This text covers the first edition of "Of Dreams & Shadows" which I bought at SPIEL 2016. I am in no way involved with the designer, publisher or anyone even remotely connected to the game.
This is my first take on anything even closely resembling a review and this text does not aspire to be one. It's based on merely two game sessions, facing the same villain, and the impressions I took away from those. I might have also gotten a rule or ten wrong and, to make matters worse, I am not even a native speaker. Please take a moment to ponder those facts before hate-messaging me, although I’ll still be happily responding to such at least once or twice.
Need a second opinion?
If you'd be interested in reading another person's opinion on the game, especially one with not so many words in it, a good friend of mine has published his own impressions on his blog, so why don’t you give it a look? And if you're into RPGs, especially OSR games a little bit on the weirder side, you should probably set up camp over there, anyway, because while his English might not be perfect (as mine is neither), he is a constant source of great and creative ideas.
In a hurry?
Okay, I better admit it up front: I like to hear myself talk and I tend to write more on any given topic than a normal, sane person would like to read. If you are intimidated by the wall of text that follows, simply scroll down a long way to where I put my “early verdict”, which supposedly functions as some sort of conclusion / summary.
(More) About me
As it might be useful to know where the author is coming from, a few word about myself: I have been playing RPGs for almost 20 years, most of them as part- or full-time GM. Personally, I am more of the storytelling faction, but to cater to my diverse game groups, I run a hybrid of styles which I call "gameism in front and storytelling behind the GM's screen". As a boardgamer with almost as many years under my belt, I must be considered a hardcore eurogamer by mechanical preferences, although I am a huge sucker for theme, chrome and especially art in games. Genres I like most include cooperative games, abstracts with theme and adversarial card games.
... but after all this introductory blah-blah, let’s take a look at the game, shall we?
To get the obvious stuff out of the way as early as possible, the art in this game is nothing but amazing. It’s the one thing that initially caught my eye, immediately pulled me in and made me want to own and to love this game more than I ever should have. The art is not only gorgeous, but incredibly evocative and immersive, at least to me, and does wonders in bringing the world this game is set in to life. As beauty always lies in the eye of the beholder, not every motif or the overall style, which is very dark, gloomy and also a little bit creepy (reminds me a lot of the Shadowmoor/Eventide-Sets of MtG, especially as it feeds from similar folklore myths) might appeal to you, personally. Even in my game group, there was some discussion about one specific drawing or the other - which immediately put me into protective-mode, btw. - , but there was not the slightest disagreement about the overall extremely high quality of the artwork.
The components are, in general, of surprisingly high quality, considering that this is a self-published game. The game board and standees, both the plastic and cardboard parts, are of good to great strength (depending on who you ask - I like 'em a lot) and appear to be very durable. I especially like the plastic bases of the standees, as their design (at least in my copy) allows for quick exchange of a token, but also keeps a reasonably firm grip on the cardboard without kinking, scartching or otherwise damaging it, as some other bases do. The game box is also among the sturdiest I have ever seen, the box insert is functional, which is not a small achievement in my opinion, and the dice which come with the game, although nothing special in and of itself, are of solid quality as well.
"Card quality" has, for some years now, been one of the most discussed topics in my game group when it comes to components as well as a running gag / metaphor for when a publisher tries to save some money by cutting corners on component quality (or, in case of cards for instance, doesn't cut the corners). But for this game, I'm very happy with the card quality. It's not the best in the business, I'd say, as I am pretty spoiled by the quality WotC offers with MtG or recently by NSKN with In the Name of Odin, but it can easily compete with anything FFG has put out over the last years, which is nothing to be ashamed of.
An issue I am a little torn on is the size of the cards. Although most of the cards that come with game are poker sized (2.5*3.5 inches / 6,4*8,9 cm), there also 100 cards with a size of 3.5*5 inches / 8,9*12,7 cm and 53 cards with a size of 4.25*6 inches / 10,8*15,2 cm featured in the game. And while these large to huge cards do a great job in either displaying the beautiful art in its whole glory, or offer plenty of space for extensive storytelling (spoiler: imho the heart and soul of this game), they are not without drawbacks. First of all, with such rather unsual dimensions, they are not easy to sleeve if you’re into protecting your games as much as I am (see also my post here). And as the thickness of all cards is the same, sleeving the bigger ones to me is not only a question of protecting them from wear and tear, but also of increasing their stability and reducing some of the wobbliness. So, while the card quality is absolutely fine by itself, I would have really loved to see the bigger cards printed on thicker material. Another problem that you might or might not face because of the huge cards is table space. Although the game board itself is of a nice, compact size, the game takes up plenty of space, especially with the full compliment of players. I call myself lucky to own a huge gaming table, measuring almost 3*1 meters, but other members of my gamegroup, who own only „commonly large“ tables would probably have a hard time hosting a session of this game.
