Saturday, December 28, 2013

MIXED BAG. TABLETOP TALES! ELDER SIGN REVIEW!

TABLETOP TALES PRESENTS
ELDER SIGN REVIEW!

Designers: Richard Launius & Kevin Wilson
Artist: Dallas Mehlhoff
Publishers: Fantasy Flight Games
Type: Card Game
Themes: Sci-fi & Fantasy, Horror, Adventure & Strategy
# of Players: 1-8
Ages: 14 & Up
Time to Play: 60-120 min.
Approx. Price: $40-50


My last Christmas may have well been a very Cthulhu Christmas: I asked for some Cthulhu stuff from my dear friends and wound up with the amazing Call of Cthulhu RPG (which I intend to talk about some day as it revealed to me that I have a knack for the atmosphere and timing required for horror). I also got not one but two Arkham Horror board games. Today, I want to talk about the one that was just the right speed for my game group: Elder Sign.

Its big brother Arkham Horror is a big name in the tabletop scene with a hardcore and dedicated fanbase. The box for that game is huge, the contents horrifyingly near infinite, and the rule books is big enough to use to swat Brundelflies. It is so big that it's perhaps a little daunting and its fans are somewhat proud of their ability to learn, play, and keep up with the pieces. I think that's why when I inquired about Elder Sign, another game I saw on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop, that an older gamer tried to dissuade me from the purchase. Apparently, some older Arkham Horror fans feel this incarnation of their game to be a pale and casual copy. As for myself, well, keep reading...

BTW, Tabletop Tales is of no relation. It actually predates Tabletop by a little less than a year. Something I had to double-check. Fun. Also, I use some images from the tablet game based on Elder Sign in my review. Now, let's get to the review stuff:

PREMISE
Elder Sign is a multiplayer and cooperative game experience, filled with moments of suspense, horror, and critical think, inspired by the writings of American Horror legend, H. P. Lovecraft. The game is filled with references to the people, places, and monsters found within the Lovecraftian horror subgenre.

The game is intended to be a more slimmed down companion to the classic Arkham Horror that has the advantage of being much less time consuming. The experience can be completed in as little as an hour.

Each player begins by choosing an investigator to battle one of the Ancient Ones from the space that dwells between dimensions. Alone or alongside up to seven other players, the player rolls a special pool of dice, uses their special skills, and a variety of item cards to attempt to seal away the powerful Elder God before it escapes into our world and reeks havoc & destruction. Each player must carefully guard their health and sanity as they travel throughout a museum inhabited by cultists, creatures, and portals to distant realms. In the end, if the players fail to seal away the Ancient One they will have almost certainly sealed the fate of all mankind.


Pretty exciting, right? Now, I'm gonna give a brief rundown of the rules. If you like you can skip ahead to next section or watch Wil Wheaton explain the rules instead directly above.

Each game begins with the players setting up the board and by choosing an Ancient One at random. Each Ancient One effects the game in different ways, is defeated by a different number of Elder Signs, and "awakens" in a slightly different number of actions/turns. You then prepare a random Monster Cup, the Adventures, Items, & Spells decks, the Elder Sign, doom, sanity, clue, and stamina tokens, and distribute investigators to the players. Then, initiate the game by resolve a card from the Mythos deck before the first round.

Each players takes a turn, going around the table clockwise until the end of the game, composed of a movement phase, where they go to a location (or not), a resolution phase where they attempt to resolve an adventure by completing tasks and/or using items, and a clock phase where the player advanced the clock by three hours. Every time the clock advances you advance several effects but always draw a new Mythos card upon the clock striking 12. As the turns progress, the players work to collect Elder Signs and survive their encounters before the Ancient One collects enough Doom tokens to be Awakened. After being Awakened, the players have a very brief and difficult battle, which they will almost always lose.

Elder Sign, to be frank, is not a game that any or all of players will always win. In Lovecraftian horror, the heroes never win. They can't stop the end of the world, but they can stall the end for another day.

