Reviews written by Frohike
Shadows of Malice effects a bold and evocative fantasy adventure framework, showing design choices that I (perhaps vainly) hope will be carried forward in future games in this genre. It has some lessons to teach which deserve attention in the growing representational fantasy juggernaut of giant miniatures, overwrought lore & event text, license tie-ins, and exclusive Kickstarter content franchises.
The nuts and bolts of this system don't seem revelatory at first glance, albeit refreshingly straightforward. It provides a versatile d6-based roll modification system (using some satisfyingly chunky and colorful acrylic "crystals" to trade, expend, and harvest) for chance-driven elements ranging from movement and combat results to skill procs, in combination with some card draws for battle loot and other item acquisitions and the occasional effects of "fate". All of this is draped with just enough narrative cohesion onto an archetypal struggle of light versus dark beings which carries a few, thankfully subdued elements of game lore.
After the first few beats of the game, though, it becomes clear that there's a refreshing efficiency to this framework, combined with a respectful amount of restraint and remove; a lack of contrivance where it was apparently never needed. This noticeably cuts through a rule fog that tends to creep between the player and the game world in more baroque designs such as Mage Knight, while the thematic openness allows the player to more fully invest themselves in the game and inhabit the experience rather than spectate fantasy cliches.
The culminating feel can be summed up as less filler, more space. This certainly feels revelatory in a fantasy adventure board game: that the player can be trusted to take their cues and build an experience, rather than flipping a card, reading some mandated text on a card full of Tolkien orcs, and shoving a Cthulhu or Star Wars model around a map. The game certainly provides props toward the experience, but these are more considered and less obtrusive: from the clean, minimal box cover, to the maps which take cues from the front or back pages of old fantasy novels, the clean symbology, and the crystals that refract the light on your game table and tie into the theme of the game in such a simple but aesthetically effective way.
For me, the way in which Shadows of Malice distinguishes itself shows an element of maturity and confidence that I don't often encounter in this genre. It respectfully leaves the staging of its narrative and actors -- as well as their visual illustrations -- to the player's own imagination, which makes for a much more immersive and personally fulfilling experience. The monster generation system is a prominent example of this design choice, where the player rolls to determine monster type (partly based on terrain), combat power, and special abilities. The image of the creature thus created is left entirely to the player's imagination, which can be fascinating and memorably bizarre, provided that you refrain from falling back on your own tired Tolkien visual tropes.
This is one of the few games where encountering a dragon or a Nazgul oddly feels disappointing because it seems like the result of a failure of your own imagination. There are much more interesting battles to be fought here.
I risk overstating the openness of this system, however. There is definitely a designated flow and goal to the game. This isn't a sandbox or a mere collection of tools for a fantasy crawl. The rules are clear, and the goal of your avatars is always to gain the strength they need to unlock certain locations, Light Wells, while the strength and number of shadow beings grows through a quasi-AI system to seek out these wells and trigger their own end game: the ultimate incarnation of a dark being named Xulthul. If you are beaten to the punch, you're in for a difficult battle, fueled by tough odds and a hopefully grandiose imagination to match.
The heavily luck-based systems may become off-putting for some who would perhaps rather fall back on more stable, incremental, deck building systems or rules puzzles to allow them to hone and craft the most efficient series of actions for their turns. There can be some measure of satisfaction and control gained from this, but at a cost that Shadows of Malice doesn't really care to pay. The filter between player and game world would become less raw and immediate, the "gameable" elements becoming a means detached from the ends, something this spectrum of board games has always struggled with. I don't believe this game is designed with that mindset. Instead, it targets those who can comfortably bridge the managed chaos of the dice with the significance of unfolding events in the game world. It's a weird, liminal form of roleplaying and fatalism that should be familiar to a distinct audience.
For anyone who remembers those harrowing encounters in D&D, where you feel like you're throwing every possible roll modification at a fight to surmount an increasingly desperate, evil dice-fest that seems to be driven by some sort of dark magic against your favor... and finally pulling through, limping away hemorrhaging with every status effect you can think of, understanding that your struggle with the dice was modeling a ridiculous bloodbath of a battle (or a comedy of errors), welcome back. It's good to be home, isn't it?
In all of these respects, Shadows of Malice exemplifies how to do fantasy better in board games. It understands and respects the heart of the genre and gives us some wonderful adventures in the process. What more can we ask for?
