Elder Sign - Omens

This is a game made true to the spirit of the series from which it derives its name - a delight stymied by the heavy RNG factor. Where looser interpretations might have dampened the random nature of the dice game that Elder Sign inherits from, this adaptation is warts and all, and as such some games are just going to go much better than others and it's as much down to fate and a roll of those proverbial dice as it is up to any player skill. Looking beyond the obvious failings of the dice game mechanics, however, you will find a moody, atmospheric game with a brilliant attention to thematic details.  If there's any game that the feeling of a loss of control created by that random nature is at home in, its a Lovecraftian horror game, and as such, if you can see past that heavy RNG, you'll probably much enjoy this game.
Elder Sign - Omens
Date published: Sep 27, 2016
2 / 3 stars

Elder Sign: Omens is a PC adaptation of the board game of the same name, developed by Fantasy Flight Games and published by Fantasy Flight Publishing. The original tabletop game was a dice game with a lot of niche appeal for the rich Lovecraftian lore it was based upon, and the PC adaptation released, at least initially, without much fanfare.  As much as a very few critics have picked this up since then, it's still something that doesn't get a lot of attention, likely because it sticks very close to a board game adaptation. The only video game I can think of that stays close to an adaptation and got a lot of media attention is the Witcher Adventure Game, and let's fact it, that's not because of the game itself, it's because of the name on it. Digression aside, the lack of coverage leads one to wonder: is Elder Sign: Omens an under-appreciated gem, or did it not get that attention rightly so because it failed in some significant way?  I couldn't help but look further when my wife got the game for me as a gift, and, well, the truth is as always, somewhere in between: this is a well-produced - nay, beautifully produced game for an independent board game adaptation - but it suffers from a lot of the flaws of the source format.  Or rather, from the one big flaw of that format.

The presentation of the game is top notch

I have to admit, I'm an easy mark for games in the sort of Lovecraftian, cosmic horror theme.  Readers who remember my review of popular games critic Yahtzee Crowshaw's game in the genre, The Consuming Shadow, will likely recall that while the graphical element was rather weak, the strong theming of the game really carried it for me, because it stayed very true to the beats of that mythos and all that surround it.  With Elder Sign though, I don't have to make excuses - this is a beautifully-presented game.

Lavish hand-painted art is plastered through Elder Signs: Omen from stem to stern, and it does a lot to elevate the experience from a simple dice-game-come-video-game to a more "proper" iteration of the second.  It does a lot to elevate the production values, something often lacking in these sorts of adaptations, especially the mobile port ones that tend not to sell for a high price due to the race for the bottom that is mobile market pricing.  Elder Sign hasn't skimped here, and while there's some art thats better than others (there's some weird perspective problems I noticed in a couple pieces) it is by the by largely beautiful.  The one area it falls down in a small way is that it's obviously just sized for the native windowed (iOS) resolution of the port, and doesn't contain higher-resolution images if you played in full screen mode.  This isn't a gamebreaker by any means, but it's rather unfortunate when the game has such gorgeous art that obviously they didn't skimp any expense on.  

Thematic music is also a companion throughout the game, but something I immediately had to give the game some credit for is that it wasn't constant, but rather propped up at thematic moments in the game-play, or more ambient tunes if it sits for enough time.  This game seems to have a real handle on the kind of theme and atmosphere it wants to convey and it does so very well for a board-game adaptation.  It can often be quite difficult to convey a theme in a board-game adaptation in video game format but the music here really is a star here because between the subtler use of it and the skilful composition of the tracks it does a very good job of communicating that sort of atmosphere.

One thing that actually surprised me about the production here was the cutscenes, which had full narration over them.  With the exception of the Cthulu campaign voiceover these were all quality productions too, with great voice acting that did a lot to really enhance the experience and lend that certain sort of vintage charm of the game.  The Cthulu one was well done as well, voice-acting wise, but unfortunately the mic the voice actor had seemed of very poor quality, and it sounded more like a radio recording.  Perhaps this was intentional, but it only came off to me as "poor recording equipment", not some vintage radio or something.  In any case though, the voice acting here while not big-name voice actors was brilliantly done and definitely a strong add to the game.

