Monday, September 28, 2015

Western horror dungeon crawl

It may come as a bit of a surprise that when I first heard about Shadows of Brimstone, I wasn't terribly interested. Sure, I love an adventure game, I love a horror game, and I really love a western game, and this promised to be all three, plus it was coming from Flying Frog Productions, the publisher behind two of my favorite board games (Fortune and Glory and A Touch of Evil). But the setting looked like a rather appalling rip off of Shane Hensley's Deadlands, and at the time I was suffering from Kickstarter exhaustion, and not really interested in backing another expensive game.

I was resigned to ignoring this game, but then a very generous friend gave me a copy for my birthday, freely admitting that his motivations were somewhat selfish: he wanted to play the game, but didn't want to assemble and paint the miniatures (more on that in a moment). It looked like I would be taking a closer look at Shadows of Brimstone after all.

It's definitely a game in the midst of an identity crisis. The mash-up of wild west and unspeakable horror isn't entirely new (see the aforementioned Deadlands and its accompanying card game, Doomtown), but it adds elements of the classic dungeon crawl to the mix, setting the game in an abandoned mine represented by a board of interlocking room and corridor pieces.

More than that, Shadows of Brimstone can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a role playing game, a board game, or a tactical miniatures game, so it tries to be all three, and not entirely successfully.

At its heart, I think Shadows of Brimstone wants to be a "role playing game in a box" like Hero Quest, Descent, or Mansions of Madness. Players take on the roles of archetypical western characters, and go adventuring in the dungeon-like mine which may or may not contain a portal to a Lovecraftian other world, depending on the scenario being played. Unlike Mansions of Madness or Descent, the game avoids the need for a game master to control the villains, instead combining a basic scenario outline with a deck of randomized cards to determine the shape of the board and what monsters are encountered.

An initial, major turn off for me was the "assembly required" nature of the game's miniatures, which come in several pieces on plastic sprues and require several hours of assembly before the game can even be played. I don't mind painting miniatures or even a minor bit of assembly, but this was above and beyond, requiring a professional level of model making that is normally reserved for players of high-end tactical games such as Warhammer.


Perhaps because of the lack of a game master, encounters tend to be very combat-heavy and light on story, and this is where the game is most successful. The simple rules for determining the monsters' actions work well, and the combat system is pretty straightforward, although without a player controlling the monsters, their tactics tend to be of the "move into position and then keep hitting you until you or the monster goes down" variety.

The game's attempts to mix board game and role playing elements are less successful. It has a lot of the things you would expect from an adventure board game, such as cards and counters representing your character's possessions and abilities, but these are strangely incomplete, with no in-game way to track a character's money or experience points other than writing them down, which seems awfully low-tech. The game designers insist that this isn't a problem, but it's very telling that the fan community very quickly stepped in to fill this gap in the game's components, creating a variety of unofficial print-and-play money and experience tokens.

In a similar vein, the game has an abstracted feature that allows players to visit town between dungeon (sorry, "mine") encounters, with the result of their last encounter sometimes even having an effect on the town visit. While in town players can spend their money and experience to buy better equipment and improve their abilities, but there are no cards or tokens to represent these improvements. Players are expected to just write them down on a character sheet.

The problem I have with the game's reliance on a written character sheet is that there are actually very few character creation options available. Players starting a new campaign must choose from one of four different archetypes, and from there they choose one of three option cards, but that's really it. The addition of a character sheet really seems like a cheap way to make up for some conspicuously missing components.

One role playing element I do really like about Shadows of Brimstone is the idea of multiple games being linked as a campaign, with characters gaining experience and abilities as they progress across gradually more involved and difficult scenarios. It's a neat idea that gives the game a more epic scope than other, similar games. I just wish it either had more consistent board game components, or more open-ended role playing game options.

Rating: UNDECIDED. I want to like this game, but it has some weird shortcomings. I really feel like we need to play through a few more games before I give it a rating.

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