Skip to main content

Cracked LCD- Cthulhu Wars in Review

I was very, very skeptical of Cthulhu Wars to say the least. I’m not a big supporter of the current trend toward crowdfunding in the hobby games market and I’m not entirely on board with the concept of these “Cadillac” games with astronomical presale prices. But there were three things that drove me to ask the publishers if they would send me a press copy. One is that I had heard great things about it from folks whose opinions I trust. The second is that I wanted to see what one of these luxury class games- in this case one retailing for $199- had to offer in comparison with more traditionally priced designs on the marketplace. The third is that Mr. Petersen is certainly not some upstart, armchair game designer selling their product with a flashy video and lots of promises. This is the guy that created Call of Cthulhu, still my favorite RPG of all time. And he also had a hand in designing games like Doom, Quake and other seminal, hugely influential computer games.

So “the Great Old One” himself responded, issuing a command to one of his Servitors to send a copy to me. A few days later I got this 11 pound box in the mail and opened it up to find a big, black box with good illustrations and luxurious embossing. It looked deluxe, sure. Opening it up, I was a little underwhelmed at first. It’s hard to not expect to be completely blown away, but the reality of it is that Cthulhu Wars is still a physical product, not a life-changing experience. But then I dug through the layer of punchboards and the map and saw IT. It wasn’t Cthulhu that caught my eye, it was Hastur. A huge, bright yellow monstrosity that put me in mind more of old fashioned plastic dinosaur figures more than gaming miniatures. I picked it up and just kind of laughed at it. Was it the taint of madness?

Also packed into the hard shell plastic tray were a huge Cthulhu that could be a replica of the statue in the story. There were Dark Young, tentacles frozen in mid-writhing along with their mother, Shub-Niggurath. Nyarlathotep, looking indeed like a Crawling Chaos. And the majestic yet abominable King in Yellow, of course rendered in yellow plastic. It’s been a very, very long time since I have been impressed with miniatures. These impressed me not just with their size, but also their detail and the implication that these were toys meant to be played with. In addition to these incredible pieces, the game is also packed with scads of great-looking monsters and cultists for each of the four included factions. Nightgaunts, Byahkees, Hunting Horrors, Deep Ones, Fungi from Yuggoth- if you know these names, you’ll be thrilled to hold these pieces in your hands.

After the initial sanity check, the reality set in that some of the components simply aren’t as impressive. The cardboard is pretty standard stuff and I’ve seen better in less expensive games. The gate markers in particular could have been and should have been more visually striking. The player mats and tracks are cardstock when they should have been thick punchboard. It’s hard to avoid being disappointed in the bag of plain old black 6mm D6s- games a fraction of the cost of Cthulhu Wars have custom dice. The maps are decent, but the visual design lacks the impact of the plastics.

I don’t usually spend a lot of column inches discussing the physical product in my reviews, but Cthulhu Wars definitely deserves it because of the consumer cost and also because it is such a wild mix of incredible and mundane. The effect is something like driving a Cadillac and realizing that it is just a car after all. It’s still a Cadillac and that matters, but it is important to keep expectations in check. This is still a small press, crowdfunded board game. And it is worth noting that the current “Onslaught 2” Kickstarter campaign offers both free and paid upgrades to several components. You pay extra for the seat heaters and deluxe floormats.



Out of all of the things I expected out of Cthulhu Wars, the last thing I expected to be quite honest was to encounter an incredibly streamlined, highly refined “Dudes on a Map” design that I think is the best in its class since 2005’s Nexus Ops. This is a spectacular piece of development work that showcases Mr. Petersen’s experience and expertise in creating game systems, mechanics and concepts. This is absolutely a “fun first” design built to put players into a very specific setting, give them the insane powers of an alien god, and then get out of the way as much as possible to let players play. It is highly accessible, approachable and easy to learn. Administration is at a minimum- there are very few tokens to fuss with, no decks of cards to learn and manage, and the bookkeeping is as simple as it gets. In a way, it’s very old fashioned, but it also cuts through a lot of the clutter and bloat that have plagued “conquest” style games over the past decade or so.

The concept is cool and anyone that loves Lovecraft- from the original stories up through recent games such as Eldritch Horror- will immediately appreciate it. What if all of those gate-closing, cult-thwarting, Cthulhu-shooting exploits in other Mythos-inspired games was for naught and the Great Old Ones won? The core game’s map depicts an Earth upon which mankind no longer holds sway, the Great Old Ones along with their minions and monsters struggle for dominance. Cultists spread their abhorrent practices across the post-apocalyptic wastes, establishing gates through which they can summon monsters and even the Great Old Ones themselves. The overall goal of the game is for your faction to earn 30 Doom points. This only takes 60-90 minutes once your group has a handle on the game.

