When it was first released, Elder Sign was called “Arkham Light” by both fans and critics. The comparison was a loose one then, made on assumptions with the mechanics by those not having yet played the game given it and Arkham Horror are actually quite different in both gameplay and setting with the only real overlap being the protagonists and antagonists of Lovecraft’s universe. Elder Sign, as discussed more in my review here is a dice-rolling game which takes place in Arkham’s museum where you – the Investigator(s) – try to keep an Ancient One from splitting the fabric of our reality by collecting a number of elder sign tokens from completing adventures and tasks. Similarly in Arkham Horror (and now Eldritch Horror), as an Investigator you race through the streets of Arkham closing Gates, the manifestations of that crumbling reality, traversing wild Other Worlds, and locking the Ancient One away for good. Arkham is quite a bit grander in scope, though Elder Sign captures the feel of the race and dread quite well as you battle monsters, collect resources, and step from the museum onto the Plateau of Leng or dreaded R’lyeh. Elder Signs’ first expansion Unseen Forces added much to the base game through adventures, new items, new Investigators and Ancient Ones, and the largest change to date at the time, the Blessed and Cursed die. Even with these additions, the experience was largely more of the same. Not that that same was bad in any way. Elder gave me my Lovecraft fix without forcing the hour-plus set-up of a cumbersome Arkham, always a plus in my book. However with Gates of Arkham, the second expansion in the Elder Sign universe, things have changed considerably.
The “Arkham Light” moniker actually fits thanks to Gates. Investigators have left the museum and taken to the city proper, visiting locations familiar to those of Arkham Horror – The Black Cave, Velma’s Diner, The Unnamable – with gates spawning in the streets. Elder Signs original adventure cards are replaced by Arkham Encounters when using this expansion because, though the two function closely in style, their approach is much different. In the museum, players place six adventure cards face up (and any Other World adventures which come into play as well) showing off all tasks needed completing in order to “beat” that adventure before producing a new one, along with what the penalties for failure might be, rewards for victory, and any other effects the card might create. As a result, players can look over their abilities and their equipment to plan their moves accordingly, focusing on adventures where their resources will lead likeliest to success. One of the chief complaints about Elder Sign was the ease of the game, yielding a fairly high win percentage in comparison to its Lovecraftian cousins which players felt didn’t fit well thematically leading to a number of house rules in order to up the sense of dread. Gates addresses this complaint and then some. Rather than place new adventures face-up, Arkham Encounters enter the board face down with indicators on the back of their difficulty level (with the exception of set-up where three are up, three down). Like Arkham Horror, Investigators will sometimes have the option to engage that location’s special ability on the back of the card before flipping it over to see what dangers are beneath. Those abilities range in usefulness, having a give-and-take mechanic as you can rush the timer forward in order to gain an Ally or an Item, trade captured trophies in order to heal Sanity, or any other number of effects. Then the real trouble begins as the card turns over and you see your tasks – laid out just as they are in the base game – and whether or not you have the chops to complete them. In one game, I sent an Investigator to The Unnamable in an effort to clear the difficult quest from the board, and this Investigator was loaded with answers to most of the problems I figured I’d see. Now, had the card been played as it is in the base game face-up, I’d have just let it fester there from beginning to end. But having no indicator of the pain lying in wait save for a red crossbones prophesizing “hard”, I didn’t know one of my dice would be unavailable, and the penalty for failure was a hit of five health which would immediately kill me.
The outcome went less than well.
Other Worlds enter much the same, face down, a gate token opening on a particular encounter and locking it until the portal is taken care of. There are only three gates available in the game, and any which spawn after those are out birth a monster which can get rapidly out of hand if players lack the means to put up a fight. In much the same way I chose to leap through The Unnamable’s threshold, I stepped into the gate unsure of what mad place it might be linked with, and in doing so, found myself on the steps of R’lyeh with little more than a gun and a prayer.
Storytelling is a huge chunk of why gaming appeals to me, something Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, and Elder Sign to a lesser extent have in spades. Elder’s narrative carried some fill-in-the-blank dependencies which is fine as the atmosphere makes for easy stories, but even so, Gates of Arkham greatly enriches the experience with the introduction of the Event deck, a set of cards triggered by an icon from an Arkham Encounter once the card itself is revealed. Before beginning their tasks, players draw a card from the Event stack these, like all things Lovecraftian, a lift or a detriment, the flavor text offering brief snapshots into the experience giving a more anchored backdrop to the missions you’re about to perform. Additionally, Investigators may find themselves recruited by the Sheldon Gang or lured by the Silver Twilight’s promise of mysteries, becoming members in these opposite societies in an effort to stave the darkness. Occasional penalties will present themselves through the Mythos deck for members of either, but the reward outweighs the risk in most cases with the chance to gain extra items as part of an encounter, or avoid certain tasks altogether, making your mission that much easier. Skills are introduced in Gates as another Investigator reward/perk joining Common Items, Unique Items, Spells, and Allies, these functioning in much the same way an Ally might with more long-lasting results. Between the Event deck, the two membership opportunities, and these new Skills, the options for shaping your Investigator and, in a more real way, roleplaying them, increase dramatically. There’s a significantly greater sense of foreboding when the chance for an Investigator to be devoured arises. Before, it was a rinse/repeat feel where players would just pick a new Investigator with their starting cards but now, that person you’d worked so long to shape and build is gone. A loss which was once little more than a blip of a wasted turn here has a greater potential to really put players behind making the need for caution all the more necessary.
Some last additions I want to mention quickly before wrapping this review. The Entrance space of the base game (or four spaces if using Unseen Forces) inside the museum is replaced by the Streets space serving much the same purpose as hub between missions and place to collect yourself. The Entrance was much more forgiving, allowing players to trade trophies for all manner of things like elder signs, health, items, allies, becoming blessed, the whole nine. As Investigators became gluttoned by success, the ability to purchase the last materials to seal away evil makes the threat much less… threatening, removing much of the tension from the experience. With the Streets, players can now only do one of three things: heal 1 heath and sanity, remove a card from the list of available encounters provided there are no monsters, gates, or locked dice, or flip a face-down card. Purchase options are, again, delegated to the backs of certain encounters, more bonus than “always on”, and the decision to move those portions not only make the game far more difficult, but reinvents the player’s strategic approach as well. Getting a card turned over to gauge your effectiveness is a must, it an ability I initially thought would be an unnecessary waste of resources but now seen as life-saving. The clock has a good chance of advancing quickly now as well thanks to a handful of effects which makes the Mythos deck an increased danger. Four new Ancient Ones are introduced in this expansion – Yibb-Tstll, Ghatanothoa, Atlach-Nacha, and an updated Yog-Sothoth – listed for your convenience from easy to insane, per the rulebook. I’ve managed the first two, and then Atlach-Nacha came in and ruined my day. A lot. There’s a number of new Investigators as well, but I’ll leave you to look up their differences for brevity sake.
Gates of Arkham seems to be the game everyone wanted Elder Sign to be from the outset. I’ve read some dissenters, but the experience thus far has been remarkable, and though I had yet to tire of the base and Unseen Forces, Gates is a near perfect experience in every way. Nothing for me to complain about, which is a bit of a miracle in and of itself. Absolutely recommended without reservation. The $25 entry fee is practically a steal for what you’re getting.