Omen's core mechanics are well-designed and easy to learn

Game-play begins with the selection of which Elder God it is you are trying to prevent from coming into the mortal world, and selecting a team of four different investigators that end up tasked with investigating the locale where the minions of that god are seeking to do so.  There's quite a few investigators to chose from, each of which starts with a special abilities, an sanity score, a stamina score, and a selection of different items.  The balance is struck between them by means of certain investigators getting more sanity, or less, more starting items or less, and so forth.  While they seemed well-balanced for the most part, I found myself gravitating towards certain characters, because their specials were so helpful, whereas items are fairly prolific, if you're lucky enough to complete adventures, so starting with a bunch of items is less of an advantage to me personally - though a beginner whose still learning will probably want those items as "get out of jail free" cards in stickier situations until they know what they're doing.  As such they seem to fulfill different roles, rather than ones having a definitive advantage.

Once your team is assembled, you're presented with what is essentially the game board: a map of the location, which is a museum for the basic starting campaigns and then the game mixes it up in later ones.  This will have a variety of hotspots on it you can sent each investigator go to to solve the "adventure" there.  They'll be things like deciphering an ancient text, avoiding an assassination attempt, fighting off a monster summoned by the cultists, and so forth.  The turn order progresses in the order you selected the investigators for the team, and each turn represents one part of the day, of which there are six.  When that sixth passes, that's when things get real interesting, because it will progress the "doom counter" for the Elder God, and bad things will happen - the summoning of monsters, opening of portals, assemblies of cultists, and just in general bad things.  In practice, these are very difficult adventures that have even worse consequences for failure than the normal ones, and you don't want to leave them on the board, because if you do, they will accelerate the progress of the the Elder God towards being summoned.  If the Elder God is successfully summoned, well, that's game over, you might be able to handle it's servants, but you ain't going to be going up against the Elder God itself.

Thus, the object of the game becomes assembling the titular Elder Signs you need to banish the god.  Each Elder God has a certain amount of Signs you have to accumulate - starting with 10 for the easiest god and increasing from thereon.  You get these signs as adventure rewards for completing those adventures successfully, along with additional items and other useful things such as the occasional restoration of some lost sanity or stamina, or trophies you can spend on items and such.  You can complete one adventure per turn (assuming you're successful) with the exception of one investigator whose special effect is that she may continue until she fails.

The other failure state other than the Elder God being summoned is losing all four adventurers - lose all your sanity and the investigator goes insane.  Lose all your stamina, and the investigator dies.  Both spell the end for the given investigator, and if you lose all four investigators that is the end of Earth - or at least the Earth of the game you were playing!  Without the investigators to oppose the cultists summoning the Elder God, they can be summoned unchallenged.  While you may get the very occasional restoration of sanity or stamina through game events.  You can restore sanity and stamina through expending trophies, but be wary - you'll lose a turn doing so.  So there is some skill in knowing when to apply that much-needed first aid, and when to just keep trying to push forward.

While the general meta has skill involved,
individual adventures are mostly random chance

Adventures that your investigator embark upon are where that skill requirement falls down more than a little.

Each adventure has between one and three tasks that are components to completing the full adventure.  To complete these tasks, you need to roll certain glyphs with an "invocation".  There are four general kinds of glyphs - investigation, knowledge, terror, and eldritch glyphs.  Normal investigation glyphs offer a value of 1-3, and you will require a certain target number fulfill an investigation glyph requirement - which can thankfully be completed with more than one glyph (though you'll want to be careful about 'spending' too many dice to fulfill one requirement).  Essentially, you roll six dice (normally), and get one glyph for each dice.  If you have enough to complete a task, you drag them over to that task to allocate them, and it's then completed.

Success in adventures is basically all or nothing - you either succeed at all the component tasks or you fail the adventure altogether.  The exception to this is monsters summoned to a certain adventure (by way of the Doom Counter, or certain dramatic adventure failures) are still defeated if you managed to beat them regardless of whether you completed the adventure or not.  This all or nothing approach exacerbates the RNG, since an off-by-one situation still creates a failure of the entire adventure, and failing one adventure can easily snowball into failing many others on that investigator, especially if you sunk items into it and still came up blank.