Fundamentally, Cthulhu Wars hews close to the Dudes on a Map tradition that goes back to Risk. Moving pieces and fighting with them is the prime directive. Combat is a matter of rolling dice equal to the combat value of everything in a space with sixes killing any unit (even a Great Old one) and fours or fives resulting in “Pain”, effectively a rout or forced retreat. There are also some other cool concepts at work. For example, if you put a monster in a space with an enemy’s Cultist that does not have a monster of their faction then you can abduct them to earn extra power. So a Nightgaunt can fly in and snatch up a guy left alone holding down a gate.

Each turn, all of the Cultists you have on the board generate a Power Point and you get two for each gate you control. The meager, misguided worshippers are also expendable, so you can sacrifice them for more power. These points are used to pay for movement, battle, gate construction, summoning, kidnapping Cultists and paying to use your faction’s Spellbook powers. These abilities- each player has six- are earned when you complete a specific goal keyed to your faction’s agenda and overall strategic direction. Shub-Niggurath has “achievements” keyed to spreading her “Thousand Young” across the map. Nyarlathotep is focused on control of gates and gaining power. Hastur’s Yellow Sign gang benefits from The King in Yellow spreading desecration into territories, the Undead springing up to serve his majesty. The followers of Cthulhu earn Spellbooks from controlling the oceans and devouring other players’ pieces.

The Spellbooks are outrageously overpowered and unfair. Some of them are at Cosmic Encounter levels of rules bending or breaking. Cthulhu can submerge with a couple of Shuggoths and Star Spawn and spend just one power point later on to pop up anywhere on the map. Nyarlathotep has a Madness ability that allows his player to choose for everyone else where “pained” (routed) figures are moved to after combat. Hastur can move to a Cultist that accidentally spoke his name and then abduct them. The Black Goat faction can turn their congregation into one die combat units.

The point is that all of these appropriately godlike powers are extremely powerful and desirable, while also giving each faction both a unique flavor and a variable, situational strategic direction each game. Some Spellbooks interact with a faction’s units to augment their abilities in movement or combat. They are all well balanced and well written, but it is imperative that new players understand what each faction’s special ability is along with all of their Spellbooks. Unaware players may miss the importance of not allowing the Black Goat’s monsters to run rampant or of keeping the Crawling Chaos player out of gate territories.

Scoring all of the above is quite interesting. In each round, each player get Doom points for each gate they control. Each player also has the option to perform a Ritual of Annihilation wherein power points are spent in exchange to effectively double the points earned from gates and give the annihilating player a secret Elder Sign mark worth one to three points for each Great Old One they control. But it is also at the expense of resources available during the turn. The Ritual becomes more expensive each time it is performed and there is a terminal point at which so many of them ends the game whether someone has reached 30 Doom or not.

This scoring method has a knock-on effect- it keeps the game moving forward, continually escalating the stakes but without creating the kind of “steamroller” effect that often occurs in this type of game. There are a couple of checks and balances in place. If you manage to get two more gates than everybody else on just one turn, you can do the Ritual to get a four point jump in addition to a possible three point boost from an Elder Sign, which also serves to baffle the “beat up the leader” impetus. And then there is a charity provision that enables a player that gets just completely devastated on a turn to earn power points equal to half the leader- which can be a big boon.

This is a very aggressive, very fluid game so fortunes and territorial control can change dramatically over the course of the action. There is no turtling, the close quarters map with few territories simply doesn’t allow it. Rebounding from losses is fairly easy, and “Pain” results are more common than kills. The feeling this generates is one of struggle between equivalent powers punctuated by dramatic shifts in game state.

The immediacy of this game- coupled with its easy play and approachability- makes this one of my favorite designs in this genre space. I love that it is a game that someone can come to my house, see on the shelf, get curious about and I can have them up and running with it in about ten minutes. Setup and commitment are minimized. Impact and engagement are maximized.


Brilliantly editorial in its design yet over-the-top in production, the final question in regarding Cthulhu Wars is one that has likely been on the minds of any reader who has not yet either bought the game from the previous Kickstarter campaign or pledged on the recent one. “Is it worth it”? It’s a harder question to answer than it seems because in comparison to other products on the market it’s difficult to argue for it when you can easily buy three or even four very high quality, comparable titles for this game’s selling price. And that is before you figure in the expansion material, which is also premium priced with a full set of add-ons costing $600 before shipping.

