You are an Avatar of Light, a being brought to life by necessity to protect the realm of Aethos from a shadow demon named Xulthûl. To prevent his return and darkness being spread across Aethos, you must gain strength, tools, and allies to reveal Light Wells that will seal Xulthûl away for good, or destroy him before he has a chance to turn all Wells dark. In Shadows of Malice, you represent a unique character with their own special abilities in each game that will help you in your quest to save Aethos. Strike out on your own for smaller enemies, then band together with your fellow Avatars to take down Stronghold Guardians, and maybe even Xulthûl himself. Shadows of Malice is a cooperative fantasy board game, but is the game as epic as the box claims it to be? Let’s see!
Out Of The Box
Shadows of Malice is a heavy box with lots of components for your cooperative adventure. The game will include:
- 1 Rule book
- 1 Creature Generator card
- 1 Icon Guide (quick reference)
- Shadow Realm map tile
- 4 Aethos terrain maps
- 5 Card decks (Ability, Fate, Master, Potion, and Treasure)
- 108 Soulshards
- 197 tokens (map markers and Radiance tokens)
- 24 dice in different sizes, black/white
There are certainly a lot of tokens and icons in this game, but fear not : the icon guides will help, and many of the tokens are quite self-explanatory. The components are well made and the design is clear and efficient.
The goal of Shadows of Malice is to reveal all the Light Wells in the realm of Aethos to prevent Xulthûl from returning, and do so before the Shadows reveal one to manifest the shadow demon. If Xulthûl manifests, players must defeat him to win the game before he extinguishes all of the remaining Light Wells.
Players take on the role of an Avatar, a being of Light to fight back Xulthûl and the darkness he wants to bring to Aethos. Players draw a random Mastery card that will give their player a special ability to use throughout the game. These masteries are activated by Soulshards, little gem pieces that are collected throughout the game by defeating creatures. Each player gets uncolored and colored Soulshards at the start of the game, according to their Mastery type. These Soulshards can also be used to modify rolls in the game.
Set up the board with as many tiles as the players would like. Some map tiles will not connect to the rest via the symbols on the sides of the hex, and players will use Gates (think: portals) to travel across the realm. The troves (card decks) are shuffled and placed in their respective piles for players to have access to throughout the game. The difficulty of the game can be modified early on, allowing players to start with treasure cards, or making them start with nothing for harder games.
A unique feature about Shadows of Malice is the chance that your rolls can be modified in the form of a bonus. The system is called a “d*” mechanic. This can be done by deciding at the start of the game if evens/odds or high/low rolls will result in a 0 or 1. Wait, what? Think of it this way; it is like flipping a coin. If you roll a d6 and the result is a 1, 2, or 3, then you add 0 to your roll. If the result is a 4, 5, or 6, you add 1 to the roll. The way the book explains this is that if you have a treasure item that allows you to add 1d* to your roll (and your party has decided that a low roll is 0 and a high roll is 1) and you roll a 4, you add 1 to your result. Still confused? That’s okay. The designers included a few tokens with solid or outlined stars that can be used as a coin flip if you’d rather avoid the dice for this.
Players move across the board using Movement Points. Players roll 2 dice in this phase, one for movement, and one for Fate (determined before the roll). If doubles are rolled, then the player must draw a Fate card. Only one Fate card can be in play at a time, so one must be discarded if the player already has one. These are either Instant (discarded after use), Lasting (stay in play until removed), or Invoked (can be used at player discretion).
Various things players can do include using the services of a City or Mystic (boons) or entering a stocked lair to defeat creatures and gain treasure. The enemy system is unique in this game. A creature is generated by use of dice and a chart, and the outcomes vary based on what kind of terrain you have the encounter on. The generator also gives you the stats of the Guardians you’ll face when you approach Strongholds.
Players may also attune themselves with revealed Light Wells to change the color of their Soulshards and refresh themselves. Light Wells also give Radiance tokens (think boons) to the players during the game. These boons vary by the token that player draws, and can make a life or death difference in the battles they face.
The avatars can change their order each round, but players must complete their movement before doing their action. This means they also can move and wait to perform an action until another player enters the same space if desired. Players may act on their own (a band of one) or band together with other Avatars. Banding gives the players some combat advantages (such as rolling Xd6 in battle, X being the number of non-defending Avatars in the band), but also causes some movement restrictions (the player who has the lowest MP in the band determine’s the band’s MP for the turn).
