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By Jim Squires | Nov 2, 2011 |

Elder Sign: Omens creates a sense of captivating tension worthy of it's Lovecraftian roots

Over the last year or two, digital translations of existing board games have made a big splash on the App Store. Yet for all of the big names that have jumped into the world of mobile gaming feet first, Fantasy Flight Games – arguably one of the biggest publishers of niche board games today – has remained relatively standoffish. With the exception of Hey, That’s my Fish! and a couple of player aides for print titles, they’ve remained completely absent from the App Store. That is, until now.

Based on the similarly named Elder Sign, a card game that was released only in the last few weeks, Elder Sign: Omens takes place in the sanity-robbing world of Lovecraft Mythos. Fantasy Flight has based a number of board games on the world created by famed author H.P. Lovecraft over the years, and as such, they’ve developed quite a knack for recreating the abject horror of his written works in playable form.

As is the case with most thing Lovecraftian, Elder Sign: Omens tells the tale of a great ancient evil returning to our world. To do this, Azathoth (the creature in question) must collect 12 doom tokens to fully make his return and this bring about an unholy terror that man can’t even fathom. To stop this, you’ll assemble a team of investigators that need to collect 14 “elder signs,” the good guy equivalent to doom tokens, preventing Azathoth’s return in the process.

Collecting elder signs is no easy task. Players will assign their investigators, one at a time, to different adventures within a museum that seems to be the focal point of the Anicent One’s return. Each adventure is broken up into smaller events, and each of these events will have certain “glyphs” attached to them. To complete the event, you’ll draw some glyphs at random out of a magic book and hopefully be able to make a match. If you can, you’ll complete the adventure and earn the prizes attached – often including elder signs. If not, your investigator will lose some sanity, some health, or both.

Elder Sign: Omens is essentially a slot machine. It may be the most complicated, evil, and brilliantly awesome slot machine ever invented, but it’s a slot machine nonetheless.

Calling it a slot machine may be something of an over-simplification (for reference’s sake, the print version uses dice for this mechanic), but since the amount of control you have over which glyphs are in your book is limited, the game ends up feeling more luck-dependant than you might expect. There’s a real “let’s yank the arm and hope for three cherries” vibe to the game, despite being draped in thick layers of awesome arcane horror.

 Omens

 Omens

Still, if you don’t manage to get the glyphs you’re hoping for, there are some things you can do to try and make things happen the way you want. As you progress through the game and complete missions, investigators will earn different one-time power-ups that can be used to do things like lock a certain glyph to make sure you have it next time, or change any glyph to a specific kind you need. Likewise, they can earn “artifacts,” the game’s currency, to return to the museum entrance and spend on healing and power-ups styles of their choice.

The investigators you choose to play with make a difference too, as they’ll often come with different starting bonuses, permanent bonuses, and sanity/health combinations.

The adventures themselves play out in a rather neat style. You’ll start off with a certain set number of glyph slots. Playing glyphs to complete an event will reduce that number of slots, and not being able to complete an event will force you to “destroy” that glyph from your hand, reducing the number of slots as well. You’ll keep drawing new glyphs in an attempt to complete events until you either finish the adventure or run out of slots and fail – and since you can only complete an event if you have all the glyphs you need in a single hand, you’re going to fail a lot.

Like many of Fantasy Flight Games’ best print releases, Elder Sign: Omens is a brutally difficult game to win. But like those print releases, it never ends up feeling like a chore just because you lost. The fun here isn’t in winning as much as it is in playing. Sure it may take you a dozen tries before you succeed in saving the world from a Lovecraftian nightmare, but one those first 11 tries where you fail, you’ll just be delighted to see that you came even closer than before. It’s not about if you survive, but simply for how long. As far as all out apocalyptic terrors go, Elder Sign: Omens is a game of inches.

 Omens

 Omens

The presentation here, like most of Fantasy Flight’s productions, is beyond top notch. Gorgeous artwork drips from every corner of this game, and the soundtrack is delightfully unsettling. It’s the sort of experience that’s so unnerving that hearing a phone ring in the other room while playing will make you jump out of your chair in fright. And if you’ve ever been a fan of Fantasy Flight’s board games and have checked out their online tutorial videos, you’ll be delighted to know that the exact same style of video can be found in the tutorials here – complete with the same slightly spooky narrator that FFG fans have grown to know and love.

With so many great board games coming to the App Store so regularly, we’ve been scratching our heads for a while now trying to figure out why Fantasy Flight were so determined to drag their heels. As it turns out, the Elder Sign: Omens was worth the wait. Rather than simply porting the classics of their catalogue, Fantasy Flight Games has paired a new print release with a great digital version that should have no problem moving boxed copies of their latest game. It’s a far lengthier experience than most mobile gamers will be used to in a single session, but after spending an hour in the world of Elder Sign: Omens, you’ll begin to wonder how the world could survive without you.

Pros:

  • Simple to grasp, yet difficult to win. Perfectly unnerving presentation. You'll feel swamped by the challenges presented fairly quickly, yet in a totally good way -- it never feels frustrating or unfair.

Cons:

  • A little too dependent on luck.

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