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Ryan Schoon
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Path of Light and Shadow



Over the past few weeks I’ve had the privilege of sitting down with designers Travis Chance and Nick Little to playtest their new game, co-designed with Dead of Winter’s Jonathan Gilmour, called Path of Light and Shadow, which is being kickstarted by Indie Boards and Cards.

About the Game
It’s hard to shoehorn Path of Light and Shadow in any one category—it is many things—but at its core it is an empire builder. Each player takes on the role of a leader, fallen from power and surrounded only by a small group of loyal followers and one unique tactician (dealt randomly), and puts them in a story-line that mirrors that of Game of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen’s rise to power. Players will move their leaders from Realm to Realm on the board (which spans a continent) recruit new soldiers into their army, conquer villages, cities, and strongholds, and research new technologies to advance their empires. Splashed into the mix are the Numenai, an ancient and powerful race of giant beings that can also be recruited. You must decide if you want to be known as a cruel or merciful leader; the game features a morality track, and different actions will gain you Mercy or Cruelty, and certain card actions will change based on your position on the track. Some factions grow more powerful if you devote yourself fully to one morality or the other.

Path of Light and Shadow feels like a “dudes on a map” style game with only one dude on the map, which seems like a contradiction, but it's not. As your figure moves across the Realms, you have the option to conquer wherever you stop your movement. Each realm has a base strength that you must exceed in order to conquer it. If your army (built from cards drawn from your deck) is strong enough, you gain control of that realm and plant a flag atop the castle that represents the city there. The castles themselves are modular pieces, with the number of stacked pieces representing the difficulty to conquer it. If another player already holds that realm, they will have a chance to defend it by increasing the strength of their castle and inflicting “ruin” onto the attackers, which I will explain later.

The Factions
The game features four factions, each linked to a specific realm type, and the aforementioned Numerai, who can be found anywhere. Whenever you stop in a realm, you must draw from that realm’s deck of cards, to recruit a soldier into your army. Thematically, you don’t get to pick and choose who joins your cause, you take whoever volunteers. When you draw from a deck, you have a higher percentage to recruit from that realm’s linked faction. However, you may draw a different faction—printed on the board so you know your draw possibilities — or even a Numerai, and recruit them into your cause. If you wish to be a Merciful leader, you can recruit an extra soldier every time, thus increasing your Mercy, or you can choose to execute those who aren’t pulling their weight, culling out your deck but earning you Cruelty in the process. Balancing these is one of the core decisions in the game.

The four factions that can be recruited are the Halax Guildlords, a group of traders and merchants who care little about your morality, the Hordes of Zurd, a faction of conquering barbarians who gain power as you gain Cruelty, the Sigilborne, a faction of peaceful monks who prefer Mercy, and the Commonfolk, who offer a wide variety of abilities. Any soldier you recruit is placed into your deck, and that deck becomes your army. Every turn, you’ll draw 5 cards from the top of your deck and play them, like you would in a deck builder. But managing your hand, and the deck, is a key mechanic in Path, and is handled very differently than most deckbuilders.

These factions are unique, and they tell a story that unfolds on the map. The players aren’t limited to a specific faction (you can be a merciful leader and still use the cruel Hordes), so there are many possible deck combinations and combos within those cards. This is where the game shines for me.


The Deck

There are no row of cards to buy from, like most deckbuilders. The only way to gain new cards is to recruit them from the territories on the board. Once a card is in your hand or discard pile, it can then be “Promoted,” which will upgrade that card to a new, better version of itself, to be placed on top of your discard pile. Deciding which cards to recruit, promote, and cull (if you’re willing to gain Cruelty) will shape the strategy of your deck, but you have to be quick! There are three tiers to every card, but only one copy of the Tier 3 version. Once someone has Promoted up to Tier 3 in a specific card, no one else will be able to. These tier 3 cards contain some of the best abilities in the game! Numerai cards can also be “Promoted,” but it is handled differently. These Numeria are from forgotten magical clans and, while strong, have no abilities. They have forgotten their True Name, and you must restore them. When you upgrade a Numerai, you pull from the top card of a facedown deck, never knowing who you will have. It may be a Numerai that fits right into your strategy, or one that is opposed. If you get one early enough, it might dictate the strategy you choose for your game. These Numerai are incredibly powerful and should not be ignored.