Rulebook (and worldbook)
To get a little ahead of myself, again, one of the strengths, maybe the main strength of the game lies in its immersive power and including a whole separate 8-pages-booklet in the game, laying out information about the world the game takes place in, its realms and inhabitants better than some roleplaying supplements I have seen in my life, goes a long way in that regard.
Sadly, the rulebook on the other hand, proves to be one of the major weaknesses of the game as a product. It’s not that it was badly written or laid out, although I do miss some sort of comprehensive overview tables (e.g. for the game phases) as well as an index or glossary, but the rulebook simply feels incomplete. There are so many questions it leaves unanswered, so many game situations it does not cover, so many small details or minor rules it does not explain, that players need to be quite comfortable house / table ruling often during their first few sessions. On the other hand, one has to give major credit to the designer, being constantly active on the forums in that regard, answering questions, clarifying rules and having already posted a FAQ covering many omissions from the rulebook. That does mitigate a lot of the problems which stem from the sketchiness of the rulebook, but the fact remains that, out of the box, the rulebook is a disappointment in its incompleteness. Also, and as a side note, the inclusion of player aids would have been nice as there aren’t any.
The Gameplay (overview)
I don’t want to waste too many words on describing the gameplay as my text is probably already long enough and the downloadable rulebook, even in its somewhat incomplete state, does a good job on giving you an idea how the game is played on a general level. But to offer you a basic notion, right here and now, I will try to describe the core concepts of the game as good as I can in my own words:
Each session consist of two acts of five turns each, staying true to the idea of an epic tale, with the first act functioning as a sort of build up to the final confrontation with the villain in Act II. Besides choosing from a variety of characters with differing stats and unique special abilities, the course and feel and of the game will in no small way be influenced by which of the three villains the players choose to square of against. Each of them comes with a individual deck of quest cards (more on them later), some unique enemies to fight and a special set of rules on how the game will behave (e.g. how and if new monsters are spawned, how enemies behave or in what way each villain will try to conquer the world in Act II). Because of that laudable concept, the basic rules of the game can (and probably need) to be kept rather simple. On their turn, during Act I, players navigate the map, spending action points on moving their heroes, improving their stats and capabilities by acquiring resources (such as weapons or companions) from a common marketplace called “hand”, healing, casting spells or purging shadow tokens, whose ingame effects differ from villain to villain, from the map.
Baring special effects or enemy skills, combat only happens after the players have spent their actions and only at locations, where both heroes and monsters are present. Those skirmishes play out as a series of die rolls where the player adds the value of an individual roll to his attack or defense stat and checks if he meets the target value defined for his opponent, as the difference between effective attack and defense strength equals the amount damage dealt or received by the heroes. I like to emphasize that by installing both an attack as an active save roll (as some RPG-Systems know it) against fixed target numbers, the game in a smart way completely eliminates the need for another player rolling on behalf of the monsters. Rerolls in combat are possible by spending „willpower“, a second, but just a precious resource as life points, which heroes can loose and gain over the course of the game. After combat is completed, either by the heroes wiping out all enemies at their respective location, getting vanquished themselves or retreating from combat, the scenario phase ensues. In that, each player draws a card either from a scenario deck of cards associated with the region the hero finished the turn in or, if a quest token happens to be present at the location, possibly from a quest deck individual to each villain. These cards feature elaborately written, extensive little scenes which are supposed to be read by another player to the active one and will certainly instill a warm feeling of familiarity in most RPGamers and fantasy connoisseurs. Some of those cards offer a small choice similar to choose-your-own-adventure books, some pit the hero against a freshly spawned enemy, but most come down to an ability / skill test which, similar to combat, is handled by adding the result of a die roll to the (numerical) rank of the ability / skill in question and comparing it to a target value. Although with such tests, no re-rolls are allowed, heroes can spend previously earned boon tokens to modify the result of the die roll. Depending on failure or success, the hero then either suffers a negative consequence or gains a reward, with the quest token from a successfully completed quest card being possibly the most coveted one, as they usually become very important once the villain enters the game in Act II. The last phase of an Act I-round is the event phase, in which a card is drawn from the global event deck, adding an one-time effect either beneficial or detrimental to the heroes to the game.
