Elder Sign: Omens (App Edition)

Fantasy Flight Games made its name creating huge, sprawling board games with hundreds of fiddly-bits and robust game mechanics that take hours to play. Fans who buy Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness know they’re getting their money’s worth … and that there’s no way the game will fit in their pockets. With the Elder Sign: Omens app for iPhone ($3.99), Android ($3.99) and iPad ($6.99), they’ve taken a different approach: create a lightweight, fast-playing game that’s as atmospheric as its predecessors but can be played anywhere.

Elder Sign: Omens pits players against a museum overrun by the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos. The goal is to defeat these monsters before they can unleash a cosmic horror and doom the world. It’s a familiar setup, but one that works just as well as it ever did. The game is a challenging-but-quick game that lets players save the planet (or doom it) over a lunch break.

As with its big brothers, the goal of Elder Sign is to prevent an Ancient One from shredding the thin veil that separates our existence from its mad one, plunging the world into destruction and chaos. This time around, the scene of the incursion is an old museum stocked with bizarre exhibits, forgotten texts, insane cultists and one decidedly creepy curator. Players pick a team of four from a pool of 16 investigators, each with their own special abilities. Veterans of Arkham Horror will recognize them all – they’ve been recycled and recast into Elder Sign, but rather than feel like warmed over content, these heroes feel like old friends. There’s Ashcan Pete, the hobo who excels at finding just the right tool for the right adventure; Monterey Jack, an archeologist with a knack for finding rare items, and Kate Winthrop, who uses SCIENCE! to prevent monsters from appearing, and who’s rational mind is immune to the horrors of the Cthulhu mythos.

Tremble before Azathoth

To start they’re up against Azathoth, an Ancient One whose awakening will destroy the world. As with Arkham Horror, Elder Sign uses a Doom track mechanic to ratchet up the tension. The game proceeds in a series of rounds, with each investigator getting a turn to partake in an adventure somewhere in the museum. Each adventure advances the clock however, and at midnight the bells toll, and something horrible happens. More often than not that means that one or more doom tokens appears on the doom track, possibly in conjunction with a monster materializing somewhere in the museum. When the doom track reaches 12 tokens, Azathoth is released, and the game ends.

The player’s only hope is to prevent Azathoth’s release by acquiring 14 Elder Signs, mystical wards scattered throughout the museum. To do that, the player must send his or her investigators into the dark corners of the building seeking out threats and rewards. These include physical locations such as “Unnatural Habitat”, “The Archives” and “The Loading Dock” as well as more thematic encounters like “Please Don’t Touch the Exhibits” and “Don’t Fall Asleep”.

These adventures include a number of tasks that must be completed by the investigators. These tasks are represented by a series of glyphs: a scroll for “lore”, a skull for “peril”, waving tentacles for “terror” and a magnifying glass for “investigate”. Each investigator has a spell book with eight slots in it; clicking a “summon” button causes six of those slots to randomly fill with glyphs. The goal is to match the summoned glyphs with the glyphs featured in the task at hand.

If there are no matches, the player can sacrifice a slot and re-summon the glyphs. When they do this they can “lock” one glyph from their collection, hoping it will help them later on. Investigators are aided in their quest by common items (like guns and whiskey, which appear as yellow glyphs) and unique items (mystical artifacts and found relics, which appear as red ones) which fill in the two empty, temporary slots remaining in the investigator’s spell book. There are also arcane spells that can be used to banish monsters, lock glyphs, or summon specific glyphs. Finally there are the trusty old clues, which can be spent to re-roll glyph results.

If the adventure is successful, players are rewarded with additional items, clues, trophies (which can be spent to buy items) and the rare-but-essential Elder Signs. If the adventure is failed, the investigator loses sanity, stamina or both. Even worse, failing can add tokens to the doom track or advance the clock, bringing the heroes closer to midnight.