But here it is. The answer might be regarded as something of a cop-out, but I’m going to tell you, reader, that it is simply up to you. Take a look at what is online, take a look at what is offered in the current Kickstarter, think about what your tastes are and what your group likes to play. Consider if a luxury-class Dudes on a Map game is something you want as a centerpiece in your collection. If you are interested in the Cthulhu Mythos, factor in how much you think that playing with these awesome figures and powers would be fun. Play someone else’s copy- if you dare to tempt yourself.

For my part, I think it is worth it because it is a masterful design that evokes an old fashioned sensibility while presenting itself in a very modern and very innovative set of rules that feels outside of the usual set of influences and antecedents. The miniatures, if you can call them that, do actually impart a sense of grandiose, cyclopean theater to the game and I would not want them to be reduced or replaced by less extravagant components. I appreciate the heart and soul of this game, I value that Mr. Petersen in some sense regards it as a culmination of his life’s work in games. The expansion content lingers in my thoughts like some kind of malignant corruption, the sound of a mystical unseen flute summoning my wallet.

I love this game and I think it is one of the absolute best games released this year and in time it could become one of my favorite games of all time. It is the best crowdfunded board game released to date. Like most of the games I cover, I was given it to review so take from that fact what you will. But if not for Mr. Petersen’s generosity, I would have been on my phone ordering a copy immediately after my first play.


Cracked LCD- Secrets of the Lost Tomb in Review


Everything Epic’s maiden release, Secret of the Lost Tombs, is a hybrid of the dungeoncrawl and narrative-oriented adventure genres, a combination that isn’t as common as you might think given how overpopulated both types of games are these days. It features a setting in which it totally makes sense that Teddy Roosevelt would lead an expedition into a subterranean Masonic lodge to decipher a code left by Ben Franklin that can be used to awaken and control a giant monster that helped the Colonies to win the Revolutionary War- one that is spoiling for a rematch with the giant monster that fought on Britain’s side. Oh, and you might meet Dracula and Blackbeard along the way. In a Mongolian tomb.

It’s all gonzo pulp, all the time, that wears its influences on its sleeves. And on the back of its jacket. And its pants. All over its socks and shoes as well. References to Indiana Jones and Alan Quatermain are checked off, and the merchant from Resident Evil 4 makes a guest appearance (the “whaddaya buyin’?” dude). The monster-busting secret society/tomb raiding organization that the characters belong to is an lot like the BPRD from Hellboy. But more specifically, this game borrows liberally and almost uncomfortably from Fantasy Flight’s line of Lovecraftian horror games as well as Betrayal at the House on the Hill.

If you’ve played Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, and/or Mansions of Madness you have played at least 90% of this game’s design, even though it refocuses the gameplay to a dungeoncrawl format- which is actually pretty cool despite the uncomfortable similarities. Fives and sixes are successes, you roll X dice where X is the stat being checked. There are condition cards that often have knock-on effects later in the game. Monster-fighting involves both actual combat and a psychological element. You get companions/allies. Adventure and Misadventure cards play out almost exactly as they do in the above games and are written in a very similar style. There’s a doom tracker. As for its resemblance to Betrayal at the House on the Hill, the way the dungeon is laid out with multiple floors is almost identical, with some rooms only occurring at certain levels. There’s even the “underground lake” weirdness that players of Betrayal’s first edition will recognize where some features shouldn’t logically be on some floors, like watchtower one floor below the first. And there are also certain conditions and story effects that cause players to switch sides, which was that game’s hallmark.

I have no doubt that designer Chris Batarlis has played and loves all of these games, and I can’t fault the guy for trying to come up with his own, spirited version of these kinds of designs- and with a fairly unique high level concept to boot. There are some qualities about it that it does exceptionally well. I really like how there is no levelling up, instead your character unlocks abilities or actually loses them based on their Courage. It’s a neat way to do the psychological element and tie it to a character’s abilities. There are lots of fun traps and it definitely generates a sense of exploration. The scenario design is quite good and steers well clear of the usual repetitive monster-bashing of many dungeoncrawlers. The included scenario book includes some very novel situations like aforementioned bit with Ben Franklin and some challenging, detailed adventures with several fun surprises.

But this game- which comes packed in a ten pound box packed to the gills with tokens (eight punchboards’ worth), cards and novelty components like these awful stat trackers that are lain over the characters cards- sorely, desperately needs a sense of focus. It’s a sprawling mess. Mechanically, it’s mostly sound and it all works despite some truly WTF design level decisions like using double-faced D12s instead of D6s and a couple of needlessly bothersome elements like this terrible searching thing where you have to turn this token every time you search because it “gets more dangerous” or something. The mess comes in mostly in the content, and specifically the content tied to the setting and storylines.

