Ancient Terrible things are awakening beneath the ice of Alaska: can anyone save the world from destruction? Or will they be driven mad in the attempt?
Omens of Ice is the 3rd expansion for Elder Sign, a cooperative game for 1-8 players set in HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Up until now the players and the investigators they control have been spending their time exclusively in the city of Arkham (mostly in the world’s largest museum), but now it’s time to venture out of New England, and into the frozen wastes of the north, following a Polar Expedition to Alaska.
If you’re not familiar with the game already, you can find reviews here, but today I want to dive straight in to the new goodies that come in this box.
Dare you open the box? What will you find?
Elder Sign expansions do a really impressive job of cramming a load of stuff into the box, and Omens of Ice is no exception, feeling only a little way shy of being a fully-fledged game by itself, with dozens and dozens of new cards (it lacks the dice and basic tokens to be playable on a stand-alone basis)
The components in Omens of Ice divide into two broad groups – the ones which are backwards compatible with the original Elder Sign, and those which are part of the Omens of Ice only play experience.
There are 7 new investigators in Omens of Ice, including some with really interesting abilities, such as the Martial Artist who can trade Sanity for Stamina (and vice versa), or the artist who acquires free clue tokens when markers are added to the Doom track. Likewise, most of the equipment cards from Omens of Ice can be mixed in to the original game, and left there even when playing a classic game of Elder Sign – although, whilst there are no mechanical issues, there might be a slight thematic disconnect in using a team of sled-dogs to get around a museum…
Aside from these broadly useful components, there is also a significant amount of space dedicated to the new Omens of Ice way of playing the game as you act out an Alaskan adventure – more specifics on this later.
As you’d expect from Fantasy Flight the component quality is good, and the graphic design is consistent with the earlier bits of the game, so you don’t need to worry about things sticking out like a sore thumb – there’s a tiny expansion icon in the corner of the cards, but it’s highly unobtrusive. The rulebook comes a little bit squished up, but you can unfold it out, and the whole expansion fits comfortably in the base game box – without any other expansions in there you can leave the Alaska-specific components in the Omens of Ice box, whilst everything else mixes in. (NB As I haven’t got the previous 2 expansions in there, I can’t confirm exactly how it would all fit together, but I suspect you could get it all in, provided you ditched the expansion boxes).
Where are we going? Into the Wilds!
Even if you don’t starve or get overwhelmed by weather, you die at the end of the week…
The overall feel is that Omens of Ice is designed to be used as its own gameplay experience. You simulate an adventure out in the frozen wastes of Alaska: there is a base-camp card which replaces the Museum entrance, a new Alaska Mythos deck, 2 completely new adventure decks for Alaska, a weather and supplies track, weather tokens and 3 new Ancient Ones, designed specifically for use in the frozen wastes of the north.
Overall this feels like a good mix to me: by this stage you have a lot of options for exploring the museum – the original game came with a fair amount of variety, and that’s only increased with the earlier expansions. The fact that Omens of Ice is weighted so heavily towards a new style of play ensures that you genuinely do gain something different in terms of what you end up doing. I’d have liked to see a little bit more flexibility with the Ancient Ones – either giving us more than 3 (each of the previous expansions came with 4 new Ancient Ones) or else allowing the “original” Ancient Ones to be used in these adventures, but that feels like the only real pinch-point in terms of replay-ability, and it’s a minor gripe.
An Alaskan adventure is much more structured than the original museum trawl. There are two separate decks of adventures – stage 1, which is generally easier, and stage 2 which has far more punishing effects, but also has the Elder Signs you need to win the game. On top of the 6 randomised adventures, there are a series of 4 special adventures, which control the transition from stage 1 to 2, and provide the overall framework for what’s happening. Given the punishing “at midnight” effects on these cards, deciding when to go them is an important decision to get right.
The weather tokens are dealt out by game effects (typically “At Midnight,” or “Terror” penalties), and have a random effect which is revealed when you travel to the Adventure with the token on it – you are also punished for leaving too many weather tokens in play, so you can’t just dump them on a few adventures you plan to ignore.
