Elder Sign is obviously a beloved game that winds up on many lists of recommended games for solo players. It was #24 on Ricky Royal's 2015 Top 100 and #15 on Board Game Geek's People's Choice Top 100 for solo games for the same year. The game is intended to be a shorter and more manageable version of the massive Arkham Horror, with a Cthulhu theme but also with stripped-down dice-throwing mechanics. Each player takes control of an investigator, and investigators work to complete "tasks" by traveling to different locations and successfully rolling certain combinations of dice. Successes are rewarded with special items and/or Elder Signs. Failures are punished with loss of health and/or sanity. The ultimate goal is to collect Elder Signs that will prevent a Lovecraftian Ancient One from awakening.
I love a wide range of games, but Elder Sign is not for me at all. I've played it solo and groups, and found it lackluster on all occasions, even when everyone else gloried in a last-minute victory over an awakened Ancient One. The only reason I haven't traded it away already is that my boyfriend would be disappointed. (He, too, inexplicably loves the game.)
So what is it about Elder Sign that fails to move me? Part of it is that I don't enjoy dice games. I happily roll dice during RPG battles, and can accept dice mechanics as part of the games that I play. But a game that is all dice? I don't have that kind of luck, and I usually end up very frustrated. It's not satisfying for me to achieve victories purely through the vagaries of fortune. Even though Elder Sign gives investigators special abilities that allow them to manipulate the dice a bit, I prefer to play games that give me a greater sense of control over my own victory (or defeat).
But beyond that, by boiling down the mechanics of Elder Sign, the game seems to have lost a lot of the theme along the way. The game's art is great, and there is some pretty good flavor text, but the Elder Sign doesn't give me that feeling I wanted, the feeling of exploring a sinister museum where hidden dangers lurk in the shadows of the display cases. For me, the mechanics and the theme do not work together well enough for to provide an immersive experience. The dice tasks listed on the location cards feel meaningless—what exactly am I trying to do, anyway? And why is it so random? Although I don't always have the time, I'd rather pull out Eldritch Horror for a fuller, more story-laced ride.
I don't always need a lot of theme to make a game enjoyable, but if the game is going to be light on theme, I want it to be heavy on strategy--Dominion's theme is super pasted-on, but I still adore it because I can get creative by combining different card mechanics. My brain has something to chew on the whole time.
Elder Sign can't be a bad game, given how many people seem to love it. But I can't stand it, and I dread the next time I am asked to play it. Perhaps I can collect Elder Signs to prevent Elder SIgn from reawakening.
My name is Liz, and I play a lot of games. By day, I am a teacher. By night, I am an avid gamer.