Shadows of Malic and Tannin

take that, shadow. i think.

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.

Bet you've never heard that one before.

A beleaguered fantasy kingdom.

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.

I originally wrote "the creature creation ensures that every battle offers a fresh scrap," but it's entirely possible to roll up a powerless rat.

The creature creation ensures periodic surprises.

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.

Lookin' for mushrooms haha just kidding we're going to kill something.

Wandering the marshes and forests.

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.

That's what I say about my writing, too.

The artwork is deliberately crude to give your imagination room to breathe.

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.

But look! You can see a literal shadow cast by our avatars fighting a shadow!

Battling a shadow. Although maybe you can’t tell. It’s a shadow.

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.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on July 29, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This looks like something that I would enjoy.

    It looks like it bridged the gaps between mini-movers like Mage Knight, Gloomhaven, Sword and Sorcery; story driven creations like Middara; and the more abstract games I enjoy like War Chest.

    It made me think of Too Many Bones actually, though perhaps that’s not an accurate comparison.

    ***
    As an aside, the monster generation immediately made me think of the Maze Rats RPG, which has such tables for everything. For instance you get a new spell each day (if you use your spell) that is generated randomly by elaborate tables. You get a spell name (e.g. ectoplasm bubble) and it’s up to the DM, and maybe the player as well, to decide what the spell does.

    • I wish I could say I’d played enough Too Many Bones to validate the comparison! In my own experience, Shadows of Malice functioned as a lower-fi Dungeon Degenerates. That’s a mechanical comparison, though, since you spend a lot of time “banded.”

      • To be honest my above comment was complete speculation, as I’m still awaiting my own copy of Too Many Bones. Hence the “It looks like”. I love the idea of games like Gloomhaven et al., but when I see them played I find that the sales pitch, and the game play, never quite line up.

        I think the TMB comparison won’t hold up mechanically at all. I’m off to read about Dungeon Degenerates. Thank you for your response 🙂

  2. Unfortunately the game appears as already out of print (the second edition of it, yes) on Devious Weasel’s website.

  3. The reprint is not out of print. The advance copies are sold out. The game will again become available on the website once the main shipment arrives from China.

  4. Shadows of Malice has been on my wishlist for a long time. It’s good to know there’s now a reprint.

    The monster creation reminds me of ‘The City of Kings’ except there you’re drawing tokens representing different monster abilities and the base stats are fixed (and increase with each new monster encountered).

    The amount of dice-rolling doesn’t really sound appealing, though.
    What I really like, however, is that the story is naturally evolving from your gameplay. I, too, vastly prefer this to inflationary amounts of flavor texts or even worse narrative.

    Ye olde ‘Magic Realm’ is still king in that regard, imho. It’s an incredible sandbox where anything might happen (and often will) and you’re free to act as you wish (well, somewhat limited by how successful you are with your dice rolls…). But it’s practically completely devoid of flavor; it leaves everything up to your imagination.

    ‘Robinson Crusoe’ is more modern example of such a kind of sandbox. Within the framework of your current mission objectives you’re free to choose how you want to approach your goals. Here it’s the various random elements that work together to create a narrative: exploring the island, encountering hazards, traps, and beasts, inclement weather and random events all help to shape your personal tale.

    The old ‘Arkham Horror’ (2e) board game also worked well for me despite or maybe because of the wildly random encounters and weird things that might happen during a game.
    ‘Eldritch Horror’, though, while technically a better game never managed to evoke that sense of wonder and excitement in me.

    I also enjoy most aspects of ‘Dungeon Degenerates’. The combat encounters can feel a bit repetitive, but I love the open campaign structure, the unique theme and how the environment keeps changing as you continue to play scenario after scenario.

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