Not a dungeon crawl but a decent & simple melding of co-op, crowd-control, and push-your-luck with D&D characters. It needs to be played as a full campaign, which is dissonant with the overall shallowness of the system but feels necessary to scale difficulty & treasure, keeping things interesting while also keeping sessions short (60-90 minutes).
Stylistically, this is D&D with almost no aesthetic chrome, which continues to mystify me considering how rich the art assets are for 4th and 5th ed. Thematically it does convey the vibe of pushing through a dungeon with danger at literally every turn and relying on some limited abilities and revives to make it through the gauntlet. The sets of character abilities feel somewhat sparse & often simplistic, reduced in the same way that any kind of check in the game is done with a single modified d20: the core thematic concepts of D&D are there, but in a very minimalist way, lending an easy-to-learn uniformity to everything but also straightjacketing creative options for playing more distinct or dramatic roles.
The design does a decent job of keeping everything accessible, though, and feels dynamic enough with the basic decisions that are offered, namely crowd control vs. exploration. The latter adds to the crowd of enemies, since monsters spawn every time you add a tile to the dungeon, but also avoids blind pulling from the "bad stuff happens directly & instantly, but... sometimes nothing happens!" deck, which is your risk/penalty if you don't uncover a new dungeon tile. It's the classic gamble: deal with the devil you know, or the one you don't?
This is a WizKids production, so unfortunately you'll need to expect the usual fumbles with the components: incorrect stats on character sheets, inconsistently die-cut dungeon tiles (punch carefully and bring an exacto knife & the URL to their parts replacement site), non-existent tile labels (cavern vs dungeon tiles are significant and aren't really explained in the manual so you'll get to sort them visually), a poorly organized rule-book that misprints basic stuff like starter skills & places crucial info in small non-distinguishable asides, and mediocre miniature quality, yes even the painted ones (I had to reconstruct one of mine because it was misassembled).
The box looks nice, I guess? That's probably the most art you'll see in this game aside from some monochrome character portraits and greyscale 3-D CAD renders of the monsters on cards (because apparently we're in a 2004 time warp).
I don't entirely regret my purchase but feel like I overpaid for what I got and also feel like there's this small contingent of "it's still good! it's still good!" superfans who do more to support this game than the publisher ever does and they end up slightly over-representing how good it actually is, either because of sunk cost, general inexperience with more advanced or better produced dungeon crawls from more contemporary publishers, or just a taste for simpler fare.
For all of the iterations this has gone through since Ravenloft (the last time I checked on this series), sadly little has been added to make this feel like something that was designed in the past 10 years. This is particularly frustrating because it seems like this design has been a golden baton that's been non-committally passed from one publisher to the next with no apparent understanding of how much of a goddamn goldmine they are sitting on if they'd just put in the work to produce it well, provide some D&D art assets on cards, and just generally join the rest of the industry in this genre when it comes to scenario design & production quality. This system should be rolling right alongside the Zombicides, Descents, or Conans of the industry, but it's stuck in this kinda clunky, mismanaged, late 90's/early 00's era jalopy that runs "just good enough" instead.
Although it still has room to grow & needs a better champion in the publication department, overall this is a fun, lightweight, system with little setup & rules overhead and a pretty good payoff as the campaign progresses.
Some context. I'm not a Kickstarter backer, so no, my voice isn't of one who tasted the kool aid. I was a skeptic & got the game at retail. I've played a lot of adventure games and this one has been a singular experience.
For anyone who plays adventure games and wants a system that tells uniquely gonzo & evocative stories rather than the usual generic fantasy stuff, this game is a total treat. The art style is fantastic, the combat system has just enough depth to provide some fun decision making during a fight but streamlined enough to not get too bogged down in round-by-round minutiae, and the chain of missions that you play during a campaign (usually of 3-4 games) offers some satisfying branching that will let you play the game in surprisingly different ways at times. It's actually difficult to review in *too* much detail without spoiling some of the things that can happen.
The rulebook is pretty well laid out but does require a few revisits as you play for the first time, partly because the game is fairly unique in how it implements some of its systems, namely the combat, which condenses attack hits & misses, defense hits & misses, offensive damage and defensive absorption, into a single roll of 5 (sometimes 6) color-coded dice. Between combat you'll be flipping encounter/event cards, decreasing danger levels Pandemic-style to prevent locations from tilting beyond danger level 6 which causes a Doom timer to increase (& other bad things to happen), leveling up towns to give you more cards to buy in them, using your XP to buy skills & abilities from a generous selection that's always available whether you're in town or not, and generally chasing down whatever objective is laid out for your current mission, though you're usually given a few ways to do it or several different objectives to choose from.
