Can you prevent the Ancient One from unleashing its fury upon the world?
Android & iOS
# of Players
Fantasy Flight Games
Elder Sign: Omens is a cooperative, dice-rolling, adventure game from Fantasy Flight Games. Investigators in this Lovecraftian-themed game are charged with locking away a devastating Ancient One before time runs out and it unleashes fury on the world. Players work their way through various adventures inside of a museum to earn Elder Signs which keep the Ancient One at bay, with the game ending when enough are obtained or the Ancient One breaks free. A game typically lasts about 30 minutes should you make it to the end, but many games will end with much quicker defeats.
Elder Sign is primarily known as a stripped down version of the basic game presented in Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror. The two games feature the same basic feel of trotting around a map trying to fight fires and keep evil at bay, with Elder Sign trimming total play time and complexity significantly. It’s not a perfect comparison, but if you’ve played either than it’s a good starting point for framing the discussion of Elder Sign.
Players start a game by selecting which Ancient One they will fight, each of which has different attributes which scale the difficulty. Players then select one to four investigators from a large pool who will be charged with stopping the Ancient One. Investigators are unique in their attributes and special abilities.
From there, each investigator takes their turn which is comprised of selecting one of a handful of adventures on the board, or the always-present entrance location, and resolving the their selected location. The entrance is a place to heal, buy items, or spin a wheel to see what you get, good or bad. An adventure consists of one or more tasks, all of which must be resolved in order to earn the adventure reward and avoid penalty for failure. These tasks are completed by achieving specific die rolls. The dice, known as glyphs in the game, have four separate face values: Investigate, Lore, Peril, and Terror. An advanced die adds a wild value. Investigators typically have six green dice to roll which are rolled together, although others can be added as special effects to help your fight. A sample task might require three investigates and a peril. In order to complete this task, the die must show at least one peril and the investigate sides must add up to three or more (each investigate face has numbers from one to three, and you may combine them to reach the required total).
With each roll that fails to complete a task, one die must be removed from the subsequent rolls, which is a brutal mechanic that allows you to watch your hopes of victory slowly slip out of your hands. On the plus side, you do get to lock in one die value for the next roll after an unsuccessful attempt, which is minor consolation.
If an adventure is completed successfully, the loot from the adventure is acquired. Each adventure will hand out trophies, which can be traded for cool stuff at the entrance, and some other goodies. This is usually in the form of various special effects, but can also be Elder Signs which bring you closer to victory. Should you fail an adventure, and you will definitely fail adventures, you receive the punishment described by the adventure. This is usually some form of damage to your investigator, which is measured by stamina and sanity. If either hit zero, that investigator is out of the game. Some adventures will punish you with doom tokens or by adding monsters to the board. Doom tokens bring the Ancient One closer to victory and when the limit is hit, the game immediately ends as the Ancient One escapes. Monsters sit on adventures and act as another task that requires completing. There is also a timing mechanic which, every few turns at the stroke of midnight, will expedite your death by adding monsters and/or doom tokens to the game.
The game feels like a digital embodiment of the “this is fine” meme. You are getting bombarded on all sides with adventures and monsters being added. The clock is ticking and adding doom and monsters which make adventures more difficult and speed up the losing process. Certain adventures have negative effects which trigger at midnight. You are also completely at the mercy of those pesky dice. You can gain as many effects and extra dice as you want, but if the dice don’t fall your way, you are done.
That’s not to say there is no skill or strategy in this game. The strategy comes into play in how to best use your inventory of special effects and each investigator’s special ability together in order to tackle the adventures currently in play. There are some easier adventures which you can feel good about throwing just about anybody at, but others you will want to be fully loaded to try to manipulate the heck out of those dice to complete. All the while you have to balance heading to the entrance space for some healing, which of course ticks the clock like any other turn, bringing you closer to the next wave of literal doom.
I like the basics of what Elder Sign offers. Running around, battling monsters and completing tasks is a fun system. However, I don’t love the core mechanic in play here. Some adventures require completing the tasks in a specific order, which might mean you waste a couple of rolls (and lose a die each time) trying to get the one result you need for the first task. This is an incredibly frustrating feeling, and one that still shows up no matter how much dice manipulation you can do through special effects. This is because there isn’t a “change the result of a die” effect, only re-rolls, locks, and adding more dice. The counter-point is that losing a single adventure isn’t at all devastating to your chances of winning.
