Quick Look: Etherfields
Designer: Michał Oracz
Artists: Ewa Labak, Michał Sałata
Publisher: Awaken Realm
Year Published: 2020
Etherfields is a narrative, cooperative game for 1 – 4 (5 with the 5th player expansion). A series of unique Dreams await to be discovered through tense exploration and tactical encounters.
Learn about the Dreamers, their forgotten past, and their desperate mission. Uncover the surreal, sprawling dreamscapes. Just don’t be surprised when—just like dreams often do—they become a little disturbing… Prepare to be challenged by escape-room like riddles. Spot a clue in the image. See a hidden link between several pieces of information. Use your instinct as much as your logic.
In the beginning, you’ll explore the Dreamworld, trying to find out what this is all about and who you are – and you are there for a specific reason, but, at first, you can’t remember too much. You’ll have to restore your memories from scattered pieces.
The rules are pretty straightforward at the beginning, but they will grow more and more complex during the campaign. New rules open new possibilities and, sometimes, may turn everything upside down.
Deckbuilding in Etherfields applies to almost every deck in the game, not only the players’ ones. If you want to know more, enter the Dreamworld. It may be dark here and there, but it certainly isn’t gray. Then, look around and ask yourself: what if we all live in a vast, shared dream?
You may remember from my Tainted Grail review from a few years ago that I was actually more excited to play Etherfields than I was Tainted Grail at the time.
So having had Etherfields in my possession for so long, why is it taking me until just now to both play and review this game?
The long and short of it is that this game faced and uphill battle with me from the beginning. And this struggle was real and not a good thing.
But first, let’s talk about the game itself.
What exactly is Etherfields?
It was originally panned as a Dreambuilder—that is to say, a deck builder style game that is a persistent-world campaign set in a world of dreams. It was quite a catchy theme and marketing device back then, and in a way it still is.
The Kickstarter description was deliberately enigmatic in its descriptions, which made it both somehow confusing in terms of what to expect from gameplay as well as simultaneously captivating and mesmerizing. It is not very often that the marketing fanfare can pull on my curiousity in such a fashion.
However, within these misty descriptions lurked a creature of chaos and disappointment. Much of what I was to come to experience from Etherfields was just as structurally in-cohesive as dream itself.
Now I will not go into vivid detail for the rules, as there are (now) plenty of videos and FAQs that delve into that better than I can, and more to the point, I do feel it would be a waste of time.
What can in fact be said is that each player will chose one of 4 characters (or 5-6, if you purchased the reaper or thorn knight expansions) each with somewhat unique starting decks and abilities. You are then set about in uncovering the mystery of why you are all trapped in this dreamworld, a shadowy and warped reflection of reality where you have no memory whatsoever.
The main (base level game) characters available are the :
Tough Guy—a warrior, brute force type
Specialist—slow and methodical, but practical and powerful long term capabilities
Free Spirit—bends the rules of the game to her advantage
Gambler—master of opportunity and taking a chance
The first thing that I noticed when opening the Wave 1 material from Kickstarter a few years ago were the abundance of care that needed to be taken in sorting and arranging the game cards and tiles. Hundreds of cards that cannot be looked at to avoid spoiler content, but each needing to be meticulously sorted in an alpha numerical fashion ( I-01A, I-01B, I-01C, I-02A….II-01A…II-15A…etc).
Not knowing intuitively how the game is to be organized and sorted, your first time around it is very much a challenge just getting things in order to play the game the first time. And this is not something that changes at all through the base game’s 40+ hours of game time, as you will be constantly needing to take out and place back game tiles in very specific arrangements. My first point of observation is that this can actually lead to quite a bit of downtime when in the midst of changing dreams in the middle of a game, or even at the start of one—just when you finally thought you had the game set up, you may suddenly need to vary up the board again!
Now that the game has been mildly synopsized, we can talk about how we feel about the game.
And I must say that overall, I am personally quite disappointed, as is my gaming group.
On an individual level, I remember my excitement for this game on Kickstarter (and in my Tainted Grail review) and while I can say that from a marketing standpoint, they presented Etherfields in such an enigmatic way that one could not help but be sucked into their world.
All in all, the game has failed to meet my expectations, and ultimately feels more like a nightmare than a dream in many cases.
Let us delve more into these shortcomings :
First things first, while the game itself pertains to dreams, one thing I always expect to be transparent are the rules , which in this case are anything but lucid and unfortunately just as dreamy in their presentation as the theme itself!
I think we may have a contender for the worst Rulebook design ever. And that says something.
And it really does not take a lot of effort and searching on the ‘net to discover that many other people feel the same way.