This means that elements in these scenarios come across as a jumble sale of locations, mythologies and notable characters with random HP Lovecraft stuff thrown in to boot. What could have- and I think should have- been a game more in line with Indiana Jones, Alan Quatermain or Lara Croft turns into this weird mish-mash of moving from battling mummies in one room to fighting Olmecs in another. In Davy Jones’ locker. Where you might encounter a Mi-Go. I guess the secret of these tombs is that they connect all of these disparate things into one distasteful slurry of pulp adventure and historical references that doesn’t hang together at all.

Playing the game, I keep thinking that I would like the game so much more if Mr. Batarlis had picked a time period, a mythology, a location or some other unifier to give the written and visual content consistency. Like if this release, for example, where all about Egyptian sites and stories about how they connect to the larger story he’s trying to tell. And then maybe the next set in product line has all the pirate stuff and the scenarios build on to the larger story. But instead, it feels like everything Japanese, Greek, South American and, uh, pirate got dumped in together. It undermines the otherwise strong sense of story. It’s a kitchen sink approach.

There are other issues with the content as well. Characters are wildly imbalanced, equipment and artifacts become redundant over the course of the game. The stack of room tiles is huge- over 50- which means if you need to find a certain room that isn’t laid out specifically at the outset, it can have a variable effect on the game’s length, which has an effect on its difficulty over time. The one-a-round event cards have just a title and then some plain instructions for monster spawns and so forth, but offer no reason for why they have titles- again, undermining the narrative.

I’m also completely not in any kind of love with the combat. It’s one of those games where you roll a ton of dice and compare successes to various numbers on a monster card. It’s boring and tedious, made even more boring and tedious by those completely unnecessary D12s, of which you need about three times as many as are included. Toss them out into your “random dice” Crown Royal bag and replace them with some regular D6s. There are PVP options that are actually required if someone turns bad due to a condition or story event, and they are just as boring and tedious.

What it comes down to is that the game is simply trying to do too much. It stretches itself thin, and when it could be showing its strengths it instead shows either its influences or its seams far too much. Do we really need the “Soul Merchant” (the RE4 guy) in there? Or is that just a distraction in what should be a game about surviving an expedition into an ancient trap and monster laden tomb? Do we really need all of the companion cards, when what is really essential is that these characters are interesting and fun to play? The game just loses its way and even though it has moments where you can see what Mr. Batarlis was getting close to what I believe he wanted us to experience, too often it collapses in scattershot directions.

I also get that Everything Epic wanted this to be a big, stunning production like the Fantasy Flight games of ten years past. I appreciate that, but here again you can feel the game straining. Material quality is fine, but it is an amateurishly produced game rife with typographical errors, misspellings, outright misprints (including a rulebook misprinted with the wrong cover) and plain old bad grammar. I’m a professional writer and I understand that any large volume of text is going to have errors, but there is no excuse for a finished, gone-to-press consumer product to be so poorly proofread or copyedited. It also doesn’t help that the visual execution is crude at best- it looks like something that fell out of a 1995 Angelfire Web site. The fonts are almost hilariously inconsistent (there are like six different typefaces on the box top alone), character portraits look terrible and the overall graphic design is poor. I don’t expect an indie production to be on par with Games Workshop, but I do expect that a lack of budget is made up for with style or visual panache.

Writing this review has been tough because I do not like to do bad reviews. I don’t think there’s much joy in dismantling something that someone has labored long and hard over and put a lot of love into. Secret of the Lost Tombs is one that I can tell has been labored over and loved, but it also feels inexperienced and na?ve. There’s something almost charming about it that has kept me coming back to it more than I expected after the first couple of outings with it, something almost like seeing an unexpectedly good and enthusiastic covers band at a bar. I can’t tell you that I haven’t had some fun with the game and I can’t tell you that I haven’t waffled back and forth over just how much I do or do not like it, but I would be dishonest if I didn’t come clean with the fact that this is one of those games that is lacking in a number of important areas. It’s not one that most groups would reach for over its more polished, focused and refined antecedents.

Cracked LCD- Yashima: Legend of the Kami Masters in Review


Yashima: Legend of The Kami Masters is a pitched battle between two to four combatants wielding the powers of the martial arts, magic and nature spirits. Think of it something like a cross between the arcade classic Yie Ar Kung Fu, a Chinese Wuxia film and the summoning spells from a Final Fantasy game. It is a focused concept rich with background story and setting, but without many contextual frills. There are no scenarios, there are no resources and there are no objectives other than defeating your foes. It is essentially a card game not unlike Yomi or BattleCon, but it uses hex-based terrain tiles and miniatures to express distance, position and the scope of attacks. I really like what I’ve seen from the game so far, but it also leaves me with a feeling that this design- which has great potential- isn’t quite to where it needs to be just yet.

