Shadows of Malice is a bizarre thing. It’s like a board game that fell out of time, something that tumbled through a warp rift from the 1970s. But then – no, it’s modern enough in places that it can’t be something from the past. It’s a hybrid, then, of times and styles. But it looks like the kind of thing the kids might have been playing at the start of ET. It has that early D&D feel, that crude-art, high fantasy feel. It certainly feels RPGish. There’s a lot of text to read, not BULK-wise maybe, but certainly in terms of spread. There is crucial text on cards, and there are a lot of cards. And it all feels a bit unwieldy but read on read on–
– it’s a game that feeds the player information so that the player can lean on their own imagination to build the world of the game. The story, such as it is, is the fantasy story stripped down to its bare bones. The players are Avatars of light, moving across the land to banish darkness. Aren’t all fantasy stories this story, pretty much? The players need to travel, journey, quest, to unlock the light wells that will stop the darkness. And these light wells will be protected by challenging guardians, and the land the players must travel is populated by strange and threatening creatures. The rulebook is ugly, and a bit of a sore head to work through. There are some truly outdated dice mechanics, leaving the players to do slightly mathy things as they play, but I think we’ve maybe just forgotten how to play games like this. Shadows of Malice is trying to do something wildly ambitious, and it needs the player to do a little bit of graft to make it all flow. And the information just keeps pouring in – creatures and combat rules and movement rules and tables and cards and powers and exceptions – and you just have to find your place within it and try to separate it all out in your head. The game is played out across map tiles full of mystery – the light wells are placed on the tiles, and the players are searching for the hidden light well. Players don’t do anything as dull and predictable as choosing a character class. These avatars draw a Mastery card, with a special ability and then can find that weapons, items, armour and the like can be wielded and worn by every avatar. Your character class is, then, whatever you make it. It’s whatever you imagine, whatever you’ve built or cobbled together. Then, the journey begins, and the avatars start to move out across the world. Whenever doubles are rolled on movement, Fate cards are drawn, and these cards change the shape of the avatar’s destiny, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Each new Fate card replaces the last, so persistent abilities and one-time powers are constantly in flux, and the landscape of the game is constantly changing. This is a constantly changing world, and nothing nails that home more than the truly brilliant Creature Generator. Yes, in this game there are no ready-made monsters. Every time you encounter a creature, you build one from scratch. Dice are rolled, and a table is consulted – results are influenced by the kind of terrain the avatar is moving through when they encounter a creature. Creatures can be based on insects, birds, fish, mammals, plants, rocks, slimes… Beyond this stage they will all have varying strengths, and a random special power. So, you could run into an immensely strong fish-man who can turn the players to stone. Or you could meet an insect capable of a massive area-effect lightning attack. You get the basic building blocks of these creatures and you fill in the gaps in your head. You can even name it if you like. There is no artwork for the thing, no precedent for your battle with it. It is truly exciting, and is this game’s nugget of absolute triumph. The game allows players to team up to take on tough monsters, and really encourages good teamwork to deal with the wildly unpredictable situations that are continuously thrown up. Eventually, the players will either discover all the light wells and win the game, or the shadows will be able to manifest as the big bad, Xulthul, and then the players are in real trouble. The game is a real race against time to stop the darkness from becoming too powerful, and the light too weak. There is something genuinely magical about Shadows of Malice. It’s a design full of nostalgia for old-school RPGs, and it has a real respect for the intelligence of the player. It is guaranteed – genuinely guaranteed – to be a different game every time. And it’s an entirely independent release. It’s a bold, stark game full of imagination, but it surely won’t be for everyone. It is dense, and perhaps a little bit too rich for some tastes. There are no pretty pictures to ease everyone in, just the game as GM, telling you the framework of the world and the characters – you have to do the rest. If you’re wondering whether the game is for you, I’d say this – if you’ve managed to read this far, with no photos and no spacing, nothing to make your read easy – then, yes, you’ll be good with this. You might just love it. If you didn’t make it this far, then maybe you won’t have the patience to dig into something that looks a little bit ugly to find the gold within.