In the second part of the game, the gameplay stays much the same, but each round considerably shortens as both the scenario phase as well as the event phase is dropped while the heroes now battle the villain and its individual master plan of world domination. If they don’t defeat said villain by the end of round five of Act II (tenth round overall), if the villain’s plan succeeds or if all heroes are killed (as players may only continue with a new hero while still in Act I) the players loose the game.
Impressions and opinions
Oh boy, where to start? Maybe with an affirmation of / a plea on how much I want to love this game? I am a huge fan of cooperative games, (dark) fantasy is my favorite genre in movies, literature and RPGs, the artwork (which I can’t stress enough) is nothing but stunning, I enjoy supporting small independent publishers and my lust for thematic, immersive games knows no limits. And immersive and thematic it is, make no mistake, but why, oh why do I merely like the game instead of loving the everburning hell out of it despite of all the boxes it checks for me?
Let’s start with the good stuff, of which there is plenty of: First of all, I really adore the smart and, I dare to say, elegant concept of the game, keeping the basic rule set small, sleek and flexible and thereby allowing for the flow and feel of the game to be influenced by the individual rule set each villain comes with. The turn based structure is aptly designed as well, as I really like games that work with such an action point based system which I find accessible, convenient to play and easy to teach. In principle, the highly individual characters, with their different stats and interesting unique abilities should offer huge variety and, along with the different villains, high replayability. What I enjoy so much about them is that each individual hero is distinguishable from another by more than his artwork and one special action or passive ability, that one could see how the heroes’ abilities might interact mechanically, how easy it is to imagine them, thanks to they interesting bachground stories, forming a staunch or maybe uneasy fellowship in an epic tale to bring down a seemingly invincible evil. All this is just one of many clues on how much thought, love and undeniable talent has gone into the game. Speaking of the creativity, imagination and most of all, love that shows in almost every part and aspect of the game, I can’t praise the quality and immersiveness of the scenario and quest cards enough. The small stories and scenes, sometimes bordering adventure seeds for a fantasy RPG in their ingenuity and extensiveness, are of a quality and, I apologize for having to repeat made-up-words, imersiveness I haven’t seen in many commercial RPG products. Combined with the fantastic artwork I am mentioning now for the approximately 94275th time, what you get in this box is a potentially fantastic experience, dripping with theme and full of atmosphere, if you have the right game group for it.
But, and now come the „buts“, while the experience it offers is nothing but wonderful, the game itself is, so far and barring the expansions the designer is already hinting on, merely mediocre at this point in time. And when I say game, I mean it in a sense of „the collection of rules and mechanics that make up the core elements“. As a cooperative game, it does not, in any way, revolutionize the genre and does little I haven’t seen in more than one other game already. That’s okay by me, as I don’t expect the wheel to be re-invented a thousand times over, again and again, but if a game does nothing new, my expectations are higher for the game to deliver those things flawlessly, as other games before have already done them before, either showing how it is or how it is not to be done successfully. And in that regard, from a pure mechanical standpoint, many of the thematic strengths of the game become its weaknesses.
But I do also have other things to complain about, so let’s start with the scenario / quest cards I raved about just a few sentences ago. As wonderful and evocative as they are written, there are some serious problems with them as well. First of all, for being such an important element of the game, there are simply not enough of them in my opinion, especially of the scenario cards which remain the same in every session. After only two sessions, I have now read or heard near to every card for some regions, many of them twice already. And although the writing might be very good, just like with a great book or movie, the suspense is gone after you’ve seen its conclusion multiple times. And by that effect, an otherwise highly imaginative scene might as soon as by the third session not be read out aloud anymore, but simply summarized between players like (totally making one up here, so no spoilers) “hey, it’s the one where the giant spider lurks in the canopy above the dead knight’s body – you better pass that perception check as we all know what happens if you don’t!”, And the thing is, gameplay-wise, you don’t loose anything by such abbreviation, as for all their beauty, the little stories and scenes told on the cards are nothing more than the build-up for a simple ability test (which amounts to a single die roll) or a small choose-your-own-adventure decision. There is no important information hidden in them and many of cards offer not even any viable choices for the player(s) to make (which, in case, also loose their impact once you’ve seen both possible outcomes) so the function of the card mechanically would be just as well served with a one-sentence-description of the event instead of some 100-word-scene. I could also imagine some game groups, depending on personal taste, to be more into actually playing a game, not into reading stories to each other, so they might feel bored or even a little bit cheated by the huge amount of time that is spent on reading those cards that serve little actual gameplay purpose compared to the amount of text on them.
