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Phase Two – Elder Sign: Omens review

Welcome to the latest Phase Two column, where Andy and Mike both take a look at a game, film or similar and debate its merits. This time, we’re taking a look at Elder Signs: Omens, a phone adaptation of a Fantasy Flight dice game. An ancient, Lovecraftian evil is upon us, and only a fearless use of cards and dice roles will save us all. Does this game scare us to death, or bore us to tears? Read on and see.

Mike: Hello and welcome to the latest Phase Two column, today we’re looking and Elder Signs: Omens, a recent release for both iOS and Android. The first thing to note is that this is not the latest open world RPG magnum opus from Bethesda.

Andy: It isn’t? Oh, the word “Elder” in the title confused me. Bethesda should sue these guys!

Mike: You’re an idiot. Right then, as a table-top game adaptation I wasn’t immediately convinced this would work, but it really gives the feel of a board game. So much so, that I’m thinking of looking into the other board game adaptations to be found on phones.

Andy: Absolutely. The reason this caught my eye in the first place was because I absolutely love Fantasy Flight Games, and being able to play a complex, mind-taxing board game on the train or whenever else I’ve got a free five minutes is something I’d like to see more of. Digitising it does remove some of the “charm” of playing a proper boardgame, but that’s more than made up for by the massively increased convenience – and not to mention the price!

One thing I feel they’ve captured well is the atmosphere. For a game that’s essentially about playing cards and rolling dice, there’s a definite Lovecraftian atmosphere to it, somewhat creepy and unnerving.

See? Creepy and unnerving.

Mike: For a game that’s supposed to be about the end of the world, I generally feel pretty relaxed when playing it. Personally, I prefer a more relaxed game, you know how I feel about stress in gaming! The sound is excellent though, and really adds to the atmosphere. The main issue with that though is that I tend to play phone games with the sound off, which doesn’t help this game at all.

Andy: The slow pace may be relaxing, but there’s still plenty to be stressed about. This is one of the hardest games I’ve played in quite a while – the odds are heavily stacked against the player, and at least in my experience, I virtually never win!

Mike: I think I lost my first 4-5 games, then I won the next two. There’s a lot of luck involved, but mainly the learning curve is made excessively steep by the ridiculous tutorial system.

Andy: Oh, don’t get me started on the tutorial videos. I can see what they’re going for, but they throw too much information at you at once, and expect you to know terms now that they don’t explain until later. They really didn’t work for me, I ended up learning through good old fashioned trial and error.

Mike: Developers should avoid embedded tutorial videos at all costs. First of all, they didn’t play on my tablet, rarely an issue with built in tutorials. They were also fast paced, so I kept having to rewind to listen to bits over. Once I’d watched them, I still didn’t have a clue what I was doing. You’re right that it takes a good few plays before you do anything by make constant mistakes.

This is the museum, where all the “action” happens.

Andy: It’s made slightly more frustrating as the game is luck-based at core – it is a dice game, after all. Once you’ve worked out the mechanics, your own skill can significantly increase your chances of winning, but you’re still at the mercy of the AI dice-roller, and I swear he’s on the side of the monsters.

Mike: I’m certainly doing a lot better now than my initial games. I haven’t quite worked out how a few of the mechanics work. Let’s take the doom tokens as an example. For those readers that don’t know: Doom tokens and elder signs appear from time-to-time during gameplay. The player’s goal is to collect a given number of elder signs before the AI opponent collects enough doom tokens. Every 4 turns it’s midnight, at which point the game spawns a seemingly random number of these doom tokens. I can’t for the life of me work out how this works. The rewards and penalties for each adventure also seem to be random, and often don’t balance. I’m not going to risk getting a doom token for failing if for winning I only get a spell card. Similarly, risking only one point of health for 3 elder signs is ridiculous.

Andy: No, I don’t have a clue what determines how many doom tokens you get at midnight either. If any of our readers can tell us, there’s a pointless digital prize in it for you! Anyway, I don’t mind the rewards and penalties for different adventures being random, it stops you from always knowing exactly what’s coming and so increases the longevity of the game. What I really don’t like is when you get doom tokens for succeeding at a task – it’s irritating even if the other rewards are great.

The range of characters – 16 in total – add some nice variety to the game, but it seems that some are clearly better than others. I’ve certainly developed a core group which I use time and time again.

Mike: I love this part of the game. Settling on four characters that you like really personalises the experience. My currently preferred group is Harvey Walters, Mandy Thompson, Dexter Drake and Carolyn Fern. Which are yours? Dexter Drake is probably my favourite, his special ability means he always seems to have plenty of cards around to help with the hard adventures. You’re right though, some of the character bonuses seem very lacking compared to others

Andy: Gloria Goldberg is a clear favourite for me – I don’t know how you can do without her! Her special ability gives her both bonus glyphs (i.e. dice) whenever she tackles an “outworld” adventure. Really useful. The rest of my team is usually Mandy Thompson, Darrell Simmons or Harvey Walters. It’s interesting that we’ve chosen almost entirely different teams – maybe the choice isn’t so clear cut after all?

I feel that the artwork really adds to the characters (and, indeed, the game as a whole) – they manage to get a whole lot of personality across in the single static shot of each character.

You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but she’s a tough old lass.

Mike: This game is basically made by the artwork; it’s really well done. I would have preferred a couple more “Ancient One” cards, just so that your opponent isn’t always the same. They’ve got the UI set up as if it could work with random opponents too.

Andy: There’s also a lot of good flavour text in there describing each adventure, but it’s oddly hidden – I only found it while messing around with the menus. It adds a lot to the atmosphere and feel of the game, so it’s a shame they’ve kept it so out of the way. Have you even noticed it?

Mike: It took me ages to spot this, probably my fourth play through. Usually I forget they’re there and ignore them. They’re a nice touch, and should be a lot more prominent.

Andy: I’ve definitely had some fun with this game, but it does get reptitive after a while, and I’m not sure how long I’ll keep coming back to it.

Mike: There’s a lot of adventures, but you do begin to see the same ones. I wondered if the game would benefit from expansions; would you pay, say, £1 to double the amount of adventures? I’m pretty sure I would.

Andy: Given that the adventures all follow the same format, only the requirements and rewards are randomly generated, I wouldn’t pay for more, no. You’d basically just be paying for new adventure names and artwork, nothing else. If they added some new characters with new special abilities though, that’s something I’d consider buying.

Mike: Fair enough! The big question I guess, is would you recommend it?

Andy: The game itself gets a tentative recommendation from me – it’s worth it if you’re into the Lovecraft mythos, and if you can look past a steep learning curve, but otherwise think twice. The general idea of board games on my phone is something I can definitely get behind though! Can we see a phone version of Star Trek: Fleet Captains, please?

Mike: I think I probably would recommend it, but as you say you’ll need a lot of patience to get past the initial difficulties. I played once, then took a few days to come back to it, such was the savaging I received on my first play! The artistry and sound are great, more games like this on phones can only be a good thing.

So there you have it, a kind-of recommendation from Andy, and a recommendation from Mike. If you’ve played the game, by all means let us know your own thoughts in the comments, or on the forums! If you’re a phone developer, more board game ports please!

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