I was drawn to Yashima first by the tremendously underused Asian fantasy setting, second by the promise of a simple, direct battle game with minimal setup or investment required. On both counts, the design scores high. Designers Joshua Sprung and Tony Gullotti have provided a cool setting and the notion of the Kami Masters partnering up with a Kami spirit is a neat idea expressed in the game by modular decks. A Master’s cards make up half your deck, the other half are a Kami’s cards. So you might be the furious Samurai-like Kenta, with his strong attacks and his ability to inflict a damage-enhancing Rancor, matched up with the highly defense Tortose Kami. Or you might decide to pair up the terrifying flame attacks of the Dragon with the master Rosamu, who excels in creating devastating chain combinations. There are four each of Masters and Kami included in the initial release, and it isn’t hard to imagine that more are on the way.

Each of these Masters also comes equipped with a deck of Tome cards. These cards are double sided and you flip them over like the pages of an actual book, so that only the Tome abilities you can see are currently usable. This is a fun notion, but it also kind of doesn’t make sense in the setting. Did Hikaru not memorize all her spells before heading out to the fight? Regardless, each character has a host of Karma-activated abilities that serve to distinguish them even further than their mix of cards and attacking capabilities.

Despite the modularity and variety of cards in the mix, the important rules barely take up two front-and-back pages and it’s easy to get players fighting fit in minutes. Once everyone is set up- and I do recommend making sure that all four characters are in every game, even with only two or three players- this is a fast moving, very direct game that is going to take you no more than 45 minutes or so to decide a victor. A round kicks off with a set of Action tokens (Move or Attack) placed on the table, one for each player. Each player then gets to secretly choose a Move or Attack token to add to the pool. Later, you’ll use these to active your Master and you will be limited to what is available for selection. There’s a chance to discard and redraw cards, and then all players draw a card to place in their Karma pile, which is also how the initiative is determined.

Tome actions follow, and the player may choose to Delve, meaning that they flip a page forward or backward to access a different pair of abilities. Strategically, this may be a critical decision as these allow you to equip weapons or other gear, enhance attacks or defense, or perform other special functions. During the Tome phase, you can play one of your visible abilities by paying its cost out of your Karma pile.

Once you’ve had a chance to fiddle around with a book out on the battlefield (at least that’s what it seems like), you pick your action token. Characters move a Speed rating and are limited to some degree by terrain types or by being “locked in combat” with an adjacent enemy. Attacking is more complicated, primarily because of how the targeting works.

Each attack card shows a diagram of your figure’s facing, surrounding hexes, and shaded hexes indicating where an attack hits. Some may hit two or three hexes in front of you in a line, where others might have a wide, sweeping arc and another might hit everything in a three hex frontage. The kicker (literally) is that you hit everything in the attack profile- even if you are playing with teams. This is a neat mechanic, but it sometimes takes a second to parse what exactly you can and can’t hit with- especially if your figures are like mine and are unpainted, because it isn’t clear which way the are facing.

An attacked character can play a defense card to soak up some damage. There is no life tracker or hit point marker in the game. All damage comes from either your hand or your deck, and only through special abilities or rejuvenating terrain can you get cards from discard back into your deck. One interesting mechanic is that attack cards and others that you “Use” go back to the bottom of the deck instead of discard. Once your deck is depleted, you aren’t exactly out of the game- you go into a special mode called “Restoration”. Your character card is flipped over and shows some slightly different stats and you have a chance to continue playing with a refreshed draw deck. Effectively, you have lost but you aren’t truly down and out until you are beaten a second time. In a team game (which is by far the best way to play), the team that has both Masters in restoration is the losing team.

There is some great stuff going on in Yashima. In addition to the excellent combat mechanics, there are status effects such as Blind and Burn that are given to characters, impacting their performance. Akiko, the resident pyromanic, can put Burn markers out on empty spaces- and then use a Tome effect later to explode them, causing damage to anyone standing by them. Rosamu’s chain ability lets him draw cards after attacks and keep going, as long as he keeps drawing cards with over 6 Karma, the chain ability and no duplicates of previously played attacks. There are Ripostes and out-of-nowhere evasive moves. There are throwing axes, magic boots and cards that you put face-up at the bottom of a deck, activating them when they make it to the top.

