Shadows of Malice by Jim Felli
Publisher: Devious Weasel Games (2014)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game
In Shadows of Malice, players take on the roles of avatars of Light, who must move about the Realms of Aethos, killing monsters, sucking out their souls, and stealing their loot. The ultimate goal is to become powerful enough to invade citadels, slay their guardians, and unseal the Well of Lights hidden within. If the players manage to open all of the Wells of Light, they win, but if the shadows open even a single Well of Light, they instead summon their dark lord Xulthûl, who the players must then defeat.
The two foundational fantasy adventure co-ops are HeroQuest (1989) and Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2005, 2012), and they created a very specific style of play: an overlord opposed the players and in doing so took on the tactical role required to intelligently manage the hordes of monsters fighting the players. Shadows of Malice looks somewhat different from these earlier games because it’s fought on the hex map of a world rather than the square map of a dungeon, but the core concept is the same: the players are mainly challenged by monsters that they must fight. The big difference is actually not the mapping style, but the fact that there’s no overlord to oppose the palyers, a concept shared with other latter-day fantasy adventure co-ops such as Aventuria Adventure Card Game (2016), the D&D Adventure System games (2011-Present), and more notably, Gloomhaven (2017).
So how does Shadows of Malice take the overlord out of fantasy adventuring? In large part by making the challenge system reactionary. The vast majority of monsters are triggered only when players explore a lair (or “provoke” a fight in the open, because they need more souls). There’s only one sort of monster, the shadow, which is on the move — which is one of the things that’s more difficult to manage without a tactical overlord. It moves largely randomly while in the Shadow Realm, then entirely deterministically while on Aethos.
The other thing that’s hard to manage without an overlord is combat itself, at least if there’s to be much in the way of variety. Shadows of Malice does it all with die rolls: there’s usually just one die roll to tote up a combat result, but there also may be one or more die rolls to activate special abilities.
So what do you lose without an overlord? One of the biggest advantages of having an overlord is that they can be unpredictable, introducing uncertainty and thus tension into the challenge system. A purely mechanical system has to figure out how to rediscover that uncertainty on its own. Pandemic (2008) shows how it’s done: even aside from the uncertainty of card draws, the simulation system itself can introduce uncertain results when multiple events stack atop each other in surprising ways. In contrast, Shadows of Malice is slow and methodical. Oh, a lair monster can be weak or strong, but that’s an entirely random result from a die roll, and then everything else will largely fall into place from that initial result. Meanwhile, the real gears of the system come from the movement of the shadows toward the citadels, and they’re neither quick nor surprising. In other words, Shadows of Malice may have avoided the need for an overlord, but it also loses most of the overlord’s advantages along the way.
Challenge difficulties in Shadows of Malice also deserve some discussion. The lair monsters (and the guardians) of Shadows of Malice can be overwhelmingly powerful, while the shadows are much less so. This creates a rather surprising imbalance in the story of the game, where the casual encounters can be frustratingly difficult and the important ones much less so. It shows that considering difficulties is important in challenge design, because a game needs to highlight those things that are most important.
Challenge System Elements: Exploration Activation, Round Activation; Random Trigger; Combat Threat.
The players in Shadows of Malice could attempt strategic cooperation by spreading out to try and cover the most ground by looting the most lairs and eventually assaulting the most citadels. Except, the difficulty of the lair monsters and guardians in Shadows of Malice usually doesn’t support this: singular characters are pretty likely to get whomped. Fortunately, Shadows of Malice offers a mechanic to encourage more tactical cooperation: banding.
When a group of characters is banded together, they move together and fight together. This is done in an interesting way that both introduces disadvantages and grants advantages without it being overpowering. On the downside, the group moves at the slowest speed of all of the characters. But in return, it fights at the best result of all the characters. To be clear: all of the combat results aren’t added together; instead a combat die is rolled for each character and only the best is used. Because the gain isn’t solely linear, players will have to think carefully about how many bands they want to split into.
Banded cooperation is interesting because it entirely ties the players together. They have to cooperate to decide where they want to move, what they want to do, and how they want to fight. The combat system then tends to pass around who rolls the dice against the monster, depending on who the monster randomly attacks each phase. With all of that said, it’s possible for a player to get lost in the crowd, letting everyone else make the decision without having any say himself. This can even happen in the more mechanical combat system, as there’s a way for a player to take the attacks upon himself each turn.
The adventure system of Shadows of Malice may be its best element. Adventuring across a hex map of a world is quite evocative, and the randomly generated monsters can be similarly evocative if players expend the effort. Meanwhile, each character is defined by a mastery, picks up various treasures and potions, and is struck randomly by the fates — all of which create colorful results.
Unfortunately, this is all mired in a game system that feels like it evolved from an ’80s era roleplaying game, which is to say that it’s overly complex and full of impenetrable abbreviations and random rolls on tables.
The result is obviously a fully featured adventure game, but it’s one that feels like it comes from a different era. The contrast to a much more modern game like Gloomhaven is night and day, despite the fact that they were released within a few years of each other.
Shadows of Malice is an attempt to run a tactical fantasy co-op without an overlord, and it unfortunately doesn’t manage the problem as well as other releases of the ’10s, such as the D&D adventure games or Gloomhaven: it’s a bit too staid and unsurprising (even asides from imbalances in the challenge system which don’t put the danger in the right spot). The co-op system is a bit more interesting because of its design of “bands”, which wholly subverts individuals into the whole, but overall it feels like a dated design.
Jim Felli is the designer behind Devious Weasel Games. He was a long-time fan of roleplaying games, but wanted to create a board game that his wife would play with him, which became Shadows of Malice. Devious Weasel has since released about a game a year, including the Seekers of a Hidden Light (2015) and Hunger of a Shadow Vile (2017) expansions for Shadows of Malice, but no other co-ops.