Upgrading is important as every card serves one of two functions: they either provide Labor or Combat. Labor is used to Promote units in your deck or to construct Buildings in your empire. Buildings act like a tiered technology tree, with the lower level buildings required before the higher ones can be accessed. Every faction has their own tech tree—and you must play at least one linked faction card to build from that tree—as well as a general tree which can be accessed by anyone. These buildings change the rules of the game by allowing you to move farther distances, gain advantages in conquering or defense, manipulating your deck easier, drawing more cards, or giving you end game scoring points.

Combat is used to conquer new territories or defend the ones you have (if your card also brandishes the Defend symbol—not all cards can be used to defend). When you move to conquer an area, you may play any number of cards in your hand. Whoever has the highest Combat becomes the leader, which determines how many dice you roll. Everyone else fighting alongside them adds their Combat value to the roll’s outcome. This allows you to mitigate the randomness of the dice by bringing more soldiers to the fight. These dice will either show a blank (which can be mitigated even further by specific buildings), a number of swords to generate Combat, or the Ruin symbol. Ruin represents the physical toll the war between the players is having on the land. Whenever Ruin is inflicted by an attacker, the physical structure of the castle is weakened, making it easier to conquer in the future. When Ruin is inflicted by the defender, some of the attacking soldiers die, and are discarded from the player’s deck.

...You Win or You Die

Moving around the board and Conquering territories is the main way victory points (called Influence) can be scored, so be prepared for combat. Some factions, like the Sigilborne, are built around defending the territories you already have while others, like the Hordes, are built fully around Conquering. Recruiting and upgrading different cards from different factions allows you to construct unique decks, and there are many cool combinations that can be made by crossing over cards from different factions. Exploring these combinations and figuring out how to best build your deck is what keeps me coming back to Path. Every time a game finishes I start to plan my strategy for the next game, deciding which factions to start with and which upgrade paths I should take. Even writing this review has my mind circling several different possibilities for my next game (and there will be a next game.)

There are multiple paths to victory in this game: Conquering territories to score them, building buildings that give you Influence, upgrading into higher tier cards that give influence, and racing to complete global objectives which, when completed, give you both influence and game-altering abilities.

What I didn’t Like
As great as this game is, of course there will be things that I don’t love about it, and I want to get them out of the way. The way new units are recruited is thematic, but it can lead to a bit of bookkeeping; having to remember to draw your cards at the end of each round (AND when you conquer) is important, as forgetting to draw can either hurt you (if you really needed the cards) or give you an advantage (if you are trying to keep your deck lean.)

I also think the game can have a bit of a runaway leader problem, if the rest of the players don’t do something to stop it. This isn’t an issue with Path, but with many of these types of area control games. If you are planning on playing a tech deck, focusing on buildings and promoting cards, but another player decides to go full conquer, you’ll have to switch up your strategy to stop them. If a player manages to grab a few Strongholds (worth the most points!) at the beginning of the game and hold onto them throughout, a tech strategy can’t compete. The game forces you to fight against them if you want a chance to win, therefore one player can kind of set the tone for everyone else’s strategy.

My only criticism on the production is the castles, which are a drab grey uniform color, especially when compared to the vibrant board on which they sit, but this is something they might address during the Kickstarter campaign through a stretch goal. And it’s definitely an aesthetic thing; they don’t affect the quality of the gameplay.

What I loved
This is my kind of game, right from the start. I love deck management games, and Path does something really unique with this. Every turn you are faced with hard decisions: Do I use this card to generate Labor or Combat? Do I use that Labor to Build or Promote? Which card do I Promote? Where do I want to end my turn to Recruit the best cards for my strategy? The factions have a lot of flavor and interact with each other in cool ways.

Blood Rage is one of my favorite combat-driven, area control games and I’d put Path of Light and Shadow right up there with it. It handles combat very differently than Blood Rage but gives you the same sort of feeling; another unique take on “dudes on a map.”

And man, does that map look good. In fact, all of the art in Path is absolutely gorgeous. The card illustrations, the box art, the clean graphic design; this game has great presentation. Beth Sobel has really been knocking it out of the park lately, and Path is no exception. Everything is thematic, and beautiful to look at. And Daniel Solis’ graphic design is neat, and clean, and easily readable.

Also worth mentioning is the diversity within the cards. Soldiers are not assumed to be your stereotypical gruff-looking, battle-scarred dudes (though you do see a lot of that in the Hordes faction); you have a huge variety of genders, skin tones, body shapes, etc. It's something that you might not notice on a conscious level, but it makes the world feel alive and populated.

