If Grimslingers represents all the best that can happen when Greenbriar Games publishes an independent game with high-quality art, this stands at the complete opposite of the spectrum. Of Dreams and Shadows, which I will abbreviate to ODS for the sake of convenience, starts out with a bang that slowly devolves into a whimper the more you dig into the experience. Wrapped around a core of meticulously-crafted components, art, and worldbuilding is a scaffold of mechanics that threaten your connection to the dark fantasy adventure it strives to present. The game is based on experiencing something foreboding and unpredictable, but the randomness of the game makes that experience a frustrating one, which is challenging for all the wrong reasons. Especially considering how close ODS clings to comparable and, frankly, more enjoyable experiences, it is a hard game to recommend.
The issue at the heart of this game touches every part of it: luck that suggests it might enhance the experience, but never quite does. The basis of the game is its narrative, which plays out differently depending much more on the roll of the dice than your decisions as a player. Throwing caution to the wind and getting wrapped up in the experience can work, such as in the classic Tales of the Arabian Nights where the very goal of the game is to see where adventure takes you. ODS, however, gives you firm goals with few supplementary options. This is such a shame in a game that entices you so strongly with its writing and visual design.
As you open the box and pour through the game’s components, you begin to feel entangled in something foreboding and deep. ODS first draws you in with a stirring image of dark fantasy, brought to life by meticulously crafted portraits. Each monster and character is wreathed in malice, the darkness of their intentions looming over them and slowly threatening to envelop them. Short lines of text inform you of their dark intentions and violent tactics. If you never knew what dark fantasy was before this game, looking through these cards is all you need to understand the beats and tone of the genre. Something lurks at the heart of this kingdom, and no one who ventures out to find it will be assured of safety or sanity ever again.
For the most part, the components are not only high quality but practically crafted. Your characters and enemies have player cards which give you relevant information in a clean, digestible format. On the board, those characters are represented via inexpensive yet evocative, and easy to store, cardboard standees. These are thick enough to take some punishment, and surprisingly don’t appear to be prone to tearing at the bottom like many similar cards. More importantly, they make room for more of the morose portraiture that supports the game’s tone so well. These are so well made, in fact, that I have and will continue to use them in my D&D and Shadow of the Demon Lord games to represent NPCs.
The only drawback as far as visual design and presentation is the board itself. It serves well enough to convey the tone of the world, but not to the extent of the other materials. The above and below ground roads also break immersion, consisting of white lines on a background that is otherwise consistent with the rest of the art. These are minor issues, but the one real concern is that each location doesn’t have enough space to fit one piece, let alone multiple. This gets even worse when you have characters and enemies in adjacent locations, where you will have little space to separate combatants and relevant tokens.
As if the visuals weren’t enough, the world-building contained within the in-game text will leave you wanting to explore this setting. Each character and enemy has card text to fill you in on their motivations and backstory, and the game comes with a setting book to fill out the lore. You will start to feel there is something at stake here not only for the world overall but for your individual champions. None of this is revolutionary, relying as it does on certain stock fantasy tropes to get its message across, but the prose is effective, and it helps you get in the right frame of mind before delving into these shadowed forests. The quality of the art and game text as well as the attribute lists per character leave me with the impression that the ODS designers may have wanted to fill the setting out in a full tabletop RPG context, and I wish they go that route some day. There is too much creativity here to be put in one game, especially one I imagine is unlikely to make a long-term impact.
While these enticing elements never diminish while you play, they do come up against a wall when it comes to the gameplay. ODS is based more on experiencing a story through the in game events than gameplay decisions, and that will be the make it or break it feature for most potential players. Far too much of the game relies on luck, meaning that the course of the narrative and overall victory are out of your hands.
Mechanically, ODS shares much of its DNA with the Arkham and Eldritch Horror series from Fantasy Flight games. The basic conceit has you and up to five friends choose champions, each of which have various attributes that affect their die rolls, health and willpower scores, and special abilities. The game consists of two main phases, breaking the flow into preparation and combat against the primary villain. You and your other champions will spend five rounds preparing for an incoming threat: a main villain that you choose at the start of the game, whose presence looms over you and dictates the nature of other monsters. At the end of those five rounds the villain emerges, and you and your teammates must do battle with it to determine the fate of the world.
On each turn, players may take actions such as moving, regaining health, gaining spells or treasure, and activating special abilities. Characters have stats which modify die rolls for tests you will take in the game. They can pick up equipment as well as new actions to assist in combat, or even entice companions to help them on their journey. Champions can also acquire physical or mental afflictions, which reduce their attributes until you find a way to heal them. Because of the importance of attributes to success, these afflictions can create a dangerous downward spiral unless you find a way to deal with them quickly.
Following those actions they will do battle, making use of a streamlined system. To attack you simply roll a six sided die and add your combat rating. The difference between your attack and the opponent’s Defense score will result in damage against the monster. Attacks are also player focused, causing you to roll your defense against a static attack value. This keeps things moving along fairly quickly but leaves room for abilities and spells which you will pick up along the way to give you more options in combat.
After each combat phase, you will draw a card from the World Deck which will give you a small but specialized event corresponding to the type of location you are currently standing on. Where appropriate, you will instead draw a quest card to further the overall goal. These World Events consist of small story moments which will often contain attribute tests or spur on combats themselves. Much like in Dead of Winter, they begin by a player next to you reading the text out and concealing the possible results. You will be presented with some text describing either a test or a choice for you, and consequences for what results.
