Strap on your sou’westers, fasten on your waterproof jacket, and make sure you’ve got your protective medallion. There’s new Omens in the air!
The ‘little (probably horned) brother’ of the Arkham Horror franchise, Elder Sign is a dice-based adventure game. Investigators fight against the minions of ancient Old Ones, who want to bring said Old Ones into our realm of existence via various nefarious means. 2017 sees the latest addition to the little brother’s box of tricks, in the form of Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep!
Arkham..? Isn’t that an asylum that the Caped Crusader sends people to?
Well…yes, Arkham Asylum does exist in another franchise. Here, we’re talking about the city of Arkham, integral to the Cthulhu Mythos. Home of the Miskatonic University, the Silver Twilight Lodge, and Ma’s boarding house, to name but a few. The same genre has produced such titles as Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness, the Call of Cthulhu card game, Mythos tales…the list continues.
Over the years, GamesQuest have reviewed several of them:
Elder Sign, Omens of Ice
Mansions of Madness
Most of these games share mechanics that will be familiar to seasoned (and spiced…) players of the series. This includes the use of Common and Unique item, Spell, Ally, and Skill decks. Monsters provide further challenges; tokens drawn from a “monster cup” that you must fight before you can complete other steps in an adventure. Most of the games also include movement (sometimes along given paths that have a cost to travel) to locations that provide the encounters that you face in your turn.
Omens, eh? Sounds…ominous!
The Elder Sign series started in the Miskatonic University in Arkham (and later ‘broke out’ into the Streets of Arkham in the expansion of the same name). The Omens series takes investigators out of Arkham, and into perilous danger. The Omens series are digital expansions to the Elder Signs mobile apps, and FFG are converting them for those looking for a more physical experience. You need the Elder Sign base game to play any of the expansions, and each expansion has elements that are compatible with all others.
Omens of Ice takes you on an Arctic expedition to Alaska, fighting hunger and various hairy beasties (the hair keeps them warm, don’t you know?) to find a missing archaeological expedition and prevent the world from a covering of snow and ice.
Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep takes you to the high seas, where the ancient city R’yleh rises from the deep, and Cthulhu waits to devour the earth (humanity is little more than an appetiser…). You must discover and unite the segments of a mysterious amulet that will aid in your quest to seal the city for all time…hopefully!
Mounting dread, and new tools to do battle…
As with every Elder Sign expansion, Omens of the Deep includes several new cards that integrate into the base game. These include some new Unique and Common item, Skill, Ally and spell cards.
There are also eight new investigators for the Old Ones to sink their teeth into.
In addition to the new tools of the trade, Omens of the Deep includes a special adventure deck and mythos deck, each of which separate into two, one for each phase of the game. In the first phase, you’re attempting to locate R’yleh, the ancient city that you know has arisen. After the city has been found, the tension mounts as you attempt to thwart the Ancient One’s plans to break into the Mortal Realm.
…and a new legion of monsters to battle with!
Omens of the Deep also includes the ominous Deep One Legion. This is a new type of monster for Elder Sign, where once defeated, investigators must pay a cost to remove the monster from the game. If they can’t (or don’t want to) pay this cost, the monster respawns on another adventure, and must be defeated all over again! The Deep One Legion also do not spawn from the monster cup, but rather from adventure effects and token placement on the Doom track
Omens of the Deep also introduces Missions. These are added to the monster cup, and work in the same way as monsters in terms of spawning and defeating. However, after ‘defeating’ the mission, you must spend a given number of trophies to gain the mission’s reward. Each completed mission is removed from the game, so you only get the benefit once.
Enough with the components, how do I play Omens of the Deep?
You play Omens of the Deep in two phases. In the first phase, you’re travelling on your research vessel, the Ultima Thule, attempting to locate parts of a mysterious amulet and at the same time discover the location of R’yleh. If things go well, you will find all parts of the amulet before locating the city – any missing parts when you enter the city will lock a die, preventing anyone from using it in their attempts to resolve adventure cards.
The game starts with three face up, and three face down adventure cards. Face up cards allow players to see what challenges must be overcome to complete the card. The face down cards sometimes provide an effect that triggers at “midnight”, and are for more risk-loving adventurers to attempt “blind”. Each card has a difficulty rating that is visible before trying blind, so even the more risk averse might be tempted!