When I first got the game in my hands two years ago, I thought about delving straight into the game, but the rule book was confusing enough even then that I decided to put off learning the game until things were rectified. Because there was already backlash against the game manual’s first edition, which led to them announcing they would create a new rule book to ship out with the Wave 2 content, and two years later, the “revised” rules (which were designed to also address certain gameplay concerns as well as be more “clear”) are here and just as confusing as the first edition. And in some ways, the revisions create more problems in what they intended to “fix” in the game balance, perhaps going too far in the other direction to rectify things…
Really, the game is a mess to learn and sort through. There are so many instances where the manual itself does an inadequate job of explaining certain things, and while to a degree this is to be expected (the game tries to teach you while you play it), there are just such a plethora of scenarios that left us scratching our heads that it was—and still is—very off putting.
The amount of effort we put into distinguishing between Slumbers vs Dreams and Dreamscapes, and when to set certain tiles up vs take them out truly measures up to lost time in our lives. Even defining something as simple as “discarding” had us questioning ourselves time and time again as to what the creators’ intention was with how to handle such a seemingly “simple” procedure.
Truth be told, there are many player created resources that do a better job of presenting the rules than Awaken Realms has, and this should not be the case.
Even after “thinking” I understood the rules, I ended up having to watch a 90 minute setup tutorial just to make sure I correctly got the gist of things. And usually I am the type that always insists on exclusively using written procedures because I do feel these are the most critical components to get right.
Then there is the horrible game board layout, which should also get an award for worst design ever.
And this adversely affects things in many respects. Because the tile and cards are both small and contain text that is equally minuscule. Compound this with the aforementioned poor board layout and you have a situation where all the pertinent maps and cards are so equally far away from everyone that virtually no one can discern what the cards say, what actions can be done on them etc, without displacing all the tokens and minis on them and picking them up.
And that does not even count all of the “small” cards that are often superimposed over the tiles at oddly skewed angles,which if they ever become disoriented, can give a very different representation of what actions can be done there.
Heaven forbid that you bought sleeves that add glare to make things even more unreadable on the map.
Seriously, did anyone play test with the original board, how did this go unnoticed? If you look here, many people are even cutting up the original board to make their own , more usable modular boards, and I number among these people.
One of the main criticisms people have of Tainted Grail is that there are instances where it feels “grindy” , and Etherfields is no different in certain situations (Slumbers and walking on the Dream Map). However, unlike Tainted Grail, without a central narrative to hold it together, Etherfields begins to fall apart, essentially becoming nothing more than a series of one-off scenarios where you are just trying to see what the next “Dream” is.
And don’t get me wrong, every single Dream is radically different than the others that are presented. Some have you trying to catch cockroaches, others dealing with being chased down by dogs, and they all feature vastly different mechanics where the cards you have can always be used in unique ways depending on the Dream you are in.
But seeing how the next dream is “different” is about all there is to look forward to in the base game.
Realistically, people expect to bond with their character if they are going to be in a 40+ hour campaign with them. With almost zilch in terms of character development, it is really hard to find the justification to push forward in this game. And this really further highlights a point I made in Tainted Grail, which I rated only about 7 out of 10 in the gameplay department. However, the game was compelling enough to see through to its end. We felt no such compulsion in Etherfields. This only exemplifies how essential a central story is binding a campaign game.
Worse, the path to the end of the game (there is an ending) can actually be destroyed if you unfortunate enough to misinterpret the rules and add/remove the wrong cards/items from the game. And as noted the opportunities to make such mistakes are abundant.
And while I absolutely loved buying and painting all the minis in Arena : The Contest and even Tainted Grail, in general all the extra minis I purchased for Etherfields felt pretty uninspiring and therefore useless given the frequency things needed to be shifted in and out of play. We just changed to using tokens to save time in the end.
What Etherfields promised was a “Dreambuilder” type of deck building dungeon crawl (which was somewhat stylistically high on my list of “wants” in future game designs if you ever read my Mage Knight review), but this ended up falling flat in its implementation. I guess we will have to wait to see the ultimate fulfillment of my dream.
I wish that I could review a game solely on its artistic merit, because that is where the game truly delivers. The art totally sucks you into the world with its ethereal, macabre vibe and really is one of the main reasons I bought into Etherfields during its crowdfunding.
Alas, I cannot rate a game exclusively on its artistic value, and nor can I ignore glaring flaws. Etherfields gets hit hard where it matters most, the gameplay, which is too muddied by lack of good implementation of rules and materials as well as lack of compelling narrative. In the end , it ends up suffering the same sort of Kickstarter bloat that I described in Dungeons of Infinity, and only goes to show that simply raking in millions of dollars of funds does not make the inherently superior game.
Find out more at BGG.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.