Designers: Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Number of players: 1-8 (Co-op)
Play-time: 1-2 hours
Recommended age: 13+
The year is 1926 and the barriers between our world and the world beyond bend to the will of creatures outside the realm of human understanding. A small group of investigators find themselves outside of the museum, the mysterious centralization of dark energy causing the weakening of these barriers. They must do everything humanly possible to stop the gates to the beyond from being let loose by the monsters and madmen that lay within. In the midst of this chaos, the investigators race against the doom clock to locate the eldritch symbols necessary to seal the waning portals and stop the evil Ancient Ones from devouring our world.
When describing Elder Sign to the unfamiliar I will often say, “It’s like Yahtzee if a successful roll could potentially kill a Lovecraftian Old God, while a failed roll could mean the end of the world. ”
The base concept is to work together to stop an ancient evil from passing through into our reality by collecting the required number of elder signs before the doom clock (a literal clock that counts down to the arrival of an Old God) collects the required amount of doom tokens. Players send their investigators into a room they choose at the top of their turn. If successful in that room they may be rewarded with an elder sign. Rolling the dice in order to complete a series of tasks that are listed on the room card they have selected will dictate their success or failure. Failure will result in the ‘rooms demerit’ to activate, which could be anything from losing health or sanity, to monsters appearing, to a doom token being added to the doom clock. The player will now be trapped in that room until they, or one of their fellow investigators, are able to complete the tasks of that room. Success will reap the listed benefits of that room, including the room itself becoming a trophy that can be spent on item cards or elder signs.
The item cards can be used to bolster the player’s rolls by adding additional dice, or allow them to lock dice faces raising the probability of completing tasks. Some cards will allow the player to switch dice, some provide allies that can aid them or be sacrificed to save them from death. It may seem harsh to sick your junkyard dog Duke on Cthulhu himself, but that dog has saved our realm more times than old Ashcan Pete can recall!
There are other items that allow the player to re-roll, or lock items for their fellow investigators, making team strategy an important part of the game. If someone on your team decides to hoard items it can help in the end, or end up being the downfall of the group.
Each of the ancient creatures has a different effect that has a considerable impact on a game-to-game bases. I have not fought against all of them yet, but can say each game was very different depending on the Old God we were up against. Some have effects that activate as soon as the game starts, while others have no effect until they have been summoned from the beyond. In some cases, the game will be over as soon as the Old God is activated, but the outcome of the game can go in many directions as the death does not necessarily come once the doom clock reaches zero. Once the doom tokens have reached the required number to summon an Old God the game mechanic switches to fast-paced style combat where the players take turns attempting to complete the monster’s roll tasks. Depending on who you’re up against, this can be a literal nightmare.
Elder Sign works as something to fill an hour, or an entire evening. The game is listed at 1-2 hours, but rarely did our games run more than an hour. The listed size of an 8 player max does work, though I did find the game to be better paced and more engaging with a slightly smaller group; 5 would be the magic number in my opinion. The themes are quite dark, and the rules can be a bit taxing for newcomers, but I would say the recommend age of 13+ is pretty flexible. There is nothing overly complicated about the game mechanics, and the goals of each turn are relatively simple once you’ve played a few times. More examples in the rule book may have helped us figure things out. Our understanding of the game was built up through experience, but the rule book could have given more visual examples of the game in play. It’s generally simple enough, but can be confusing the first few times.
On a pool of the people I played with, everyone enjoyed the game thoroughly with few complaints. We were able to play multiple sittings before fatigue set in. The main complaint was that it was too easy. I can’t say that this opinion is untrue, as it is a dice based game, and luck can outweigh strategy more often than not. A person with a few lucky rolls may consider the game to be easy, while those who flop repeatedly might curse it as impossible. Though we did defeat the Old Gods more than once by sealing the portal to the beyond, we have also been devoured by the unspeakable on more than one occasion. But it’s been a whole lot of fun.
Steve Waters, Game Master