I love how focused this game is, but by the same token it almost feels limited. Battles tend to play out with a little maneuvering at first, an engagement and then maybe a couple of surprises but not as much maneuvering as you might think- even taking into account the attack template mechanic. So there’s a little more of a “clumping” effect, not uncommon in miniatures games with a strong melee emphasis, than I’d like to see. Some elements of the game just don’t quite seem relevant due to the superiority of attack over movement, such as the terrain types and facing. Facing isn’t even really relevant since you can change it before you play any card. Sure, the action tokens may keep you from attacking when you need to, but the result is often that you wind up with no option other than a Move that you neither need nor want. And a turn that feels wasted because of the limited scope.

It seems, then, that Yashima might work as part of a larger, unrealized game. I get a sense that this is sort of an introduction to the combat mechanics of a system that could grow to include things like specific objectives, capturing territory, some kind of “common” units fighting alongside the Kami Masters and narrative scenario design. The rulebook advertises a couple of upcoming expansions but it appears that they only introduce material similar to what is in this release. Which is good, and I do want them because I’m excited to see what new ice and forest content brings to the battles, but I also feel like the game needs more than “beat those guys up” to be a really good fighting game.

Oddly, the game reminds me quite a lot of the recent WWE Superstar Showdown. The games play and feel differently, but there is a similar impetus on positioning in a relatively small area paired with cardplay and counter-cardplay. This is definitely the more intricate and challenging title and it also has more potential to grow into something more fully developed.

Cracked LCD- Darkest Night in Review (Part 1- The Base Game)


Darkest Night, designed by Jeremy Lennert and published by lovable underdogs Victory Point Games, doesn’t sound terribly interesting at first pass. I’m almost reticent to lay out the objective facts about the game regarding its process and mechanics out of fear that they’ll put you to sleep. But stick with me. It’s worth it.

Darkest Night is a one to four player co-op adventure game that draws inspiration from Arkham Horror and similar titles. Players represent various fantasy character types with special powers that they will have to employ to combat various monsters, events and other threats that pop up on the board by rolling dice. The storyline is that there is an Evil Necromancer up to some necromancer-ly hijinks, represented in the game by a simple automation process whereby he moves from location to location on the board and spawns Blights – both physical enemies and more abstract adversarial forces representing themes such as despair, confusion and presences.

The goal is to find Holy Relics. Each requires that the heroes search for and locate three keys. Each one makes the Necromancer easier to battle, but if the good guys find four of the Holy Relics they win the game automatically. But the heroes lose if the Monastery, their base of operations and the last bastion of all that is good and sacred in the world, becomes overrun with Blights.

Bored yet? Sleepy? Wondering why I’m bothering with this game? Hang in there, we’re getting to the good stuff.

With all that is hackneyed about the game out of the way, I’ll tell you that Darkest Night is one of the best games in its class even though it isn’t nearly as novel or compelling in terms of setting as VPG’s classic Nemo’s War or as maverick as something like Shadows of Malice. There a couple of things that this game does that are novel and compelling and really quite unique, even though you might be lead to believe otherwise at a first impression. I’ve come to love this scrappy little game- especially as a solitaire outing where I can really dig into it at my own pace.

First and foremost, the way this game handles characters- and there are a TON of them across the base game and four expansions as of this writing- is bold, brilliant and their diversity generates a wildly different strategic matrix for players every game. There is more to the characters than the usual D&D-derived character classes thanks to unique Power card decks that drive the actions each player can take. Coming from games such as Talisman, these classes are well beyond what you might expect in terms of delineating the difference between a Rogue and a Druid. Because each one plays very differently and due to the random nature of how the Necromancer spawns blights, this results in a tremendously variable game where characters may or may not have certain utility based on these powers.

I love it the crazy variety in how these all play out, and even in a game with the same character you played last time you might wind up with different powers, resulting in a fresh experience. I think it’s thrilling to sit down with four random characters and see what happens in terms of how their powers interact with the game. More than that, I love that some classes are literally useless in some aspects (which means you’ve sometimes got to be creative) while others serve functions that are very unique (which means that you’ve got to work out how to use them effectively). The Prince for example, is really kind of a lousy fighter. He’s much better at hiding, inspiring your other characters and operating almost like a monarch in exile. The magic users all vary greatly, most have specific rules and card types unique to their practice. Some characters are great at supporting others, some are your go-to members when battle calls, some are best suited to searching for treasures and others do crazy things like teleport other characters around, summon beast companions and sing songs.

There is quite a lot of satisfying complexity that comes with all of these characters, but the basic process of the game is super simple. If you’re not at the Monastery and the Necromancer isn’t in your space, you draw an event card. These are usually bad, and many have a die roll check to determine their effect. If the Necromancer is in your space, it could be worse as he may find and fight you. And then you take just one action, barring any free actions afforded by your powers or other assets. You can travel, hide, attack a blight, search the area or use a power. At the Monastery, you can pray. If you have three keys, you can take a Holy Relic.

