Downward is the Only Way Forward – An Etherfields Review

To see the ending we have to go back to the beginning.

Awaken Realms, Michael Oracz, surreal sprawling dreamscapes. My heart is beating and I’m in. I treat it like a formless object at the edge of my vision, afraid to look too hard or too direct and spoil the mystery. It’s a thriller I won’t get to experience for another year, but that’s fine. That’s how this thing works and I’m powerless against it. So I wait.

In the time before and between I adore This War of Mine, Lords of Hellas, Nemesis, and even Tainted Grail despite listless days wandering Avalon and cursing Menhirs. My enthusiasm peaks when the chunky box – they’re always incredibly chunky – lands with a thud on my porch. I can hear the echo from the bowels of my dwelling and I rush to the door. The transporter was nowhere to be seen, the outside silent and absent of life.

Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” – Kickstarter Lucidity by William Demet

The Etherfields experience does not wait for you. Opening the box and swimming in the components is immediately a totality of wonder as well as a criticism of human perceptivity. The consistent polarity of internal concepts is the most common of themes herein.

This is where my first lesson begins. I come to understand the rulebook and its rules are not so much complex as they are unnatural. The pathways already blazed by founders are not so much ignored as they are purposely scattered to ash. There are many decks of cards, some constructed and placed face-up, others face-down. Sometimes you discard to the bottom of the deck, other times you do not. Some are named nearly identically causing a moment of confusion – such as the Slumber map deck and the Slumber deck. 

As I would come to progress deeper and deeper into the underworld of the game’s subconscious, I would hit another strong contradiction with achieving understanding of the basic rules while being set topsy-turvy by a swell of new material. The game is obsessed with constantly changing, shifting at the edge of your fingertips and never growing firm. Even the board embraces a sense of lunacy, bearing an orientation that is best described as non-Euclidean.

This is maddening as there’s a pervasive sense of unsoundness. There is a recurring feeling that you may be doing this wrong and the answer to the rules query may be found in the rulebook, upon cards, upon tiles, or maybe even in the elaborate tome of hidden scripts. 

Yet this is also alluring. I am captivated by this permeating atmosphere of uncertainty. The game below certainly makes great strides to elicit a dreamlike state of confusing themes and delightful surprises, but the game above does an even better job of capturing theme with mechanisms. The very structure of Etherfields feels surreal and autonomous and misunderstood – with purpose.

That is not jest or sarcasm. This experience must be navigated and it will require effort to understand, even if it will never quite be understood.

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” – Alduous Huxley

The journey begins wonderfully. While I am not too fond of the self-referential tutorial, the proper form of Etherfields initially is an anthem of glee. I place tiles to form the dreamworld and I slide the little enigmatic pawn down pathways and through encounters. I experience dreams that feel as though they are teeming with clues, little narrative snippets that point towards greater meaning. Everything feels so fresh and bold and this is the game I wanted.

I am a gambler. I am other things but I don’t know what they are yet. I’m waiting for the game to tell me.

As a collection of systems, most everything is interesting. Spending multi-use cards from my character’s personal deck to perform actions – not altogether different than Mage Knight. Rolling the die to boost my expenditure and possibly re-rolling because my mask – a big cardboard physical manifestation of heightened power and emotion – allows me to. Sometimes I fail and sometimes I blow the damn doors off the hinges. 

I’m pursued across the dreamworld by wraiths and other sinister beings. I quickly realize the dreams are the main attraction. These function as isolated dungeons to explore. I fight creatures and ideas beyond my grasp. I solve puzzles and spot hidden elements. I feverishly flip through the book of scripts seeking truth. It’s exciting as each dream offers new mechanisms and subsystems to explore, functioning as a mix of dungeon crawler and escape room. This is the highlight of my time with Etherfields and nothing will take that away.

Then my character beings to develop. I add new cards. I use those cards against demons and nightmares. The atmosphere is fueled by these interactions and everything is grand. 

Hours pass. Days. I dream and I dream again. 

“True inspiration is impossible to fake.” – Joseph Gordon Levitt as Arthur in Inception 

One day I wake up. I realize, as I complete yet another dream and begin the blissful wind-down, that what comes next is no longer enthralling. The dreamworld map is no longer majestic or surreal. In fact it’s become very mundane. I don’t want to move along prescribed paths and take a predictable course simply to collect keys. I begin to realize that the best scenes of this game are locked behind doors you may only open once you’ve earned the right. 

I begin to feel as though I’m going through the motions and my heart sinks a little. The initial surge of excitement for this alien construction begins to fade and I’m starting to come to my senses. I’m beginning to wake from the dream but I don’t want to. I’m not ready. I want to hang on to that furtive bliss and extend it as long as possible.

So I fight it. I push on and the seeds of bitterness begin to tear at my soul. I realize the entirety of the dreamworld is devoid of interest. I don’t care about a Final Fantasy Tactics-like world map where I move point to point if nothing interesting is occurring in between. I don’t care about constantly drawing from a small deck of Fate cards ad infinitum. I want to live those dreams as often as possible and I want Etherfields to become mysterious and magical once again.

