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Etherfields and the Death Spiral

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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Happily playing games for many, many years.
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I have recently been playing quite a bit of the board game Etherfields, a campaign/story game where you explore a Dreamscape for something you have forgotten.

In theory, the story becomes apparent as you play, but I have not progressed far enough into the game for it to reveal itself yet.
However, one of the reasons I have not progressed far enough is because Etherfields is full of death spiral effects. What is a death spiral effect? It is something that you get when you fail, which then makes it more likely you will fail.

And the trouble is that because you then fail again, things just keep getting worse and worse.

Mild Spoilers Ahoy!
Incurring penalties when you fail is not necessarily a bad thing. Gloomhaven avoids them, with the only penalty for failing a scenario is that you need to play it again (which takes time), and that is something that annoys people. It makes it feel like a “restore from save” computer game.

Meanwhile Journeys in Middle Earth allows you to continue playing the next scenario – although perhaps it is a different scenario depending on the result of the last, or you have a small penalty (or fail to get a small bonus). (This version is often referred to as “falling forward”).

But what all three of these games share is that individual scenario balance is set to “challenging”. That is, you need to take care to complete a scenario successfully.

When the penalties significantly affect that chance, then the death spiral comes in.

My Favourite Game
One of the fascinating things about the game I play more than any other – Dungeons & Dragons – is that it mostly avoids inflicting death spiral effects on characters.

Not entirely, but they are saved for special occasions.

The chief mechanic that determines whether a character survives is the hit point system. And the game inflicts no penalties on you as you get lower and lower. A character with 1 hit point fights just as well as a character on 100 hit points. The player knows the character is vulnerable and might die, but – and this is the important bit – has the ability to flee and fight another day.

Those times when there is a lingering condition, there are ways of removing it. An individual adventure might be failed, but the character can be restored – even from death – to continue playing without penalties that reduce their effectiveness.

Lingering Penalties
And this is where I am having trouble with Etherfields. Due to my character failing (and dying, though that is not permanent in the game), I accrued several penalties:

• A dreamscape quirk, the Tormentor, which makes completing slumbers significantly harder
• Flaws, which stay in my deck and I cannot remove without being lucky enough to earn Ether (which is proving difficult to come by)
• The Season of Watchers, which means I can only earn keys to enter Dreams in Pandemonium or by completing a particular Slumber. (Of course, going into Pandemonium means I get MORE flaws.)

And the flaws are horrendous. All my movement is more expensive. I cannot use Wrath this turn. Every time I get hit, I take extra damage.
The combination of all of these means a lot of grinding to try and remove the flaws – and then I lose a slumber and more flaws come in and the process repeats.

I have completed a total of THREE Dreams successfully, but because of all the penalties, I do not feel confident to enter a new one – if I even could, because once the Tormentor comes out, I basically have to reset because it affects my chances of success so badly.

Going Forward
There is a lot to like about Etherfields, but the Death Spiral Effect is not one of them. I am honestly not sure what to do about it. Do I restart the game, as it is going so badly? Have I missed an unlock somewhere that would allow me to recover quicker from these penalties?
What I really resent is the “Season of the Watchers” card, which so badly impedes the expected game flow and layers penalty upon penalty.

I wonder how many players will just abandon the game due to that ill-designed card?
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Tue Nov 24, 2020 9:30 pm
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My First Steps into Etherfields

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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designer
Ramping up my reviewing.
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Happily playing games for many, many years.
Avatar
Microbadge: Ultimate Session ReporterMicrobadge: AD&D fan (1st edition)Microbadge: Doctor Who fanMicrobadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level II - If I have seen further, it's only by standing on the apex of other's dice.Microbadge: Geek of the Week
It is fair to say that I have been fascinated by the games of Awaken Realms of late. I have spent a very large amount of time playing through Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon - and yes, I have completed that worthy game - and recently the Etherfields game arrived on my table.

Which means that I have now spent a fair amount of time playing it. And, unfortunately, also getting fairly frustrated with it.

I *also* got frustrated with Tainted Grail. However, I was willing to work through that frustration because the story was so compelling. And I was very glad I did. As I played more, the difficulty I was having with the game, which mostly came from finding encounters too difficult, disappeared as I got better at fighting and negotiating.

Enough so that I have started a second play-through the campaign to see the bits I missed. Although that second play-through is paused due to Etherfields arriving.

Initial Reactions
The box for Etherfields is heavy. Really heavy. Not quite at the Gloomhaven level, but there are a lot of cards in the box, and they make it weighty.

From gallery of MerricB


Set-up was interesting, as I tried to navigate the rulebook which seemed to be trying to make everything as obscure as possible.

More experience with it brought appreciation. It's pretty good as a reference - once you learn how to use the index! - but there are a few poorly worded spots. Especially where the rules occasionally talk about "Slumber Tiles" when they actually mean "Slumber Map Tiles". Argh!