There are some interesting things going on here with the strictures. Moving to another location (there are only six) is exclusive from attacking, which is how you get rid of the Blights. And most Blights have either an area effect that impacts the location or they automatically attack your character at the end of your turn, and it’s a defensive kind of battle. You don’t clear them off the board if you win. You have to choose an attack action to vanquish them. This creates some tough choices in terms of movement, staying in safer areas or marshaling a Knight or a Paragon over there to take care of the problem. And, interestingly, there are situations where some characters actually do better by staying put for virtually the entire game. For example, a character with powers that affect searches might contribute the most by staying in areas where keys are more likely to turn up when the Map cards indicating search results are drawn.

Avoiding Blights altogether is also an unexpected element. Players may just completely stay away from battles at all, opting to move in the shadows and not directly confront the creeping evil. And it turns out that this is actually indicative of the game’s biggest concept both in terms of theme and in its fiction- you aren’t fighting the Necromancer head on, you’re waging a kind of guerilla war from hiding. It’s obviously inspired by Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship spends much of the journey trying to stay out of Sauron’s sight, and it works very effectively in Darkest Night. Almost every encounter allows you to choose combat or evasion, and it’s often better to just run away.

Players have two trackers on their character sheets- Grace and Secrecy. You lose Secrecy by doing things like choosing to fight Blights, encountering Spies and carrying Holy Relics- all things that attract attention. But they can gain it by traveling, hiding and generally staying on the down-low. Secrecy is how the Necromancer’s awareness of each character is tracked, and maintaining this secrecy is critical to winning the game. This is also how the Necromancer’s movement is triaged. A die roll over a character’s Secrecy means that he comes that way, and all players that start their turn in the Necromancer’s area lose a Secrecy. If player has zero, the Necromancer fights him in a battle pretty much unwinnable without at least one Holy Relic. The game has a way of creating a sense that characters with low Secrecy are being tracked down, hunted and overcome.

And eventually, you will be overcome because this can be a pretty tough game. There’s a lovely little bit of unexpected nomenclature in the game. There are no hit points or lives. Instead, players have Grace. The rulebook describes this as being an almost mysterious ability for heroes to preserve in life-or-death situations, to be given another chance. Lose a battle, you are defeated. But you may have the Grace to carry on. It’s a minor thing, but I like the tone it generates.

I appreciate how the game strikes a favorable balance between mechanical economy and a multilayered, compellingly diverse range of powers and effects. These, in conjunction with the stealth concept and some unexpected mechanics, make for a great narrative line every game. The last time I played, I had a Scholar posted up in the castle, doing research to learn new powers and find artifacts that he could share with the other three heroes. But his secrecy gradually ran out, because the Necromancer moved that way and posted up some of his spies there. Eventually, the Scholar had to flee to get his Secrecy back because he was exposed. I’ve had characters partner up because of synergies in their powers. I’ve had games where the party did best sticking together and groups that were just doomed from the start.

Some games have been naturally harder than others that were almost too easy. Some have been anticlimactic, and others have been down-to-the-wire nailbiters that ended with do-or-die turns. Some will not appreciate the volatility. There is a lot of die-rolling, card-flipping and general randomness on top of the variety introduced by the characters. And it is possible for a player to wind up feeling like there’s nothing effective that they can do given a particular game state. But frankly, after playing this game with two groups of three and four, I’ve found that the solo game is really the best experience here.

I wanted this game for a long time before finally capitulating to an irresistible sale of the Necromancer Bundle, which includes the first three expansions. I was interested mainly because I like Victory Point Games and I wanted to see their take on the big, epic fantasy co-op. But I did kind of feel put off by the ho-hum setting and concept. It turns out, as is often the case with VPG titles, that there’s more here than you might expect. It says so right on their box- “The gameplay’s the thing” and that’s what distinguishes this fine game from its peers. The gameplay is top notch, driven by a uniquely diversified range of player characters and subtle twists on the usual formulas.

And the expansions just improve it. (To be continued)

Cracked LCD- Seekers of a Hidden Light (Shadows of Malice Expansion) In Review

seekers 2Jim Felli’s Shadows of Malice, which I reviewed just a couple of months ago, is one of the best games of 2015. It’s a fresh, almost “outsider” design that pretty much throws away the handful of fantasy board game design templates and does a couple of very unique things. With its random creature generation, a paradoxically vague but concrete sense of narrative worldbuilding and mechanics that support a tangible sense of actual cooperation beyond the usual whack-a-amole style of gameplay, Shadows of Malice is a maverick and even experimental design. If that’s all we ever got from Mr. Felli, we’d already have something of a treasure – even if it is, like fine art, not exactly for all audiences.