Another (less serious) issue I see with the game is that it does not scale very well. And by that, I do not mean there were no mechanisms in place which would adjust some important game elements such as the number of enemies spawned, quest tokens placed and so on depending on the number of players, because there are such mechanisms and while I like them already as postulated by RAW, they can be easily modified by house rule to make the game easier or harder. And as a fan of cooperative games, I know that many specimens of the genre vary considerably in difficulty depending on the player count. That, as a general issue, is completely fine by me. With this game, there is another, different problem and, again, one that stems from a feature I have already praised as a great thematic strength: As the characters are so much different from each other, with individual stats and skills, it is easy, especially with small player counts, to form a near to dysfunctional party of heroes that has no business trying to bring down one of the daunting villains as they have a hard time defeating even a single henchman already. And as advancement of the heroes as well as the chances of winning with this game are heavily dependent on combating and defeating enemies, a point I will expand on later, with the combat rules strongly favoring the heroes teaming up on enemies (again, a very thematic idea), the difficulty of the game is even more dependent on the number of players and the choice of heroes. While this problem can, in reality, easily be circumvented by always including at least one combat oriented character or assigning multiple heroes to one / each player, and while I also gladly admit that in many cooperative games not every combination of player characters / roles will be as effective as another one, I do not consider this phenomenon an example of good design – especially when so visibly in effect as in this game.
I will now get to my main gripe with the game which, as every possible issue I see with it, you might not consider a problem or even a strength, depending on your personal taste. So please keep in mind, I’m only voicing my subjective opinion here and by explaining it hope to help you make up your own. That’s why I also included a few words about myself and my preferences way at the beginning of what’s becoming an essay by now, so that you can better understand how my preferences might relate to yours. With that being said, what I really dislike about the game and what will keep it from becoming one of my favorites, despite all the good to great stuff it offers, is the (again: in my opinion) borderline obscene amount of randomness which runs like a thread through the whole game. I very well understand how (fully) cooperative games need a certain amount of randomness as there is no intelligence behind its “moves” and it would be easily figured out and become predictable otherwise. But this game, for me personally, ventures much too far down that road to a point, where strategic, even tactical decisions of the players don’t matter (much) anymore. I’m not saying that there aren’t any decisions to make, especially in the highly important combat. The game isn’t “playing you”, if that’s what you think, but success or failure of every decision, even the number and form of options you have, all depends on sheer luck. To give you an idea if you shared my opinion, considered the randomness less of a disappointment or if you would even enjoy it, please bear with me as I take another look at the game from that perspective, okay? First of all, shadow and quest tokens get spawned randomly around the map, with enemies protecting those important devices. To prevent the board getting flooded by more foes, the heroes have to take out the shadow tokens and to have a chance against the villain in Act II, they will need quest tokens, so the call is to defeat the respective guardians of both kinds of tokens first. Combat, in the end, comes down to a series of dice rolls, so if you roll badly, no special ability or smart tactic will save you. And because most of the time the enemies that enter the map at any given time are chosen randomly, the heroes are just as likely to face pretty strong as weaker ones early in the game, thereby defying the otherwise great narrative of an epic quest on a discernable curve a little bit. Thus, the players might feel the need to improve on their heroes’ fighting skills to brace themselves more against the arbitrariness of dice based combat. As there is no experience system in place, the only way to do so is by acquiring resource cards from the common “hand”. Those cards are drawn randomly from a deck as well, with some requiring to be bought with gold, some to be won with a successful ability test and others can only be gained as quest / scenario rewards. If your hero does not have any starting gold, which only some do, you