The Nightmare in a Box That Is Etherfields

Awaken Realms launched its first games through Kickstarter, a small company that relied on public funding to get its game projects off the ground. But successive successes made them an industry powerhouse, even going so far as to launch Gamefound, Kickstarter’s first real competitor. From Lords of Hellas to Tainted Grail to Nemesis, Awaken Realms has managed to release wonderful games year after year that have stayed on our shelves thanks to numerous purges. Etherfields is the latest team in the RA, and I must say that I was stupid enough to let this decision pass me by during the public fundraiser, and I even said that it was my biggest disappointment of the year in gaming. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for my wallet, I was able to find a copy on the used market. While I am disappointed in my decision to not support the game in advance, I am happy with my time at Etherfields.

Etherfields throws the player into the middle of an illogical dream world where it is easy to take illogical paths. Players play the role of four characters (“Free Spirit”, “Player”, “Tough Guy” or “Specialist”) who are trapped in a dream world and cannot wake up or remember who they are. To solve the mystery and escape the traps of the dream world’s ever-changing logic, players must wrack their brains and look at the world with fresh eyes.

During the campaign, players will be able to experience Etherfields in two different areas of the dreamscape. There is a “Dreamscape” map, where players walk through a dreamscape made up of up to eight card tiles at the bottom of the board, and a “Dreamscape” map at the top of the board. For the convenience of our readers, I will refer to them as “outer world” and “dreamscape” from now on.

Players explore the world by moving a vignette representing the entire team. The team moves one space at a time and immediately resolves the icons on that space before moving on. There are some unique pieces and some general pieces that can be considered spoilers. The most common are blanks without spoilers :

  • Dormant Cards – These spaces, represented by a red exclamation point, tell players to draw the top tile from the dormant pile and resolve it. This usually leads players to the fairy tale section of the board for a brief skirmish with familiar enemies.
  • Fate Piles – These spaces are marked with a blue exclamation point and ask players to draw a card from the top of their fate pile. These cards essentially act as random ether field cards. Many of these cards ask players to place a sleep card token on the board that is the same size as the sleep encounter area. Other cards act as more traditional event cards.
  • Gates – Over the course of the campaign, players will unlock gates to different Dreams. These dreams contain real meat and Etherfield potatoes. To access these dreams, players must enter the Gateway Room in the outside world indicated on the Dreams Gateway map and spend the required amount of resources. These doors are represented on the map by a green circular whirlwind.
  • Keys – Keys are given to players as rewards on various occasions during the campaign. However, all over the world, they are given to players as soon as they land on a field that contains the key. With these keys, you open the previously mentioned doors and enter the fairy tale setting.

The upper part of the board is used for the “snooze” and “dreamscape” parts of the game. This is where the best and worst moments of the game take place. As already mentioned, the siesta encounters are triggered by movements in the outside world. They are small skirmishes characterized by a series of recurring horrors. Each dormant entity has a different approach to defeating it, and it only takes a few turns to defeat it. Contact cannot be made with some entities when they are in the dark. Players will need to find a way to light up the dark rooms before they can fight the dark creatures. Other entities may go around the map and place chits on the board that players must remove to advance. Slums will force players to adjust their strategies and take a different approach for each entity.

The Sleep Bridge is a self-developing monster made up of inverted horrors from full-blown dreams in which you can escape. On the one hand, it’s nice to see characters from the early parts of the campaign return to follow your choices. It really gives the Etherfields campaign a sense that players’ choices carry weight. On the other hand, meetings in the slums become monotonous very quickly.

The best part of Etherfields are the many clever puzzles included in Dreams. To earn the keys needed to make these dreams come true, players must traverse a series of boring slums. The new slums are fun the first or second time around. Once players have solved the puzzle of how to defeat a particular sleeping creature, subsequent encounters are dry and repetitive. As the game progresses, players will find tools to permanently remove the sleepers of their choice from the game. But you won’t be able to remove the entire game, and the sleeping game will continue to shrink as the campaign progresses.

