Alone Time: The Grayking is Risen

I recently considered using woodblock prints from old books in a project I'm working on. It's perfect if you think about it: eerie art, high quality, and FREE.

The land is corrupted. The silent Grayking, brooding upon his throne in the Tower of Ash, is a far-reaching shadow upon Lassadar. We feel his presence in each of our days. His servants grow bold, stealing into our cities, inhabiting the alleys and dark places of our streets. They jeer at us from our mirrors, shaming our reflections.

So begins the introduction to Shadows Upon Lassadar, an exciting solo fantasy quest game from Todd Sanders, in which you take on the role of a young magic adept assigned the unenviable task of locking the three barrier gates that will keep the mysterious and powerful Grayking out of Lassadar. If that sounds intriguing, the good news is that you can make it yourself right now, for free.

As in, right now. For free.

If you're inartistic like me, then you can have it in two weeks, for a little more than twenty bucks, from Todd Sanders himself.

I’m reviewing lots of games in small boxes lately.

I’m going to assume that since you’re here reading this instead of in a whirlwind spree of card-printing and looking for spare dice and little colored cubes that either you don’t believe this windfall really just settled face-up on your keyboard, or you need more convincing.

In the first case, I can prove it: click here, scroll down to the Files section, and print off the few pages of rules and cards. Cutting them out is entirely your problem, I’m afraid, as is locating the few extra necessary bits. It’s probably possible that you could be playing Shadows Upon Lassadar less than two hours from now.

In the second case, fine, I’ll do my job unpaid hobby and talk a little bit about what this thing is all about.

With some variation. There are three difficulty levels (don't play on Beginner, it's much too easy), and you can choose your two starting spells.

The set-up.

I already mentioned the Grayking, and the extra astute among you have probably been able to guess that he’s returning. That’s not a happy tiding. Shadows just keep falling upon Lassadar — this is just the first entry out of two full trilogies by Todd Sanders that chronicle the misfortunes of this world. I’m telling you this so you know that when huddled priests murmur to each other, “He is risen,” they aren’t talking about something good or redemptive. They’re talking about the encroachment of a hooded beast who lists things like Kidnapping and Insomnia Magic on his curriculum vitae, and who has already turned the fight to his favor by seeding his foul minions into nearly every city across the land. The barriers that kept him from strolling over from the Tower of Ash and claiming Lassadar as his chew-toy are three magical gates, and even those aren’t doing much good, considering how his servants have stolen the keys that kept them locked, and nobody really remembers the spell to make use of them anyway. Oh, and the ancient order that has decided you will be their champion in finding the three Warding Keys, relearning the spell to use them, and binding the Grayking hasn’t had time to train you in more than a couple spells.

No pressure.

Like your quest, Shadows Upon Lassadar looks a bit convoluted when you first set it up. You have a tracker for your life (“Spirit”) and mana, victory and defeat tables that you’ll refer to when you succeed or fail quests, spell trees to mark out which magical arts you’ve mastered, and a chart that shows exactly how close the Grayking is to entering Lassadar. You have a deck of monsters and a deck of city map cards off to your right, and a deck of quests up front; and a heap of cubes sizable enough that you’re wondering how many darn things you’re going to be keeping track of.

But have no fear! Well, except for from the Grayking, because your quest to keep him locked up can be pretty damn hard. But the actual bookkeeping portion of Shadows Upon Lassadar is simple enough, especially since your task is mostly to flip over a single quest card, read its description (and sometimes a bit extra from the rules), and resolve it. All told, the game should take about 30 minutes unless you’re doing something horribly wrong.

Seriously, click to embiggen. The city cards are staggeringly thematic.

A City Quest, Council of Wardens Quest, and Elder.

There are four types of quests. The simplest are the white Council of Wardens quests, which represent your visits to those few bastions that are still holding strong against the foul influences of the Grayking’s minions. These usually offer some minor respite from your travels, such as a boost to your mana or spirit, though some offer difficult choices; for instance, the cities of Borolia and Wardenkeep let you stay longer to further refresh yourself or learn extra magic, at the mere cost of time — which means the longer you spend preparing, the closer the Grayking lurks.