People reading this review might know that I absolutely love role-playing games (and if you didn’t— well...now you know) and Path brings that sort of story-driven feeling to the board game. This is something that is hard to accomplish outside of your traditional Roll-Move-Attack style dungeon crawlers, but as your houses battle for control of the realms, petitioning the leaders, building your armies, and waging war, a story is told; a story that will change with every play through. Some of this is handled through the Numerai, who are one-of-a-kind characters steeped in lore and mythology. When they hit the table, you know something epic is about to happen.

As I said earlier, and will repeat here, the factions and theme of this game really appeal to me. I love the way the faction cards interact with their buildings in a satisfying way. You can pull off some combos here and build an engine that pays off on every turn.

Path of Light and Shadow gives you A LOT to do, and every player at the table can play a different strategy. While it is difficult to win without Conquering it isn’t impossible. I won a game by conquering a Stronghold early on and focusing on recruiting and promoting cards to defend that stronghold while working down my Tech Tree for massive points. I also lost a game against someone who had a full-on conquer strategy and held almost every realm on the board by the end of the game.

This game has a ton of replayability and I wouldn't be surprised if this hits many people’s top 10 lists this year (including mine).

You can find out more about me, my game tastes, my reviews, and what I'm up to at www.loremastergames.com














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Thanks for the thoughtful review!

One concern that comes to mind is how does the game play if, for example, three players choose the Cruelty path and the fourth player chooses Mercy. Does such a scenario provide an advantage to Mercy (because the Cruelty are competing to recruit from the Hordes)?

Regardless, this certainly seems to be a very innovative and beautiful game which I am considering to back!
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Travis R. Chance
United States
Fishers
Indiana
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stills999 wrote:
Thanks for the thoughtful review!

One concern that comes to mind is how does the game play if, for example, three players choose the Cruelty path and the fourth player chooses Mercy. Does such a scenario provide an advantage to Mercy (because the Cruelty are competing to recruit from the Hordes)?

Regardless, this certainly seems to be a very innovative and beautiful game which I am considering to back!


Remember, you do not select what you recruit. There is a higher probability of each faction in each realm, but not absolute certainty.

The game is also big. By this I mean, at the full player count, if every person went an entirely different path, you would not see everything the game has to offer. To that end, there is enough there for healthy competition and enough there that one player on a different path cannot have it all no matter how hard they try. Merciful and Cruel encompass many, many strategies, of which there is a lot to explore.

As with all games of this nature (area control-ish), your score is a reflection of how well you police your rivals.
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Ryan Schoon
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Indiana
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There can be a little bit of that if someone is heavily promoting from one Faction and no one else is. For example if I'm only Promoting Sigilborne then I'll probably get to the top tier promotion units before anyone else. Unless someone decided to try and stop me. But there are 4 factions plus Numerai and I've never seen a game where ALL of the top tier units had been recruited. So yeah if 3 players are all heavily promoting Hordes then it becomes a race between those players to reach the top tier.

However this is a feature not a flaw. You need to be able to adjust your strategy based on what the other players are doing. If two players already seem to be racing towards Hordes then probably no one is promoting Hallax so you have a good shot at promoting into those high ranks.

But some people win without promoting top tier at all.
 
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Davis Stringer
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LoremasterRyan wrote:
Path of Light and Shadow




What I didn’t Like
As great as this game is, of course there will be things that I don’t love about it, and I want to get them out of the way. The way new units are recruited is thematic, but it can lead to a bit of bookkeeping; having to remember to draw your cards at the end of each round (AND when you conquer) is important, as forgetting to draw can either hurt you (if you really needed the cards) or give you an advantage (if you are trying to keep your deck lean.)





I have to agree that I think the "weakest link" in this game is the modular castle pieces. They don't look like buildings at all. They're terrible actually and appear to be a bunch of jewelry boxes stacked on top of each other...or a john with two holes in some of the images I've seen.

For the record I am a backer and believe the game is going to be great but I'd give the plastic components a 3 of 10. Very disappointing.
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Hardboiled Gregg
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Gah, this sounds so much like the sort of game I would love (and from some great designers) but without 5-player, I'd rarely get to play it.
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Marcello
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Have you tried 2 players? Is there a specific board for 2 right? How does it scale?
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Frank Weiß
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Hello Ryan,

Thank you very much for your review. How is the game with just two?
Best regards, Frank
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Brice Lory
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Marcymaru wrote:
Have you tried 2 players? Is there a specific board for 2 right? How does it scale?


I haven't played the game, but an unlocked stretch goal was for a 2 player board to make it a tighter experience.
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