After the bitter cold of Ithiqua’s Alaska, and the maddening watery expanses of Cthulhu’s Pacific, Elder Sign is taking things to the other extreme as it invites you to the hot, dry land of Nephren-Ka’s Egypt. Gather resources in Cairo, then venture out into the desert sands of Egypt in this latest expansion, Omens of the Pharaoh.
Omens of the Pharaoh – what’s in the box?
Like the previous “Omens” series expansions, Omens of the Pharaoh takes your investigators to a whole new location, and provides 2 complete decks of encounters, used exclusively when playing in Egypt. There are special encounters, a new Mythos deck, “Relic” cards, a new “Expedition” sheet and, of course 3 new highly challenging Ancient Ones. Omens of the Pharaoh also introduces 6 new investigators to the game and a handful of allies, all back-compatible with the core game or earlier expansions.
So, how does it play?
Elder Sign players familiar with the Omens series that began with Omens of Ice in 2016, will recognise a lot of common features in Omens of the Pharaoh. There are two new decks of encounters, conveniently labelled as Stage I and Stage II. Stage I (Cairo) is relatively easy: 3/5th of the Encounters are rated as “Easy” and 2/5th as “Medium” – it’s a place to build up your supplies and prepare for a foray into the desert.
Stage II (Dashur) is the site of an excavation where you will dig for rumours of the forgotten Pharaoh. The difficulty here is really ramped up (1/5th Easy, 2/5th Medium, 2/5th Hard), and you no longer have the option to heal at the entrance. However, the rewards tend to be far more powerful, and you have a much better chance of finding the Elder Signs which bring victory.
A big twist for Omens of the Pharaoh is the way you move between the two stages. In Omens of Ice, you advanced by completing special adventures. In Omens of the Deep you could choose to advance when you made progress on a given track, or it happened automatically if your boat sunk. For Omens of the Pharaoh, you simply advance the clock an extra time at the end of your turn to advance to Dashur or go back to Cairo. Allowing you to return to the city and rest adds an interesting new level of decision-making, and was a really welcome inclusion for us.
The Ancients stir
Top – original Nyarlathotep, Bottom – new Nyarlathotep
Omens of the Pharaoh comes with 3 new Ancient Ones 2 of which are, in a sense, one and the same. The Haunter of the Dark – an “aspect” of Nyarlathotep, and Nyarlathotep himself.
Nyarlathotep appeared in the core game of Elder Sign, and it doesn’t take long in comparing the two to notice that the difficulty has been ramped up considerably for Omens of the Pharaoh. The first ability is still there, but with the power-level doubled, and a whole new level of hideousness has been stacked on top – his ability to fill up the Doom track is one of the fastest I’ve seen, and all our attempts against him ended swiftly in death.
Nyarlathotep from the core game also came with “Mask” Monsters – monsters which look the same as the others when you first attack them, but which once defeated, instead of turning into trophies are simply returned into the cup, vanishing away as no more than illusions. As well as re-using these monsters, Omens of the Pharaoh adds several new Mask Monsters, to keep their appearances frequent, making defeating monsters an even more thankless and exhausting task than it might have been.
The Dark Pharaoh
Nephren-Ka was an ancient Pharaoh, so evil that all mention of him was erased from history. Now however, he is stirring beneath the sands, and is the 3rd Ancient One the investigators must confront.
Where earlier Omens expansions had Special Adventures that acted as a narrative spine to the game, Omens of the Pharaoh has 4 Dark Pharaoh Special Adventures that are put into play by various negative effects during the game. These are particularly nasty to deal with: face-down they add a Doom to the Ancient One at midnight each day, hastening the end of the game (and probably the world). Once flipped face-up, they present a mixture of challenge levels, but cannot be taken as trophies, meaning that any time the dark pharaoh is staved off, it is only a temporary respite.
In many respects, Nephren-Ka isn’t the most terrifying of Ancient Ones, but he takes a Sanity and a Stamina from an investigator each time they move to a special adventure, stops them from using spells and clues whilst there, and he adds a doom every time an investigator fails one of the adventures. When playing against him, the best strategy is to avoid getting the Dark Pharaoh adventures into play whenever you can.
Expeditions: exploring hidden Chambers
Although the ultimate objective is to save the world from the Ancients, Omens of the Pharaoh is thematically positioned very squarely in the Egypt of the 1920s or 30s, nearly overrun by archaeologists exploring Pyramids and finding hidden chambers.
Omens of the Pharaoh comes with a new “Expedition Sheet” – an over-sized card that players can fill with “Expedition Tokens,” either by gaining them as rewards from encounters, or by spending trophies. There are 8 slots you can fill – 4 which provide ongoing benefits (healing, extra dice against Dark Pharaoh Adventures, and turning Mask Monsters into ‘normal’ trophies), and 4 slots where you can discard the token for a one-off effect. I really liked these, as they offered a lot more decisions to make, as well as a way to not just load up your investigators with clues and items, but actually give them ongoing boosts as they venture into the desert for the more challenging adventures.
