After three plays and about six and a half hours of being immersed in the mythical world of Of Dreams & Shadows, I feel I have seen enough to form an opinion of this game. Let me begin with a story. Feel free to skip this long part if you just care about the game.
I had not heard anything about this game until I found it on the Essen preview list. It was listed as self published, but the beautiful artwork and intriguing story made it look professional. Deciding that I was looking at something that looked nice, I added it to my list of games to check out.
And forgot about it.
Seriously, the Spiel is HUGE. There is a huge amount of publishers. A huge amount of new releases. A huge amount of people. A huge amount of sweat, a huge amount of bodily exertion from all the walking and carrying games and the ever present general backdrop of sound, a huge wave of indistinct murmuring and the buzz of too much information all at once, a useless droning. Spiel assaults the senses, all of them, and my list of games to try was not a short one either. No need for me to rush to one random game I knew roughly nothing about and that was sharing its space on my list with about 40 of its cousins.
On friday, however, when we had played, bought or crossed off a good three fifths of our lists, some fatigue set in. The rest of the games were our B list, stuff that seemed fine but was either nondescript or, let's be honest, I couldn't remember why I put it on the list in the first place. Sitting down for our lunch - an MRE each, army rations we had at every fair - she went through the list. It was sorted by hall number.
"What was Of Dreams and Shadows again?" - "I have no idea. Probably something about dungeon crawling fantasy type stuff, I think." - "It's just down the hall. Let's check it out later."
The booth was not easy to find - tucked away in a corner, half forgotten, the only inventory some chairs, a single not too sturdy looking table, the game itself and two friendly, if slightly exhausted people. One of them was currently demoing the game. I got a little closer and watched.
The droning buzz ceased. The weariness I felt was now the weariness of a man after a long day's travelling through harsh lands. I listened to Gordon read a scenario card. The smell was of a clear forest, an untamed, wild land, and the only garlic bread was the one I was roasting over the fire for my dinner. My plate armor was heavy; I put it down. I knew that Morrigan was scheming even now, opening the portals to infiltrate her army into our realm. We would have to stop her but right now I was
Somebody accidently nudged me in the back. "Sorry." I was fully awake again. "It's fine don't worry about it."
Seems like I need this game.
Unfortunately it turned out that all the games have already been reserved, but I was welcome to try again on saturday evening if anyone failed to pick up their copy.
And saturday we visited the fair with our 2 year old son. He's a little wrecking ball of childish energy, a force of destruction and utter lovably at the same time. When he hugs me and says Papa, my heart melts.
Today he was mostly throwing stuff at me and getting cranky because he missed his nap time. At 2 we were all ready to go home.
We can't go home.
I need the game.
So we visited Haba. My son played with their toys. I sat beside him, rebuilding what he broke and collection what he threw around. Three. We went over to confetti and all of us build with the wooden blocks, with him mostly breaking what we build. It's fine, seeing stuff break can be fun. Four. We took another loop through the fair, never stopping for very long. Four fourty-five. We visited Märklin and, after confirming that yes, this is supposed to be a children's toy, let him play with the trains. Five thirty. We were all tired, sweaty and looking at a ravaged, battered model train. Five fourty-five.
"Want to go to the booth and camp the spawn?", I asked my wife.
"Sure.", she said. Little energy left. Little interest in anything. We want to go home, but this may be our only chance for a long time.
Six. We arrived the booth. We put down our chairs and sat down. Three games left. My son was tired and cranky. He wanted to go home. We all did. I stroked his cheek and sang for him.
"Someone's taking the train to sleepytown junction..."
His eyes were already closed. He was falling asleep, holding his plush bunny to his chest.
"Someone is so tired he can barely function..."
His rythmic breathing confirmed that he was fast asleep after just two lines of the song. Good.
I envied him a little.
An hour wait.
I read some articles on my phone.
I went over to the booth that sold books and perused their selection. Some interesting stuff. I checked out some reviews on my phone and decided I probably wouldn't like the books that seemed interesting to me.
