Shadows of Malic and Tannin
Longtime followers of Space-Biff! will know that I have a thing for Jim Felli. His designs are weird, wild, and so unlike everything else that “unique” is an understatement. Shadows of Malice was Jim’s first design to see publication. Now it’s getting a second printing. And if I assigned scores, it would land squarely on either a nine or a five.
Let’s talk about that gap.
When you play Shadows of Malice, you’re really playing two games. Sometimes these two games happen within the same sphere, the same room, the same table; other times, they don’t intersect quite so neatly.
The first game goes like this. Tokens piled atop one another for safety and other bonuses, your characters spend countless movement points to span the gray hexes that seem so prevalent on this map tile, each point painstakingly appointed and weighed against alternate routes. At last they arrive at a fortress. A few rolls reveal the place’s guardian: a reptilian monster with two abilities, one that decreases the result of your combat roll and another that deals acid damage. This guardian looks tough, so you briefly consider retreating to fight something else. But you’ve gained a few items — some potions, some grenades, a shield with a gigantic biting mouth — so you decide to dive into the fight. Dice are rolled and evaluated, and then again, and then again. Wounds are traded. One of your friends withdraws from the fight. Someone resorts to spending their plastic crystals for roll modifiers. At last the guardian is defeated and you flip the fortress tile to reveal that it wasn’t what you were looking for. The princess — pardon me, the well of light — is in another castle.
The second game is much like the first, but requires some additional investment. Abandoning haste for security, your avatars have banded together. They trudge through an endless marshland, quibbling over whether they should have instead boarded a boat and taken the long way around. At last they arrive at the fortress — broken, consumed by vine and bramble, hard to imagine it was once holy. With a hiss the guardian emerges, shaped of scale and tooth, not a creature but in the form of a creature. Your avatars quail yet still press into the breach, flinging spells and grenades, drawing steel, parrying raking claws. One of the avatars (Borby, she is named) falls back, tattered and bleeding. The remainder persist, scattering their hard-earned shards for a chance at survival. The reptilian guardian is twisted limb from limb until nothing remains. Exhausted, the surviving avatars creep into the fortress. But it is hollow, a well of shadow, long corrupted. Heads slumped, they turn face to trudge back the way they came.
Shadows of Malice functions best when it’s approached as a story generator. Think of it like the dead opposite of Fantasy Flight’s Terrinoth games, so burdened with flavor text and backstory that they say nothing. On its cuff, Shadows of Malice says even less. There are instances of flavor text and evocative card titles, but they’re more like story prompts. Ask yourself, what is the Blessing of Insight? Is it the fate card you drew when you got doubles during a movement roll? Or does it represent something that befell you on the road, an attunement of your fighting stance or a realization about how you might perform better? For that matter, what is a “protean” monster? A beast you’ll earn a bonus against if wielding the right weapon? Or is it like the manual says when it nudges your imagination by stating that proteans are “All creatures derived or constructed from slime, ooze, mold, or fungus”? By saying less, Shadows of Malice throws open the shutters so that you can say more.
Nowhere is this focus on storytelling more apparent than in the creature generator. When entering combat, most adventure games make you flip a card. “You’re fighting a Helltoxin Spiderling,” the card announces, very proud of its description of your arachnid foe. Never mind that one arachnid is much like the other. Poison, a tickling on your shin, you know what I mean. Other times it’ll be a goblin, scrawny but tricksy. Or a troll. Expect healing to negate any piddly damage.
Shadows of Malice wouldn’t be a Jim Felli game if it didn’t do something unexpected. When you enter combat, you begin by rolling a brand-new monster. The first roll tells you what sort of monster it is, arboran or avian or ichthyic. Pause while everybody stumbles at pronouncing “ichthyic.” For the most part, these descriptors are there for flavor alone. Sure, there are items that earn bonuses against certain monster types. But most of the time, a terrovan might as well be a mammal might as well be a sectoid. That’s because this roll isn’t there to inform your gameplay decisions. It’s there to inform your mind’s eye. Don’t worry about systems. The next two rolls have you covered there. For now, just picture it. An ichthyic creature shimmering beneath the murky water. A mammal huddled in its den. A sectoid, ripped straight out of XCOM.
From there, two additional rolls complete the creature you’ll be battling. The power roll is the most overtly mechanical, giving the creature its combat and wound bonuses, plus a few life tokens. The third bestows abilities from a big deck. Like everything else in Shadows of Malice, these can be purely mechanical (the creature deals shock damage) or narrative (holy shit, you’ve stumbled upon an electric bear). From there, your rolls — and there will be a lot of rolls — and your wounds — and there will be a lot of wounds — and your looting of monster corpses — you’ll do this quite often as well — can either be an endless procession of tedious number-counting and number-comparing, or the recounting of an epic clash between man and monstrosity.
