The Nightmare in a Box That Is Etherfields
Awaken Realms launched their first few games through Kickstarter as a small company dependent on crowdfunding in order to create their board game projects. But one success after another has made them an industry powerhouse that’s even taken the next step of launching Gamefound, the industry’s first true Kickstarter competitor. From Lords of Hellas to Tainted Grail and Nemesis, Awaken Realms has managed to consistently produce beautiful games year after year that have managed to stay on our shelves through many purges. Etherfields is the newest AR team and I must say that I was enough of a fool to skip it during the crowdfunding campaign and even listed that decision as my greatest gaming disappointment of the year. Thankfully for me and unfortunately for my wallet, I was able to find a copy on the second hand market. While I’m disappointed in my decision not to back the game earlier, I’m thrilled with the time I’ve spent with Etherfields.
Etherfields throws players into the middle of an illogical dream-world where wandering illogical pathways is the easy part. Players take on the role of four characters (Free Spirit, Gambler, Tough Guy or Specialist) who find themselves trapped in a dream-world, unable to wake up or recall who they are. To solve the mystery and escape from the trappings of the dream-world’s ever shifting logic, players will need to stretch their minds and look at the world in a whole new way.
Throughout the campaign, players will experience Etherfields in two different areas of the dream-world. There’s the dream-world map where players wander through an overworld comprised of up to eight map tiles placed at the bottom of the board and at the top of the board is the dreamscape map. For ease of explanation of our readers, I’ll be referring to these as the “overworld” and “dreamscape” from here on out.
Players explore the overworld by moving a single miniature that represents the whole team. The team will move one space at a time one space at a time and immediately resolving the icons on the space before moving on. There are a number of unique spaces and a few common ones whose function could be considered a spoiler. The most common spoiler-free spaces are:
- Slumber cards – Represented by a red exclamation mark, these spaces instruct players to draw and resolve the top tile from the slumber deck. More often than not, this will direct players to the dreamscape portion of the board for a short skirmish with otherwise familiar enemies.
- Fate deck – Represented by a blue exclamation point, these spaces instruct players to draw the top card from the Fate deck. These cards essentially act as the random event cards of Etherfields. Many of these cards will ask players to add a slumber map tile to the board, expanding to size of the skirmish area Slumber encounters. Others will act as a more traditional event card.
- Gateways – As the campaign progresses, players will uncover Gates to various Dreams. These dreams are where the real meat and potatoes of Etherfields lie. In order to access these Dreams, players will have to go to the Gateway space in the overworld area designate on the Dream’s Gate card and spend the requisite number of resources. These Gateways are represented on the map by a circular green swirl.
- Keys – Keys are given to players throughout the campaign in a wide variety of instances as rewards. However, in the overworld, they are granted to players whenever the land on a space with a key depicted. These keys are used to open the aforementioned Gateways and enter dreamscapes.
The upper portion of the board is used for both the Slumber and dreamscape portions of the game. Both the best and worst parts of the game take place in this area. As mentioned above, moving about the overworld will trigger Slumber encounters. These are small skirmishes that feature a recurring cast of horrors. Each Slumber entity will have a different approach to defeating them and only a few turns to do it in. Some entities can’t be interacted with while they’re in the dark so players will need to find ways to light up dark terrain spaces before they can fight against the dark beings. Other entities might run around the map and drop tokens on the board that players need to clean up in order to advance. Slumbers will force players to adapt their strategies and take a different approach with each entity.
The Slumber deck is an evolving beast of its own constructed of the shapeshifting horrors from completed dreamscapes escape to. On one hand, it’s fun to see characters from earlier portions of the campaign return as a result of your choices. It really gives Etherfields‘ campaign a sense that player choices carry weight. On the other hand, Slumber encounters start to feel very tedious very quickly.
The best parts of Etherfields are all of the clever puzzles contained within Dreams. In order to earn the keys needed to enter those Dreams, players will need to slog through a number of tedious Slumbers. New Slumbers are fun to experience the first or second time. Once players have solved the puzzle of how to defeat a particular Slumber entity, subsequent encounters feel dry and repetitive. As the game progresses, players will discover tools to remove Slumbers of their choice from the game permanently. Even so, there’s no eliminating the whole deck and the Slumber deck will continue to slow down throughout the campaign.