But it doesn’t work that way. The game can’t simply rebuild itself and become what it is not. The in between is important for it reflects decisions you make in the dreamscape. While repeatedly encountering Slumbers in random encounters does grow stale, I’m still amused seeing the fallout of the story rear its ugly head from time to time. There’s so many neat elements here that the tedium begins to anger me, gnawing at my thoughts and softening the experience. Etherfields deserves better.

“Nothing of importance happens in our lives that isn’t first foreshadowed by a dream.” – Edgar Cayce

The problem is that once you stare too hard at the ethereal form of this thing it begins to take shape, and it’s not altogether beautiful. The wonder disappears and is replaced with repetition.

Tainted Grail hit me the same way, albeit with little daggers that tore at my being in more minute ways. I hardened my flesh and pushed ahead. It ultimately landed as one of my favorite designs of the year. This is because its rote exercise was melded with a strong overarching narrative that was truly gripping. I believe the story within that release was perhaps the strongest we’ve ever seen on the tabletop. It was enthralling through and through and I will never forget my time with it.

I’m already beginning to lose the story fragments of Etherfields. Or rather, they never felt solid or memorable to begin with.

Dreams are wondrous glimpses into our psyche. They provide insight from our subconscious and are swollen with meaning. Navigating dreams and achieving a state of lucidity is the closest thing to magic that we possess.

Etherfields doesn’t understand this. The game appears to offer no deeper messages or commentary on the human condition. I can’t be absolutely sure of this as I haven’t finished the campaign, but I spent a couple of hours researching future scripts, story paragraphs, and outright spoilers in order to inform my criticism. This, combined with my dozen hours of exploration through play, leaves me feeling empty.

There are many incredibly neat elements here. The wild variance dream-to-dream. Their magnificent construction. The enticing card system coupled with character growth. The ability to drop in and out of play and even swap characters without compromising the integrity of the campaign. The focus on symbolism, hints, and chasing strands of personal identity. The reflection of our decisions into the wider scope of play and being forced to deal with the fallout. 

Yet everything fell apart once I realized the tedium all of this is married to is not worth the effort. I began to question my time spent in the game, fully realizing I’d be enjoying myself more playing something else. At that point all of the foibles and difficulties began to overwhelm and reality eclipsed the surreal. 

I’ve spent a great deal of time – perhaps too much – thinking about this game. It reminds me conceptually of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. That film was narratively dense in ways that demanded more than the average viewer can give. Learning Etherfields feels similarly. Keeping up with the rules and putting in the work was similar to straining my head to make out John David Washington’s dialogue. I tossed Etherfields’ fragments of truth around in my skull as I tossed around “we live in a twilight world” and reversed entropy. Both are captivating. Yet both are not rewarding.

Nolan has earned our trust. When the world begins to lose stability and nothing makes sense, we can see hints of a larger vision and we know it will come together. The depths of the film are worth discussing and exploring because they are multi-faceted and rich.

Etherfields lost my trust after several hours of directionless navigation. My impression of escalation diminished and I lost faith that this was building towards anything. It wasn’t worth discussing because it felt empty. It felt without purpose.

The potential here was staggering. Oracz needed to build this from the ground up with a profound message worthy of the investment. This is an experience that should make us turn inward. It should challenge us and embrace discomfort in the same ways its sister material from Awaken Realms has. 

Instead, all of the wonder ingrained within this design is situated on admiring the mechanical. The various subsystems found within the dreams is impressive for sheer creativity, but none of this leads anywhere. This attitude is further exposed in the excessive physical presence. There are dozens of components and cards, all of which would earn their poundage if they told me something. Instead of making a statement and shaking my being, we’re given a general mood that fails to elicit actual emotion.

Any discussion around this game between experienced participants goes the same way. There’s no fevered expression around the narrative arc, particular characters, or heart breaking twists. It’s all about the dreams, the various mechanisms that emerge, and the surface-level settings within.

Etherfields lacks consciousness. It doesn’t reflect the effort required and it feels as though it’s lost within the confines of its own fabricated dreamscape. It’s eclipsed by designs like Kingdom Death: Monster, Arkham Horror the Card Game, This War of Mine, and Tainted Grail.

And just like a whisper, it’s gone.

“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

 

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  12 comments for “Downward is the Only Way Forward – An Etherfields Review

  1. Catalyst6500
    December 14, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    Great review Charlie! If only I were able to read it before I backed the game. I own Tainted Grail (still in the shrink wrap), me thinks I will unwrap that one first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 14, 2020 at 4:11 pm

      Thank you! I regret backing myself, so we’re in the same boat.

      Still, I am all for Awaken Realms continuing to experiment and offer us oddball big budget board games.

