Monday, September 10, 2012

The Wheaton Effect Part Three: "Elder Sign"

Previous iterations of this series have come about because a game featured on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop looked so awesome (namely Zombie Dice and Tsuro) that one of us immediately rushed out and bought it.  In the interest of full disclosure, Elder Sign was already in Andrew's game collection prior it being feted by THE WHEATON, but after watching Wil and company indulge in this Lovecraftian die-chucker we really felt compelled to give it another bash ourselves.

Before we strike out on our eldritch adventures, here's our video muse:


Set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, Elder Sign takes place in an atmospheric New England town in the 1920's.  Players select from one of eight different investigators and set them loose inside a museum stocked with dangerous arcane artifacts.  These relics are so powerful that they begin to erode the barrier between our realm and darker planes of existence which are home to a litany of unspeakable horrors.  As these inter-dimensional doorways begin to crack open, loathsome beasts of varying power and influence begin to wriggle into our realm.  Aware of the impending threat,  a small handful of fragile, illuminated souls attempt to close these gateways through the use of magical sigils called Elder Signs.  Can they prevent the Great Old Ones from overwhelming our reality, bringing madness and destruction with them?

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice game of supernatural horror for one to eight players which can be played out in about ninety minutes.  It was designed by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, who brought us the dense and ludicrously thematic Lovecraftian board game Arkham Horror.  Players take on the roles of investigators who are trying to prevent the Elder Gods infiltrating our dimension, thus laying waste to everything.  During the course of the game, players try to improve their odds by gathering items, spells, allies and weapons.  In their quest to procure Elder Signs and thus barricade our reality against the Ancient Ones, players will see their character's Sanity and Stamina values pushed to the limit.

To gather Elder Signs, investigators must explore the museum and its grounds, hoping to successfully navigate their way through various perilous Adventures.  A simple and fun dice-rolling mechanic (augmented with yellow and red bones which represent equipment) helps to play out the increasingly-tense endeavor.  If the Investigators should tarry, a substantial-looking cardboard clock inexorably counts down to an inevitable and nigh-insurmountable encounter with one randomly-selected Ancient One.

Of course, that's just a simple overview.  Those Investigators looking to unlock all the secrets of the cosmos are welcome to read the entire rulebook right here.  Just don't lose yer marbles.

The Roles

Andrew assumed the role of Bob Jenkins, Vacume Cleaner Salesman.
I turned up Mandy Thompson, Researcher / Busybody / Professional Nosy Parker.
Dean pulled Amanda Sharpe, Sociology Major and Girls Gone Wild ingenue.
Mike drew Joe Diamond, Private Dick and all-around Hard-Boiled Gumshoe.

The game kicked off in style when Mike randomly drew Cthulhu as our arch villain.  Like I always say: go big or stay home! 

Turn One

The first Mythos card we drew ("Be Prepared") was immediately nullified because some of us actually started with Common Items.  Could this be a good omen or a bad ottoman?  Yarrrr, I don't know what I'm talkin' about...

Mike completed his first Adventure by Focusing a Peril Die result and then rolling a Terror on his third attempt.  After placing a Monster on the "Something Has Broken Free" Adventure Card he helped himself to his reward: a Clue token, a Unique Item and our first Elder Sign.  Woot!!!

While trying to navigate through an "Unnatural Habitat", I was forced to burn my starting Clue token to re-roll.  I finally succeeded on my fourth attempt, losing one Stamina from a Terror Result but acquiring a helpful new Spell in exchange.

Andrew decided to take a casual stroll down "The Hallway of Fire", which turned out to be just as inviting as it sounds.  His first and second rolls did yield the required Peril results, but the dangerous Adventure drained off two of his Stamina points in the process.  At least he managed to crawl out of there with two Unique Items as a reward!

Dean used "The King in Yellow" to add a much-needed Red Die to his pool.  While "In The Hidden Passage", Dean turned up three Investigation die facings.  After failing to get what he needed on the second toss, he tried to Focus a three-point Investigation result to improve his chances.  But on the third and forth attempt, he still failed to generate a Peril result, resulting in a loss of two Stamina.

Turn Two 
Mike tried to avenge Dean on the same Adventure.  On his first throw he got a three-point Investigation result and put a much-needed Peril into Focus.  After ditching a Clue token to re-roll, he managed to score a Lore result and beat the challenge!

The clock struck Midnight, ushering in a new Mythos condition.  Thanks to the last minute 'Fuck You' effect from "Be Prepared", two new monsters appeared in the museum.  Normally when "The Stars Align" it's a good thing, but since we're in Lovecraft territory, it isn't in our favor.  Two new Doom Tokens were added to the Doom Track!

I used "The Voice of Ra" while perusing the "Mysterious Tome".  I managed to dice up a three point Investigation result and a Terror on my first roll.  Although my second roll was a complete and total bust I still managed to pull out an eleventh hour miracle by conjuring up two scroll symbols, thus covering my Lore requirements!  The resulting triumph earned me a desperately needed Clue Token and a Spell.  The first Other Worldly Adventure of the game also turned up!