I would recommend introducing a house rule to skip Slumbers after a certain point but there are valuable and highly conditional rewards that would be missed if Slumbers were skipped altogether. The return doesn’t make up for the monotonous grind this deck introduces.
In theory, one could also bypass the rules and grant themselves the loot that Slumbers would otherwise grant players. However, that would also mean that players are bypassing the excitement of discovering Etherfields many secrets, which happens to be its greatest strength.
Once players have earned enough keys to enter a Dream they can go to the designated Gateway, discard the indicated number of their hard earned keys, and clear the Slumber area of any cards, tiles, and figures. The selected Gate will give players all the information they need to setup the Dream.
Every card and tile in Etherfields related to a Dream or secret has a number on the card back that identifies what it belongs to. The tutorial Dream, Before It Started, and all associated components are identified by a I-01 on the card backs. This system not only lends to a quick setup but also makes it easier to organize the game’s five hundred cards in a way that makes it easy to sort and easily find everything. The Before It Started card instructs players to collect all of the I-01 cards and map tiles, read the indicated introduction from the Book of Secrets, and explore away.
The Dream map tiles are spread out on the board in the same space on the board that Slumbers are. Players will explore these maps and interact with the icons and story icons in the map spaces. These icons are all color coded, have a description, and number next to them. The description tells players what they can do in that space, the number tells players what script to read from the Book of Secrets, and the icons indicate the cost.
In a system that’s vaguely similar to Arkham Horror: The Card Game players discard cards from their hand to either use Intent or activate the power on the lower card half. Players will not be able to their brute strength to bulldoze through Etherfields’ obstacles. Instead, they discard cards from their hand and Influence deck to alter the dreamworld through their sheer force of will.
There are three different types of Intent that are each color coded for ease. Move Intent is represented by a yellow triangle. Any actions requiring athletics use the yellow Move Intent. Move is most commonly used to move from space to space, but may also be used to climb, jump, or swim. Assault Intent, is represented by a red diamond and is used to commit more aggressive actions. After years of playing dungeon crawlers made me assume that this would only be related to combat. However, Assault Intent is really the substitute for any action that would otherwise require brute strength. It’s often used to pry open a safe or move heavy objects. Lastly is Contact Intent, represented by a bright green circle. Contact allows players to interact with other items or NPCs in a much friendlier manner than Assault. This will usually take the form of talking to a character, scouting and area, or opening a door with a key.
Each player starts with a deck of twenty cards specific to a character and their special ability. Awaken Realms made the brilliant design choice of including character special abilities on the card backs of the starting deck. Every character ability is activated by discarding the top card and spending a resource to activate. The Tough Guy for example can reduce the amount of Distress he takes by spending two Assault Intent and discarding the top card from his deck.
As the game progresses, players will have the chance to earn secret Influence cards in Dreamscapes or purchase them with Ether (experience) from shops. Players will be able to customize their deck throughout the campaign by adding these Influence cards and catering their deck toward their personal play style. The trade off is that the more generic or Dreamscape associated Influence cards players gain, the less often a character specific card will be on the top of their deck, limiting the likelihood of using their special. For that reason, Etherfields players will want to keep their deck as small as possible or risk losing some very valuable actions.
The last mechanic that I want to highlight are the Masks. The characters in Etherfields have forgotten who they are and do not know how to refer to themselves. As a method of discovering who they are, players will don one of these beautiful masks, each one with their own passive ability. It’s only when players select their masks for the first time that they’ll be allowed to reveal the powers granted by their masks. These are excellent tools that can help shape a player’s deck building strategy.
Surprising no one, Etherfields is yet another game in Awaken Realms’ catalog of beautiful games. The artwork is dark like a nightmare, but is not without its colorful whimsy. But yet again, the detailed miniatures steal the show and add to the Etherfields‘ impressive table presence.
