One of the powers of games is their ability to generate narrative, and there are a lot of different ways to approach this. Some games are satisfied with simply creating a memorable mechanical moment. Some will actually tell the player what is happening through text. Others will work hard to shape the setting through illustration, flavor text, and mechanics. None of these are the wrong way, and I could give examples of each one done well. But I’ve never seen a game that tries to generate narrative and theme in quite the same way as Shadows of Malice, and I’ve seen few that have done it so effectively.
Shadows of Malice is the first game from designer Jim Felli, and it’s quite the statement. Taking place in the land of Aethos, the players take on the role of Avatars of light, beings sent to stem the flow of darkness that is overrunning Aethos. They do this by protecting the Wells of Light. Some of these wells have already been corrupted and made dark, but if the Avatars can locate the wells that are still pure they will win. Fighting the Avatars is the will of the ancient being Xulthul, whose mindless evil sends out Shadows that want to find the remaining light wells, so Xulthul can take physical form. If that happens it’s a race to stop Xulthul before he can destroy the remaining pure wells. Though this description makes the game sound rather overwrought, it has a specificity that promotes a specific view of evil, one that drives the entire design.
The conception of evil in Shadows of Malice is fundamental to the game. These last five years or so have seen a metric ton of cooperative fantasy games, but this is one situation where this approach is entirely justified. It makes sense that no player would control Xulthul, because he is presented as something of pure malevolence, all reflex and no thought. Instead the players are other from the evil they are fighting, united against a mindless mass of hatred and darkness. If I could boil down the game to a key theme, it would be the struggle of order against chaos. The players must organize and do their best to mitigate the mindless random evil that is enveloping them.
The Avatars cooperate through a mechanic called banding, wherein players team up to essentially work as units. Their movement is only as good as the slowest member, but they become much stronger in combat. Indeed, banding is required to defeat some of the later enemies, and even then it’s far from a sure thing. This team-up mechanic isn’t unique to Shadows of Malice (Fury of Dracula has something similar), but I’ve never seen it embraced it to this extent. It makes the game much more cooperative, because the only way to do anything but lose is to buddy up. It also provides a nice thematic counterpoint to the chaos of evil, in that the thinking feeling Avatars must organize and make decisions to fight against what is essentially mindless chaos.
The way Shadows handles monsters demonstrates this chaotic type of evil. Rather than having a specific bestiary, the players will use a monster generator to see what they’re fighting. The players roll three dice and consult a chart to get the specifics. The first die will say what type of creature it is, depending on the terrain. Maybe it’s a “protean”, a sort of slime monster. Or maybe it’s an “arboran” creature, essentially a giant tree beast. The second die determines how powerful the creature is. The last die says how many abilities the creature has, as drawn from a deck of cards. So you might end up with a level 2 reptilid, with electric attacks and giant horns. It’s different every time you face a monster, and it reflects the mindless chaotic nature of evil in the game. It also lets the players fill in the visual details themselves, which is surprisingly effective.
This random mindless evil driving the game is expressed entirely with dice. In mechanical terms that means you roll dice for everything, and I am not exaggerating. All of the combat is dice-based, as is the movement. Not only that, but there are numerous times when the players need to determine something randomly, and dice are the most obvious way to do it. This may be off-putting to a lot of gamers, but it is entirely a game about managing all of these outcomes and struggling against a mindless opponent. The treasures and potions the players get all work to tip the odds in the Avatars’ favor, but there is almost always a decent chance of failure. This keeps the game from developing a quarterback, someone calling the plays. There’s just no way to know what the best move will be, because there are no sure things.
Shadows of Malice has a striking physical production, though not for the usual reasons. While most epic fantasy games would go all out on illustrations and detailed artwork, the world of Aethos is expressed in the abstract. The illustrations are limited to the terrain on the map, and to the items themselves, and even then they have a somewhat sketchpad quality. The Avatars are portrayed entirely through colors and shapes, and since the monsters reform every time you fight them there isn’t really a way to illustrate them. Even the Shadows and Xulthul are expressed with the same icon in different colors. Though everything is of a high quality it looks incredibly spartan. This is absolutely vital to the Shadows of Malice experience, and if you are unable to get past the visual style you’d best look elsewhere. With no illustrations or visual cues, the players are allowed to decide how this world looks. This prevents it from looking like warmed-over Tolkien, and also saves it from the WASPy nature of a lot of epic fantasy. It’s a game that gives the player the freedom to imagine, which is what I find myself doing over and over again. It’s not just a token on a board, it’s a creature of light joining with another to defeat that lycanthropic armored bird creature. It looks better in my head than it ever could on the page, and Shadows of Malice knows it.
There are parts of Shadows of Malice with which I struggle. It can be rather long, and It is a difficult game to teach, mostly because there are a lot of small adjustments that are made to a lot of different kind of die rolls. Besides that, the die rolls themselves aren’t limited to d6 results, but also use d3s, d2s, and something called a d*, which is functionally a yes/no result. It’s easy for combat to drag on a little, since there are a lot of ways to adjust rolls and a lot of places where an interruption might cause the player to lose their place. These are wonky elements that aren’t helped by the rulebook, which includes all the needed rules but not always in intuitive places. But aside from the rulebook, all of these design decisions feel intentional. They were not placed there because Jim Felli didn’t know any better, but rather because they produced exactly the kind of experience he wanted to create. In this way they fit in with the abstract production. It feels like all of those weird elements are there as conscious decisions, not sloppy design.
Shadows of Malice is not the kind of game that is going to be a big hit. It bucks too many trends to be anything besides a cult hit. More than most games it requires the players to approach it on its own terms. It is entirely the thing it is, and you will either get it or you won’t. But the people who enjoy it, will REALLY enjoy it. I find myself marveling at how strongly it generates narrative, its lightly-sketched setting, and its strong expression of the battle between good and evil. It has already produced one expansion, Seekers of a Hidden Light, which I will review later on. I wouldn’t call it a perfect game, but it is something better. It is a bold game, one that takes enormous risks and pushes the medium forward.