I would recommend an internal rule to avoid slums after a certain period of time, but there are very interesting and very conditional rewards that would be ignored if slums were avoided. The payback does not compensate for the monotony of this game.

Theoretically, it would also be possible to circumvent the rules and appropriate the loot that the slums would otherwise grant to players. However, it would also mean that players would miss out on the excitement of discovering Etherfields’ many secrets, which is its greatest strength.

Once players have earned enough keys to enter the dream, they can make their way to the designated corridor, hand over the specified number of hard-earned keys and clear the sleeping area of all cards, tiles and numbers. The chosen gateway will give players all the information they need to make their dream come true.

Each card and tile in the etheric field associated with a dream or secret has a number on the back of the card indicating what it belongs to. The learning dream, before it begins, and all of its associated elements are marked I-01 on the back of the card. This system not only allows for quick installation, but also makes it easy to organize the five hundred playing cards so that they can be easily sorted and retrieved. The “Before Play” card asks players to collect all I-01 cards and card tiles, read the introduction in the “Book of Secrets” and continue exploring.

The dream card tiles are placed on the board in the same place as the sleepers. Players explore these cards and interact with the symbols and icons of the story in the card space. These symbols are color-coded, have a description and a number next to them. The description tells players what they can do on this space, the number tells players which scenario to read from the Book of Horrors, and the symbols indicate the cost.

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In a system vaguely reminiscent of Arkham’s Horror: In a Card Game, players discard cards from their hand to use Intent or activate a power on the bottom half of the card. Players cannot force their way through the obstacles of the ether field. Instead, they discard cards from their hand and the influence pile to use their will to change the world of dreams.

There are three different types of intentions, each color-coded for simplicity. The movement intention is represented by the yellow triangle. Any action that requires athleticism uses the yellow movement intention. The movement intention is usually used to move from room to room, but can also be used to climb, jump, or swim. The offensive intent is represented by the red diamond and is used for more aggressive actions. After years of playing in crawl basements, I thought it would be all about combat. However, attacking intent is actually a substitute for any action that would otherwise require brute force. It is often used to open a safe or move heavy objects. Finally, the intent to contact, represented by the light green circle. Contact allows players to interact with other objects or NPCs in a much more user-friendly way than attacking. This usually involves talking to a character, locating an area, or opening a door with a key.

Each player starts with a deck of twenty cards corresponding to their character and special abilities. Awaken Realms has made a brilliant design decision by putting character-specific skills on the back of the starting cards. Each character’s skill is activated by discarding the top card and spending a resource to activate the skill. For example, a tough guy can reduce the number of his disasters by spending two attack intentions and discarding the top card of his deck.

As the game progresses, players will be able to gain secret influence cards in the Dreamlands or purchase them with Ether (experience) in the stores. Players can customize their play during the campaign by adding these influence cards and adjusting their play to their personal play style. The trade-off is that the more versatile or Dreamland-focused players’ influence cards are, the rarer a character-specific card will be at the top of the stack, limiting the chance of their special stack. Therefore, Etherfields players will want to keep their play as small as possible, otherwise they will lose valuable actions.

The last mechanism I want to bring up is the mask mechanism. The Etherfields have forgotten who they are and don’t know their names. To find out who they are, players wear one of these beautiful masks, each with a different passive ability. Only when players choose their mask for the first time may they reveal what powers they have been given. They are excellent tools for shaping a player’s deck-building strategy.

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To no one’s surprise, Etherfields is another game from Awaken Realms’ catalog of wonderful games. The games are dark as a nightmare, but not without their colorful fantasy. Then again, the detailed miniatures steal the show and add to Etherfields’ impressive presence on the table.