There were now people waiting beside us. I answered some questions. Yes, we were also waiting to buy a game. No, we had not reserved a copy.
There was discussion about the way to decide who would get a copy. I didn't really care. I was done. I have been bored for several hours now, my mind numbed with the lack of stimulation. In Essen! What the hell?
I think I notice some finger pointing into our direction. I'm completely out of everything.
"I think you should get a copy, and you too, and we don't have any for you, and we're so sorry..."
What? Something like that. Who said that? What is happening?
Beside me my wife has her purse out, handing over three bills. A 20 and two 10. 40. That's the price we agreed on for the game. Did we just buy Of Dreams and Shadows?
Not fully realizing what was happening around me, I looked down. I was holding a box. It was the game I have been waiting for. I looked up.
"I'm not leaving without you signing that. I want something to remember this by."
Rules and general gameplay
Of Dreams and Shadows feels a little like Eldritch Horror: Everybody chooses a champion, each with his or her unique skill and abilities. Freya for example is an expert fighter, with high might and and an additional die to roll in combat, while Nora can stealthily ambush her foes without ear of retaliation. Brom is a mage that can acquire spells for free, Tamlin has the ability to generate tokens which improve his dice rolls and so on. All in all there are 8 champions to choose from.
Mighty champions need a mighty foe, so you select one of three villains (Morrigan, a fey queen; Arawn, an undead king; or the dragon, a dragon) and prepare the game according to the instructions on the villain card.
Each Champion has three actions per round: Travel to an adjacent node, rest and regain some health, acquire any of the resources that are for sale, trade resources with other heroes on the same node, use their special ability, cast a spell or purge a shadow token. Shadow tokens are corruptions of the land that do things specific to the selected villain - generally this is where monsters will spawn from.
After the heroes have had their actions, combat starts if any of the heroes are on nodes with enemies. The combat rules are simple, yet effective: Champions roll a die and add the value to their might, possibly modified by their resources, and compare that to the enemy defense. Every point of difference causes a point of damage. The enemy then strikes back, pitting his or her fixed attack value against the champion's agility plus die roll. This goes on until one of the combatants has died or the champion retreats. Defeated champions are out of the game, but a new champion will replace them the next turn as long as there are more available.
The third phase is the scenario phase. Dependant on the kind of node the champion occupies, one of the other players reads a scenario card to the champion. These cards present problems, strange occurences or opportunities a champion encounters on his travels. The champion deicdes how to act or - more commonly - rolls a check (die plus skill) and learns of his champion's fortune or fate. Should a chmapion stand on a quest marker, they can instead attempt a quest - a villain specific scenario that is generally harder to accomplish than the regular scenarios, but yields a powerful boon in the form of a quest marker which is generally crucial in the second act.
This is easily my favorite part of the game. The scenarios are superbly written and can absolutely rival most, if not all fantasy books I have read over the years. This is the immersive part of the game, this is where I actually care about my champion and the world they occupy. It feels somewhat like an RPG light with a hard, but fair dungeon master. It is hard to overstate how much I love this part of the game.
The last phase is the event phase, in which a card from the event deck is flipped. The events can be either helpful (like giving a companion to each champion) or harmful (enemies spawn, resources are lost) - but don't count on it being useful! Generall the event will make the quest harder in some way.
Play continues like this for five turns, after which the second act starts and the villain appears. Another five turns follow, restricted to the action and combat phase. This is a very dangerous time: Dead heroes will not be replaced anymore and players can get eliminated.
After at most five turns, the game is over, for better or for worse. If the champions have defeated the evil villain, the get to read the victory card. If they have been bested, however, they will have to read the defeat card.
After our first two games we just called them done at this point and did not bother with the card. In our thrid game we won and read the victory card. We were in for another surprise...
So what's good?