Facing the Omens of Ice Alone
One of the things I really like about Elder Sign is how well it works as a solo game, so one of my first concerns with Omens of Ice was whether that would still be true. There are certainly some issues you need to factor in, like Rhan-Tegoth, the “easiest” of the Ancient Ones, who takes 2 stamina off of an Investigator every time you gain an Elder Sign. Without having a big party to share this punishment around this can take a heavy toll (this was ultimately what got my investigator devoured on my first attempt.)
Obviously there’s nothing to stop you running multiple Investigators under the control of a single player, and one of the designers has commented that they did the least play-testing for lone investigators, as most people playing solo control multiple characters. Regardless of how you decide to arrange things, the Omens of Ice iteration of Elder Sign definitely still feels viable as a Solo game, which counts as a definite plus in my book.
Complexity- the death of theme?
Elder Sign has always walked a fine line in terms of theme – the art and the flavour text is good, but spells and items tend heavily towards the generic side of things, and it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of trying to roll the dice, whilst losing a sense of what you’re (thematically) supposed to be doing.
With the additional complexity of having a weather track, Omens of Ice looked like it would significantly up the amount of book-keeping that you need to do, and I was worried that this might lead to a drop in the amount of attention that gets paid to the thematic side of things.
Fortunately I think the more structured nature of an Alaska campaign guards pretty well against this. Having the 4 special adventures which always control the overall game-state makes things less abstract, and new touches like “entry effects” (things you may/must do on arriving at an adventure) give a better sense of movement than just pootling round the museum. On top of the mechanical changes, the graphic design for the Alaskan adventure decks is really good: it fits the overall mood of Elder Sign, at the same time as doing a good job of contrasting Alaska with Arkham, and heightening the sense of awareness of what you’re doing.
I also think that the individual spell and item cards in Omens of Ice are more imaginative: the original Elder Sign had an awful lot of spells that boiled down to “save a dice result for later” and a remarkable number of different common items which affected gameplay as “gain the yellow dice”. For Omens of Ice it looks like there’s been a bit more thinking outside the box, and cards like Dark Pact offer both a new mechanic which is interesting from a gameplay perspective, AND a healthy dash of flavour.
Keeping it easy? That’s your choice
Another nice touch with Omens of Ice is the way they’ve made the differences in difficulty a bit more transparent: the weather track is double-sided, giving you the option to make your journey in the (comparatively) mild conditions of Summer, or the particularly brutal depths of Winter. Each individual adventure has its own difficulty rating (broadly “Easy”, “Medium” and “Hard”) which certainly allows you a little warning about what’s coming, and could very easily be extended into house-ruling that you strip out some of the easier/harder adventures to suit your tastes.
The 3 Ancient Ones are all ranked within the rulebook according to their difficulty, which is helpful for choosing an adversary for the first game, although, as noted above, in solo-play Rhan-Tegoth’s level of challenge is significantly increased.
Overall Omens of Ice feels more difficult than the base game – one major reason for this is that you can’t spend trophies on Elder Signs at the Entrance, so you can’t just win by amassing enough generic victories. Instead it becomes a slightly trickier guessing game of working out what to spend the spoils of victory on (“restore 2 stamina” is a good bet against Rhan-Tegoth, and “remove 5 weather tokens” can be the only way to stave off disaster towards the end)
Omens of Ice: The Verdict
If you like Elder Sign, I think you’ll love Omens of Ice: there are some generic components which add replayability and variety to the original game experience, and the Alaska expedition itself has a really nice feel to it, probably more thematic than the base game alone.
That said, if the original Elder Sign wasn’t your cup of tea, this isn’t an expansion which “fixes” it – when you come down to it you’re still making Yahtzee-style sets of dice-rolls trying to match symbols to tasks. The same rules about probability and luck apply as before.
Omens of Ice certainly doesn’t make for a shorter game – if anything I’d say it pushes games towards the slightly longer-side: there are fewer ways to acquire Elder Signs, which makes it hard to win fast, and the Alaskan Mythos deck tends to find was of punishing you other than placing Doom tokens. It probably takes slightly longer for the Ancient One to awake and trigger the end-game though. Length was an area where some people had raised concerns about the original game, so if that was something that bothered you previously, don’t expect it to go away.
Overall this feels like a good expansion, which keeps the best features of the original game, and extends things in some interesting directions.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.