You resolve Adventure cards by rolling dice (staple of any good game, dice). There are six common dice to roll, and you need to match symbols on the adventure cards. There is also a yellow and a red die that may be introduced by playing uncommon or rare equipment cards. Each adventure card has a few stages that must be completed, sometimes in a specific order, and all stages must be completed to complete the card. Some game effects may lock one or more dice, making completing adventures more difficult until you encounter the space that locked the die.
The red die includes a wildcard that can be used as any other symbol. By using it as a Scroll, the “Mutiny” adventure can be completed with this roll
Success is rewarded (mostly)…
If you complete an adventure successfully, rejoice! You return to the Ultima Thule with a reward, which may be more equipment to use in later adventures, Elder Signs that help seal away the Old One, and in Omens of the Deep you may uncover part of the Mysterious Amulet. You also gain the adventure card as a trophy, that you can exchange for various benefits.
…while failure is punished (almost always)
If you fail an adventure, however…well, it’s not that bad. You might take some damage, either to your health or your sanity. The old one may become a little stronger, bringing the world one step closer to doom and darkness. Or you might spawn a monster, that will try and eat someone later in the game. When you fail an adventure, you stay at the adventure location, and can assist others in future turns when they attempt to complete it.
At the end of your turn, you advance the clock. This acts as a turn tracker, and also provides a timing for the game to hit back – the dreaded Midnight. As the clock strikes the Witching Hour, the Old one twitches and bad things might happen. There is a deck of Mythos cards that determine what the old one might do, from simply adding a doom token, to spawning monsters, or maybe nothing at all. Such is the capricious whimsy of dark gods. There are also midnight effects on some adventure cards and monsters, all of which resolve while the night is darkest.
Midnight…twice a day?
As a slight aside, there is a logical fallacy to Elder Sign, which continues into Omens of the Deep, in that the clock strikes midnight every twelve hours. Dark gods work to different celestial time frames than us mortals, apparently…or they’re just impatient!
What’s that coming out of the deep..? (tune optional…)
The Omen Track (one of the few components specific to Omens of the Deep), records the level of Deep One activity in the game, and just when you think you’re finally on top of them, R’yleh will rise! Scrap any adventures that might currently be on the board, things just got more interesting! There is a “Stage 2” deck of adventure cards that provides more flavour for exploring the ancient city. These also increase the difficulty. You are, after all, entering realms hitherto unexplored by modern man! If you found all of the amulet pieces in time, you have all dice available to you. If not, each missing piece locks either one of the green dice, or the more useful red or yellow dice, for the rest of the game. It’s important, that amulet…
If you manage to collect the required number of Elder Signs in time, congratulations! You win the chance to console your fractured psyche, and rest your weary bones on the journey home. The Omens of the Deep have been uncovered, you have averted disaster, and enabled the world to continue spinning. If you fail…*gulp..!*
So…what’s the verdict?
Elder Sign: Omens of the Deep continues the vein of tradition of the Elder Sign series…and I’m saying that in a negative sense. Other than finally seeing Big Daddy Cthulhu rearing his tentacly mush, there’s nothing here that the series really needed. Nor anything that truly improved the game. While this is a different story-line to the previous adventures, that’s all that’s really included; another story to tell with the same components that you already have. Yeah, there are some new, thematic cards to tell that story, but is that enough to include Omens of the Deep in your collection?
Some critics of this opinion might (read: have) point at games like T.I.M.E stories, where each expansion is a new story with the same components. My counter to that is twofold. One, it’s always been the intention, from the start, that that is how those games will function. They haven’t had expansions like Streets of Arkham that fundamentally change how the game plays. Second, the T.I.M.E Stories expansions are vastly different in approach and theme! (to the point where some games are very dice-intensive, and others are almost entirely problem solving). Elder Sign is Elder sign – roll dice and mourn your fortune…
I’m aware that I’m also criticising Omens of the Deep for being exactly what it was intended, and promised, to be; A port of a digital expansion into physical form. But it just feels like there should be something more. Omens of the Deep doesn’t have the…depth I was hoping for (shameless pun intended)
Hush now, just gimme a number!
It’s hard for me to rate Omens of the Deep fairly. I want to like it! Just as much as I like the rest of the Elder Sign series, and its Arkham Horror pedigree. However, at this point, I think the Elder Sign series has meandered for too long. Omens of the Deep only gets a 4 from me. While the game and story is solid, it’s a dusty tome to pull from the shelf from time to time. It’s not the dog-eared classic that keeps you going back for another read.
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