Andrew attended a "Gala in the Great Hall".  He produced a three-point Investigation result but lost one Sanity due to the Adventure's Terror Effect.  On the second roll, he tried to focus a skull-faced Terror result but it was all for nought since his next two attempts were a complete and total washout.

Dean also decided to brave the gruesome "Gala".  He rolled up a single Investigation result, just enough to reduce his Sanity.  He decided to Focus a Terror but then rolled two more of the same thing!  His third roll (two Investigation, one Lore and one Peril) was pure money, allowing him to complete the Adventure with gusto!

Turn Three       

Undaunted by the innocuous-sounding but heavily-guardeded "Storage Closet", Mike managed to shiv the monster-cum-bouncer standing by the door on his very first throw!   On his second toss he conjured up a tidy sum of three Investigation points.  On his third go-round he employed the "Blue Watcher of the Pyramid" to dial up two Lore results and finish the Adventure with panache!  After claiming one Unique Item and one Clue for his bravery, Mike turned up a second Other Worldly Adventure Card.

At Midnight another Monster appeared and yet another token got added to the Doom Track!

In the "sucks to be me" category I started having "Horrible Visions".  Instead of panicking however, I just concentrated on rolling up a Peril and a Terror result.  My second toss of a Peril and a Lore was even more fortuitous.  Just like that, I managed to complete the Adventure in two economic rolls!  This gave me a valuable Unique Item as well as a precious Elder Sign!

Trying to give himself some insurance, Andrew armed himself with a Gun for his next Adventure: "Did You Hear That?"  Although he managed to roll two Peril on his first cast, he completely whiffed his next two attempts.  It was at this moment when we began to suspect that poor Andrew's had inherited Wil Wheaton's shit-tacular Elder Sign luck.  

Still on clean-up duty, Dean tackled the very same mission.  It didn't start well and he was forced to burn two Clues to re-roll twice.  Although he managed to kill the guardian Monster with two Peril, he fell short on his final roll.  At least he managed to free up the captive Red Die for later use.

Turn Four

In lemming-like fashion, Mike decided to try his luck in the same challenge!  After using his Shotgun to blast up a Peril he was forced to burn though no less then six re-rolls in order to finally beat the Adventure.

Midnight saw the introduction of the "Keep Friends Close" condition.  Since none of us had any Allies, we were forced to add a fresh Doom counter to Cthulhu's card.  

In my next mission I used the "Ruby of R'Lyeh" to give me a bonus Red Die and then spent the "Voice of Ra" to scare up a second Terror result.  I managed to polish off the challenge on my second roll, winning a Clue token and a Spell in the process.  

Having been burned so many times before, Andrew lowered the bar and tried to take on an easier mission.  He used his Dynamite to get a Red Die but still crapped out on his first roll.  Despite Focusing a Lore, he also choked on his next two throws.  Only on his Fourth attempt did he manage to pull a Peril and the required amount of Investigation out of his anus.  This garnered him two Clues and also added yet another Elder Sign to our trophy case!  

Dean nipped back to the Lobby and healed Amanda's Stamina with a winning combination of Jager-bombs and prescription codeine.        

Turn Five

Although suddenly it was "Lights Out!", Mike forged on nonetheless.  He bolstered his first roll with a Red Die courtesy of the "Cultes des Goules" and came away with three Investigation.  After failing his second roll he tried to pull a Hail Mary by focusing a Wildcard.  Unfortunately he whiffed the final toss, ran out of dice and was forced to eat two damage as well as his fair share of trans-dimensional penis.  We were also forced to tack another Doom Token to ye olde Doom Track.

After taking on "When Night Falls" I rustled up two Peril and two Lore on my inaugural roll.  On my second die toss I managed to will a Terror result into existence, beat the Adventure and walk away with a Clue, a Unique Item and an Elder Sign.

Andrew ran afoul of the "Vermin In The Pipes".  To try and tilt the odds in his favor, he helped himself to Mike's locked Red Wildcard die and rolled a Lore.  On his second throw he used the Red Terror die sitting idle on my "Red Sign of Shudde M'ell" card to polish off the Adventure and snap up one Spell, one Clue and one Unique Item.

Meanwhile, Dean got caught up in a "Riot in the Streets".  After his first toss he decided to Focus a three Investigation die result.  He nailed all the requirements in the second roll, conjuring up no less then nine Investigation!  This gave him one Unique and one Common Item apiece, but more importantly, it gave us yet another Elder Sign!

Turn Six                   

Mike tackled the eponymous "Elder Sign" Adventure and scored a valuable Lore result on his second toss.  Unfortunately the quest's Terror Effect cost him one Sanity and one Stamina in the process.  He tried to focus a three-point Investigation result but just couldn't produce another Lore on his final throw of the dice.

At Midnight the Lingering Effect of the previous card discarded our Spells!  Thanks to "Strange Sights", Something Wicked This Way Came and a new Monster was added to the museum's environs.  

