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Subject: Shadows of Malice: Towards Better Fantasy in Board Games rss

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Paul Bauman
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Shadows of Malice effects a bold and evocative fantasy adventure framework, showing design choices that I (perhaps vainly) hope will be carried forward in future games in this genre. It has some lessons to teach which deserve attention in the growing representational fantasy juggernaut of giant miniatures, overwrought lore & event text, license tie-ins, and exclusive Kickstarter content franchises.

The nuts and bolts of this system don't seem revelatory at first glance, albeit refreshingly straightforward. It provides a versatile d6-based roll modification system (using some satisfyingly chunky and colorful acrylic "crystals" to trade, expend, and harvest) for chance-driven elements ranging from movement and combat results to skill procs, in combination with some card draws for battle loot and other item acquisitions and the occasional effects of "fate". All of this is draped with just enough narrative cohesion onto an archetypal struggle of light versus dark beings which carries a few, thankfully subdued elements of game lore.

After the first few beats of the game, though, it becomes clear that there's a refreshing efficiency to this framework, combined with a respectful amount of restraint and remove; a lack of contrivance where it was apparently never needed. This noticeably cuts through a rule fog that tends to creep between the player and the game world in more baroque designs such as Mage Knight, while the thematic openness allows the player to more fully invest themselves in the game and inhabit the experience rather than spectate fantasy cliches.

The culminating feel can be summed up as less filler, more space. This certainly feels revelatory in a fantasy adventure board game: that the player can be trusted to take their cues and build an experience, rather than flipping a card, reading some mandated text on a card full of Tolkien orcs, and shoving a Cthulhu or Star Wars model around a map. The game certainly provides props toward the experience, but these are more considered and less obtrusive: from the clean, minimal box cover, to the maps which take cues from the front or back pages of old fantasy novels, the clean symbology, and the crystals that refract the light on your game table and tie into the theme of the game in such a simple but aesthetically effective way.

For me, the way in which Shadows of Malice distinguishes itself shows an element of maturity and confidence that I don't often encounter in this genre. It respectfully leaves the staging of its narrative and actors -- as well as their visual illustrations -- to the player's own imagination, which makes for a much more immersive and personally fulfilling experience. The monster generation system is a prominent example of this design choice, where the player rolls to determine monster type (partly based on terrain), combat power, and special abilities. The image of the creature thus created is left entirely to the player's imagination, which can be fascinating and memorably bizarre, provided that you refrain from falling back on your own tired Tolkien visual tropes.

This is one of the few games where encountering a dragon or a Nazgul oddly feels disappointing because it seems like the result of a failure of your own imagination. There are much more interesting battles to be fought here.

I risk overstating the openness of this system, however. There is definitely a designated flow and goal to the game. This isn't a sandbox or a mere collection of tools for a fantasy crawl. The rules are clear, and the goal of your avatars is always to gain the strength they need to unlock certain locations, Light Wells, while the strength and number of shadow beings grows through a quasi-AI system to seek out these wells and trigger their own end game: the ultimate incarnation of a dark being named Xulthul. If you are beaten to the punch, you're in for a difficult battle, fueled by tough odds and a hopefully grandiose imagination to match.

The heavily luck-based systems may become off-putting for some who would perhaps rather fall back on more stable, incremental, deck building systems or rules puzzles to allow them to hone and craft the most efficient series of actions for their turns. There can be some measure of satisfaction and control gained from this, but at a cost that Shadows of Malice doesn't really care to pay. The filter between player and game world would become less raw and immediate, the "gameable" elements becoming a means detached from the ends, something this spectrum of board games has always struggled with. I don't believe this game is designed with that mindset. Instead, it targets those who can comfortably bridge the managed chaos of the dice with the significance of unfolding events in the game world. It's a weird, liminal form of roleplaying and fatalism that should be familiar to a distinct audience.

For anyone who remembers those harrowing encounters in D&D, where you feel like you're throwing every possible roll modification at a fight to surmount an increasingly desperate, evil dice-fest that seems to be driven by some sort of dark magic against your favor... and finally pulling through, limping away hemorrhaging with every status effect you can think of, understanding that your struggle with the dice was modeling a ridiculous bloodbath of a battle (or a comedy of errors), welcome back. It's good to be home, isn't it?

