Elder Sign’s mediocrity shows how far the Arkham Horror series has come
Time to say Hastur-la-Vista?
Elder Sign is the first Arkham Horror Files board game I ever played. The title is part of the incredibly popular tabletop gaming series that also includes the app-assisted board game Mansions of Madness: Second Edition and Arkham Horror: The Card Game, which is easily Fantasy Flight Games’ most beloved living card game.
Besides the Fantasy Flight version of Arkham Horror and the first edition of Mansions of Madness, Elder Sign is now one of the oldest entries in the franchise and the only one to have not received another edition or otherwise regular updates. The last expansion released for Elder Sign was 2018’s Omens of the Pharaoh. That was almost five years ago - a long time in the lifespan of Fantasy Flight titles, which are usually either fed a continuous stream of content or are left to moulder when the studio decides it’s done with them.
I’ve not heard anything regarding new releases or editions of Elder Sign - for all I know they could be preparing to announce the second edition of the game as I’m writing this. But my intuition is telling me that Fantasy Flight is done and dusted with Elder Sign, and there’s no great surprise as to why. When you look at all the genuinely great games in the Arkham Horror Files franchise – from the huge global adventure in Eldritch Horror to the incredibly tense scenarios of Arkham Horror: The Card Game – Elder Sign feels like the odd one out. The mediocre digestive biscuit surrounded by the chocolate Hob-Nobs and Oreo cookies of the tabletop world.
Elder Sign could have any theme attached to it and still operate in exactly the same way.
Having revisited Elder Sign the other day, I was surprised by how terribly underwhelming it was. The glossy signage and artwork denoting its place as an Arkham Horror Files game is all there, but it didn’t feel like I was playing anything on the same level as Mansions of Madness or Arkham Horror.
Theme and story are essential elements of games in the Arkham Horror Files franchise. They’re what elevate them beyond any other adventure-driven tabletop experience. I’ve previously written about how my love of Eldritch Horror stems from the fact that it enables players to create their own stories, and Wheels has narrated many an unfortunate outcome in Arkham Horror: The Card Game to us. These titles inspire their players to indulge in their almost fatalistic perspectives on the outcome of each playthrough, making the main goal to tell an entertaining story rather than to simply just win.
I’ve not heard anyone talk about Elder Sign in years.
In comparison, Elder Sign inspires none of this. From the disappointingly tiny descriptions featured on each mission card to the clinical inclusion of punishments for failure, Elder Sign could have any theme attached to it and still operate in exactly the same way. Whilst it is often the case that gameplay mechanics come before theme when creating a tabletop title, Arkham Horror Files games should never feel like this. Theme should go hand-in-hand with every other aspect of the game’s design.
At no point did I feel tense when trying to pass the various tasks set by each mission in the game, or experience the sweet relief of success when we did. We played using Cthulhu, one of the more difficult ancient ones found in the core box, so it wasn’t a case of the game being too easy. When the stakes aren’t properly communicated to you, it’s nearly impossible to care all that much about what you’re rolling dice for. It’s entirely fine for a game like Eldritch Horror to have very few actual gameplay mechanics – for the most part, you’re simply moving and rolling dice – because the narrative it builds is so much bigger than what you’re doing at the table.
Considering that the Fantasy Flight remake of Arkham Horror has received two additional editions since its release in 2005, Mansions of Madness a complete second edition that introduces a companion app, and there have been countless expansions for Arkham Horror: The Card Game – as well as a revised starter set last year – it seems as if Elder Sign has been almost entirely forgotten by Fantasy Flight, as well as its fans. I’ve not heard anyone talk about Elder Sign in years - even my friends who owned the copy we played were planning on selling it - whereas I still hear plenty of players talk fondly about every other title in the Arkham Horror Files universe.
Playing Elder Sign makes you realise just how far the Arkham Horror Files franchise has come.
As the franchise continues to grow and evolve over the years, introducing new entries like Unfathomable – a remake of the Battlestar Galactica board game – and updating older ones to keep them engaging for new audiences, it only makes Elder Sign seem more and more outdated by comparison. If anything, playing Elder Sign makes you realise just how far the Arkham Horror Files franchise has come in the last decade.