Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sign O' The End Times

OK, so it's an open question as to whether any of my reviews are actually of any use in terms of actually recommendations (or otherwise) to anyone else.  Nevertheless, Elder Sign seems particularly pointless for me to rave about, since the two central premises - Cthulhu and probability - means it rests so perfectly inside my interest intersection that explaining why I think anyone else should try the game seems a tricky proposition.

Let's have a go, though.  Elder Sign bears some similarities (and a great deal of artwork) with its bigger brother, Arkham Horror. Both games involve characters (the same characters, as it happens) attempting to stop a Great Old One from arising and wreaking all kinds of naughtiness across the world at large.  Said

Great Old One periodically receives "doom tokens", and will awake once they have accrued enough; the players have to gather together sufficient elder signs to stop them.  Failing that, they have to actually beat the hideous ubergribbly in combat when he awakens, a task that - depending on circumstance and the GOO in question - falls between ludicrously hard and actually impossible.

So far, that's pretty much how Arkham Horror runs.  What makes Elder Sign unique is its use of tasks and dice.  Tasks are very common in Arkham Horror as well, of course, but with the exception of sealing gates they tend to be forced upon investigators whilst they're trying to get more important things done.  In Elder Sign, the tasks are very much the point: the players wander around Arkham Museum, and each room contains a task that can be completed in exchange for various rewards (including elder signs), but which will punish them to some extent if they balls it all up.

It's the form these tasks take that drive the game. Under normal conditions a player can roll six dice when tackling a task; each dice bears three unique symbols (skull, scroll and squamous tentacle pile) and three investigation symbols numbered one to three.  Tasks are completed by rolling symbols of the right kind and amount required by the card.

What that means is that, on any given turn, a player can look at the six rooms currently active and work out which room they have the greatest chance of successfully defeating in exchange for goodies.  Various events during the game can change the calculations - monsters can make tasks more difficult, certain rooms rob you of a dice, and two extra-shiny dice are available using assorted conditions and objects - but you always know going in what your chances are.

This reduces the entire game to a fascinating series of constantly changing initial conditions from which optimal short-term strategies can be assembled.  Or you can just ignore that and use your gut instincts in a fight for humanity against impossible odds.  You know, if you're a weirdo.

Either way, this is approximately five times quicker a game than Arkham Horror, a multiplier which will doubtless come as happy news to many, and just as evocative.  Eight and a half squamous tentacles.

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