In all of these respects, Shadows of Malice exemplifies how to do fantasy better in board games. It understands and respects the heart of the genre and gives us some wonderful adventures in the process. What more can we ask for?
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Mark O'Reilly
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Awesome read, I enjoyed it immensely.
The more people find out about this amazing game, the better
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Charlie Theel
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Top notch review, good stuff Paul.
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Todd Quinn
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Great review Paul. Thank you.

Todd
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Glenn D
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You pretty much encapsulated my feelings toward the game. Great read.
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David desJardins
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Frohike wrote:
In all of these respects, Shadows of Malice exemplifies how to do fantasy better in board games. It understands and respects the heart of the genre and gives us some wonderful adventures in the process. What more can we ask for?


Competitive play?
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Paul Bauman
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Frohike wrote:
What more can we ask for?


Competitive play?


Good point. There's obviously room in the genre for a game that would enable this style of play, but there's no space in this particular design for that, either thematically or mechanically. The theme of the game revolves around the premise of a synergistic group of light beings versus a monolithic but chaotic surge of dark beings. To this end your avatars are constantly learning to play as a single entity, finding ways to accomplish what needs to be done even to the point of self-sacrifice. I don't think the absence of competitive play makes it less of a game, but rather a more focused one.

However I could see a game in the vein of Mage Wars on a world map with the design restraint that I describe in this review, which would mean less van art and fewer trips to a terminology lexicon and more immersion in the staging of the battle.
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Frohike wrote:
The heavily luck-based systems may become off-putting for some who would perhaps rather fall back on more stable, incremental, deck building systems or rules puzzles to allow them to hone and craft the most efficient series of actions for their turns.


SoM made it onto the wishlist the other month, and another interesting review keeps it there. Whilst 'dice hate me', dice chucking is much preferred over deck building.

One question which none of the reviews seem to cover; the box time is 120 minutes but how long does a Solo game take to play?
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Willy Adam
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Frohike wrote:


In all of these respects, Shadows of Malice exemplifies how to do fantasy better in board games. It understands and respects the heart of the genre and gives us some wonderful adventures in the process. What more can we ask for?


Great review and I just ordered the game as a result - it was in my wishlist for ages but you just convinced me to go for it. Thanks!

Also looking forward to the upcoming quest expansion to round it all out!
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Jason (sans nation)
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Iz Nibz wrote:
Frohike wrote:
The heavily luck-based systems may become off-putting for some who would perhaps rather fall back on more stable, incremental, deck building systems or rules puzzles to allow them to hone and craft the most efficient series of actions for their turns.


SoM made it onto the wishlist the other month, and another interesting review keeps it there. Whilst 'dice hate me', dice chucking is much preferred over deck building.

One question which none of the reviews seem to cover; the box time is 120 minutes but how long does a Solo game take to play?


90-120 mins soloing three avatars, I think (on one or two map tiles). Far less if you play rashly, of course.


Sensational review, incidentally. Great read.
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Paul Bauman
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Iz Nibz wrote:
Frohike wrote:
The heavily luck-based systems may become off-putting for some who would perhaps rather fall back on more stable, incremental, deck building systems or rules puzzles to allow them to hone and craft the most efficient series of actions for their turns.


SoM made it onto the wishlist the other month, and another interesting review keeps it there. Whilst 'dice hate me', dice chucking is much preferred over deck building.

One question which none of the reviews seem to cover; the box time is 120 minutes but how long does a Solo game take to play?


On the first couple of solo plays, I think the game took roughly 90 minutes for each tile (playing two-fisted with two avatars). This can fluctuate depending on comfort level with the rules and, of course, the unfolding of events in the game. A single tile setup is good for a quicker dry run, but I recommend at least two tiles for more exploration and a larger sense of possibility (this also gives you at least two mystics and two cities for support). Roughly three hours is standard for me at this point, so I've grown accustomed to "parking" the game if I play late at night.