The Rules of Madness

It’s all fairly straight forward … except for when it’s not. After playing Arkham Horror I expected there to be some sort of connection between the sort of glyphs a character could summon and their role (e.g. a scholar being better at getting lore glyphs) but there isn’t one. Instead, this is handled by the investigators’ special abilities. For example, researcher Mandy Thompson may re-conjure two glyphs after her initial summoning, while the studious Amanda Sharpe can complete any number of tasks on her turn without re-summoning glyphs. This made more sense to me when I read that the original print version of the game uses a dice pool to generate the glyph results; with that mental image in place, the mechanic clicked.

I went a little mad myself when the game decided to randomly prevent me from using my common and unique items. I suspected a glitch until a visit to BoardGameGeek.com informed me that some adventures lock common or unique items, preventing you from using them until you’ve successfully completed that adventure. These locks occur museum-wide, not just in that particular adventure, and they can quickly spell doom for players who unwittingly ignore them. In Fantasy Flight’s defense, this rule is spelled out in the help documentation, but I missed it in my initial, glancing read-through.

There are other challenges lurking in the game’s depths. Terror icons spontaneously appear with some adventurers, causing ill effects to occur if you randomly summon corresponding terror glyphs. Some of the adventure locations cause ill effects during the midnight hour, compounding the regular midnight doom track advancement with additional doom tokens, sanity or stamina damage, or additional monster summonings.

The game re-uses some art from other Fantasy Flight Products, mostly from Arkham Horror. Some might take issue with this, but personally I’ve always loved the Arkham artwork and didn’t mind seeing it again in this game. I might not have felt the same way if I’d spent $34.99 on the print edition, but at $3.99 I was much more forgiving. Plus, the art is always atmosphere and often downright chilling, and looks great on the iPhone’s Retina display. The game’s music is equally effective – in fact I’d love it if Fantasy Flight sold this music separately so I could incorporate into my next Call of Cthuhlu adventure.

Elder Sign’s interface was easy enough to use, though the small glyphs and icons are easier to drag around on the iPad than the iPhone. The game played well, but I found it does drain my battery at an accelerated rate. You don’t want it running if you’re out and about and need to use your phone as, ahem, a phone.

The game is challenging – it took me about 15 tries before I won my first game. Part of that was because I didn’t understand the rules, but like Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness, success is never a foregone conclusion. Plus, the game plays so fast – each session lasts 20-30 minutes – that you can easily knock out multiple sessions in an hour. That’s not something that can be said of Arkham or Mansions, and it’s one of the game’s great strengths.

When the game was initially released I was disappointed that there was only one Great Old One to face, but Fantasy Flight remedied that with two expansions.

New Venues of Horror

The first expansion included the serpentine Yig as a free add-on campaign, and the tenthacled horror Cthulhu as a premium one. The Yig campaign has a difficulty of “normal” and features serpentmen and other reptilian horrors invading the museum. Many of Yig’s followers have the ability to advance the doom track if killed, so it’s important to pick your fights wisely. The Cthulhu campaign has a difficulty of “very hard” and is notable for taking you beyond the confines of the museum. About halfway through the game, after you’ve accrued enough Elder Signs, you’re transported to the Pacific Ocean where you hunt for the drowned city of R’lyeh.

The second expansion included the slothful Tsathoggua as a new free campaign and “The Trail of Ithaqua” as a premium “very hard” campaign. Like the Cthulhu campaign, Ithaqua transports you beyond the museum, but the mechanic is a little different. You’re given time in the museum to find camping supplies for an expedition to Alaska. Once you feel you have enough gear, you can head north and hope that your supplies – and your sanity – last long enough to defeat Ithaqua. Both expansions include new encounters and investigators to the game; taken together with the campaigns they provide hours of additional game play.

Elder Sign is just the thing for geeks on the go. There are excellent versions of Ticket to Ride, Catan and Carcassone on the market but they lack the horror and weird science aspects that permeate the Cthulhu Mythos. Those who enjoy Arkham Horror, but themselves without the time or game group necessary to play the game should jump at the chance to pick up Elder Sign.

Product Details

  • Elder Sign: Omens (App Edition)
  • Platform: iOS, Mac OS, Android
  • MSRP: $3.99
  • Official Web site
  • An earlier version of this review originally appeared at GameCryer.com. It is reprinted with permission.
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