After all avatars take their turns, the Shadow turn occurs. The Shadows spawn in the center of their realm and try to make it to a gate to Aethos. Once on the Aethos realm, they will move towards the closest unrevealed Well, ignoring players as they move. If they reach a Well and reveal a Dark Well, they continue on to the next closest unrevealed Well. If they reveal a Light Well, Xulthûl returns to the realm of Aethos and works to extinguish all of the other Light Wells. At this point, players must band together for the best chance at beating Xulthûl and chase him down before he reaches the other Wells.
Victory goes to the players when they reveal all Light Wells on the board, or they defeat Xulthûl if he’s been summoned. If all Light Wells are extinguished, the players lose.
Defending Aethos, One Avatar At A Time
I have a mixed view of Shadows of Malice, but the overall opinion I have of it is positive. The number one turn-off for me was the rulebook. I personally found it to be disjointed and unclear in some areas. I found myself with my nose in the rulebook more than I was playing the game. I greatly appreciate thought and backstory into whatever world I’m diving into in a fantasy game, but I prefer it to be in its own section or in another booklet, not scattered throughout the rules. I did, however, take some time to re-organize and simplify some rules into a document that I’ve posted to BGG for players to download, that the designer has looked over and approved of.
Moving past the rulebook, how is the play? If you’re wanting a unique co-operative game with a RPG feel to it, Shadows of Malice may be just the thing you’re looking for. There is a lot of dice rolling in the game, from combat to enemy generation, so if dice turn you away, I’d suggest playing a demo with someone that owns it before you decide if it is for you or not. The game can be very long, however, so this is a game you’ll need to dedicate a large chunk of time to. This is also a game that requires at least one person to have gone over the rulebook and know how to play before sitting down with other players.
Shadows of Malice employs a high level of creativity and imagination on the part of the players, which is one of the reasons I really like it. The game is very symbol-heavy, but you won’t find drawings of the monsters that you encounter, which lets players make their own conclusions about what the enemies look like. What does your character look like? What would their movement look like when activating their masteries? In my games, I found every player doing their own version of spells and fighting techniques, as well as very different ideas on what a particular enemy would look like.
I enjoy that each game is different, from the board you decide to set up, what masteries the players draw, and the ever-changing enemies. I’ve rarely encountered the same creature twice in the same game, the only time I did was an extremely long game with 6 players, and on opposite sides of the board.
When players lose all of their Life tokens, they aren’t excluded from the rest of the game, which I found to be a necessary element for this game, especially because of its length. They manifest at a random Gate Hex with a new mastery. They may or may not keep their items based on a small chart in the rulebook. I like this because there is a chance that you’ll lose your items, but you also might come back with everything. Even if you start over, you get that new mastery and a new chance to get potentially better items than you had before.
The shadows make a very difficult AI system to keep up with, but is a necessary evil to maintain your status as an Avatar of Light. All heroes have enemies, and ones that creep across the realm in a race to beat you to the Light Wells can be a pain. Especially when they frequently catch up with each other and absorb each other. That is a mess that requires banding together with your fellow Avatars to deal with!
The community has created many useful additions to the game which I would suggest you download for your games, specifically BGG user ScottE’s Player Mats. These help keep your cards and items organized in the heat of the game. There are also many other “quick reference” documents provided by game fans and the designer that are available for download at BGG. Jim Felli is very dedicated to helping fans of his game get the most out of it, and is frequently updating the forums and documents according to player feedback – something I really value as both a reviewer and player.
Something to note as well is that Shadows of Malice -can- be a 1 player game. That doesn’t mean 1 Avatar…that will spell disaster. In the FAQ on BGG, Jim recommends that a solo player should play with at least 3 Avatars and follow all other rules.
The game is very in-depth, and keeps all players involved, especially when they form bands. Shadows of Malice will give you a strong thematic game with a RPG feel that is highly re-playable. At $59.99 MSRP, I think the game is worth the price and will bring many adventures to the table, especially with expansions promised by the designer!
***SPECIAL NOTE*** Keep an eye out in the following months for in depth play-through videos of Shadows of Malice. All of the details and rules of this game are not in the review, as we just provided an overview of what you can expect to do in the game. Combat sequence, movement, and step-by-step play will come soon. Thanks for reading!
- High fantasy theme keeps players creative and thinking ahead
- More strategy than “slay everything and move”
- Very re-playable
- Keeps all players involved, no player will be eliminated from game, even in death
- High quality components
- Rulebook is confusing
- Gamers that want a quick setup/quick play game will find this overwhelming
- Lots of dice rolling – those that don’t like leaving the fate of their games to dice may find it to be a turn-off