Alone Time: Cthulhu Yahtzee
In last month’s installment of Alone Time, I mentioned that the Lord of the Rings Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games was very possibly the only solo game a fella would ever need. And perhaps you thought to yourself, “What if I don’t want to design decks and buy more quests? Also, I hate hobbits.” If that’s the case, today we’re going to talk about two different editions of another game from FFG. It’s Elder Sign, and it’s much more self-contained, has a lot more dice, and doesn’t have quite as high a barrier to entry. And anyway, what could be more anti-hobbit than H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos?
If you’ve ever seen Ben Stiller vehicle Night at the Museum, Elder Sign will be a familiar concept. Take Night at the Museum, subtract Stiller and the family-friendly overtones, add a whole pack of rapacious Elder Gods whose idea of relaxation is enslaving new dimensions to mount over the hearth, throw in a pinch of insanity and uncomfortable body horror, and— okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor. Basically, they’ve both got museums. And desperate leading characters too, I suppose, though in Ben Stiller’s case failure means continuing on as an aged and unhip version of a once-beloved household name, while the failure of Ashcan Pete & Co. means our entire existence gets fondled by tentacles.
Anyway, Elder Sign is about a museum where some ancient artifacts have gotten up to ancient artifact business, allowing terrible unpronounceable beings like Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, and Cthulhu into our dimension for a visit. The only thing opposing them is a plucky band of interlopers, assembled from period archetypes of hard-boiled private eyes, purple-suited mobsters, determined scientists, and confused dilettantes. If these unlikely allies can’t scrape together enough elder signs to lock these creatures out, then those monsters’ vacation is going to become more… permanent. Dun dun duun.
Your method of battling these extra-dimensional baddies? Dice, of course.
There are two things that stand out about Elder Sign.
The first is that, like many of the games based around H.P. Lovecraft’s terrifying fiction, it’s effortlessly thematic. Even though all you’re actually doing on your turn is deciding which adventure card you’ll try to resolve, rolling the dice and hoping that some of your item cards will help you get the right matches with whatever is printed on that adventure card, and then advancing the clock until whichever elder god you’re fighting strikes back in some way, that’s not what it feels like. Even the mundane, like that museum Koi Pond pictured above, are transmuted into fearful receptacles of goggle-eyed scale-fleshed beasts. And in this instance, that Koi Pond has also been adopted by a vampire, which turns a tough job into an absolute mess.
True, the dice mechanic will still usually have players announcing that they need more “scrolls” and “skulls” rather than roleplaying it out like true nerds — “I don’t have enough knowledge of the lore of the language printed on this tablet to solve the riddle of the Man in Yellow!” does take a lot of effort to get out in a game this brief, and you’re certainly not going to be saying stuff like that while playing it solo. I mean, you can. Go ahead. I don’t judge. Either way, beyond some of the mechanical stuff that feels a little disconnected from the shadowy mysteries you’re supposedly investigating, the way the cards tie their theme to tangible threatening circumstances is admirable. The museum curator may be charming and articulate, but the picture on his card shows the biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever witnessed, so he’s definitely worth checking out. The card announcing “We need to find help!” also locks your powerful red die, meaning you really do need to find help, whether by using the weaker yellow die or doing everything in your power to resolve that card first. And many of the adventure cards do the same thing with the locations of the museum, such as a darkened loading dock scaring your investigators silly, a ransacked security office taking a whole bunch of time to sort through, the archives housing boxed-up spare artifacts, and, most frightening, the public lavatory being appropriately monster-infested. I mean, who isn’t afraid of what lurks in public restrooms?
And that’s not even taking into account the occasional portals to alternate dimensions that house some of the toughest puzzles and best rewards.
The second thing that stands out is that for a dice game it’s got a respectable array of player options. Which is a nice surprise, because dice games don’t always excel at providing players with meaningful decisions.
Here, not only do you continue locking or losing dice depending on how successful your roll was, but you also gather clues that give free re-rolls, allies who bestow additional abilities, all sorts of items that give you extra perks or more powerful dice, and magic spells to lock additional dice as you resolve multiple tasks. Completed adventures and slain monsters give you trophies that you can trade in at the museum gift shop for healing (mental or physical), rummaging through the lost and found, or buying souvenirs like elder signs (I’ll say this much: even at museum prices, they’re probably selling them way too cheap). You can even work with other investigators for additional benefits, or jump through that portal to R’lyeh without any hope of backup.
Whatever you decide to do, the dice are just one of many elements that contribute to your victory or defeat, and there are always plenty of extra details that, if you take the time to look them over, will give you an extra edge against the whims of chance. For instance, old professor Harvey Walters lets you change a terror die result to scroll result once per roll. Terror results are bad and often trigger negative effects, so you might consider sending Harvey to tackle adventures with painful terror effects, or adventures that need a bunch of scrolls to succeed — though you’ll need to be careful of risking him in physical confrontations because he’s frail. On the other hand, archaeologist Monterey Jack gets double unique items when he succeeds quests, so he’s probably your go-to guy when you see an adventure offering unique items as a reward. And those are just the simplest examples that I could come up with off the top of my head.
Now, I mentioned in the intro that there are two versions of Elder Sign. I’ve mostly covered the physical boxed copy, but there’s also a digital version called Elder Sign: Omens for iOS and Android devices. This version is also good, though it automates so much of the bookkeeping that it strips out some player choice (for instance, Ally cards are completely missing). I’ve also heard that the Android version is a bit buggy, and I can attest that the iPad version has occasional hiccups. I’m personally not a fan of pass-and-play with a tablet, but on the other hand, it’s hard to beat the portability of this compared to hauling the box around on a camping trip. And if you already own a tablet, it only costs a few dollars and has a couple of super-cheap expansions that completely overhaul the experience.
Why Cardboard Is Best:
– More initial variety, such as Ally cards, more ancient gods, and expanded player options
– Choose how to play, with 1-8 investigators
– The only bugs are the ants, and you only have those because you left food out
– No $200+ initial investment
– Tactility is one of the reasons you play board games anyway
– You can cheat, if that’s your thing
Why the Cardboard Age Is Coming to an End:
– If you can’t handle some mild bookkeeping, the app does it for you
– Super portable
– A couple extra bucks can more than double the scope of the adventure
– You don’t have to set it up
– You don’t have to put it away
– It won’t let you cheat, if that’s your thing
Either way, this is a great consideration for both solo and multiplayer gaming. It’s rich with theme, and loaded with a surprising amount of decisions for such a light dice game.