All in all, I really enjoyed Etherfields, and it will probably stay in my collection for a while. While its flaws don’t spoil the experience for me, they are pretty obvious. While I appreciate Awaken Realms’ efforts to include a tutorial script to ease the learning curve, the meta elements and dry story text do not do Etherfields justice. Without this review, I would not have moved on to the next chapter. Of course, it says something more about me and how quickly the game has to convince me that it’s worthwhile. However, it’s hard to convince players to stick with a long campaign when the first session is as dry as this one. For those who do, it’s worth it. But Etherfields doesn’t absorb the player as quickly as other Awaken Realms titles like Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon.

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Etherfields has two opposing characteristics, which are not bad in themselves, but do not go well together. Despite the nature of the campaign, Etherfields allows players to change characters or add and remove players during the game without upsetting the balance of the game. Although I love the extensive Awaken Realms campaign and feel I always get value for money, it is difficult to attract new players midway through the game.

A good example of this is Spotted Grail: Fall of Avalon, which becomes increasingly intense as you progress through the campaign. The difficulty of Falling Grail is manageable only because the characters improve their gameplay and stats over time. The opposite format is Etherfields, where the difficulty increases as you progress rather than over time, making it easier for players to jump in and out as needed during the campaign. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Even after the lessons are over, there is still much to learn. Etherfields’ rules and unconventional way of puzzling can be overwhelming for new players who rush into a single game or are running late. Etherfields is unique in its presentation, and it is not always easy for new players to understand. Usually my wife and I played together during the campaign, but one day two of our roommates wanted to join us. Those same roommates, who had developed an interest in board games through their experiences with Gloomhaven, were surprisingly attracted to Etherfields.

In the dreamscape they played with us, solving the puzzle was probably the worst thing they could have done in the beginning. The scenario was presented to the players as an insane escape from a threat. We thought we had this scenario mastered until we had no more action on the map. At that point it seemed like we were in a panic and had nowhere to go. Only then did my wife see a hidden clue on one of the images on the map that what we were running away from was actually the solution we were looking for. It was exciting for us to see a dream come true like that. But for the new actors, it was frustrating to have wasted so much time on the wrong approach. They felt cheated by the hidden clues in the game and refused to play again. Because they were not there from the beginning, they could hardly imagine how unorthodox the Etherfields’ game could be.

Frankly, from where they were sitting, it would have been impossible to see those details on the board. This brings me to my most common complaint: the layout of the painting. The board is so big and takes up so much space for many different elements that no matter how you put people at the table or how you organized the game, something important will be too far away to be seen. No matter how you played the game, someone always had to stand up and lean over the table to read everything. This was a serious shortcoming that I think could have been solved with a separate saveboard, world and dreamscape. At least then the players would be able to move and rotate a small board on the table to make it easier for the players than the massive monstrosity now in the box.

Despite the flaws, I am satisfied with the final product. There is a lot of slack in this box. I haven’t finished the first campaign yet. After thirty hours of play, we still have a long way to go. Next up is the Belshazzar campaign in the main box. Maybe there will even be a “She-wolf and harpy” campaign for the second wave of Kickstarter. Even if I never lose any of the campaigns, it will be worth the money spent for the many hours and discoveries we have already enjoyed.

To be fair, between the boredom of sleepwalking, the number of hours it takes to complete the campaign and the design problems, many will find Etherfields not for them. It is an unusual puzzle game that forces the player to look at the game world in a way that most games do not. That’s the only reason I recommend this adventure. It’s not easy to find or cheap, but the hours of new content are well worth the price of admission for those looking for something new.

1 – 4 players with the ability to increase to 5 with the expansion of the 5th player.About 90 minutes per session, but about 50 hours for the entire campaign.
Manual managementSearchPanorama Rooms
Special features of the switch
The Awaken Realms tutorial makes learning easy for players exploring the ethereal world from the beginning. Evolving rules and mechanisms are slowly introduced throughout the campaign, but it can be difficult for players to understand everything.
Whether Etherfields suits you or not, it’s a great game. Awaken Realms continually produces visual marvels.Once players have solved the Etherfield puzzles, they will not feel the same pull to rehearse.

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