Review – Elder Signs: Omens

One of my favorite board games ever is Arkham Horror.  The mechanics are complex, the gameplay is slow, but running around a town stopping evil from pouring out of portals, hunting clues, going mad, and getting killed is just the most fun you can have with a board game.  Especially one with a minimum 4 to 6 hour game time, with a failure rate of 80%.  Most sane people wouldn’t call it fun, but then again, I love games where death was always more likely than success.  I wondered, how cool would that be if that were made into a mobile phone game!  Read on for the review.Okay, so they didn’t make Arkham Horror into a mobile phone game.  They did however, of Elder Signs.  Elder Signs is another Fantasy Flight board game based on the Cthulhu-mythos.  A museum turns into a breeding ground for paranormal activity, where relics are being used as a portal for the great Azathoth.  If he comes to life, you die.  No eternal madness, no pain beyond all measure, just complete and utter destruction.  The premise for the mobile version is exactly the same, except optimized for smaller screens and touch interfaces (i.e. iPad, iPhone, Android).

You start the game by picking 4 from a whole bevy of investigators, and the whole cast from Arkham Horror are present here.  It’s awesome, they all have their familiar display pictures, and their own unique powers which will help you in the museum.  This is probably the best part of the game, the variety of skills you’ll be able to mix and match over multiple playthroughs, and there isn’t one or a set of investigators that stand out over the others.

It all takes place as if it were a board game, so a map of the museum is presented to you.  Hot spots pop up randomly over the map with a series of tasks that are required to be completed at each location.  You play through each investigator’s turn, going around selecting the hot spots you wish to complete in any order you choose.  Unlike Arkham Horror though, there aren’t flavor texts that appear with each exploration – and that’s most likely to keep the mobile game lean and focused, but I can’t help but be disappointed as part of the fun of a Cthulhu-themed board game is the awesome writing and immersive stories.

You do get told though whether you’re facing a hoard of manic rioters out on the street (with matching images – which are nice), or are looking at a creepy exhibit, or stumbling in on a mystic gathering, or watching yourself go mad in the mirror… but that is somewhat disconnected by the actual tasks you have to complete which are really just a bunch of circles and more circles.  Imagination is definitely called for to fill in the gaps.

Elder Signs: Omens is a game of chance, and chance management.  You need to match the icons, or glyphs, as they are called, that are presented in the task, with the 6 that each investigator randomly rolls.  If you don’t get the matching icons, you need to reroll till you do.  The interesting thing is, with each reroll, you have to discard one die – so your chances of getting the icons you need becomes less and less likely the longer you take.  Which is why it’s not an easy game, and why losing is a far greater prospect than winning.  Which makes me like this game a lot.

You increase your chance of roll success, by way of investigator abilities, or items/clues you pick up.  Some abilities allow you to change glyphs to other specific glyphs as you need, while most items or clues help you reroll or hold glyphs.  All in all, the game feels to me like it has the right balance between control and luck, such that you always feel like you could win if you manage your rolls right, but more often than not get shafted for just not getting the glyphs you need.  Each investigator has a finite level of sanity or health depending on who they are, so keeping them alive and not failing tasks is a major priority.

The longer you take to close the portal to Azathoth, the faster the monsters and terror come out to play.  There is a time cycle and after midnight passes each day, a series of penalties are dished out to all the players, including constant loss of sanity or life.  In that way, the pacing of the game is great, and you’re always racing to stay one step ahead of impending doom.

The sound design of the game makes up for the lack of graphical immersion, and the game is quite creepy when playing on your mobile phone late at night.   There are good ambient sound effects and there’s even a narrated tutorial to give you a lowdown on how to play the game.

I’ve had the chance to play it both on the iPad and on my own Android smartphone.  Obviously the iPad is bigger and the game UI is clearer to see, but it works just as well and smoothly on my smartphone.  I do recommend making sure yours is specced high enough so it doesn’t lag but there are no graphics, so it shouldn’t be that tough to play.  Initial download is a bit lengthy though.

My final verdict is that if you’re a fan of the Cthulhu mythos or like uber-difficult horror games, then this is the game to get.  I like it even more so because if I’ve got reluctant friends to play Arkham Horror with me, I now can just boot this up and play all by my lonesome.

Elder Signs: Omens has got the complicated mechanics of a full board game with richly detailed graphics all crammed into a mobile app.  And there is definite replayability – either because winning the game will be very hard, or because you’re inexplicably drawn back into a dark and depressing Lovecraftian world of arcane magic, dark evil, and old-school investigators.

::Update:: Just yesterday, I got a notification notifying me that there was a major uber update for Elder Signs: Omens.  Two more evil overlords, Yig and Cthulhu (FYEAH), have been spotted in the wild!  Also, 10 new adventure bits and 3 new detectives to detect evil and fight magical crime.  I’m having a go with it and will let you guys know what that’s like in due time.

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