A Review of Etherfields — Part I. Unboxing, Solo Rules, and First Impressions

Etherfields is a cooperative “dreamscape” game that was on Kickstarter July-August of 2019. It promised delivery in March 2020. After learning my lesson with Tainted Grail (a cooperative Arthurian legends game from the same company Awaken Realms), I made sure I paid extra for Wave I shipping. With Tainted Grail, I just assumed I would get Wave I shipping because I only ordered the core box: Nope! Because the Stretch Goals were part of Wave II, I am still waiting for my Tainted Grail and Stretch Goals to arrive … but I’m not bitter … much … So, Wave I shipping for Etherfields arrived early December 2020 (about 9 months late), which isn’t bad for a Kickstarter in the year 2020.

(Oh yes, I also got the Creatures of Etherfields miniatures)

What is Etherfields?

Etherfields is a cooperative game for 1-4 players. Each player takes the role of a distinct “dreamer” character exploring a dreamscape. If that seems like an esoteric description, … you aren’t wrong. I am reminded a little of the old X-Box/Playstation game Psychonauts … not in overall theme or description or even environment, but in the “surprise” in the variety and plot that comes up in Psychonauts. You don’t really know what you are getting until you head into the game. And each episode you play is just a little different. And that’s kind of what Etherfields in like. The game evolves and changes significantly as you play different episodes.

In the end, Etherfields is a deck-builder game (your deck is influence cards: see picture above). Each character (I chose the Specialist) has their own fairly unique deck of cards. But, there’s a lot more to the game than just deck-building: there’s exploration, a storybook and campaign, resource management, and even a little press-your-luck if you want. If you forced me to come up with another game to compare this to, I would say it “kinda” reminded me of Direwild (which we reviewed here: an exploration and deck-building game). I have to be careful with that comparison because my group hated Direwild, even though I kinda liked it. But in both Direwild and Etherfields, I loved the art, the deck-building was unique, the world was full of miniatures, and there were elements of exploration and combat. As much as they have in common, Etherfields is still different.

 

There also also elements of The 7th Continent here in Etherfields: the exploration feels vaguely similar in both. Note that you bring out tiles with annotations and directions (see above), much like you do in 7th Continent.

This may also surprise you, but the game has elements of Marvel Champions in it as well, as you use the symbols on your cards (there are multiple different types of symbols on your cards, not just a standard deck-builder with one currency) to pay for things.  This mechanism feels very reminiscent of Marvel Champions.

And there’s a storybook (see above) that comes with the campaign!  There is an overarching story that is told over multiple sessions: This is also a campaign game, but it’s not a legacy game!  You don’t tear things up, but you do put cards in a “trash bag” that can’t be used ever again (unless you completely reset the game).

Altogether, Etherfields is a modern board game! It combines many different mechanisms into a cooperative deck-building, exploration, storybook, and campaign game. At it’s core: it’s a deck-builder.

Unboxing

 

Etherfields is a big box, chock full of stuff. There’s a storybook and rulebook (see above).

There’s a bunch of cardboard boards with punchouts (mostly oversized masks which come into play on the first adventure).

The 6-fold board in the box is huge! (See above) It barely fits on my table!

Underneath the board, we start to see even more stuff: including tons of miniatures in game trays for organization. You know what? These trays work really well.

You can see some tokens on the top, a bunch of miniatures in the middle, and just tons of cards!!! NOTE! Make sure you take a picture of your miniatures in the tray so you can put them back correctly (or, I guess look here).

See above for a closer look at the top-level miniatures tray …

… and below for the bottom-level miniatures.

 

See above for a closer look at a couple of the miniatures.

Once you get all the miniatures out, you can see the top-notch plastic components. They are pretty nice.

There are a LOT of cards and most of them are “secret”, but you should probably unwrap them all and put in order … the game makes you go to these cards quite a bit as you unravel the story, so it’s better to have them sorted (so you can find cards easily).

The oversized cards in the top right of the box (see above) are the tiles of the game where players will go exploring (a la 7th Continent).

 

Each player takes a character in the game and takes a board. Note that there are two versions of the player board: the “nicer” one is something that gets unlocked in the game!