Edit: FYI, it looks like I'm a slow player. I tend to take my time between turns, mostly because I'm a parent of two kids and get interrupted and/or assisted (mostly by my 11 year old) if I'm playing before bedtime but also because I like to just sip an evening beverage and world-build a little.
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Przemyslaw Kozlowski
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I actually had the opposite reaction to this game. When I played it, the RPG elements felt trivial and tacked on and the game play was incredibly slow and mind numbingly boring. It felt so incredibly luck based that it felt like playing Snakes and Ladders.

I do suspect that part of the reason might have been that the guy teaching us the game did not properly read the rules and thus made the game much more tedious and sluggish then it should have been.
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Jim Felli
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azmod2000 wrote:
I actually had the opposite reaction to this game. When I played it, the RPG elements felt trivial and tacked on and the game play was incredibly slow and mind numbingly boring. It felt so incredibly luck based that it felt like playing Snakes and Ladders.

I do suspect that part of the reason might have been that the guy teaching us the game did not properly read the rules and thus made the game much more tedious and sluggish then it should have been.

Thank you for sharing this perspective: it takes a lot of courage to post something against the stream. I'm sorry that you had a bad experience with SoM... I know that not all games are for all people, but sometimes it can be a person, a problem, or a venue that negatively colors one's experience. That said, I'd appreciate hearing any feedback you would care to share that could help me improve the game. Perhaps you found something lacking that could be added in a future expansion? Or perhaps there are some rules or concepts that need streamlining or clarification?
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Byron Campbell
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This review is as elegant and refreshing as the game. Why have you only done two reviews here on BGG?
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Paul Bauman
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Because writing is hard and I'm unapologetically lazy.

devil

And thank you!
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Simone C.
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Everytime I read such good reviews I hate myself for be so graphic-oriented guy, as much as I love the idea behind shadows of malice, I really dislike the graphics of the cards and such, I feel that with a little more on that side this game could have a lot more buyers, I know because I share my thoughts with others interested and they agree with me. What abouy a KS for a second edition with upgraded graphics and/or material? It could rise a lot that way...
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Jim Felli
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No worries, Simone: everyone has their own tastes and should never have to apologize for them. If SoM does not resonate with you, then it's likely not a game you will be happy with. And that's okay. You work hard for your money and deserve to spent it (and your leisure time) in a manner that brings you joy. If SoM doesn't fit, that's cool. I would personally be much happier to know that you bought something else that you were happy with than that you bought SoM and were unhappy with it. I hope you feel the same way.

As for the art and graphics, I wanted everything to be as minimalist as possible. I wanted to convey effects and abilities with minimal constraints and biases for the players, so that their imaginations and personal visualizations could fully and actively drive the game's flavor. In fact, the original treasure and potion cards had only words and icons on them (like the creature ability cards). The pictures on those cards in the published version of the game are actually digitized sketches that I made for prototype cards during development and play testing. They were never intended to be finished art or even included in the game. However, several play testers, including folks at conventions, urged me to keep the images on the cards, and to keep them as they were. They argued that they wanted something visual, and that the crude nature of the artwork felt sincere and raised in them fond memories of older games they played or the games they enjoyed in their childhood. Please understand that I have nothing against well-crafted and evocative artwork, but I do believe that it can insidiously stifle people's imaginations and consequently does not fit with the concept and design of SoM. It is perfectly appropriate for other games, including some of the ones I hope to make down the road.

As for a revised edition… I have no plans at present to produce one. And I am not a fan of KickStarter. Believe it or not, I am quite satisfied with the niche that SoM has found, and I am quite happy to actively support a small community of engaged players versus a large and faceless market. I mean no disrespect to anyone by that, I just don't believe that bigger is always better.
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Derek H
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jcfelli wrote:
No worries, Simone: everyone has their own tastes and should never have to apologize for them. If SoM does not resonate with you, then it's likely not a game you will be happy with. And that's okay. You work hard for your money and deserve to spent it (and your leisure time) in a manner that brings you joy. If SoM doesn't fit, that's cool. I would personally be much happier to know that you bought something else that you were happy with than that you bought SoM and were unhappy with it. I hope you feel the same way.

