• JW

One Player, Many Cats of Ulthar

Our favourite librarian Arvid asked me to share some insights in the undisputed best dice game ever, Elder Sign. He turned our conversation into an article that we shamelessly copy-pasted below. Please visit his blog One Player, Two Cats for insightful reviews on other solo games though!

OPTC: How would you describe Elder Sign?

JW: Elder Sign is a cooperative dice allocation game. You play as investigators trying to stop the awakening of an Ancient One in the 1920s.

By finding clues and using lore etc. (matching symbols on adventure cards), you will collect useful items, spells and allies. These will help you finding the Elder Signs that you’ll need to seal the Ancient One away. Monsters are after you, and failing a task has dire consequences. Once you start faltering and failing, you may go mad or be devoured.

Some people call the game Cthulhu Yahtzee, thus showing their ignorance. Evaluating your options and taking calculated risks is very important, because you choose the tasks to match before you roll. The atmosphere, the midnight mythos cards and the doom track place the game solidly among the other Arkham Horror variants. And it’s better than a lot of dice games that came out more recently. Believe me, I must have tried fifty of them. I’ve played Elder Sign over 80 times solo the last three years, spending over 80 hours on it and I’ve got no inclination to quit.

OPTC: I remember I used to play with one investigator only. “For immersion” I told myself. I’m probably ready to go beyond that now. What are your experiences with different numbers of investigators? Any favorite count?

JW: I started out with four, and I think that makes sense, as every round usually has four turns. I like to make use of every investigator’s special skills, plus that items, spells and skills will be spread among them. An adventure might have a particular bad effect, and if you play with more investigators, hopefully one of them will be more equipped to tackle it.

That said, I must have played most games with two investigators, as I took part in some campaign challenges that prescribed this. It’s fine, more manageable I guess and certainly taking less table space. I feel that using less investigators makes the game easier, as they will accumulate trophies and items faster. I do not really enjoy playing with one investigator. If you survive the first rounds, you’ll become a powerhouse. But it’s also in my character. I prefer teamwork.

OPTC: Said the solo player... I remember speeding up the passage of time when I played, moving the clock forward four hours instead of three every turn. Are you using any houserules?

JW: Not that one, but I understand something like that may be needed when playing with just one investigator.

OPTC: But you use other houserules?

JW: I don’t replace investigators. Dying would be no fun multiplayer as people would get locked out of the game, so of course the normal rules describe you pick a new investigator after them being devoured. For solo, there is no need.

OPTC: I know you own all of the expansions. I used to play with Gates of Arkham all the time. It kind of felt like it fixed the game and made it more thematic (or at least I was told so). How do you use the expansions? Is there any expansion content that you keep integrated with the game at all times like I do with Madness and Injury cards, Personal Story cards and Relationship cards for Arkham Horror?

JW: I always play with the expansion Unseen Forces included. It’s a must have expansion for the base game. The entry cards are improved (no more spending trophies on Elder Signs), interesting and some very hard mythos cards are added, you’ll have more adventures, Ancient Ones and investigators.

The mechanics you will be able to use in all other expansions, and that I really like, are the Blessed and Cursed conditions. They give you an extra die to either help you out or make it hard to succeed.

Most of the time I’ll also use Grave Consequences. It’s a very small expansion, that adds some immersion to playing with your investigators (they can develop certain phobias and their death will have an effect on the other investigators) and more exciting Ancient Ones battles. Usually a win by collecting Elder Signs is more satisfying than letting it come to a boss fight at the end. They feel anticlimactic. This expansion adds events to that phase, some good, some bad, always unpredictable.

I don’t think Gates of Arkham fixed the game, as it was already good fun. What it does, is change it into another game – based on the same mechanics. You don’t use any adventure or mythos cards from the base game anymore, but replacement cards. From now on it is unknown what dangers you’ll face (though you may get small hints). So, you can’t be sure you pick the right investigator for the right task anymore. A problem you didn’t face of course, playing with just one. I think it’s the best “stand alone” expansion, and I really like the pressure the Gates put on gameplay. But I am certainly not always in the mood for this.

OPTC: Is there any expansion content that you never use?