Even the first mission gives you several different choices as the jailer offers to let you out if you'll do him a favor and deliver a sensitive "package" to a friend of his. You can turn him down & fight him, then proceed with the "Loot & Pillage" mission which involves what you think it would, or take him up on his offer and go retrieve what turns out to be a Soothsayer's Head. Yep, a severed head, and it's infected. And even if you do choose to go pick this thing up, you can choose to not deliver it to the jailer's colleague at all (which would award you a good amount of gold) but take it to the place where the head itself is begging you to go, if one of your players is MAG(ic) 7 or a Puritan and can understand what the head is saying. Or you can drop it off with some village elders, who'll task you to do something else with it. If you do decide to pick this thing up, you'll have a 50/50 chance of getting infected. This infection will also direct your choices at the end of the mission, since the affected party member will begin to hear the siren call of his/her new master in the Mountains of Madness... which incidentally will only be accessible to you if you have a status effect (fatigued, poisoned, blessed, exalted, any other f'ed up state) because it's a "metaphysical" space. Not status effect...ed? You'll need to score some drugs in the next mission before trying to enter. From there you can kill or follow this master and... either option carries some cool rewards & outcomes so I'll stop spoiling it. :P
So the "adventure" side of this thing carries some serious flavor and variety. The characters also play very differently, ranging from your more typical magey/witchy peoples, to a kid who can dish out crazy amounts of damage in Lycanthrope form at the cost of gradually damaging herself, to a "witch smeller" who brandishes a gun with swappable ammo types and can, depending on her skill loadout, intimidate Heretic enemies or be immune to the Ambush effect if the enemies are witches/heretics, or can brand them with an iron and remove their special abilities, etc, etc, etc.
And while the butterfly effects of decisions in this game can lead to some entertaining & convoluted outcomes, the decisions themselves often aren't too complex & usually pretty binary. It's often a decision between traveling boldly or cautiously, fighting in an assault or guarded stance (which makes the 5 dice mean different things), choosing who gets a kill, whether or not to fast travel, whether or not to rest (and skillup). These are wrapped in so many paths & outcomes, customizable skills, & lots & lots of combat, that their repercussions become more complex & rich over time as your mission evolves and your characters gain more abilities and effects from various loot & consumables.
Speaking of consumables... these offer decisions as well and eshew the tired "health potion" trope. There are purchasable skills such as Gourmet which allow you to eat your kills. If you can keep it down with a CON(stitution) test, you'll get some healing, otherwise you might get some side effects from stuff like goblin flesh. Conversely, there are also food items such as the Luncheon Truncheon which can be eaten as a sausage or wielded as a pretty damned effective weapon or as bait ;)
Overall, I was stunned by how rich, varied, and evocative this game is. It's certainly not for everyone, in the tenor of its adventures, its art style, its sometimes archaic skill check system, RNG events, and so forth. It's also super combat-heavy, with combat encounters happening nearly every turn unless you're sitting in a town or luck out during the danger card flip. But the creators of this thing clearly put a lot of (oftentimes brilliant) design into its mechanisms and gameplay, which I honestly was not expecting until I decided to check it out for myself. I get a real sense of a living, breathing, intricately weird world when playing this, and I haven't experienced that with any other adventure system.
So... if you're an adventure game fan (things like Talisman, Runebound, or the Arkham/Eldritch horror games), take a close look at this one & lurk its forums. It's not getting a ton of buzz because it's independently published and this game's approach to the genre is a bit unique but I'm personally glad that I stumbled across it. Definite keeper for me, to the point where I will probably start getting rid of some of my other adventure games. They are no longer in the same league.
This distills most of the action I want from Descent into a shorter and more tense experience.
Available actions for players on the human side are bound to hit points. Lose a hit point, cancel an action slot. Rolled a die that would let you use that action slot? That character is exhausted (only able to sit and defend his exhausted self). As can be guessed, very little damage needs to be dealt in the game before the tension ramps up and choices start to get difficult. Since the opponent (demon) can never be substantially crippled beyond the span of one turn, time is definitely on the demon player's side. The only action boundary for the demons is the luck of the dice and how many threat points they've stockpiled during their mini game of demonic Kingsburg.
