Two years after its initial release, Fantasy Flight Games’ Elder Sign gets its first expansion, titled Unseen Forces. From the designers of the much lauded Arkham Horror, this expansion offers several additions that balance the gameplay and difficulty levels while adding to the overall enjoyment of the game.
For those of you unfamiliar with the base game, let’s first do a brief overview of Elder Sign. Set in 1926, a handful of investigators are looking into strange occurrences within the Miskatonic University Museum, which houses a number of occult artifacts. As the Ancient Ones stir in their slumber, rifts between our world and other terrifying dimensions begin to open, allowing the evil creatures on the other side to pour through. Up to eight players can take the role of these investigators, pitting their sanity against unfathomable horrors to complete adventures and collect eldritch symbols that can be used to seal the Ancient One away. Fans of Arkham Horror will immediately recognize many of the investigators and monsters used as several share the same artwork as their Arkham counterparts. More importantly, the Lovecraftian lore and aesthetic is just as well-represented here, delivering an extremely thematic experience.
The available tasks in the museum are represented by six tarot-sized adventure cards, each of which feature some wonderfully creepy artwork, plenty of flavor text, a number of symbols, and rewards and penalties for passing or failing the task requirements. The symbols listed on the card all correspond to one or more sides of the green colored dice in your dice pool, as well as yellow and red bonus dice that may be gained through the use of special items. In order to complete an adventure you must roll your dice for each tiered task on the card, locking dice into position once you’ve completed a set in one roll and then rolling any remaining dice for the next listed set of symbols. Failing to achieve the desired results means that you need to discard one die and re-roll, which means you have limited rolls to succeed before you run out of dice and suffer the card’s negative results.
As in Arkham Horror, an Ancient One is selected before the game begins and each one changes the game in its own way, with ongoing, persistent powers, and a unique way of attacking the investigators should it awaken. This happens once the “doom track” fills with doom tokens, which are placed mainly due to the setbacks of failed encounters or due to mythos effects that take place at midnight. Every time a player finishes their turn, they advance the clock by three hours (a wonderfully illustrated cardboard clock with a movable hour hand is included with the base game), which means that midnight strikes every four turns, regardless of the number of players. At this time, players draw one mythos card that will instruct players to place a doom token, spawn monsters, etc. In addition, many adventure cards will have midnight effects that are added to the mythos requirements for as long as its card goes unresolved. If players are unable to gather enough eldritch symbols before the doom track is filled, the Ancient One awakens and the investigators are all devoured.
That’s it in a nutshell although, like Arkham Horror, there are a fair amount of rules to keep up with and close attention must be made while playing to ensure all effects are accounted for and used properly. Still, it’s lighter fare and the perfect gateway title for H.P. Lovecraft fans who may want to give tabletop games a try. The pace is fast, the difficulty is fairly steep, especially with the expansion added, and the unpredictable nature of dice rolling makes each playthrough completely different. There is plenty of strategy to be found here though — investigators each have their own specific abilities that can be applied to certain situations and earned spells can be cast on dice to freeze their results until called upon later. Players may also accumulate clues during their adventures which allow them to re-roll one or more dice on a failed roll before needing to discard any.
The new expansion, Elder Sign: Unseen Forces, enhances this formula in a few ways. First, it includes some replacement cards to take the place of the ones from the base set. Some of these are errata that had already been addressed in the base game’s revised edition, while others provide a bit more balance between the rewards and penalties on adventure cards. It then included its own version of Arkham’s “cursed” and “blessed” mechanics. Through visiting a new area within the University lobby, a small chapel, a player may exchange eight of their trophies (earned by defeating monsters and completing adventures) to become blessed. This awards them with a new white die that players may keep in their dice pool, discarding it only once they have failed an adventure. Conversely, if a player becomes cursed, a black die is added to their pool and cannot be removed until they succeed at an adventure. This black die features the same symbols as the standard green dice, but will not award you with any usable results. Instead, if any rolled symbols on your green dice match the symbol rolled on the cursed die, both are discarded and cannot be used further in the current adventure.
A ton of new adventure cards were added to the mix, bringing that deck to about eighty separate quests, and many new mythos cards were also added for good measure. The adventure deck additions are largely just new variations on what we’ve seen previously with a couple new rewards and penalties tied to them. Some involve the the familiar loss of stamina or sanity, or accepting the blessing/curse status effects we just discussed, but the most important addition is the “reprieve” award, which allows the player who completed the adventure to remove a doom token off the Ancient One’s track. The mythos deck gets more interesting changes though. In the standard mythos deck, Unseen Forces introduces the “Insight” icon – a little question mark symbol in the center of the card that lets all players decide on one of two effects presented on the card. I found this to be a fun idea and provides even more interaction between players as they vote on which effect should be applied. The set also includes “Master Mythos” cards, identifiable by a reddish border on their face side, which contain punishing midnight effects and offer experienced players with a much greater challenge.
Two new Ancient Ones are included here, Abhoth and Shudde M’ell, both of which are excellent additions and the designers did a great job working them into the game thematically. For example, when protean gray mass, Abhoth, is in play, special monster tokens depicting Abhoth’s children are used – amorphous blobs who have separated from the Old One. Shudde M’ell, a huge worm-like being who can burrow through the planet, reducing cities to rubble, is able to systematically destroy areas of the museum containing adventures, removing cards from the game. What may be my favorite addition to the game though are the four new vertically oriented entrance cards, which replace the one horizontally placed card from the base set. The cards now separately depict the Souvenir Shop, First Aid Station, and Lost & Found locations, along with a Chapel, and include some interesting updates from their original counterparts. Players may now purchase two items in one visit to the Souvenir Shop instead of one (assuming they have enough trophies to do so), but an eldritch symbol/elder sign is no longer among the purchasable items. The items available in the Lost & Found, and requirements to obtain them, remain unchanged — players may visit their to roll dice and gain clues, common items, spells, and also run the risk of losing sanity/stamina. The difference now is that players may roll up to three dice in one visit, taking one of these for each die result. This could result in three awesome items or the loss of three points of health or sanity depending on how well you roll. The First Aid Station remains completely unchanged and the Chapel, is the new addition which grants blessings. So why divide the entrance space that used to include all of these locations in one place into four different sections? Many of the new mythos card effects can permanently close certain entrance areas, locking players out of them for the rest of the game. The card in question would be flipped face down, revealing a hastily boarded up window.
Elder Sign is a great time as it is, whether you’re playing solo or with a group of friends (although it’s definitely most difficult by yourself) and the expansion improves upon the formula in basically every way. There is now more variation, more challenging opportunities, and generally more flavor. While lacking the deep strategy present in some of my favorite Euro titles, this is one of the best dice-based games of chance currently available – and with an MSRP of $34.99 and $24.99 for the base game and expansion respectively, it’s actually a tremendous value. The components are very high quality and all the art work, whether re-used from Arkham Horror or not, is absolutely beautiful. Fans of Elder Sign will have a blast with Unseen Forces and, if you’re new to the game altogether, it’s worth checking out both sets right off the bat – especially you’re at all into Lovecraft’s writing and the Cthulhu mythos.