Posted on December 17, 2012
Elder Sign: Omens
Anybody else stuck in their house, endlessly casting around for ways to keep themselves entertained? No? Just the guy with the recently repaired bit of tendon in his leg? Okay, well, I brought some painting stuff up to try to get that going, but it’s still too painful to sit in that posture for long periods of time, so I’ve been hitting video games pretty hard. After pretty much a full day of bouncing between XBox diversions and with my leg still throbbing too much to sit for long enough to paint minis, I checked out the Google Play store and found out about Elder Sign: Omens.
You might have already heard about the board game Elder Sign that Fantasy Flight made. That’s a really abstracted version of what typically goes on in Cthulhu investigation-type games, where players each get characters with unique statlines and a gimmick, then take turns approaching “mysteries” or “monsters” and roll dice to succeed or fail. Failure might mean a loss of hitpoints or sanity, a monster spawning, or the Great Old One you’re trying to imprison getting closer to eating the world. Success might earn a helpful piece of gear or pushing that Great Old One’s summoning back one more step. The object of the game is to work together to score more Elder Signs than the GOO can score Doom points. You might have seen Felicia Day playing it with Wil Wheaton if you watch that Youtube show where he plays games with people.
The Android version of the game pretty much just takes out all the other people from the equation and puts four investigators in the hands of one player. Beyond that, the rules don’t change much. You complete objectives to acquire Elder Signs or gadgets that will help you complete the tasks that’ll help you complete other objectives down the road. Over time you learn that even though the investigators don’t seem too different from each other (THEY’RE ALL WHITE PEOPLE), the tiny little variables can make some big differences, and there’s some use in teaming them up on objectives from time to time.
That image above is where most of the game play is. In this example the mission is The Hedge Maze, and it’s got two tasks in it. One needs two investigation points and a skull, the other needs two skulls. At the beginning of this investigator’s turn you get five green dice (glyphs in the Android version of the game) to satisfy one of those tasks. When you roll the 2 investigation and one skull you spend those dice, then you have three to get two skulls. You can gain inventory or spells to either add dice or keep results, but if you don’t get the glyphs you need to complete a task then you have to discard one glyph to roll again. If you can’t complete both tasks you fail the mission and lose hit points, sanity, or both.
I don’t pay for games for my phone very often, and that’s usually because I just need stupid ones to give me buttons to press while I wait for a task bar to move or to get off hold on the phone. This game actually has some depth to it. Some investigators end up being better for more sanity-risking missions, others take lumps, still others can seemingly always have more dice to roll so you always feel like they have a remote chance of winning. While the map you use is always the same (basically just a pinboard to show you which missions are available), the challenge level and speed of play varies according to the GOO you’re fighting, which adds some challenge. There’s real variety in the investigators and the GOO, so there’s plenty here.
Completing a mission might get you an Elder Sign, gear, spells, or money to buy any of those three things (Elder Signs are outrageously expensive). The game ends when the investigators reach their goal of Elder Signs or when the Great Old One reaches their goal of Dooms which they get a set number per investigator round, so it’s effectively just a turn limit on the game. There’s lots that can happen from missions to effect those numbers, though, so I’ve been surprised how little it feels like I’m just grinding out a bunch of die rolls to get to one or the other conclusion. The inventory and mission management has a real effect on what your team can do, and you can build up teams suited to investigation or otherworldly missions. The challenge comes in not knowing what you’re going to get, and the fact that individual investigators can use their talents to complete missions, but using investigators together doesn’t allow them to combine talents, just resources. There’s lots of little strategies that develop and they’re fun to mess around with.
The game is $4 on Google Play, and I gambled on it thinking it was just going to be an advertisement for the board game. It’s really not. It plays pretty much as the board game would play without the difficulty of gathering everybody together and convincing us all something else will be as fun as Galaxy Truckers, and it’s a deeper experience than I expected. There’s motivation to play in unlocking new investigators and Great Old Ones to fight, and it’s the kind of thing you can pick up and put down a lot over the course of, say, the conference call I’m on as I write this. It actually makes me want to give the full board game a try, though, so it looks like you win again, Fantasy Flight!