The combination of these two dynamics makes the game play very quickly and viciously. The decisions, while tense, are often very clear, so down time is minimal unless the demon player starts to get some AP over dice allocation (this goes away with more practice).
A negative: after playing several scenarios repeatedly, I'm starting to see just how much luck is involved in their unfolding. Each team has some ways of mitigating luck, but even some of those methods are themselves greatly affected by the item/action cards that are received at random before the game begins (another layer of luck). It comes down to making the best with what you have, but I can't help but think that some scenarios can sometimes just be screwed from the start for one of the players.
This game is fantastic.
It packs all of the things I enjoy about dungeon crawling (gradual, steady discovery, loot, multiple abilities, growing enemy threat) into a golden era sci fi setting which I equally enjoy. The "overkill" mechanic, where more than one success gives you a selection of additional procs on either your character, your weapon, or the target alien, is genius. It paces the game nicely since you can't one-shot an alien and vice-versa (a common problem in games like Descent) but a good die roll can instead infuse more choices into your turn, or more drama into the alien's turn.
Another huge plus is the generous amount of scenarios. I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the core scenarios, much less the bonuses in the Kickstarter book.
My only minor complaints are cosmetic. The tile art is a bit drab and gray. I understand that these are mostly UFO ships we're exploring but some color or lighting effects would have really made a difference. Also, the thralls have the same shade of green plastic as some of the other aliens, making it a little difficult to tell them apart initially (I think I'll paint mine). But these are extremely minor flaws in an obviously inspired design.
I'm certain this will remain a classic in my collection for quite awhile.
This is a singular game, fusing choose-your-own-adventure and exploration mechanisms into a narrative atmosphere that feels a lot like Myst, where the player is given a few verbs, a very simple rule set, some creepy derelict puzzles in a beautiful (though menacing) landscape and are left to fend for themselves.
The design walks a fine balance between gamerly abstraction and palpably evocative, borderline escapist exploration analogs. Its main stroke of brilliance lies in the latter, primarily through the blending of the choose-your-own-adventure mechanism with the gradual visual unveiling of a landscape that feels less like a map and more like a tiny storybook environment on your game table, complete with hidden visual clues. It takes the mental image that one would draw for oneself if this were being played as a book and (beautifully) draws that space in front of the player, with just the simple production concept of visually interlinked cards. It's one of those ideas that I'm surprised hasn't been explored before and I'm sure will begin to appear in more designs in the future. If the cards are your canvas, why not allow it to sprawl, gradually & mysteriously, across your table in tiny, detailed, card-sized increments?
On the more abstract side of the design are concepts like exertion & survival which are implemented by push-your-luck "action" card flips. Almost every significant action in the game costs the user anywhere from 1 to 6 action card flips which contain varying numbers of success pips (against varying success requirements). This card deck constantly forces the player to weigh the value of a guaranteed success with the current action against the increasing likelihood of a depleted draw pile, which triggers a discard recycle and can end the game if a single bad draw is performed during this reboot. The player is given ways of refilling this draw pile or slowing its use and buying time but these methods, usually hunting & using items, also carry their own risk considerations.
Inventory management is also abstracted, limiting the player to very few slots but allowing them to frankenstein multiple item cards into a single contraption that can fulfill several roles. The trade-off with these swiss army knives: their durability is shared. So sometimes it can make the player feel like they're perhaps building something that a bit *too* good but more likely to vanish with usage.
These are fun risk-reward puzzles to chew on while exploring and trying to figure out the overarching diegetic puzzle that needs also to be solved. The designers balanced these registers of gaming, puzzle-solving, visual exploration, & diegetic exploration in a nearly perfect and addictive alchemy.
I don't think I can give it a perfect 5, however, since the combination of Myst and permadeath isn't always going to be palatable, making this game more susceptible to lulls on the shelf between plays unless I want my frustration meter to be tilted & my current wonderment to be degraded.
I've only played 2 sessions of the Sword & Sorcery prologue but my initial impression is guardedly favorable. If all goes well, this will be the "Descent 1st Edition Sans Overlord" game that I was seeking a few years ago, though I'm guessing that I'm in the minority here. I'm not sure many are still looking for this style of game in 2017? In the context of Gloomhaven, which effectively beat this game to the punch with zero miniatures & more content, I suspect that S&S won't make a huge splash and that's fine. I don't think there's much of a splash to be made in this corner of the genre any more.