PRESENTATION
Last year taught me the value of taking time to take your new board games, punch out the pieces, and come up with creative ways to contain them. Elder Sign has a pretty ludicrous number of pieces with six different sorts of tokens, five small card decks, one medium size card deck, three large card decks, a little clock, eight dice, a bunch of monster pieces, and, if you're not careful, a game with this many components would be overwhelming. Luckily, Fantasy Flight games come with all of the necessary storage bags (zippers on them and all) and that's a major plus. After all, you don't want to lose the gorgeous pieces to this well-crafted experience.

Dallas Mehlhoff's art sells these games; from the hundred small details that compose every scene of his work to the play of light and dark that serves to capture the smothering atmosphere found in Lovecraftian horror to the strong-willed heroes standing against horrific horrors that create a world in the board game that few board games manage to capture. The strongest component of this and all of the Arkham Horror games is the amount of work that goes into making every adventure, location, and character filled to the brim with flavor.

The biggest surprise is that none of the pieces included are superfluous to the experience; they all serve a purpose to helping players keep track of their progress, as well as the progress of the forces of darkness, as they explore a creepy museum. Even the box will look gorgeous sitting on your gaming shelf and, if you wanna show off to some other gamers how mature and beautiful tabletop games have become, this is a great presentation piece.

And yet...how does it play?

PLAYABILITY & REPLAYABILITY

Since I started to get into board games and game design mechanics, I've become more and more engrossed in the subject with each experience. After a while, you begin to see the skeleton of a game and can see what makes an experience work or fail. Elder Sign is a great example of a game that looks complicated but is attractive enough for many players to take on the challenge of learning how to play to experience a quick Call of Cthulhu experience. But does the game provide a fun, challenging, and suspenseful adventure or does it come out as a frustrating, harrowing, and horrible mess? Does the flavor cover up a convoluted game?

Yes and no. At its heart, Elder Sign is a rather challenging game of choices that requires teamwork, resource management, and a bit of luck for the players to come out on top. The problem I find with the experience is that, due to the challenge, it is not uncommon for one or two players to take over the experience and try to micromanage the other players to victory. This increases the chances of the players to win, but I don't think that's the entire point of playing Elder Sign.

Because of the challenge, players often lose sight of and ignore the more flavorful elements of the game. The world of Lovecraft becomes a distraction from the players taking part in a game of numbers and percentages. I had to remind my friends to read the flavor text several times because they were so focused on beating it that they weren't paying attention to any of atmosphere. This is in part the fault of the game makers who, in my opinion, could've done more to encourage the players to roleplay as their investigators by using their abilities to progress in the game.

Despite my feeling that the challenge and the story are often at odds in Elder Sign, my friends and I still had fun working together to overcome the Ancient Ones.

PROS VS. CONS
+ A slimmed down version of Arkham Horror is a welcome product to the board game audience because it provides an experience that can be enjoyed in a couple hours without as much preparation or dedication. This is a great game for getting into the mood for playing some Call of Cthulhu with your friends.
+ The box is welcome on any gamer's shelf. The art is gorgeous and the several hundred components within are well-crafted & flavorful.
- The game's challenge and experience can too easily overshadow the atmosphere I would expect with a horror-themed game. While still a fun game, the story is often lost in the numbers and percentages the players will be focused on in order to reach their goal.

CONCLUSION?
MAYBE-BUY FOR MOST BUT MUST-OWN FOR FANS

Fans of Lovecraft are going to get the most mileage out of Elder Sign because of the gorgeous work that goes into every artistic component of the games. You really can't go wrong and it is definitely a game that fans of Lovecraft will be able to use to get into the spirit for a book club, roleplaying session, or horrible ritual to summon an eldritch being. This is a great gift for anyone who is a fan of the brooding hero, hopelessly grim mysteries, and misty green shores.

For everyone else? Elder Sign is a game I'm glad to have on my shelf and I'll probably pick up and play it at least a couple times a year, but it's not something I want to play over and over again or recommend to ever fan of board games.

My friends loved it. Felicia Day loved it. Who doesn't love a tentacle party?

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