The other element of Omens of the Pharaoh straight from the world of Indiana Jones is the Hidden Chambers. These are adventures that need to be opened before they can be entered – a task that has to be completed in a single roll (you can use clues and items, but not focus or make additional attempts). Whilst entering a Chamber is hard, and the encounter you find inside is likely to be tough as well, it’s generally worth the effort, as each of the chambers reward investigators with 3 Elder Signs, likely to be a big step towards winning the game.
Relics of a Bygone Age
Lastly, no Egyptian dig would be complete without uncovering a relic or 2. The relic deck is a new set of rewards that players can gain, and which offer powerful benefits as they add dice to your roll, even if those dice had already been discarded due to a failed roll. There are also some relics which can be paired for even more powerful impact, assuming you can hang on to one long enough to find the other. Sadly, Relics are in demand for a lot of effects – against the Haunter of the Dark you’ll need to discard one every day to stop Doom from running rampant – and we didn’t feel like we got much opportunity to actually use them. A great feature of Omens of the Pharaoh though, is that the back of the expedition card features a way to use relics in games back inthe museum in Arkham, ensuring more use out of these.
A friend in need: but not much stuff!
Omens of the Pharaoh differs from most of the earlier Elder Sign expansions in that it doesn’t contain a large number of new spells or items for investigators to use. One thing Omens of the Pharaoh is great for though, is for allies. Historically, Allies in Elder Sign have offered powerful and interesting effects, but been very hard to get hold of. Omens of the Pharaoh not only offers 4 new allies, but lots of Encounters which offer ally rewards – it’s a fairly subtle shift, but it makes a big difference to how the game plays out and I was a big fan.
So Who’s doing the investigating?
Whilst there are new allies for the fight against the Ancients, that fight can only be won if there are men and women who are prepared to stand up and fight against the forces of darkness. Omens of the Pharaoh introduces 6 new investigators, ensuring that Elder Sign players can now call upon the services of any of the playable character created so far for Arkham Horror files*
(*all except Daniela Reyes. Eldritch Horror: Masks of Nyarlathotep released on the same day as Omens of the Pharaoh, with the exact same investigator line-up, PLUS new face Daniela. I’m not quite sure what Daniela did to upset Elder Sign designer Dane Beltrami…)
The first 4 investigators originally appeared in Mansions of Madness 2nd edition. Agatha Crane has a very useful ability to gain a clue every time she lose a Sanity. With a fairly high sanity level, this can help her to take some benefit from an otherwise negative outcome, or she can even optionally lose sanity (generally a pay-off for some other benefit) for the added bonus.
Moving from my wife’s favourite among the new characters to mine, Father Matteo’s “Holy Ground” ability allows him to ignore entry effects, and even to pay trophies to ignore the effects on the backs of cards. This is great for clearing out encounters which are delaying the party due to a difficult entry effect.
As archetypes go, the Millionaire and the Butler are generally quite hard to get excited about, but both Preston Fairmont and Carson Sinclair offer viable, efficient options for playing the game. The master can keep himself going by comforting himself with new possessions, whilst the servant ensures that good housekeeping practices are maintained, healing himself at minimal cost, and allowing the party to purchase expedition supplies (or perform other effects like removing Storm tokens in other expansions) with the encounters he defeats.
Sefina Rousseau, new last year for Arkham Horror the card game, has what looks like a very powerful ability, being able to put Other World adventures into play once a day. In practice though, the cost is much too high for her to be able to trigger this reliably, and her 3 stamina leaves her very vulnerable to being struck down by unexpected stamina loss from Mythos cards or encounter effects.
One possible way to keep Sefina alive long enough to use her ability, is by pairing her with Calvin Wright. Calvin’s is a name that may be familiar to some die-hard Arkham files fans, as a promo character from the original board game. Although his back-story has been reimagined, he retains a highly useful ability of being able to give his health and/or sanity to other investigators. As he has starting levels of 6 health and 6 sanity (for a total of 12, rather than the total 10 seen on every other investigator), this is an ability he can make good use of.
Omens of the Pharaoh – Final Thoughts
All-in-all, there’s nothing easy about Omens of the Pharaoh: the desert is an unforgiving place, and the Dark Pharaoh is not one to be trifled with. The new investigators don’t feel quite as powerful as the new threats, but they still offer some good options.
Overall, whilst this expansion didn’t change things massively compared with the previous 2, all the little tweaks felt like they made for a great overall effect: I enjoyed the greater presence of allies, being able to move back and forth between stages 1 and 2 offered more flexibility, and the expedition sheet offers a whole host of options.
An expansion which takes the existing “Omens” module and fine-tunes it – well-worth getting.
Overall, a really solid buy 8/10
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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.