In other words, the success of Shadows of Malice rests in two spheres: first, by proving enough fingerlings of narrative to hook its players, and second, by finding an audience willing to attach those fingerlings to wrists and arms and shambling bodies.
The second is beyond my evaluative powers. I can only flay so many minds. But in the first case, Shadows of Malice succeeds for the most part. Between its creature generator and the wide net cast by its easy adventuring, broad but useful items, and magical possibilities that are limited but potent, those willing to invest their imagination into this game’s three-plus-hour runtime will find a lot to like.
Some of that is because the game is so eminently playable. The map is traversable enough that you’ll never struggle to arrive at your target, but rocky enough that you’ll often dole out your movement — determined via yet another roll — in surprising ways. Why trek through the jungle when you can backtrack to a jetty, hop aboard a boat, and stop at a monster den on the way to your destination? Why get bogged down in the, um, bog, when you can cast a spell that conjures a highway out of nowhere? Combat is repetitive, but only occasionally feels tedious. The game’s reliance on d★ rolls, which are basically coin flips that bestow either +1 or +0 to your attack, defense, or whatever, is the divisive issue. These are a nitpicker’s dream, fun to tweak, while also dragging at the overall length of each encounter. The rulebook even offers alternatives for how you approach them. Do I want to count up every d★, cut their sum in half, and round up? No thanks. I’ll roll every single one, even if it takes all night. It might at that. Fortunately I had some d★ dice sitting around. In the end, SeaFall was good for something.
Fortunately, each round of combat matters. It isn’t often that a clash results in nothing. Either you’re chipping away at a monster’s health or it’s shredding yours. Choosing when to invest crystals to modify your rolls or activate powers, when to chug your limited potions, and when to stick around or hoof it are all impactful decisions. Combat may be repetitive, but it isn’t often boring.
This isn’t to say that Shadows of Malice always succeeds in prompting flights of imagination. The story is sufficient: something about a shadow realm overtaking your own, a shadow lord named Xulthûl hoping to congeal a “skin” to inhabit, and servant shadows chasing the wells of light in order to accomplish that transformation. Shadows all the way down. When it gets going, with shadowy terrors bursting from portals to hunt down the wells — which of course you’re tasked with safeguarding — your avatars are pulled in multiple directions, torn between their own adventures and the need to stave off the shadows before they ruin the world.
As for the world itself… well, there’s a reason Tolkien made us fall in love with the pastoral idyll of the Shire before plunging the Fellowship into Khazad-dûm. In a game that carefully splashes just enough color into its farthest corners to get the imagination firing, it does painfully little with its wedges of civilization. There are mystics, who offer healing and potions, and cities, which offer a random minor perk. That’s it. Hope you enjoy hiking and combat. Rather than being bastions of safety, or places to defend, or quest-givers, or anything else, cities and mystics are tokens with minor effects. For a game that so lovingly details its creatures and generates avatars with wildly divergent powers, this paucity robs the game of potential context and depth.
This isn’t a deal-breaker. But it does highlight the unique bipolarity of the design. Its best moments are profoundly imaginative and deeply idiosyncratic, the latter of which Felli would probably take as a compliment. It’s nostalgic and different in equal measure, with a central quest that’s both wide-open to player interpretation and refreshingly specific. No cut-and-paste adventures welcome here. But on the other side of the coin, it’s also reliant on having a crowd who’ll fill in the blanks, who’ll tell stories about what a missed roll means, who’ll merrily overlook any omissions. No wonder it’s such a polarizing design.
I’ll put it another way. A few months back, Joshua Buergel wrote about the limitations of storytelling in board games compared to the freewheeling narratives possible in RPGs. Elsewhere, Michael Barnes wrote about how board games don’t require the emotion, commitment, and immersion of an RPG, but also don’t yield similar returns. With Shadows of Malice, Jim Felli comes about as close as possible to bridging that gap, while still highlighting some of the ways that board games struggle to make up the difference. Shadows of Malice isn’t the sort of game you simply play — or at least approaching it that way will see the whole thing collapsing in on itself. It’s the sort of game you tease out with like-minded companions. A game you weave into a narrative. A game you work on.
In other words, don’t let the ease of entry trick you into thinking that this game is easy. Sweet or bitter — in my case, it proved both. Flat, fascinating, monotonous, enthralling, tiring, rejuvenating. I’m happy to have experienced it. I hope to experience it again. Except next time, we’ll probably be rounding off all those d★ rolls.
A complimentary copy was provided.