You might have have noticed that, if you are a fan of cooperative fantasy adventure games, you aren’t exactly starved for choices. Sometimes it feels like a game company, in order to really call itself a game company, has to have at least one of these in their game catalogue. It’s great for fans of the genre, of which I am certainly one! However, because of the glut, a game would have to do a lot in order to stand out from the pack.
Of Dreams and Shadows, designed by Gordon Alford and published by Greenbrier Games earlier this year, gets points right from the beginning for trying to be unique, especially in terms of theme, style, and narrative. The game is set in a very dark fantasy universe, where zombies aren’t just shambling bags of xp, but are your long lost father trying to eat the rest of your family, or are the remains of a ruined town where you grew up. Terrible things, which are described in great detail in the game’s various event cards, will happen to your character along the way.
Does the heavy emphasis on horror narratives help Of Dreams and Shadows distinguish itself from the pack?
How to Play Of Dreams and Shadows
This is a game for 2-6 adventurers which is easily solo-able by playing two handed. Every player controls one character which will be a familiar variation on warrior, healer, etc. Their vitality is tracked in terms of health and willpower. You start with an item or a skill, of which you will pick up more as you adventure across the land. You then choose one from among three different big evil entities (or BEE) to fight against, and you are ready to begin. Sounds familiar, right?
On your turn, you will get four actions which you could use to move, buy more stuff from a market of item and skill cards, or cleanse the land of shadow tokens which the BEE is placing on the board every turn. For the most part, the tokens summon more underlings to do the BEE’s bidding, so you want to take care of those sooner rather than later. After everyone’s turn is done, any character on a spot with a monster engages in combat.
Combat is constituted of opposed dice rolls to the death. There’s a little mitigation in that you can use your willpower to boost certain rolls. However, that’s about it. You’ve rolled 15 times and still haven’t beaten the monster? Keep rolling! (or just flee to the next space)
If you are thinking that this game seems to work a lot like Eldritch Horror, you’re right! (I would say it worked like Arkham Horror, too, but I’ve never played that one. I know, I know, I should…). Like Eldritch Horror, after each player turn and after combat, each character has to play out a special scenario encounter, depending on what space you are on.
Each encounter is a short story, usually of something terrible and horrifying, like a witch torturing residents at an inn (I may or may not have made that up for the sake of preserving spoilers). Sometimes you can choose what to do, or sometimes it makes you test one of your skills and has different resolutions, depending on the roll. If that wasn’t enough narrative for you, there are also event cards (read: Mythos cards) that present further headaches… er, challenges to the party. Your opinion of the game will definitely hinge on how mush you engage with the scenario and event cards.
This goes on for five rounds. After that, the BEE will wake up and attack the party directly. The players no longer have to deal with events or scenarios. They just have to beat the BEE in epic combat.
What I Liked About Of Dreams and Shadows
Greenbrier Games continues to impress with its attention to world building and also to art and presentation (you can hear more about their commitment to this part of the game experience in our Every Night is Game Night interview with Walter Barber from Greenbrier, posting soon!). The game is beautiful, full stop. Actually, the board isn’t all that beautiful. It’s just kind of there. But the rest of it looks great! The monster cards, scenario cards, and hero cards are all well drawn and evocative of the mood.
Also, I found the narrative worldbuilding in this game to be very effective. The game comes with a separate book which doesn’t contain any rules, but simply sets the scene for the game. You get some tidbits about the world itself, as well as backstory and motivation for the adventurers which might help some people get into the game. I can see a family who is growing out of Mice and Mystics really enjoying this game. It’s a good step up from the cutesy story of M&M, but pays just as much attention to narrative, character, etc.
Another positive is game length. This game says 60-90 mins on the box, which is accurate. I can also see groups who are intimidated by Eldritch Horror (either by its playtime or its MASSIVE load of content) preferring this game.
What I Didn’t Like About Of Dreams and Shadows
Unfortunately, I happen to be a person who LOVES me some Eldritch Horror. It’s one of my favorites. I was very disappointed by how derivative this game was, particularly with respect to mechanisms. The marketplace works exactly the same, only the items are less mechanically interesting. Health and willpower are basically translations of health and sanity from an Arkham game. You can do extra stuff with willpower in this game, as noted above, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Also, I would find the events and scenario encounters a little more interesting if it didn’t come to me in the exact same way as Eldritch Horror gives them to me.
One aspect of the game that happens to be worse than Eldritch Horror is the combat. Opposed dice rolls to the death? If the rolls go a certain way, you could either be hosed or, which is just as bad, you could just be there rolling for a very long time. If I said that I made a game where I rolled a die with my right hand, then rolled a die with my left, and the higher number is the winner, would you find that fun? There’s a little more going on in the combat than that, but not enough to mitigate the tedium.
Personally, this game is a dodge for me. I found the game to be too mechanically derivative of a game I really enjoy for it to personally appeal to me. It makes me a bit sad to come to this final judgment because I really do love the attention to detail, the art, the worldbuilding, and the overall effort that this game makes to bring its story to life. I can see some gamers really taking to that and having fun with this game.
Not for me, but possibly for people looking for a non-Cthulu alternative to Eldritch Horror, or who want to experience a narrative step up from Mice and Mystics.