Jan 25, 2012

Elder Sign: Omens

I'm going to take a break from the roguelikes to have a look at a board game adaptation, Elder Signs: Omens. Fantasy Flight Games is probably the biggest maker of hobbyist board games going right now, and they're known for lavish productions and expansive worlds alongside often complex systems. They have concentrated on creating immersive, substantial games and have entered into the electronic market. Will they bring that same philosophy of concentrating on games replete with theme and a focus on art to their mobile adaptations? How well will the Fantasy Flight experience translate?

Fantasy Flight are no strangers to the world of H.P. Lovecraft, having produced many board games, card games and assorted other products set in his universe of eldritch horror. Let's just say Cthulhu is a frequent visitor in their properties. Elder Signs: Omens faces the player with a familiar scenario for anyone who has played this sort of game, where some malevolent god must be stopped before the Earth (and possibly the universe) is destroyed. Upon first running the application, you will have to download a huge amount of extra data - I recommend plugging in your device and wandering off. Don't try and download the game right before getting on a plane and expect to be able to play. After that completes, you can start a new game, which begins by selecting a team of four adventurers from the group of sixteen that are available. Players of Fantasy Flight games like Arkham Horror or Elder Signs will recognize the heroes available here. Each of them has different statistics and starting equipment as well as a unique special power. Once you get your team assembled, it's off into the museum to battle for the planet.

The heart of the game is taking on a series of adventures, each of which consists of a set of tasks that must be accomplished to win the adventure. If you win, you get rewards such as items to help with future adventures. You can also earn elder signs, which are how you win the game. Earn 14 elder signs before you suffer 12 doom symbols (or all four of your adventurers die), and we all live to see another game. If you fail an adventure, you suffer the consequences, such as damage to your character, generating doom symbols or monsters showing up to make your life difficult. While on an adventure, you will roll a set of dice and spend matching sybols to finish tasks. After each task (or after failing to finish a task and discarding a die), you re-roll the dice. Items can give you more dice, re-rolls, the ability to transform dice and many other effects. After every four attempts at an adventure, win or lose, the clock hits midnight and the bad guys grow in strength.

At its heart, Elder Signs: Omens is a game of resource management. You want to attempt adventurers where you get solid rewards, but if you spend a bunch of items and fail anyway, it can really set you back. You want to aim right for the edge of your capabilities, but not beyond. It's better to be sure about succeeding than to blow all your stuff in a failed attempt. Certain adventures also up the pressure by giving additional bad effects at midnight. Developing that sense of how difficult adventures are takes some practice, but once you become familiar with it, it becomes possible to win most of the time. I'd probably say that I win three-quarters of my games these days, after getting my feet under me with my first couple games.

The production values are very strong here. The artwork is very well done, is attractive and evocative of the subject. The animations and sound are very professionally done and the level of polish is very high throughout the game. The game teaches you how to play with a series of video tutorials, which are well done but don't really cover the fine points of how to play - you'll need to stumble through some surprises in play to really master the game (such as how locked dice really work). The controls are excellent as well, and overall, the game comes across extremely well. One note is that I only played this on my Xoom so far, since my poor sad Motorola Droid is insufficient to really make a game like this go (I'll be buying the Samsung Note once it becomes available on AT&T). I don't know how well it will play on handsets, but there are separate graphics available for handsets as opposed to tablets, so it should work well.

After probably a dozen or so games, the game play started to feel a little samey. There are only so many adventures you see during the game, and you'll start to recognize them. While selecting which adventure to go on and rolling your dice is fun, the game is not going to be the sort of thing you'll spend hours on at a time. I burned out a bit on it, but after walking away from it for a week, it returned to being quite fun. It is ideal for my bus commute, with one game more or less taking me from door to door. It has more meat than filler games and occupies a middle ground that not enough games in my collection have. It is on the expensive side, though, at $3.99, but you are getting an extremely well-polished product for that price and for me, it's well worth it. I'll give it 4/5, and recommend it for people looking for a game to play to completion in the 20-30 minute range with some complexity, but not for someone looking for an immersive, long-playing experience.


  1. I'm hoping for some more Ancient Ones in the future. Their names appear when the game loads additional data after install.

  2. I noticed that as well. I assume that they didn't want to have to deal with the post-summoning fight that you have in the board game version of it, but perhaps it will be coming at some point. Although I did always feel a bit silly winning a straight-up fight with one of the Mythos heavies, which you can do in the board game (or in Arkham Horror, for that matter).