As for the art and graphics, I wanted everything to be as minimalist as possible. I wanted to convey effects and abilities with minimal constraints and biases for the players, so that their imaginations and personal visualizations could fully and actively drive the game's flavor. In fact, the original treasure and potion cards had only words and icons on them (like the creature ability cards). The pictures on those cards in the published version of the game are actually digitized sketches that I made for prototype cards during development and play testing. They were never intended to be finished art or even included in the game. However, several play testers, including folks at conventions, urged me to keep the images on the cards, and to keep them as they were. They argued that they wanted something visual, and that the crude nature of the artwork felt sincere and raised in them fond memories of older games they played or the games they enjoyed in their childhood. Please understand that I have nothing against well-crafted and evocative artwork, but I do believe that it can insidiously stifle people's imaginations and consequently does not fit with the concept and design of SoM. It is perfectly appropriate for other games, including some of the ones I hope to make down the road.

As for a revised edition… I have no plans at present to produce one. And I am not a fan of KickStarter. Believe it or not, I am quite satisfied with the niche that SoM has found, and I am quite happy to actively support a small community of engaged players versus a large and faceless market. I mean no disrespect to anyone by that, I just don't believe that bigger is always better.

If I was a clever "graphics orientated" guy, I'd post a really cool graphic / photo / internet meme image; but I am text-first guy so I will just say this is an amazing and applause-worthy response. I'd go so far to say as its one of the best responses by a game designer that I have read in my 10+ years on BGG...
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Aniceto Pereira
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I just ordered this through Cardhaus because of this excellent review, and Jim Felli's response.
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gamesbook wrote:
jcfelli wrote:
No worries, Simone: everyone has their own tastes and should never have to apologize for them. If SoM does not resonate with you, then it's likely not a game you will be happy with. And that's okay. You work hard for your money and deserve to spent it (and your leisure time) in a manner that brings you joy. If SoM doesn't fit, that's cool. I would personally be much happier to know that you bought something else that you were happy with than that you bought SoM and were unhappy with it. I hope you feel the same way.

As for the art and graphics, I wanted everything to be as minimalist as possible. I wanted to convey effects and abilities with minimal constraints and biases for the players, so that their imaginations and personal visualizations could fully and actively drive the game's flavor. In fact, the original treasure and potion cards had only words and icons on them (like the creature ability cards). The pictures on those cards in the published version of the game are actually digitized sketches that I made for prototype cards during development and play testing. They were never intended to be finished art or even included in the game. However, several play testers, including folks at conventions, urged me to keep the images on the cards, and to keep them as they were. They argued that they wanted something visual, and that the crude nature of the artwork felt sincere and raised in them fond memories of older games they played or the games they enjoyed in their childhood. Please understand that I have nothing against well-crafted and evocative artwork, but I do believe that it can insidiously stifle people's imaginations and consequently does not fit with the concept and design of SoM. It is perfectly appropriate for other games, including some of the ones I hope to make down the road.

As for a revised edition… I have no plans at present to produce one. And I am not a fan of KickStarter. Believe it or not, I am quite satisfied with the niche that SoM has found, and I am quite happy to actively support a small community of engaged players versus a large and faceless market. I mean no disrespect to anyone by that, I just don't believe that bigger is always better.

If I was a clever "graphics orientated" guy, I'd post a really cool graphic / photo / internet meme image; but I am text-first guy so I will just say this is an amazing and applause-worthy response. I'd go so far to say as its one of the best responses by a game designer that I have read in my 10+ years on BGG...


I agree wholeheartedly.

Jim, I just heard of your game today and after reading a few reviews and visiting your site realized that it may well be the game I've been waiting for since my mother read Tolkien and Lewis to me as a small child.

For me, in a world that's been completely explored (and is viewable through the internet/whatnot) anything that helps to recreate the 'here there be dragons' feelings I've carried with me since childhood is one I want to check out.

I think your graphic design and sensibilities are up to the task! (*crosses fingers*)
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Jim Felli
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That's a tall order, Jesse! I'll try not to disappoint you.
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Mike Clarke
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Your zeal is commendable but try not to forget it's still just a board game. And it's one that will put your own creativity to the test. You can certainly rely on its "sensibilities" because it's very well put together, but graphic design isn't what makes this game special although the graphics are perfectly fine.

Like most very good board games, it's not so much about what you see on the board as what the situation on the board creates in your mind. That's where you'll find this game's graphic design.

Happy hunting!
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