But after a bit, I had the initial place of my Dreamscape set up, and I was ready to explore!

The first scenario went by relatively quickly, introducing the main mechanics of the game, and I was thinking "this looks promising!"

From gallery of MerricB


The "Joys" of Unlocking Content
A lot of my recent gaming has been with solo campaigns, but I have also finally had a chance to play Clank! Legacy. And it strikes me that both it and Etherfields share a common trait: A long and involved process whenever you get a new sequence of unlocked content, involving multiple components.

At least, so far, I haven't needed to put stickers on anything!

The trouble with any involved process of unlocking is that I get dreadfully worried that I miss something. I did with Clank Legacy, and I wonder if I have with Etherfields.

There are two problems with Etherfields's process:

The first is that the Book of Secrets is *very* unwieldy. I dislike big square rulebooks. Give me something in the dimensions of a D&D book or smaller - and more rectangular - and I am happy. I find it difficult to keep open to the right page when not holding it - especially as it takes up so much real estate (which the game is ALREADY doing so).

The second is that the entries are really long. Lots of items, and I find it easy to miss something.

This wasn't a problem I faced in either Gloomhaven or Tainted Grail. The game changed, but it wasn't as component-heavy with unlocks.

The Penalty of Failure
Some of my friends said about Gloomhaven that one thing they didn't like about it was that failing in the game meant nothing - they just had to repeat the scenario again until they succeeded.

In Etherfields, I failed early. And then I felt I had entered the death spiral effect, with the game adding multiple flaws to my deck, and being very, very stingy about ways to remove them.

Things were made worse: I was condemned to Pandemonium. To do the next Dream, I had to take even more flaws? More frustration set in.

At this point, I wonder if I missed something. I've seen talk that indicate there are ways to mitigate flaws, but have I not found them because (a) I haven't explored that dream or (b) I missed something to unlock?

Grinding the Way Past
This was enough for me to put away the game for a week or so. I had died a couple of times (not permanently, but inflicting more penalties). But I am intrigued by the game, so I eventually put it back on the table. Then I settled down to the process of getting rid of the five flaws in my deck.

This was a frustrating process. There's that word again.

Most of the flaws required me to spend an Ether. But getting Ether required me to succeed at Slumbers, and not only that, but defeat them in the right turn so the reward was an Ether and not something else.

Then I managed to gain a flaw that when I drew it, I lost all my Ether. I needed to have two Ether to get rid of it! Oh, hell!

I kept going and going and going. Round and round the Dreamworld. I got better at dealing with individual slumbers, knowing which to skip and which to confront. And eventually got lucky enough to have two Ether at once. After a LOT of play, I finally had no flaws in my deck, and could finally approach the next Dream with some sort of confidence. From here, it should be easier.

Both Etherfields and Tainted Grail have that grindiness to them. You need to get confident enough in the mechanics and the tactics before they diminish. Tainted Grail I play with a great deal of pleasure now - I understand how it works. But I haven't got to that point with Etherfields yet.

The Importance of Story
One area where I think Etherfields is not working as well as I want so far is with its story.

Tainted Grail is the best story-game I have played. It has an incredible story, which is affected by your choices throughout the game. There are a couple of times when you can get lost - unfortunately, one of them is very close to the beginning of the game - but with the hints of the app, even that can be overcome.

Etherfields has a very diffuse story at this point. I've completed four Dreams or thereabouts, and I am still waiting for the story to come into focus. Playing amnesiacs gets old (especially when I'm wandering around trying to get rid of flaws!) But it is still early days.

Gloomhaven I enjoy, but I do get frustrated at times when a scenario proves too challenging for my solo play. (There's a lot of times I reduce the difficulty to advance), and its campaign story exists, but it doesn't engage me that much. I'm about a third of the way through, I think, and the scenarios are so long that the story gets lost when events don't happen closely enough together.

Clank Legacy I have played three games of. It's story is strong and - while not as compelling as Etherfields - seems to have branching paths and interesting decisions. So, good!

The Road Forward
I have a lot of campaign games I wish to complete. Halfway through Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. A third of the way through Gloomhaven. Finished Tainted Grail, but wanting to replay. In the opening stages of Etherfields. And there are others on my shelves.

The hope is that now I've ground my way past the penalties I suffered as I came to grips with Etherfields, the experience will improve. Finding yourself with crippling penalties early on is not good for enjoyment.

There's a lot to like about the game. Generally it is well laid out, has brilliant production values, and provides something different.

But I would like the story to get stronger soon. Mechanically it's okay, but it hasn't grabbed me yet.

From gallery of MerricB
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2 Comments
Mon Nov 23, 2020 10:03 am
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