Merric's Musings

Thoughts from an Australian Board Gamer and RPGer
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Etherfields and the Death Spiral

Merric Blackman
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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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