won’t be able to buy an item early in the game and as gold is earned by defeating enemies, the problem comes full circle. The resources that don’t require gold, on the other hand, need you to pass an ability test which, again, is a dice roll, so if the die hates you or your hero simply sucks at the ability in question, you are unlikely to improve your character that way, too. After spending the turn either battling monsters or trying to acquire some of the much coveted resource cards, a random scenario / quest card is drawn for your hero that, in most cases will demand an ability test from you or pit you against a certain type of enemy spawning at your location. And exactly like before, if you can’t roll high to save your life, especially if the required ability isn’t your hero’s forte or if you’re hero isn’t good at combat, there is nothing you can do to prevent failing the test and as a result suffering a negative effect that will make you even less likely to succeed in the future. Some scenario and all quest cards even demand successive successful ability tests from the player or an ability test as well as defeating an enemy, thereby increasing the amount of luck needed to gain the highly important quest tokens even more. And as the beginning of the second act isn’t triggered by player progress, but by the passing of time, the heroes do have only the aforementioned five turns to gather the resources necessary to stand a chance against the villain, meaning only five action phases to defeat enemies or to acquire resource cards and only five scenario phases to gain quest tokens, all of those endeavors highly dependent on the roll of a single die. Let’s also not forget about the event phase, last phase of each turn, where another card is randomly drawn from the event deck which is more likely to hurt the players than to help them, sometimes hitting them pretty badly like taking movement and thereby effectively a whole turn away from them.
And by that, I want to come back to what is, in my opinion, the main flaw of the game I have already hinted on earlier, which is that it offers no way of furthering the goal of the game by anything that isn’t completely based on randomness, be it either the roll of the die or the draw from a deck of cards, most times even both. If you do well in this game or not is solely based on success in combat and the passing of ability test and yes, to some degree, players can influence things by smart choices like assigning the different heroes to tasks there are best suited for by virtue of stats and unique ability, but in the end, and I can’t stress this enough, success or failure is decided by the role of the (mostly only one) die. And with regards to scenario / quest cards, you don’t even have control over which skill is going to be tested as the cards mostly don’t allow for another skill to be chosen as an alternative means to solve the situation and the rules don’t allow another character to make the test for you, even if one is in the same location. So, you can’t send your ranger, albeit present, scouting for giant spiders in the forest if the mage drew the giant-spider-scenario-card, which considering the otherwise great thematic feel of the game, is a bit of a letdown for me. “But wait,” one might ask, “you are complaining about the randomness, fine, but what about those willpower-re-rolls and boon tokens you mentioned earlier? Don’t they mitigate the randomness?”- yes, they do, but only somewhat. The problem with those is that they are part of the whole luckfest the game is on its core level. Let’s have a look at re-rolls in combat, first: Those are bought with willpower, which is a resource once your character runs out of, he’s de facto dead (“lost his will to fight”), but which can’t be regained willingly by all but one character. And while a successfully completed scenario card or an event might let you (re)gain some willpower, enemy effects, failed quests and events are even more likely to cost you one or even multiple points of willpower, quickly taking your hero out of the game if the willpower runs low. Additionally, re-rolls are only that and may end up as bad or even worse than your original result, so the usefulness of this option is rather small. Boon tokens on the other hand, which serve no other purpose than to raise the result of your die roll in an ability test, rightfully appear a more useful concept as a simple re-roll, but they too are gained only by successfully completing scenario cards or one special event card for all but one character. So, depending on pure chance, whole sessions of the game may run without the players (re)gaining one point willpower or a single boon token. If the gameplay elements that are supposed to reduce the randomness of the game only show up every second session or so depending on random factors themselves, to me they don’t do much to achieve that goal.