Overall, I’ve really grown to love Etherfields, and it’s likely to stay in my collection for quite some time. Although its flaws haven’t ruined the experience for me, they are pretty glaring. While I appreciate Awaken Realms’ effort to include a tutorial scenario to soften the learning curve, the meta elements and dry story text don’t do Etherfields justice. If it weren’t for this review, I would not have continued to the next chapter. Granted, that says a bit more about me and how quickly I want a game to convince me it’s worth the time. Nonetheless, it’s hard to convince players to stick around for the long haul of a length campaign when the first session is as dry as this one. For those that do, it’s worthwhile. But Etherfields doesn’t grab players quite as quickly as other Awaken Realms titles like Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon does.
Etherfields has two conflicting features, neither of which are inherently bad, but they don’t fit very well together. Despite the nature of its ongoing campaign, Etherfields makes it easy for players to swap characters mid-story or add and drop players without throwing off the game’s balance. As much as I love Awaken Realms’ beefy campaign games and feel like I’m always getting my money’s worth, but it’s hard to welcome new players into the experience halfway through.
As a good example, Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon‘s difficulty increases throughout the campaign. The spike is difficulty is only manageable on account of the fact that characters will be improving the effectively of their character decks and stats over time. Opposite that format is Etherfields where difficulty scales up at higher difficulties rather than over time, making it easier for players to jump in and out as needed throughout the campaign. Or at least that’s how it should work.
Even after the tutorial, there’s a lot to learn. The rules of Etherfields and the out-of-the-box ways that puzzles function can be overwhelming for new players who jump join in for one one-off game or late into the campaign. Etherfields is unique in how it presents itself and that’s not always easy for new players to digest. For the most part, my wife and I played through the campaign together but on one occasion a couple of our roommates wanted to join us. The very same roommates who developed an interest in board games thanks to their experience with Gloomhaven were remarkably overwhelmed by Etherfields.
The Dreamscape they played with us was one where the puzzle solution was probably the worst one they could have started with. The scenario was presented to players as a mad dash away from the threat. We thought we were excelling at the scenario, until we ran out of actions on the map. At that point it felt like we were stuck in a panicked loop with nowhere to go. It was only then that my wife noticed a clue hidden in one of the card’s illustrations that indicated what we were running from was actually the solution we were looking for. For us, it was exciting to see the dream come together like that. But for the new players, it was frustrating to have spent so much time taking the wrong approach. They felt duped by the game’s hidden clues and refuse to play again. Without being part of the experience from the beginning it was hard for them to wrap their head around how unorthodox of a game Etherfields can be.
To be fair, from where they were sitting, it would have been impossible to see those details on the card. That leads me to the most common complaint: the board layout. The board is so large and needs space for so many different components that no matter how you arrange people around the table or set up the game, something important is going to be too far to see. No matter how we played, someone always ended up standing up and leaning over the table to be able to read everything. It was a grave mistake that I feel could have been solved with separate a separate board for storage, the overworld, and dreamscape. At least in that case, players would have been able to slide and turn a small board around the table to make it easier for players rather than the massive beast contained in the box now.
Despite its flaws, I’m happy with the final product. There’s a lot of game in this box. I have yet to finish the first campaign. After thirty hours of play time, we have a long way to go. After that, there’s the Belshazar campaign contained in the core box. Eventually, there will even be the additional She-Wolf campaign and Harpy campaign to be delivered as the second wave of Kickstarter fulfillment. Even if I never replay any of the campaigns, it will have been worth the money spent for the amount of hours and discovery we’ve already enjoyed.
It’s fair to say that between the tedium of Slumbers, amount of hours needed to complete a campaign, and design challenges many may find that Etherfields is not for them. It’s an unusual puzzle game that challenges players to look at the game world in ways that most games don’t. That alone is reason for me to recommend this adventure. It is neither easy to find or cheap to purchase, but the hours upon hours of new content is well worth the entry cost for those who are looking for something different.
1 – 4 players with the option to increase to 5 with the 5th Player Expansion.
About 90 minutes per session but around 50 hours for the full campaign.
Awaken Realms’ tutorial makes it easy to learn for players who explore the ethereal world from the beginning. Evolving rules and mechanics are introduced slowly over the campaign but the drop-in players may struggle to understand all the pieces at work.
Regardless of whether or not Etherfields is right for you, it is a beautiful game. If absolutely nothing else, Awaken Realms consistently produces visual marvels.
Once players solve Etherfields‘ puzzles, they won’t get the same level of excitement out of repeat playthroughs.