Editorial | 1/17/2012 at 11:53 AM

Tabletop Co-Op: Elder Sign

If Cthulhu calls, you might want to hang up

It's a new year for Tabletop Co-Op, and what better way to celebrate than by defending a dusty old museum from an invasion of ancient, otherworldly evils? In today's installment, we'll enter the world of the Cthulhu mythos, take on the role of an investigator, and try to stay sane in the face of unspeakable terror. Take a closer look at a new co-op dice-rolling game that is positively dripping with the theme of eldritch horror: Elder Sign.

H. P. Lovecraft's most famous creation is undoubtedly the Great Old One Cthulhu. The concept of a being so powerful and so alien that even seeing it would drive you insane is a powerful one. It's also a compelling theme for a game. The board game crafters at Fantasy Flight have produced several great titles set in the Lovecraftian world, including Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness. Elder Sign is the latest game in the series, trading the complexity and long gameplay of its predecessors for a quicker, but still exciting experience.

One of the best things about Elder Sign is it accomodates large groups of up to eight people. As the game begins, each player chooses an investigator card. Each of these characters has different attributes and special abilities. The doctor heals stamina, the psychologist restore sanity, and the magician can gain extra spell cards. Each character starts the game with a few items, drawn from different decks of cards. These items might give extra dice to roll, allow a reroll, or assist in battling monsters. Individual player powers is one of my favorite game mechanics, and Elder Sign provides it in spades.

Elder Sign is absolutely dripping with the horror theme. The art is gorgeous, the card design is spooky, and the flavor text on the cards is suitably creepy. As the game progresses, the sense of impending doom is very strong. At the end of each turn, the clock is advanced such that every four turns, midnight strikes. As you might expect, bad things happen at midnight; monsters spawn, players lose their sanity, and all sorts of obstacles appear, hindering you in the task of finding the target number of elder signs in order to prevent the invasion of the Great Old One.

At it's core, Elder Sign is a dice rolling game, and the random element of the dice adds much to the tension. Six different adventure cards are available to explore each turn, each requiring certain combinations of dice. You'll usually be rolling six green dice, marked with faces with providing varying amounts of clues, and also a skull, a scroll, and a horrific tentacle. Using the adventure card above as an example, you would have to roll three clues first, then two skulls, and finally two scrolls. It can be very hard to do this, especially since each time you fail, you have to set one die aside.

Thankfully, special cards can be turned in to roll the yellow and red dice, too. These dice have better faces than the green ones, providing many more clues when rolled, and also a wild symbol face that counts for anything. Rolling these special dice makes completing the tasks much easier, so managing them well is key. If you successfully meet the requirements of an adventure, you earn a reward, which might be drawing a special card, or earning a precious elder sign. Failure has various effects, including losing sanity, stamina, or putting a monster on the board.

The cooperative elements in Elder Sign are not particularly strong from a mechanical perspective. Players can assist a player who has failed a mission, which allows them to set dice aside in order to make the dice rolls for later tasks easier. Apart from this system, and the healing mechanics discussed earlier, teamwork seems sparse. However, the real cooperation comes in making decisions as a group. Deciding which adventures to go on, playing to individual strengths, and working together to plan the best defense are keys to success. In this sense, then, Elder Sign has strong co-op themes.

Though it lacks the depth and overall meatiness of Arkham Horror, Elder Sign is still a very good game. It is particularly well suited to playing with more casual gamers, due to the appeal of the dice and hour-long game length. The theme is really where Elder Sign shines; you'll have a superb sense of adventure and excitement as the unspeakable horror of a Great Old One draws ever closer.