[Spotlight] “Of Dreams and Shadows”

And now, for something completely different. I would like to introduce you to a an indie-boardgame I was introduced to by a friend, and share my first impressions with you. The title of said boardgame is „Of Dreams and Shadows“ (designed and published by Gordon Alford).

What is the game all about?

Of Dreams and Shadows is a cooperative fantasy board game where up to six players take up the roles of heroes out to protect the land against evil. Said evil comes in the form of one of three different villains that try to bring ruin upon the world. All of them have a different “theme” to them as well as special abilities and rules to match.

The players each take control of one of eight different champions, which they move across the board, from one location to another, as they try to solve quests (that give quest tokens necessary to beat the villain in the end), deal with Shadow Tokens (that cause trouble; i.e. by spawning monsters) and slay monsters. If those typical heroic activities don´t tie them up, they face random encounters (provided by different encounter decks that match the location types of the board), buy equipment (with gold earned through slaying monsters or gained by random encounters) or try to persuade others to join the fight against the villain (by acquiring available ally cards with a successful die roll). Each of the champions comes with strengths and weaknesses, determined by a set of traits (Might, Insight, Agility, Awareness, Persuasion, etc), and unique special rules. Solving tasks, quests and doing combat is all determined by a roll of the die: if the result (increased by the matching trait) is equal to or higher than a given target number (determined by the quest card or by the monster´s attack or defense value), the task is accomplished.

The players have ten turns to win the game by beating the villain. During the first five turns (called “the first act”) the villain is absent from the board and the players are meant to beat monsters and solve quests to gain the quest tokens, items and allies they will need in their battle against the villain. If a player´s character dies during this first phase of the game, it is simply replaced by another character (thereby: no player elimination in the first act). The second act sees the villain enter the stage and the characters must beat him or her in the remaining five rounds. Characters that are killed in the second act will not be replaced, as this is the endgame.

What to say about the product?

The components of this indie boardgame are of good quality and the artwork is good and on par with that of established publishers. The playing pieces are solid card board (to be used with “standees”) and each hero and villain comes with its own large “character card”, illustrated with quality artwork as well. The only drawback I see here is that the game cards are quite large, and thereby the game takes up a some space on the table.

The designer obviously aimed at creating a game with a dense atmosphere, and he achieved his goal: the encounters and quests all come with a fluff text to be read allowed to further the immersion into the game world, all monsters as well as the quests and random events have a clear theme that links them to one of the three villains, and “Of Dreams and Shadows” even comes with a small booklet that is solely dedicated to the introduction of the game world(!). But even without reading it, the picture becomes clear quickly as the quests and encounters reveal more and more of the big picture to the players. The tone of the game events is often dark and sinister, and it is safe to say that the game one of dark fantasy.

While the provided rules are clear and easy to understand, we encountered a lot of cases during play that where not clearly covered by them. As a result, we needed to brew up some house rules on the spot. But my friends and I are all experienced gamers (both in regard to board games and to RPG), and thereby we had no problem doing so. But I want to emphasize that there was no issue that we could not solve on our own within a minute.

[In the meanwhile, the author has released the first FAQ to his game, so most of the issue we stumbled upon might already be solved now].

The only real drawback I see is the high amount of “randomness” in the game. Every game that is cooperative needs to be random to some extent. Otherwise, the game would become boring once one has found a “solution” to it. For the same reason, a cooperative game needs to be hard to beat. When three to six people work together against a game mechanic, the game mechanic needs to provide a challenge. Otherwise the players will just waltz through the game and claim one easy victory after another. That being said, I have the feel that “Of Dreams and Shadows” is a bit to random at times. Everything depends on the roll of the dice, and if the dice are against you right at the start you might find yourself unable to work against the odds in the ends. Of course, there is a mechanic to manipulate the dice rolls, but this mechanic stipulates that something called a Willpower Point is sacrificed to get a re-roll. Willpower Points in turn are one of the limited resources of the player, and zero willpower means the character leaves the game (lost the will to continue). Worse, these willpower points are hard to get AND some events strip the characters of them. That somehow feels meeeh! to me (yes, this is a WORD in the circles I frequent).

Another point where the “randomness” becomes a little bit to much for me is the mechanic behind the quests: quests need to be solved to gain quest tokens which in turn are necessary to beat the villain in the end (well, you can try without them but that is REALLY hard!). Quests are drawn from a quest deck (once their location is reached on the map) and ask for a roll for one specific trait. As every champion has a trait or two where he or she basically  “sucks at” it is easy to end up with the wrong guy for the wrong tasks in regard to quests, as one cannot know what skills (what trait) is needed to solve it before one tries. While this might be “realistic”, it can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth if your champions end up being the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time more than once. Personally, I can stomach that much better in regard to “random encounters” (s**t happens!). But again, this might just be me.

So, what is my overall opinion in regard to “Of Dreams in Shadows”? Using a point system, I would give it a 7/10, based on my first impressions. Everybody who looks for an immersive, cooperative dark-fantasy board game is well advised to consider this title, if one is able to life with a bit of “randomness”. If you are not totally averse to randomness, I even suggest to buy it as it is NOT one of these time consuming monsters that cooperative adventures of decades past used to be (I am looking at YOU, Arkham Horror!). From what I know this is the first game Gordon Alford ever published, and based on this “early work” I hope to see more products from him in the future.

That is my first impression. If you have a different opinion, feel free to state it in a comment (but be polite while doing so).

Update: here are some second thoughts about the game

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[Spotlight] “Of Dreams and Shadows”

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