In conclusion, if they players don’t totally screw up on their own, the outcome of the game will still be highly dependant on luck. If they roll well, especially early in the game, they will be able to gradually improve their characters to a point, where luck isn’t a huge factor anymore and they’ll have a reasonable to good chance of defeating the villain, even if the randomness of the game denies them the valuable quest tokens. On the other hand, if they roll badly, draw only the most inappropriate scenario and event cards or face the most difficult monster early in the game, there is nothing they can do to turn their fate around as the game will continue to beat them down more and more with the number of enemies ever increasing, their skills weakening and valuable time ticking away. And while this would make a great set-up for a comeback-tale in the moment of greatest despair, the game’s only path to such a turn of events isn’t “play better!”, but “roll better!” and that, at least to me, does not make for a very good game. I can cope mechanically with a certain amount of randomness, especially in co-ops because of the reasons I named above, but I also want my choices to matter. If I play badly, if I make stupid decisions, I want the game to rightfully crush me, without a lucky dice hand bailing me out. And if I play smartly, I want my actions to have a positive effect on my chances to win, no questions asked, not be put in a position where I still need a die roll to determine, if they have any effect at all. It's okay for the game to act in a random way, but please let my actions be deterministic.
The interesting thing to me, and I’d like to (finally) finish with that thought, is my firm believe all of this design was made by choice and that, not the artwork, not the writing and all the other chromy stuff, is, why the game still feels like a coherent set of mechanisms, not like a cluttered mess of dice rolling. One might like that level of randomness or not (I don’t), one might consider that suboptimal game design or not (I do), but it does not necessarily keep one from enjoying the game. And, closing with a well deserved compliment, I have the utmost respect for the designer, not only for his involvement in the community and his honest tries to make up for the sketchy rulebook, but also for his talents as a game designer, as the elegant and (to me) highly enjoyable way many of the mechanisms of the game interact with each other prove what he is and would be able to do if he did not rely on the die as his most trusted decision maker in game design.
You see, in my opinion, this game is highly influenced by RPGs, it tries to offer you a roleplaying experience (minus the social interaction) in the form of a board game and it does a surprisingly good job at it with its, for a board game, rich and original background lore, the immersive artwork, the evocative storytelling and all the other wonderful things the game has going for it. But in the end, it can’t overcome the limitations of its medium and I do not know if such a thing can ever be done at all, having seen so many games try and fail at it already. In the end, a RPG always has a GM and a good GM knows the strengths and weaknesses of his players’ characters so he will tailor the adventure in a way that challenges them, but also will give them every chance to succeed, never confronting them with problems they can’t solve by default. And this creative, often underrated and in most cases hard work a GM does can’t be replaced by a random deck of cards or a collection of choose-your-own-adventure type scenarios, no matter how smartly designed or how well written and therefore a dice roll in an RPG is (or at least can be) a completely different animal than one in a board game.
So if it seems as I was trashing the game, spending so many more words on what I consider its shortcomings than on the things I like about it, then you’ve got the wrong impression, as I really like it. First of all I think that generally, criticism demands more of an explanation than praise to be legit, so I try to give you more detailed reasons for why I see something as a weakness. But I am also open about the fact that while I very much enjoyed the experience in my two sessions so far, I do wish the mechanics would add up to a better game, which would have turned this one into one of my all-time favorites . If I felt that way because of good reasons or just because I was the wrong audience for the game, I trustingly leave to your discretion.
Early verdict / Conclusion
While providing more than your money’s worth in respect of component quality, the product suffers a little bit from the sketchy rulebook as it comes out of the box. It might also take up a lot of table space, especially with the full player count which you should keep in mind when considering getting it.
The game itself offers incredible potential for immersion in its dark fantasy world by means of strong background lore, gorgeous artwork and atmospheric texts as well as, in theory, high replay- and expandability thanks to a smart design of three interchangeable villains that each come with their own henchmen, a separate quest deck and an individual set of rules and mechanics which alter the game slightly.
The gameplay itself, although sleek and easy to grasp, isn’t very deep and heavily reliant on both the randomness of card draw and the roll of the die. Also, for people more in for the gameplay instead of the atmosphere, the amount of time spent on reading all the small scenes and stories might become a bore. Also, not unlike a legacy game without being one in any regard, the game might consume itself for you, as the number of scenario and quest cards is rather limited and the otherwise exciting scenes and stories told by them might grow stale once heard once or twice.
All that makes it difficult to recommend the game to everyone. If it’s a very good to great cooperative game you’re looking for, especially a more thinky one in which youre decision have a lot of impact on the game, I would point you in other directions. But if you are in search of a great collective experience in form of a board game, if you enjoy the theme, if you can stomach the amount of randomness and if you can accept that the game might gradually loose its greatest strength the more you play it, then this is surely the perfect candidate for you.
Thank you for interest in my thoughts on the game and taking the time to work your way through them.