There's also special yellow glyphs that offer higher end clues, and are also more likely to roll the rarer terror and eldritch glyphs.  And then there's red glyphs, which are similar to yellow glyphs, but also have a special glyph you can roll that allows you to choose your result if you receive it - making the red glyphs especially valuable and helpful towards completing difficult tasks in an adventure.  You get allocations of additional green glyphs, or of yellow or red glyphs, by expending an item before you roll which grants you one or more as a benefit.  Thus, accumulating items from adventures becomes important to longevity in the game.

You can complete up to one task with a roll of your 6-8 dice.  If you roll, and you cannot complete any task, then you discard one die, and roll again, hoping to be able to, and so on, until you're either successful or you run out of dice.   More often than not since you will have multiple-glyph tasks quite prevalently, this leads to situations where you cannot hope to complete the task, but you're going through the motions anyways.  A minor criticism I have of Elder Sign is that I wish the game had an option to just accept a failure state here, rather than making me go through the remaining roles.  It's worth noting that sometimes you can get beneficial effects even for failure, but this is rare.

Sometimes you are given a set order to complete the tasks in, forcing your hand somewhat with rolls, other times, you can do them in the order the dice appear.  In theory the former is mmore difficult, but I did not find myself significantly troubled by the former, especially since you have an investigator you can take with a special that allows them to do even the rigidly-ordered adventures in whatever order, whom, I may add, is a good idea to take for this reason.

Helping to somewhat curb the random nature of rolling the dice themselves is a focus mechanic.  When discarding one dice but before rerolling, you can choose to "focus" on one glyph, which effectively saves it, so it is not re-rolled.  Doing so allows you to hold on to it across rerolls - multiple rerolls if necessary - with the hope it's helpful and you can indeed complete the task.  For this reason, I don't have too much trouble with the glyph rolls themselves.

No, it's in the adventure rewards where the random chance snowballs all the more here, because the task rewards are also, you guessed it, random.  While each task has an allotment of certain categories you can see prior to entering it, for example "1 elder sign, 1 weapon, 1 random" - the items you get as a weapon or spell or other random item are totally at the hands of fate, and some are definitely much more useful than others.  It leads to situations where if you got some really good items on your first few adventures you can snowball out of control and win quite easily if it keeps going, or times where even playing very shrewdly and trying your hardest, you can lose anyways, because you just didn't get good items.  This game is the polarization of Isaac runs brought to new heights.  There isn't too much middle ground I found.  Though, as is always the nature of RNG, it could just be that my own experiences seemed polar because that's how the dice went.  It's impossible to tell without sinking a lot of time into carefully deducing the probabilities.

Additionally cast into the pool of adventures - again by chance - are special "midnight" adventures - which, if left until midnight, have a negative effect you'll suffer in addition to the Elder God's Doom Counter effect, so you generally want to complete them where you can.  This keeps pressure on, but as with the other random elements, they seem very polar.  I had one game where I was literally completing midnight adventures back to back without relief and others where I never saw a single one.

Certain tasks have stamina or insanity losses associated with completing them, representing that while you may have completed the task you still suffered as a result.  A mundane example is putting out a museum hallway that the cultists set on fire to obscure evidence - which has two tasks, both of which will reduce your stamina by one, and it also illustrates a sort of countdown mechanic as well.  Every so often when you reroll, you will also take a stamina hit, as well, putting the pressure on.  There are similar adventures that do one or both of the same with sanity, as well.  Incidentally, if you "succeed" at the task but run out of stamina or sanity doing so, it fails the adventure, which can be pretty harsh at times.

Adding to the frustration here is that there is no save system.  You can resume a game in progress if you exited the game but you can't save to slots nor do you have quick-saves, so even if you wanted to "save scum" past it when the game gets particularly egregious with its RNG, you are unable to do so.