      Like

  2. December 14, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    Fantastic review. Eminently readable. I’ve had this beast set up in my study for three weeks now and I still haven’t had the grit and determination to dive in. Other, more accessible acquisitions keep bumping it to the periphery. As someone who loved his first few hours with Tainted Grail but slowly came to absolutely loathe it- this doesn’t bode well for my Etherfields experience. Just curious- did you play this solo or with a group? I often think I would have enjoyed TG more had I dived in alone- but alas, the discipline to embrace solo gaming still eludes me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 14, 2020 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks Andi, appreciate the kind words. I played mostly solo but I did pull my wife in for a couple of Dreams to test it out in that format.

      I think Tainted Grail is absolutely better solo, but I also readily admit that I skipped some portions of random encounters in that game.

      I didn’t skip the drudgery in the same way here as the effort to stick with it didn’t feel worth it. Mostly because the story just wasn’t present enough in Etherfields.

      I would be very surprised if you didn’t ultimately feel this one was a letdown, similar to your experience with Tainted Grail. It still may be worth your time if you end up with an opening. There is some very interesting avant-garde content here, even if the whole picture fails to impress.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. December 15, 2020 at 5:31 am

    Really enjoyed this – as always! Makes me realise how little I know about these kinds of game: but it seems like a mountain to climb to even really *understand* games of this size.

    It seems like Etherfields doesn’t consistently nail an otherwise compelling premise with its profusion of parts (both physical and mechanical). If I did want to understand these ambitious narrative, multi-session experiences better, what you recommend is the best starting place? Or am I overthinking of it in terms of distance from more familiar games like Pandemic Legacy?

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 15, 2020 at 8:01 am

      Thanks James!

      I do think these types of games share some similarities with Pandemic Legacy, although they typically are a step up in mechanical complexity (not necessarily for the better).

      Really, I’m not sure there is a perfect or seminal release in this category. Gloomhaven is closer to this style of game but still is not completely there. Every single release in this genre seems to bear significant enough flaws that I would hesitate to recommend, even when I’ve greatly enjoyed the title such as Tainted Grail.

      Like

      • Frohike
        December 15, 2020 at 4:06 pm

        Yeah I think we’re seeing the fitful beginnings of a genre that just hasn’t *quite* found its footing yet. They’re all aiming for a general idea of open, cumulative long narratives with RPG elements, but struggling with the sort of… gameplay ambience that’s needed to sustain the player beyond the thematic ambience, if that makes any sense. It’s almost like they’re investigating the videogame concept of a “grind” but not getting the dopamine cycles quite right and/or overestimating how pleasurable some of their repetition loops actually are.

        Liked by 1 person

        • December 15, 2020 at 4:22 pm

          Very good observations. I think the tabletop industry also needs to figure out how to embrace “fail forward” as a concept. Having to replay content due to failure is a very poor design decision.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Frohike
    December 15, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    Sounds like they said… “hey remember that miserable Chapter 7 in Tainted Grail that confused everyone & got people lost and demoralized like their character? Let’s make that an entire game!”

    Yikes. Glad I read this before opening my box. Easier to put it up for sale and ship it now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 15, 2020 at 4:16 pm

      Oof, that was definitely the low point of Tainted Grail. It’s not a bad comparison, it’s kind of like making that half the game with really juicy parts spread out in chunks.

      Like

  5. al cann
    December 21, 2020 at 8:37 am

    Great review. It is interesting in that I agree with just about all that you say, although I find myself continually drawn to the game and I am enjoying it far more than Tainted Grail. Yes, the Dreamworld is tedious and time consuming, but I still push forward in anticipation of my next dream. I have over 30 hours invested in the game and I still am enjoying it. I don’t agree that TWOM or TG are better designs, but certainly KDM and AHLCG are far better, but they are both classic games that do not occupy, for me, the same genre of game. I know AHLCG has been compared to Etherfields but they are different enough that they don’t get in each other’s way. A comparison between KDM/AHLCG and Etherfields is akin to comparing a car and a bicycle. The car is a much more elegant and intricate design than a bicycle is, yet each provides a mode of travel that stay in their own lanes (pardon the pun). Anyway, enjoyed the read, as I do all of your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 21, 2020 at 9:08 am

      Thanks for reading Al and sharing your thoughts. It is interesting that we share similar thoughts but not completely the same outcome. I do really enjoy the dreams as I said though, and maybe at a different time or place I would have possessed more patience for the in between. It’s difficult to say as every review is very specific to the moment, ultimately.

      You are right, Etherfields is far more ambitious than Arkham. Kingdom Death is pretty wild though and I’m not sure I would call it classic. The structure in that game was not really done before in the tabletop realm. Etherfields is weirder though and has more unique/non-standard mechanisms I would stay. Or at least it blends them in a different way.

      Thanks again and I’m genuinely glad you’re enjoying Etherfields. I don’t think my opinion or voice is definitive at all and wish those playing the game the best.

      Like

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