In between writing papers for grad school and chasing my kids, I still try to keep half an eye on what’s going on in the board gaming hobby. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know about the work I’ve done with Miniature Market, and that’s been a good way to continue writing, even if it’s not writing that will appear on this blog. But this weekend I had a gaming experience about which I felt compelled to write. This isn’t really a review, more of a first impressions write-up. But I still wanted to tell you about this game.
Back in March I read a review of a new game called Shadows of Malice, written by my colleague Michael Barnes. Michael’s review did a pretty terrific job of getting me really excited about a title, and the more I thought about this game the more I realized I would probably need to buy it. So I scraped together some very hard-earned cash, found a copy at a local store, and bought it.
And it sat on my shelf for three months.
That kind of thing happens sometimes. Between school, other games that needed to be reviewed, and a simple inability to make it happen, Shadows of Malice didn’t get played right away. But if you know me, you know that this drives me CRAZY. I can’t stand to have unplayed games in my collection, so it was with some effort that I pushed for a game this weekend to finally turn in my own verdict.
I hoped it would go well, but I was prepared for the worst. Shadows of Malice is a fascinating game, but kind of a woolly one too. The players take on the role of avatars of light, trying to prevent the awakening of the demon Xulthu’l. You travel around the board, fighting creatures to gain treasure, visiting mystics and cities to get more items, and preventing evil Shadows from corrupting the Wells of Light, which you have to find to prevent Xulthu’l from awakening. This set-up is all a little overwrought when I describe it, and people were doing just a little bit of snickering while I explained it.
Besides that, mechanically the game is…unorthodox. It has a couple of elements that I’ve never seen before, like a random creature generator. Every creature you face is different, because all of their natures are determined by a series of die rolls. One time we faced a mammalian creature, which was also armored and lycanthropic. We called it the “weremadillo,” and it put up quite a fight. Then there is also the banding mechanic, where players can buddy up and move as a unit. This is basically necessary if you want to have any success against stronger monsters, making this one of the most cooperative games I’ve ever played.
Besides that there are a lot of little bits that aren’t very polished. A LOT in this game is determined by random mechanics, but the rules don’t give any indication precisely how you should. I mean, it’s obvious with the piles of d6’s in the box that rolling dice is the way to go, but it’s interesting that this is never explicitly mentioned. It requires the players to make a couple of intuitive leaps for the game to function. The rulebook makes it look pretty tough as well, since it’s sequenced in kind of a weird way and uses that Avalon Hill method of notation, using decimals for specific items. Besides that, the various kinds of die rolls are d2’s, d3’s, and even d*’s, which are basically a coin flip. These can all be performed with the d6’s in the box, but it’s still a strange system.
All that to say, Shadows of Malice resists easy explanation. It also has a very abstract look, with no flavor text or real illustrations to speak of, making it kind of a hard sell for adventure game fans. As I staggered through my explanation, I felt distinctly guilty for dragging my friends into a long experience that seemed like it wouldn’t take off. But we soldiered on all the same.
We wandered through a couple turns before one band found a monster. Their combat involved a ton of die rolling, and it took a few minutes to resolve it all the way. But by the end of it, a couple of us looked at each other and said, “That was actually pretty cool.” And before we knew it, we were into the whole experience of the game. We teamed up to fend off shadows, battle guardians, and ultimately defend the realm of Aethos against the return of Xulthu’l. Periodically someone would comment on what a cool game it was, one guy even declaring he would buy it as soon as he could. The whole thing took a little over three hours, but none of us minded. It was a genuinely engrossing experience, and maybe one of the best games of anything I’ve played in 2015.
A couple of things really stood out. First of all, the monster generator really makes this game feel different. Every encounter has a different creature, and none of them are the kinds of monsters that normally bog down fantasy games. No dragons, no goblins, nothing like that. All of the monsters are given the barest of descriptions, but use language that is highly suggestive of kinds of creatures. It may refer to something as “protean,” meaning it’s a slime or a fungus thing, but then the creature might have different abilities that give it some more definition. Not only does it give the game a lot of variety, but it really makes it feel adventurous, since you don’t know what’s coming up.
And that really shows the key strength of Shadows of Malice: it allows the players to fill in the details. The setting and key players are given names, and some of the backstory is told in evocative language, but none of it is physically described. There is no flavor text or illustrations, so the players just end up making their own. This actually ends up being far more immersive than something much more detailed, because it pulls the players into everything. People who passed by our game would look at the board and comment on its spartan production. But the key here is that the production actually is one thing that makes the game work. It’s more than an adventure game, it’s an imagination game.
That means it will probably always be a hard sell. Designer Jim Felli didn’t crowdsource this bad boy, and it’s just as well. This pushes against a lot of what gamers expect from this kind of game. There is a TON of dice rolling, although the players only have to engage in it when they choose to. It isn’t afraid to go for a long time, and the way it goes some games will be way harder than others. And of course the production pushes hard against the more mainstream Fantasy Flight type of game. It definitely requires the players to buy what the game is selling, though this is true of just about any game. My group this weekend was very willing to suspend skepticism, and we were rewarded for it. Not everyone will want to make the effort.
But as for us, we finished the game and already began thinking of how we could make another game happen soon. There is truly nothing else like it out there, or at least there isn’t nowadays. It feels a lot like an Avalon Hill title from the 1980s, with a wild personality that is willing to do something really risky to get a great payoff. There’s already an expansion, Seekers of a Hidden Light, that ships next month, and I plan on ordering it as soon as I can scrape together the cash for it. I admit, this is just after one session. My opinion could change, but if it does I strongly suspect it will be for the better. If you enjoy fantasy games at all, you really need to try this one. It’s off the beaten path and might never be a giant hit, but it has the signs of something special.