It might seem like a sweeping statement, but we’re firmly of the belief that boardgames can be roughly divided into two camps: ones that are easy to understand, and ones that are likely to cause an intense migraine before you grasp their rulesets.
The titles produced by Fantasy Flight Games fall squarely into the latter group, featuring more dice, cards, and characters than you can shake a stick at.
However, with this added complexity comes an equally inflated sense of immersion and addiction. It’s little wonder that Fantasy Flight’s output has found a receptive and appreciative audience worldwide.
Sign of the times
Elder Sign: Omens is one of the company’s more recent efforts, and is based on the works of esteemed fantasy horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.
As you might imagine, it’s packed full of magic, monsters, and apocalyptic events, mainly focused around the imminent awakening of a rather grumpy world-destroying beast by the name of Azathoth.
You lead a team of investigators into a museum with the ultimate aim of preventing Azathoth’s appearance by collecting Elder Sign tokens. Grabbing a certain number of these wins the game, but if too many Doom tokens appear Azathoth’s resurrection is complete and existence as we know it is over.
Elder Signs are gained during ‘Adventures’, and these appear all over the museum map, which serves as the game’s board. To win an adventure you have to match a series of symbols known as glyphs - in the original boardgame, these appear on dice, but in this digital edition they’re just 2D tiles.
Roll of the dice
To successfully finish an adventure you need to match the glyphs in order. Sometimes you’ll get to a point where you don’t have the required glyphs to proceed - at this point, you have to sacrifice one of your dice to keep the game going. This naturally makes it harder to match subsequent challenges in the same adventure.
Should you face this situation one time too many, you fail that particular adventure and incur penalties, one of which is the untimely end of your character through either insanity or death. The action then moves onto one of your other investigators.
Although this outlines the basic gameplay in Elder Sign: Omens, there are additional layers of complexity that would take hours to fully explain.
Each of your investigators can use special abilities to turn the tables in his favour, and often these are instrumental in winning an adventure.
During play, you also gain trophies that you can exchange for one-use items or regenerative goods. Ultimate success in Elder Sign: Omens only comes when you become adept at managing your inventory, picking the right investigator for the job, and knowing when to retreat and regroup.
Although Elder Sign: Omens is backed up by some well-produced (and fully voiced) tutorials, it’s a daunting prospect to anyone who hasn’t experienced the original boardgame. There are just so many variables to consider, and trying to juggle all of the possibilities at once can make your head spin.
It’s also impossible to escape the fact that the gameplay itself is based largely on luck: you can never be sure what glyphs you’re going to be dealt on each turn, and all too often you’ll fail a mission due to simply not having the glyphs for the job.
All the luck in the world
Experienced players will know that you can control this element of luck by deploying your items effectively and knowing when to ‘focus’ (which basically means you hold a glyph in reserve). However, getting to that stage of confidence isn’t easy, and that's likely to put many players off.
Once you learn the intricacies of the game, your enjoyment level skyrockets. Although there’s no wireless multiplayer, up to four people can assume the role of a character and take turns using the same device.
Elder Sign: Omens features both phone and tablet modes, and when you first install it the game prompts you to select your platform. Both formats feature gorgeous hand-drawn 2D artwork, but it’s only really possible to appreciate it fully when playing on a tablet device.
When you consider how much a copy of the physical boardgame will cost you - and the added headache of having to physically set it up for each game - Elder Sign: Omens becomes even more appealing.
The only drawback is that it requires a hefty investment of time and effort before it totally surrenders its secrets. If you're not afraid of a bit of hard work, we strongly recommend you give it a chance.