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?
JW: The other three expansions, Omens of the Deep, Omens of Ice and Omens of the Pharaoh all replace the cards again and are semi “stand alone” like Gates. They add stages to gameplay and are more thematic. You’ll prepare a journey during the first phase, get equipped as best as you can, then head out and face the dangers. I don’t get them to the table that often. But if you like the gameplay of Elder Sign, it can’t hurt to buy one of them, depending on which setting you prefer.
OPTC: If we focus on narrative and theme, what expansions are your favorites?
JW: First of all, the narrative is very light. I love the game, but it’s not like Arkham Horror: The Card Game or even Eldritch Horror. And I don’t need that in all my games. I enjoy the familiar investigators, Ancient Ones, locations and objects, but the excitement is in the mechanics. You need to like making educated guesses at which card to face next and how to survive the rounds. And how to build up to collecting Elder Signs.
But for immersion or theme: Omens of the Pharaoh and Gates of Arkham, with Grave Consequences thrown in.
OPTC: What sets this game apart from other solo games and what makes you return to it time after time?
JW: It’s the perfect combination for me. I love dice, and this is an extraordinary good dice game. Not too random, but you can have bad luck and a good laugh. It takes around an hour, which is perfectly doable on most days. I’ve read most Lovecraft stories and it’s fun seeing some familiar items. But I also happen to like what Fantasy Flight Games did to the setting. I have my favourite investigators, and they’ll be in the card game or Eldritch Horror as well, so it’s like going on an adventure with very good friends.
OPTC: Is there anything you’d like to share with solo gamers who are new to Elder Sign (or about to renew their acquaintance with the game)?
JW: If you’re new to it; you’ve got to like rolling dice. But it is not a random game. You’ll have six locations to choose from on average, and you will be able to evaluate your chances (there are spreadsheets full of statistics available, but I just played until I got a feel for it).
Don’t give up on the game too soon, but find your sweet spot. I don’t like my games too hard, but there are some real tough expansions (not accidentally the ones I named as most immersive) if you need more of a challenge. The Omens games all have their own rhythm.
If you’d like to get reacquainted: a very nice way to play through all content you own, is by doing one of the special solo campaigns that user flashshadow69 made on BGG. You can pick your setting and difficulty and will get to see all adventures, mythos cards and items that you’ve got. Here’s a link to the most elaborate ones: Elder Sign Campaign Challenges 2019.
OPTC: Finally, I’d like to ask you about atmosphere. When I play solo games, I find that carefully choosing music, snacks, drinks and mode of lightning can greatly enhance the experience. Oxygene by Jean-Michel Jarre is my soundtrack for Terraforming Mars. Dawn of the Zeds is best with outlaw country and a few beers. Runebound is more of a tea-game and I play it in candlelight to the sound of Bo Hansson’s Lord of the Rings. Playing Arkham Horror to the soundtrack from The Ninth Gate is a sublime experience. When I finally get myself together and learn a good solo variant for Android I plan on using flourescent light and the Blade Runner soundtrack. What do you do to set the mood?
JW: I have a problem with noise and music. I mean, I love it and some of the best noise sounds like music to me – and some of my preferred music will be noise to a lot of people. But, I’m easily overstimulated which leads to nervousness. So basically I like to play solo games in silence. Either that, or while playing one of two albums that have been in continuous rotation every evening for the last few years and have become calming background sounds.
OPTC: What albums are those?
JW: I don’t think it matters, because they’ve faded into soothing background sounds. 😄 But they are:
Pink Floyd – Animals
Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze