To Dream the Impossible Dream
Have you ever had a dream where you could fly? How about one in which you are being chased but can’t seem to move your legs fast enough to run? Do you dream of beautiful days gone by, or experience nightmares about your future? Can you talk to birds, or move things with your mind? Have you ever experienced a dream so profound that you knew your life would be forever changed, only to have the memory of it fade like mist in the wind upon waking?
Whatever you dream, odds are you’ll find something familiar in Etherfields.
Crowdfunded in 2019, Etherfields is a game by Awaken Realms that fully embraces the strange, mundane, bizarre, and often beautiful realm of dreams and dreamers. Players take on the role of lost dreamers whose abilities, fears, emotions, attitudes, and weaknesses are represented by a personal deck of cards. Using these cards, they will explore “dreamscapes'' composed of beautifully illustrated tiles. In addition, they will use their cards to interact with their shifting environments, and may even fight the nightmarish creatures that lurk in the shadows.
It bears mentioning at this point that Etherfields is not a “nightmare simulation” game. Players are not asked to simply swing a weapon at anything that moves. They are required to explore and understand the nature of the dream they are experiencing and the denizens that inhabit that dream. If players exercise their emotional intelligence, they may find that the wraith chasing them is actually an old acquaintance seeking reunion. They may find that a rough gang of degenerates just needs purpose in life. And, they may find that a pack of feral dogs just wants to play fetch and be loved. Etherfields offers a depth of exploration and discovery that is rare in modern gaming.
It also bears mentioning that Etherfiends has some issues. For starters, the core box shipped to backers with a notoriously bad rulebook which left many dreamers scouring the forums for rules clarifications and story fixes. Awaken Realms is shipping a 2.0 rulebook with the second wave of expansion content which will hopefully fix many of the original's failings.
The game also suffers from a rather repetitive “slumber” mode. Before players can explore new dreams (the real heart and soul of Etherfields), they must first wander around a “dreamworld” attempting to collect special keys. As they explore this dreamworld, players will constantly be sucked into little mini-games called slumbers. Slumbers always take place on the same map, and pit the dreamers against a single entity. While the pool of possible entities to encounter grows as the game progresses, slumbers start to feel repetitive very quickly. In fact, the community feedback on slumbers was so strong that Awaken Realms released an official variant of the game that lets players skip most slumbers and move quickly from dream to dream.
What Etherfields lacks in its rulebook and slumbers, it makes up for with its spectacular art and incredibly creative dreams to explore. Better to show than tell (minor spoilers ahead).
Below is an example from a particularly poignant dream where the dreamers remember the bliss of their childhood in a peaceful neighborhood before it became part of a war torn country. As the dreamers resolve this experience they realize that the war wasn’t real, but rather the weight of responsibility and pressures of life destroyed the childlike wonder with which they saw the world around them.
And therein lies the genius of Etherfields. It only takes playing through a handful of dreams before players realize that the game is trying just as hard to teach them something about life as it is to telling them a story. Etherfields doesn’t pull any punches in this attempt. The dreams explore happier themes like beauty, accomplishment, peace, personal growth, and family. They also unabashedly explore darker themes like loss, depression, anxiety, greed, abuse, and death. The result is a game that is both enjoyable to play and deeply meaningful.
The entire dream exploration process is enhanced greatly by some of the best components and miniatures found today. Just take a look at some of these incredible sculpts.
It’s hard not to recommend Etherfields to everyone. The art is beautiful. The components are top notch. The miniatures deserve to be placed in a glass showcase. The gameplay is unique, profound, and engaging. I found both of the campaigns in the core box delightful. I’ve never experienced a game that teaches so many life lessons or that provokes so much real and meaningful contemplation. It’s a masterpiece. I feel like a more complete person for having experienced it.
All of that said, Etherfields will not be for everyone. The “barrier to entry” is huge. It will require reading the rulebook multiple times and looking up additional information online. Getting through all thirty three dreams will require a great deal of time and commitment. And, despite how much I enjoyed it, many players will not relish the lesson teaching aspect of exploring dreams.
Etherfields fits into that “high risk, high reward” category of game. For those who like to play it safe, this is probably a hard pass. For those willing to risk a little more of themselves and to keep an open mind, the rewards of Etherfields are some of the sweetest the tabletop hobby has to offer.