been several releases of expansions, each adding new decks and additions to the basic game. Unseen Forces adds the blessing and curse effects which can either add a white or black dice to your rolls. The blessed white dice adds an extra symbol, whereas the cursed black dice will cancel out one of the matching symbols. In this expansion is also an extra mythos deck which increases the difficulty significantly. Gates of Arkham switches out the existing adventures cards with its own set which you play facedown in a slightly different game mode for extra mystery – you won’t know what you need to succeed until you go there! Omens of Ice again changes out the adventure deck for an Alaskan adventure which is more story-driven and has horrific weather effects that will be bearing down on you as well as any new Ancient One effects. There was also a lesser known expansion called Grave Consequences released which adds three new decks to the game. The phobia deck adds limitations to investigators’ choices, the epitaph deck slams surviving investigators with penalties if one of their group is devoured, and the epic battle deck changes the way the final battle is fought if the ancient one is awoken.
This game has an amazing replayability (is that even a word?) factor, so before you go ahead and add expansions I’d suggest you give the core game a good bashing, try to take on and defeat at least four of the first gods, and if you can take them down with ease then consider expanding. The difficulty leap between core and expansions is pretty big so keep that in mind if you do delve further. That said, every playthrough we have had of the original game has been completely different, giving us more of a random adventure each time, so we still find huge enjoyment in playing that on its own as well as with the additional decks.
In all, this will always be our favourite board game with us having such a personal attachment to it ourselves, plus with the theme being so inclusive and interesting. Our determination to take down each ancient one will never die! We would suggest anyone starting out with board games to definitely start off with Elder Sign. Its simple yet takes a lot of planning and co-operation between players, so is a great way to test out your friendships, although not as much as certain other games!
Well, we've very much enjoyed writing our very first article here for the Old Oilhouse, hope you enjoyed reading it too, look forward to the next!
Chris & Nik
Who Are We?
The Fluffenhammer is a archive of joy for the worlds of Games Workshop (and beyond)