Once everyone has completed those phases, you will draw a single Event card to conclude the round, initiating a major benefit (or hurdle), to complicate the next round of the game. Rounds can go long the first game, as people find their feet and make decisions. It isn’t so bad after the players are familiarized, but that first time through you will find that going around the table multiple times and running through events can be time consuming.
After five rounds of preparation, Phase II begins and the villain rears its fell head. You begin a race against the clock, with a maximum of five turns to defeat the villain, a mighty boss monster who poses a genuine threat to your champions’ survival. There are three in the main game, and they bring Epic Foes, specialized monsters that will draw your resources and health as well.
All of that sounds fine in principle, but not long into your first game a sinking feeling hits you as you realize what this game is really about: rolling dice to see if interesting things happen, and rerolling until they do. Your character is shunted with few obvious choices and none of them feel particularly interesting. You can move, rest, fight, try to recruit an ally or obtain a relic, or purge a shadow token. Now that sounds like a lot of options, but in practice, your moves feel predetermined. The locations on the board are not different enough to encourage exploration, so your goals are dictated by where certain monsters and tokens fall. You will be prompted to rest and recover or make purchases at times, but there is nothing in here that feels like a tactical challenge.
In order to obtain gold, you need to defeat enemies. In order to do that, or to recruit followers, fulfill quests, or pass many events, you need to pass checks. What this means in practice, for basically the entire game, is that you will be sitting there making a series of die rolls and seeing what the results are. Victory and defeat are up to the dice, not you, and neither feels particularly interesting. You go from one location to another hoping that you can accomplish your goal, and the dice form this wall as you sit there rolling again and again to see what comes out. You don’t have any attachment to those rolls or what happens, and find yourself winding down the long clock to see the game to its end.
You do have boon tokens and willpower to mitigate luck, but these are rare resources and only take you so far. Not only do they run out quickly, they also don’t guarantee anything. If you spend three willpower on a roll and fail, you are in just the same position as if you spent none and succeeded, for all the emotion that it gives you. Unlike Arkham Horror, another long team-based adventure game involving dice checks, you don’t know which events will take place, you can’t shift your attributes to fit the situation, and you have far fewer options in general with what to do on your turn.
Winning or losing will be down to how the dice fall, and that would matter less if the events felt like an evocative story. Rather, they far too often introduce minor changes, such as giving you damage or an affliction. There is something to this, and I could see it working more effectively in a more mechanically-focused game, but what ends up happening is that events will give you a minor headache or a minor boost, not really contributing to the overall story. Of Dreams and Shadows never really manages to come together. Even if the text is telling you a grand story of travelling through spirit-infested woods and standing in the presence of a mighty lich, mechanically you are setting yourself in front of a series of increasingly difficult die rolls. Beyond choosing your starting characters, who have bonuses in specific areas, buying gear, and spending your small supplies of willpower, there just isn’t much for you to do in this multi-hour game. All you are really doing is sitting there, beating your head against a wall and making dice checks, occasionally reading a snippet of text to tell you how some numbers are going up or down.
It may not be coming through here, but I really wanted to enjoy this. I don’t need something to be the most mechanically robust if it gives me a memorable adventure, and I have spent many hours worth of time on Arkham Horror and Tales of the Arabian Nights. But the fact is that three hours is a long time, especially if you can’t get lost in the dream and you can’t take your eyes off of the strings holding it all in place. The randomness can easily be capricious and frustrating, and if things start going your way a part of you will know that skill has little to do with it.
It’s strange how the game’s length is based on predetermined sets of rounds rather than your skill, at least for the first half. I would have preferred some method of pushing your luck as you decide how to manage the threat while gathering more resources. I know the comparisons may be getting somewhat trite, but I can’t help but think of Arkham Horror, where this management is ongoing and you organically measure the threat level. While low and easy to manage at the start, it quickly grows out of hand and you have new points to strategize around. Even taken on its own merits, the structure of oD&S doesn’t have a clear purpose beyond breaking the game into distinct areas of easy and hard gameplay.
I have some other quibbles with a busy rulebook that needs some time to parse, but nothing so significant as the core of the gameplay. To its credit, learning and playing oD&S is pretty much effortless, and you can go from never having heard of the game to playing competently in only a few minutes.
In the next few weeks I will be giving this game another chance, at least to the extent that I can. Soon I will be reviewing Monsters Within, the first expansion which contains more heroes, more villains, and more options overall. I hope these changes are substantial enough to make the game really breathe, and despite it all I am looking forward to seeing what the expansion has to offer.
Designed by: Gordon Alford
Art: Simon Buckroyd, Matt Forsyth, Steven Preisman
Published by: Greenbriar Games
Age Rating: 14+
Time: ~3 hours
Mechanics: Cooperative, Dice Rolling
Of Dreams and Shadows
Of Dreams and Shadows builds its setting with entrancing art and prose, but has little else to rely on. The branching story paths and new abilities are not enough to break up the monotony of making dice check after dice check and interpreting the results. For all the narrative in this game, there isn’t enough to help you make your own story, as the lack of gameplay choice will leave you constantly aware.