There are also a few Elders of your order who journey through Lassadar, and who you can recruit to your cause. These stalwarts will accompany you in your travels, and will aid you a limited number of times before their strength runs dry.

The most common type of quest represents those cities that have fallen to the Grayking’s corruption, and his minions — the Ghast, Zhumbi, and Ymp — plague the streets. These are all slightly different and highly thematic, and many require different spells to cleanse, or offer different rewards. For instance, the city of Arach was one of the first to report signs of Ghast, which indicates that there might be a portal from the Tower of Ash nearby. Since you’re fighting Ghast, certain spells, such as Shard Knives spell from the Flint path, will help you more than others, and once the city has been purged, the Grayking himself will be set back on the road to Lassadar.

The one thing in common between these city quests is that they all require combat. Violence in Lassadar is a straightforward affair: you roll some dice (the starting default is three), and the Grayking’s forces roll one more than you rolled, and the higher number wins. If it sounds unfair, it’s because it is — and no matter how many attack spells you learn, the enemy will always roll one more die than you; all you can do is try to make up the gap with spells (made more desperate as your mana supply dwindles), seeking the help of the Elders (which is limited), or trying to learn better combat skills (which strengthens both you and the enemy, though it broadens your chances of rolling higher numbers). Progress is non-linear, with plenty of agonizing decisions along the lines of “Do I learn Brittle Knives to fight better against Zhumbi, or Hammer Plate for an extra attack die? Or should I choose between Memory for its ability to recharge my mana for a combat penalty, or should I learn how to cast the Barrier Lock now? And should Elder San help me in this next combat, even though it will kill him?”

These are the quests that looked so complicated that I procrastinated learning the game for a week.

A Warding City Quest.

The fourth quest type is all about finding and taking back the Warding Keys. These three cities expand into little battle maps, where you and randomized monsters will take turns chasing and blasting each other. The key is to strike a balance between bringing them down and seeking out places of power to recharge your depleted spells. These are the most demanding battles of all, often leaving your mana depleted and your health unenviable; so it’s a good thing that you can run away at the expense of some of your health if you need to.

Whenever you win or lose a quest, you flip over the next card in the deck, which has little white and black numbers to help determine the rewards of victory or the costs of defeat. There are even spells you can learn to mitigate the damage from failed battles.

That’s probably the aspect I like best about Shadows Upon Lassadar — not only is it desperate and bleak and full of close calls and narrow victories and painful defeats, but you can never be sure what’s coming next, and much of the gameplay revolves around your pitiful attempts to swim for shore on a sea of frothing chaos. Quests are removed from the game when beaten but only discarded when you fail (and are later shuffled back into a new draw pile when that runs out), so the selection of quests gets gradually narrower, provided you’re actually checking them off. But for all your progress, it’s just as likely that you’ll visit two or more friendly cities in a row as it is to have a nerve-wracking dry spell from anyone offering aid or assistance, or to encounter a Warding Key quest long before you’re ready and then agonizing over whether you should chance the fight now, or run away with no guarantee of when the opportunity will present itself again.

Seriously, don't play on Beginner.

The endgame on beginner difficulty.

So that’s Shadows of Lassadar, which I hope you’re printing off as we speak. It’s so richly thematic, beautifully randomized, and quick to play that it holds the honorary of being the solo game that got me into solo games. I’m certain I’ll be checking out Todd Sanders’ other creations in the future. Provided you don’t beat me to them first, that is.

25 space pennies to whomever can guess what game this is.

Next time…

Posted on March 4, 2013, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I certainly had a great adventure when I played!

  2. Since this series was made with me in mind, I’m having my arty little brother make this for me. Looking forward to playing it!

  3. thank you for the great review. enjoy the other games in the series. i am currently finishing up the final game of the second trilogy

  4. I hope to print out a copy of this to play soon. And thanks Dan, I love your taste in games and your reviews. You are the reason I own Summoner Wars, Omen, Kemet, Valkyrie Incident, and S&R. 😀 Whenever a game comes out that I am interested in, one of the first things I do is check to see if you’ve reviewed it!

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