See above for a spectacular overview of all the cardboard components!

As you can, the components for Etherfields are pretty top notch!

Rulebook

The rulebook for Etherfields is good! I need to be clear: the rulebook is long, the rules are deep, and there are a lot of rules, but the rulebook works. My experience with the Alice Is Missing rulebook was definitely subpar (even though it’s a unique and interesting game, see my review here), but this rulebook is well-organized and straight-forward to read. Even though there is a lot of text, there is corresponding/illuminating pictures to help correlate the corresponding text.

Like all good rulebooks, the Etherfields rulebook starts off with a list of components and corresponding pictures!  Even though this game has ton of components, I always knew I could look on the first two pages to find out what the rules meant!  Putting pictures on components goes a long way towards helping a first play out. 

It’s a little easier to see the second page of the component list (above) and it adds little annotations below some of the components. This is an amazing idea! I have no idea what I am looking at, and the little annotations below some of the components help me sort out the pieces! I wish ALL rulebooks did this! (And the rulebook continues the annotations throughout: this is such a great idea!!!)

And after the Components, you must have a set-up section (see above). I have to admit, this set-up wasn’t quite as good as I hoped. There were a few places where I wasn’t sure what I should do. The game alluded to your first play being different, but it wasn’t 100% clear what was generic and what we needed for that first set-up. I got through it (a minor miss for a really good rulebook otherwise).

In general, this was a good rulebook. I had to read the entire rulebook once (and it is long), but once I made it through, I had a sense of what I needed to do. Even more, it was easy to refer back to sections if I had problems or questions later. This was a good rulebook. Just long, but it is a more complex game. The rulebook kind of reminded of the Arkham Horror, 2nd Edition rulebook: long and complicated, but plenty of examples and pretty darn good.

Solo Rules

The solo rules work fine. There’s no special dispensation for solo rules, as many of the mechanics and resource activations in the game are scaled by the number of players. You’ll frequently see resources needed with something like: “Needs 3xPLAYERS in Yellow Intent” (meaning a solo player needs 3 yellow intent, a 2-player game would need 6 yellow intent and so on). So, the game naturally scales for one player. There was also one other rule about time which scaled with the number of players. In general, the game just works: no need to have special solo rules.

First Playthough

Except for some issues with the initial set-up, the first game flows really well.  The first game is a tutorial, taking you through part of the storybook.  You try out several mechanisms in the game, and slowly learn how everything fits together.  One thing that works particularly well: the storybook (at least for the tutorial) reminds you of the relevant rules as you look up entries.

Without giving away too much, you can see the text above tries to guide you through how the game works.  And, to be fair, it works well.  Although I had read the rules and understood them, this tutorial simple reinforced my understanding.

 

One issue I did have in my first playthrough was finding cards. I was trying to be a good player and not open the shrinkwrap on all my cards/tiles until they were “needed”. Unfortunately, because of the way printing works, the shrink wrap boundaries were not always on the best cards to distinguish where a card was. The best thing to do: unwrap ALL your cards and put them in order in the plastic holders. I know I said this above, but it bears repeating as I wasted quite a bit of time in my first game looking for cards. “Hey I unlocked this! Great, where’s card 0x11?” Seriously, just unwrap everything and put it in order. You’ll thank me later.

I won my first game before I ran out of time. Huzzah! At the end of the first game, you are supposed to unlock a LOT of content, and continue from there. Honestly, I reset the whole game and put it back. Why? I hope to play with my friends, and it’ll be easier to teach the game if I take them through the intro scenario with me. Caveat Emptor: that’s just me.

Conclusion

Etherfields is a big game with lots of rules and lots of fantastic components. It’s a deck-building exploration game with some resource management and a storybook that unfolds a grandiose adventure. I’ve only seen the beginning of the game, but it looks very promising.

There are a lot of components to manage, which frankly can be fiddly and intimidating. If you like the theme and you think you can handle the complexity, Etherfields is a solid cooperative game with a good rulebook and storybook that get you into the game. I look forward to playing this with my friends.

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