Additional non-standard campaigns offer a lot of replayability

There are three additional non-standard campaigns that come with the game as well as a handful of standard campaigns, and each of these offers new gameplay mechanics that increase replayability as well as make the gameplay deeper and more complex.  I liked all of these, although I actually found the Egypt campaign easier than its stated value.  Given the nature of the RNG we've touched on plenty of times above though, it's difficult to tell if this is just the RNG having been particularly favourable during the play of that campaign, or if there was a design element that was at fault there.  There's three campaigns that are non-standard: Cthulu, Nyarlathotep, and Ithaqua.  Basically each of these is a "dual mode" thing, with a preparation phase, and then a "going to stop the Elder god" phase, but both phases vary in the different campaign.

The archetypical Cthulu campaign is the first of these three, and the easiest of the three in terms of listed difficulty rating.  It begins with the typical museum search and adventures one has become familiar with in the standard campaigns, but the objective here, rather than stopping Cthulu outright in the museum, is to find three pieces of an artefact amulet, which offers various protections in the Ryleh that is Cthulu's home domain.  You get a certain amount of time to do this (which will depend on how mean the RNG is to you since one of the mythos effects that can happen at midnight is advancing the clock), and then once that's passed, you have no more time to search, and are left rushing towards the ocean abomination's domain aboard the Ultima Thule, and desperately doing difficult adventures in an ocean map to get enough elder signs to banish the Sleeper.

Dark Pharaoh, the Nyarlathotep campign begins with you called to Egypt, and awaiting the arrival of a companion from that museum.  The preparation stage leaves you to do random adventures, much like the prior campaign, just in a new setting.  What really changes here is, again, the end goal of that first phase, which in this case is getting allies to help you crawl the crypt of the mummy you're seeking to open.  You can have two such allies at any given time, and they allow you to trade an amount of trophies for a certain benefit, such as being able to immediately heal yourself without expending a turn.  These allies become very valiable, in turn, and one of the new failure states is one of them being slain, so that additional help also comes with some additional danger.  Once a few days have passed that companion from the museum arrives, and you set off to use the artefact they have in their possession to unlock the tomb.  This essentially neccessitates completing a certain series of adventures, and once you do, the tomb is unsealed - releasing the avatar of Nyalathotep - a vengeful mummy!  The last arc is the same as the second in this regard, but the goal is the elder signs you need to defeat the mummy, lest it wreck its terrible vengeance upon the world.

Ithaqua's campaign is particularly insidious in that it's actually the simplest non-standard campaign, but also the most difficult.  There's two phases - amassing supplies for the expedition to try to save your comrades from the clutches of the eldritch creature Ithaqua, and the actual expedition to do so.  Not only are the adventures presented more challenging, but that supply mechanic means that failure is especially costly, as time is absolutely vital in this campaign.

Each of these campaigns adds those additional twists, as well as additional minutae such as campaign-specific adventures, and this does a lot to improve the longetivity of the game, in my opinion.


{imageshow sl=21 sc=2 w=500 h=400 /}

Accessibility notes

  • Mouse and keyboard only
  • Interface is a straight port, with some strange hold-overs from the mobile port like having to drag some elements
  • Art does not scale to full screen resolution
  • Minimal options screen with not much selection
  • Volume controls for music and effects are a binary on/off with no option to control volume level
  • Fullscreen mode does not work very well with multiple monitors
  • Music plays even when the application is not in focus with no option to disable it when it is not in focus
  • Quite complete in-game help
  • No ability to save games at a certain point

This is a game made true to the spirit of the series from which it derives its name - a delight stymied by the heavy RNG factor. Where looser interpretations might have dampened the random nature of the dice game that Elder Sign inherits from, this adaptation is warts and all, and as such some games are just going to go much better than others and it's as much down to fate and a roll of those proverbial dice as it is up to any player skill. Looking beyond the obvious failings of the dice game mechanics, however, you will find a moody, atmospheric game with a brilliant attention to thematic details.  If there's any game that the feeling of a loss of control created by that random nature is at home in, its a Lovecraftian horror game, and as such, if you can see past that heavy RNG, you'll probably much enjoy this game.