Shadows of Malice: Seekers of a Hidden Light in Review

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Last summer I wrote a couple of times on the striking fantasy quest game Shadows of Malice. Its fresh approach to narrative and emphasis on player imagination created an experience unlike any I had played before. It eventually ended up on the obligatory year-end best-of list, and I am still impressed with its fresh take on an overdone genre. At the time I promised to review its expansion, Seekers of a Hidden Light at a later date. Of course it was recently brought to my attention that I made this promise over a year ago, so it’s probably time to get around to that.

There are a lot of directions Seekers could have taken, but the one it arrives at is, like the base game, rather unconventional. The original game came with decks for treasures, beasts, potions, and other things, but Seekers doesn’t add to any of them. Rather it creates an all new system, that of quests. These quests can be grabbed from the Mystics who dot the map, and they allow the players to track down monsters and kill them to get a reward. That reward comes in the form of Lux, a new resource that goes into a supply shared by all of the players. Lux can be used later on by any player to draw an extra-special potion, or to inscribe a rune on one of their items. While quests aren’t required for the players to win, these lux items are strong enough that players will want to accumulate some lux to buy them.

There are four types of quests covering a range of difficulties. The easiest ones just require the player to find a specific kind of terrain, while the hardest ones require the player to actually kill a specific beast with a specific color of ability. This seems like a tall order, since the exact nature of monsters is generated by several die rolls and randomly-drawn cards. That’s where bait comes in. These tokens allow players to modify the results  of creature generation rolls in specific kinds of terrain. That means that if a player is in the swamp, swamp bait can be used to adjust the die roll so that the player is much more likely to find what they need. It’s never a sure thing, but it makes those difficult quests seem much easier.

In its original form, Shadows of Malice is an extremely dicey game. There are several kinds of die rolls, and die rolls are used to resolve almost everything in the game, from combat to where monsters move to basic upkeep. If this was a deal-breaker for you before, Seekers will do nothing to fix that problem. While there is now a way to exert greater control over monster generation, even after defeating the correct kind of monster in the correct kind of terrain, the player will still need to make a successful luck roll to actually complete the quest. Failure means that the quest remains unfulfilled, which can be frustrating when a more difficult quest is at stake. Repeated failures make the luck roll progressively easier, but they definitely require kind of an “oh well” attitude, knowing that failure is always an option.

All of these add up to a very compelling expansion, but it is also one that, depending on your situation, can be somewhat low-impact. Quests can be pursued single-mindedly, but they work best as a sort of auxiliary activity. This is welcome, because in spite of all the wristage and rules weight, the options for players on any given turn are rather limited. It’s nice to have something to do if you just, for example, happen to find yourself near the plains with a plains-based quest, not an uncommon situation. If you focus on quests too much, you might find yourself neck-deep in shadows or X’ulthul before too long. Quests have not dominated my games to such an extent that they have shifted the entire nature of the experience, but they do offer the players more options and more ways to go about beating back the shadows.

I especially like how Seekers folds into the existing narrative of Shadows of Malice. The quest cards explain themselves in narrative terms, highlighting the relevant goals while still holding the collective story-telling that distinguishes the game. They also offer a little bit of background to the mystics, making them a more integral part of the game both mechanically and in terms of the mythology. And of course, terrain now has a bigger impact on everything. The lux potions and runes are also really fun. It can take a lot of effort and luck to get them, but they almost always prove to be worth it.

Seekers is an outstanding expansion, but it is not one that players really need to get the most out of Shadows of Malice. Experienced fans of the base game will appreciate the flavor and the options it adds to the experience, but it will have less impact in shorter games with fewer map tiles, or in games with too few players to really generate a lot of lux. Shadows of Malice has developed something of a reputation as a good solo game, but Seekers is less well-suited to that mode of play for these reasons. Still it adds a lot of depth to one of the best fantasy games of the past few years, and experienced players will likely never want to play without it.

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