I doubled back to the Lobby to cash in ten Reward Points for an Elder Sign.  Hey, it's a small price to pay for the deliverance of the human race.

Andrew tried to exterminate the "Vermin in the Pipes"...again.  His wretched luck finally began to turn around somewhat after he produced three Investigation and one Peril in his first roll.  He then conjured up three more Investigation with two dice.  Despite the good fortune, he still has to spend two Clue tokens on a pair of re-rolls in order to secure the last three required Investigation points.  After his narrow victory, Boooooooooob Ah-Jeeeennnnnkiiiiiiins hauls off a Clue token and no less then three Common Items.

Despite the danger of chafing, Dean feverishly rubbed the "Lamp of Al'Hazrad" for good luck before analyzing the "Blood on the Floor".  The tactic seemed to work and he managed to dice up two, three-point Investigation results, a Terror and a Wildcard!  With a single roll, the Adventure was done and Dean brought home a Clue, a Common item and yet another Elder Sign!

Turn Seven     
Mike went back to the Lobby to bake up a fresh batch of healin' muffins, which put his Stamina value back up to max.

The clock struck Midnight yet again, making me wonder just how long we'd been trapped in this furshlugginer museum.  "A Warning" threatened to ramp up all of our Sanity costs and losses by one!  Yikes!

I crept down the "Great Hall of Celeano" and managed to slay the guardian Monster with a scroll symbol.  I was then forced to re-roll my second toss in order to acquire a second Lore result.  After investing yet another re-roll I was finally managed to produce three Investigation dice for a total of six points!  The successful completion of this Adventure gave me a Spell, but it also added one token each to the Elder Sign pool and (curiously) the Doom Track.

Andrew rescued a puppy named Duke from the animal shelter, which was inexplicably located right across the hall from the museum gift shop.

Dean took on the "Lights Out!" Adventure, busting out an "Axe" to add a handy Yellow Die.  His first throw was a disaster and he was forced to spend a Clue to re-roll, which only ended up giving him three Investigation.  His next roll was a double Peril, prompting two more re-rolls!  In a last ditch effort he tried to focus a Lore but even his last attempt turned out to be a dud.  He was forced to turf a Food card in order to minimize his Stamina loss by one.  

Turn Eight

Mike employed an "Alien Statue" (?) to try and get through a "Guided Tour" in one piece.  He rolled two Investigation in a failed attempt, Focused one Lore and then came up with four Investigation thanks to his Red Die.  On the next chuck he totally nailed his final Lore requirement and collected two Clues and a Common item.

"A Warning" rang out at Midnight as two pulpy, new unnamable horrors squirmed their way into the museum!

It was "Light's Out" for me as well and my initial response was a virtually useless three-Lore die roll.  My next two throws weren't that much better and, being completely devoid of Clue tokens, I had no other choice but to take my lumps.  This came in the form of a two-point Stamina loss and the addition of a new Doom Token.  Although it's a bitter defeat, I'm assuaged somewhat knowing that this is my first cock-up of the entire game.

Although the "Koi Pond" sounded tranquil and inviting, it was virtually quarantined since it was rife with Monsters and insane Adventure requirements.   Embracing the philosophy that fortune favors the bold (or the brain damaged), Andrew decided to kick off his shoes and wade in with some feeder pellets.  His rendition of 'Mandy' on the "Flute of the Outer Gods" apparently inspired the loathsome horror guarding the gate to suicide.  After a harrowing re-roll he used the reserve die provided by my "Enchanted Weapon" to roll up two Peril and a Terror to complete the task!

In order to nab the final Elder Sign, Dean logically tackled "The Elder Sign".  He failed his first roll, focusing an Investigation result for the future.  Two more failed attempts followed, but out of the blue he suddenly produced two Lore on his fourth toss.  Thanks to Amanda's "Studious" ability, Dean could complete the first two tasks of the Adventure all at once!  On his very last roll, Dean pulled out a final scroll symbol, overcoming the challenge and winning us the game!

Suck it, you bat-winged, tentacle-faced, skull-heady pussy!


Now don't get me wrong: I like Elder Sign but I don't loooooove it.  Mainly because there seems to be a tremendous amount of luck involved.

And while the die-rolling mechanic might be novel, it feels less like an "Adventure" to me and more like a thematic re-upholstering of Yahtzee.  Even though I also have issues with the sometimes-frustrating Arkham Horror at least that game really makes you feel as if you're traversing the oppressive, lethal environs of Lovecraft's realm.  In any Cthulhu Mythos game, players should either feel as if their characters are on the verge of going nuts or having their skulls popped open like an over-ripe zit.        

Still, Elder Sign is a slick and evocative little package that can serve up some genuinely tense moments.  The game's production values are top-notch and, hey, who doesn't enjoy chucking a massive mitt-full of bizarre-looking dice?

As such, I give Elder Sign four pips out of six.

1 comment:

  1. I concur with your analysis wholeheartedly - and laughed my ass off at trans-dimensional penis.