I do, maybe perversely, enjoy the seemingly infinite recess of dice parsing in Sword & Sorcery, which I think will just cause some hair-pulling for others.
*Chucks 4 D10's*
Let's see... two hits and a surge, +1 hit because I used my non-combat action to focus, +1 hit because we're dominating the area, -1 because it's night, one hit absorbed by armor 1, but I got a surge for a crit! *draws crit counter*... Armor minus 1! ...
*Gremlin rolls two defense dice*... he blocks all but one hit.
TLDR; after mod attrition extravaganza, two die rolls, and a chit pull: 1HP damage. And that's a pretty bare-bones example.
There's lots of this, on every single turn. Add saving rolls, enemies that cause a round of defense rolls for the entire party because of AoE reactions, special powers to activate for further modifications, AI cards to verify for weapon-type resistances & other behaviors, cooldown timers to manage and... you get the idea.
The special sauce of this game is the Book of Secrets, which conceals scripted events and separates them from the main Scenario book used during setup. This adds a nice layer of surprise to compensate for the lack of exploration or branching in most of the dungeons that I've perused in the early sections of the campaign. However, while it adds to the immersion, the concealed script also guarantees a limited shelf life for the initial campaign. You can add variability by changing your party composition to keep things fresh (and each character has a lawful/chaotic ability tree, so you can try the "dark" side of a favorite), but the general flow of the scenarios will only be a surprise once.
The design also distinguishes itself with the AI, which is probably the best that I’ve seen in any dungeon crawler. Enemies hit & run, buff their groups, self-heal, heal others, stay at a distance & debuff heroes, prioritize targets beyond “uh, lowest HP smash!” And since the activation of enemies is randomized with a card draw after every hero turn, these behaviors can chain unpredictably. This soundly beats Gloomhaven in this regard, keeping you on your toes for the entirety of the skirmish.
Overall, I think the design succeeds in its goal of creating a very strong entry in this subgenre of quasi-scripted, campaign-only, dice-chucker dungeon crawls, while also demonstrating that perhaps it's time to stop chipping away at this design space. They've really mined it clean with this one.
Eh, who am I kidding. We'll keep mining it forever!
I've jumped back into this a year and a half later and... while the rules resisted a quick re-absorption as I was trying to "skim" them and just get playing (hah!), I did greatly enjoy the payoff once the scenario was underway.
The Descent 1st ed flavor still sits really well with me. I've come to enjoy this slower, more methodical & tactical approach to dungeon crawling that avoids the Scylla & Charybdis of "shallow tactical race" on one side (Zombicide, Massive Darkness) and "Card Management: The RPG" on the other (Gloomhaven, Mage Knight).
The payoff lies in the deep tactical options and versatility that this style of game provides without Euro-gamifying the skill/ability selection layer and neutering the delightful, controlled chaos of polyhedral dice. I don't want my skill & equipment dashboard to be turned into a San Juan minigame, or my dice to be transformed into deckbuilding tedium, but I also don't want everything to devolve into "chuck some D6's and hit on 5-6 or get punched in the groin!" (Zombicide, Darklight, etc).
This design knows the sweet spot that some dungeon crawler veterans have been craving and stays there. It doesn't compromise in the face of some potential "fiddliness" and slowness, because newsflash: some of us think that this might be where the interesting shit in this genre resides. Not in the perpetually generic fantasy story that so many try to make engaging & interesting. Not in blitzing through speed bump enemies to hit a switch across a map before the timer runs out.
Want less upkeep? Play an RPG and don't DM. Don't want to DM but would still like to deliberate the rich set of tactical options you would normally have in RPG combat? Play this.
However, I’ve gotta say, while I have some tolerance for corniness, the writing did absolutely no favors to this game after several quests. It reads like someone struggled to meet a deadline, started a Rise of the Runelords ripoff story, then realized they were still out of ideas for dialog and started flailing with Hollywood parodies like some 12 year old composing actively bad fan fiction because they figure, hey, this is due tomorrow so might as well make it funny! With a name like Sword & Sorcery, there’s generally zero awareness of genre, & it feels more like World of Warcraft. This would be mostly fine (crawlers are almost all in this vein) if not for the additional pop culture references & discordant material like Tomb Raider, Pirates of the Carribean, & old school Warcraft (like "Lok'Tar!" jokes, y'all). It doesn’t ruin the game for me, but the eye rolling alone brings this down half a peg.
Downgraded to 3