I love the immersion. The world building is spot on and nothing feels tacked on or out of place. The writing is beautiful. Each villain and champion feels different, which goes a long way to increase replayability. When we play we may be sitting at my kitchen table, but in my mind I am there, in the four kingdoms, fighting against a coming darkness that may be hard to comprehend for the common man.
The game thrives on and lives by the scenario cards. It wants to tell you a story, and it does that very well, but replayability may be a problem after some time. That said, after three plays we have seen five out the 36 quests and about a third of the scenario cards, so there's quite some time to go until there will be repetition, and even then you will only have explored one half of each scenario card after all. I can't say if the sense of wonder will fade soon, but for now, everything is completely new and enchanting to us. There was also talk about expansions, so this may add some more life.
Our first two games seemed unwinnable. This may be because we were inexperienced or because we chose the wrong champions (I played Brom who seemed quite useless), or maybe Arawn is just hard to defeat in general, but we got devastated so savagely that my wife nearly lost the drive to play again, which would have been a shame because we totally dominated the third game - against Morrigan this time. It's too early for me to say if the difficulty is out of whack or if our experience will smooth out over the next few games, but this may be something to look out for.
For what it's worth, a campaign mode or some kind of persistent development may have been fun.
What didn't I like as much
Combat is servicable, but very simplistic. At it's core it's just a series of dice rolls with very little strategy. You can increase your numbers, but that's about it, no decisions to make other than when to retreat.
The spells seemed really boring. We have only found three: Increase attack by one, increase defense by one, heal. A pure mage is simply unplayable, which may be intended, but I kinda expected to be calling on supernatural forces to scrye the event deck, manipulate our enemies, maybe travel or daze foes, evading combat. What I got was more ways to increase a number.
My personal verdict
While I recognize that this game has some flaws, I love it for what it is. This is telling a story, and it does that incredibly well, better even than the aforementioned somewhat similar Eldritch Horror. While some aspects - combat mostly, plus spell diversity and maybe difficulty - could do with some polish it is a very, very solid addition to my library and I can't see mayself trading it away or selling it. I'm already looking forward to the next time my wife and I will take up arms against evil and bring back peace to the kingdoms. I'm also keeping an eye out for the promised expansions.
All in all, I have rated this game an 8 out of 10.
After two plays, the above is very much how I feel about the game so far as well. I'm hoping to play with a larger number of players soon and see how that works out.
I am glad I picked up a copy at Essen early on Thursday. We skipped some halls because it was too busy there. We ended up at the stand at around noon or so. We listened to the demo, and I looked at the pile of game boxes. I pointed and asked: "Is that your whole stock?" And it was. I think I was told there were 60-something boxes left, of which there were 20-something boxes reserved. Having visited Spiel for more than 15 years now, I know how such things work Normally, I collect the games I want to take with me at the end of the day, so I don't have to drag them around. But I figured that if I would get back late in the afternoon, the copies would probably have been sold out. So I grabbed one
Thank you for the detailed write up. Really appreciate it.
Do the scenario decisions actually make a difference to the game, or are they there primarily for narrative value?
Do the scenario decisions actually make a difference to the game, or are they there primarily for narrative value?
They rarely matter in a big way, it's mostly character level stuff (loot, money, conditions, spawning monsters on your space), but you do get different outcomes/rewards fitting to you choices.
Thank you very much for the review! I appreciate the feedback from players as it will help me make a better game for the planned expansion.
Regarding spells and combat, I do plan to release many more combat feats and spells to add depth to the game. The additional Resource cards would be part of a mechanic where players can customize the Resource Deck to suit their selection of Champions. This will be a key area of focus in the expansion.
Arawn is indeed more difficult for new players, but definitely beatable. I do recommend taking on Morrigan and the Dragon first though.
For scenarios and story choices, the planned expansion will continue the story from the base game (like a campaign). Many story choices made in the base game will actually carry over into the expansion.
- Last edited Thu Oct 20, 2016 7:59 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Thu Oct 20, 2016 7:57 pm
Perfect Gordon. I will buy it instantly.