But there is more, and Mr. Felli is preparing to release Seekers of a Hidden Light, an expansion to Shadows of Malice. He was kind enough to forward me an early copy of it and I’m glad he did. I would regard Seekers as a must-have expansion for those already converted, but those new to the game may want to come to grips with the base game first.

I sort of raised my eyebrow at an expansion coming along so soon. And my suspicion about it was completely correct- the small box add-on contains material that could have been included in the base game. One of the complaints I’ve heard about the base game is that there isn’t much dimension to what players can do – you walk around and either visit Mystics/Cities or fight things. There’s no side-questing or anything like that other than the overarching goal to get strong enough to take down the Guardians at the Light Wells and to combat both Xul’Thul and his Shadows. This expansion completely addresses that lack by focusing on quests that the Avatars may optionally take on at the request of the Mystics.

And it demonstrates that the new material shouldn’t have been in the base game. With Seekers’ quest rules, the game almost becomes something of an “Advanced Shadows of Malice”. It doesn’t add much in the way of new processes, although it does expand the world-building quite a bit with all of this business about Lux potion-brewing Alchemes and Lux rune-inscribing Lumeres. This is not a suite of mix-and-match additions, nor does it supplement any of the card decks already in the game. No new masteries for the Avatars, no new treasures, no new Fate cards and no new potions. No new creature traits either.

Some may view that as a disappointment but considering the small number of all of the above that may feature in a given game it steers the expansion clear of being one of those bulk-adding cards that adds pointless variety rather than substantial material. What’s here matters much more than adding height to card decks. But it’s also still very open-ended, nothing fundamentally changes the course of the game or its primary objective. You don’t even have to pursue any of the quests if you don’t want to, and the decision to do so is one that you’ve got to weigh against the current situation on the board, what other players are doing and if there is even time to risk getting involved in one to try to reap the benefit of some very nice rewards.

There are four quest types, and all are issued by visiting a Mystic and spending an action. You get to pick which kind of quest you will pursue- Gathering, Harvesting, Hunting and Seeking. A Each type is progressively more difficult to accomplish because the specifics escalate. When you Gather, you simply have to go to a certain terrain type and make a Luck roll. Failed? Don’t worry, it gets easier each time you attempt it. But if you Harvest, you have to go fight a specific type of creature to harvest some part of its body. Hunt, and you’ve to fight a specific monster on a specific type of terrain. But if you really want to go for it, you can Seek, which means you’re looking for a specific monster, terrain AND ability color.

I read this in the rules and I thought “no way” because of how the random creature generation works. But then I read on and learned that all of the hexagonal, yellow counters with terrain types on them were bait that you could buy from Cities or Mystics. If you take on a quest, you’d better get some bait because these invaluable markers let you bump the creature generation roll around so that you can get what you need. They’re also helpful for treasures that affect certain kinds of creatures. This is a cool addition that in concert with the quests reminds me somewhat of the Monster Hunter video games.

Complete a quest and you can earn a couple of different rewards and not just stock Soulshards and potions. You also earn Lux, which becomes something of a shared currency within the group stored in the “Solux”. You use Lux to buy potions or runes from the aforementioned Alchemes and Lumeres. The potions are particularly powerful and offer very different kinds of effects from the standard drafts available throughout Aetheros. The Lux runes are expensive but attach to treasures, augmenting their power. Are the rewards worth it? It’s up to you decide. There are no timers, doom tracks or any other artificial methods of increasing tension to tell you one way or another. Talk it over with your band, see how the Lightwells are doing, and create your own trajectory.

The open-ended gameplay and compelling lack of ham-handed fantasy game tropes is completely unaltered. As a whole, Seekers fits right into the Shadows system with very little effort and it does not appreciably affect game length- and can even accelerate it somewhat since successful questing can lead to stronger Avatars. But I would still recommend that those new to the game cut their teeth on the system before applying the quest, bait and Lux. That said, I won’t play without them from this point forward.

I can’t stress enough how impactful this game has been on the way I view the whole fantasy/RPG-style board game. It isn’t really anything like all of those other ones over there (I’m pointing at your game shelf) and now it isn’t even really expanding in the same ways that those all have. Do I want more from Mr. Felli? Of course I do. But I also want any further expansions to be this casually meaningful, well-considered and indispensable. An excellent encore to a masterful performance.