On the positive side, the game does offer a decent bit of strategy in how you tackle the adventures. As monsters get added, adventures get tougher to complete, so you can’t afford to let multiple monsters pile up on adventures as you’ll have a brutal time trying to clear that. There is also strategy in which adventures to go after, targeting easier ones with smaller rewards, or going for the ones offering multiple Elder Signs.
The game is a decidedly mixed bag for me. What it does offer is a very tough adventure game, if you are fully accepting of being at the mercy of those dice, there is a lot to like in this streamlined game.
Barrier to Entry
Elder Sign teaches the game through a text rulebook. The rules are custom made for the app and each page is very concise and contains a graphic from the game to illustrate the point. The full set of rules can be read through in maybe ten minutes. There is no tutorial in this app but when you try to make incorrect moves, you are usually greeted with a popup explaining what you should be doing. This is a small addition, but invaluable to new players.
A well-made tutorial is always preferable, but after reading the full rules and playing my first game (which naturally didn’t last very long), I felt like I had a solid feel of the basic game rules and how to perform them. Strategy, on the other hand, is a bit tougher to figure out. The game drops you in from the start with no clear path, you are free to pick any available adventure or use one of the entrance options. New players will likely need to read through the rules and play a few games to really feel like they have a firm grip on how to play the game and have an outside chance at not losing right away.
Starting the tutorial
Early in a game
Look and Feel
Elder Sign looks great considering it first graced mobile devices back in 2011. The game features cutscenes at the beginning and end of games, and heavily features the great physical game card art throughout. The cutscenes aren’t going to blow you away, but they look quite nice and are a visual flare that the vast majority of digital board games do not feature. The app does a good job of sorting the wealth of information available during the game. The key points, such as the Elder Sign/Doom counts and active investigator’s sanity and stamina levels, are available at all times at a glance. You can click to see inventories, get details about an adventure, and so on. There is a lot going on in this game, and it does a great job of presenting all of it in a cohesive manner.
Control-wise, the game also works well. Choosing your adventure and using inventory items are click-and-confirm while using dice is a drag-and-drop. The only complaint here is the lack on an undo button which would be very welcome after immediately regretting choosing a specific adventure before thinking it through or mistakenly placing a die because you didn’t see the better option at first glance.
Elder Sign does not have online multiplayer. As a co-op game which allows up to four investigators to play, the game does work well as a local pass-and-play game. The physical game offers a relatively quick setup, but of course that is reduced to zero in the digital version. That, combined with removing the bookkeeping, make Elder Sign a strong choice to play on a tablet while sitting around a table with friends.
The game is co-op so you are already playing against the game itself in the physical version. The difficulty is built in, which means there is no need for AI in the app version. The difficulty scales by picking one of the four Ancient Ones which are rated from Easy to Hard, one of the expansions offers an Ancient One which is rated as “Insane” difficulty, good luck there. The game is difficult even against the easiest Ancient One, and scales up quickly from there.
The physical game is a fairly popular solo title so you can rest assured that the app plays well in single player, with the option of controlling anywhere from one to four investigators. The app gives you the option to save an in-progress game and return to it later to finish.
Pretty intro cutscene
Elder Sign offers three expansions as in-app purchases. They each add a new Ancient One, adventures, monsters, and investigators. Expansions also add new maps, multiple endings, lingering effects and allies. The three Ancient Ones found in the in-app purchases are each more difficult than anything in the base game, so these are great if you are looking to extend the challenge. The expansions also turn the game into a multi-phase effort, requiring you to collect Elder Signs in one location before trekking off to another (and even a third) to finish the adventure. These expansions are each significant additions to the game and will be very welcome to anybody who enjoys the base game.
The Wrap Up
Elder Sign is a well made app that holds up many years after release. The significant expansion content available as in-app purchases will keep players going for quite a while if they fully dive into the game.
An undo button would be a nice addition, as would a full tutorial. Overall, however, there is little in the way of complaints to be found. Lack of online play is the big missing feature at first glance, but I generally don’t mind co-op games skipping that option, as something generally gets lost in online play with co-ops. The developer has fixed OS issues as they pop up on both Android and iOS, which is nice to see from an older app.
If you like what Elder Sign offers, the app is going to provide a lot of mileage for you. It’s a very difficult game with a bunch of different combinations to play and that’s not even considering the expansions.