Path of Light and Shadow is a new game designed by the trio of Travis Chance, Nick Little, and Jonathan Gilmour in which players engage in a struggle to dominate the realm as the heirs of once great houses. The methods by which each player attempts to achieve this goal are largely up to them, as they may be as merciful or cruel as they wish while reaping both the benefits and drawbacks that come with either. Do you have what it takes to crush your enemies and claim the realm by right of conquest? Choose your path, but choose wisely as only one will lead to victory!
The Kickstarter campaign for Path of Light and Shadow begins on Tuesday May 9th and is being run by the well-known publisher Indie Boards and Cards. This should reasonably remove any concern potential backers may have about the reliability of the people running the project, as it is a first-rate operation. Rather than give a full rules explanation, I will instead give an overview of the mechanics and gameplay that make this such an interesting game.
The Path of Light and Shadow is played over the course of three years(rounds) with each round being made up of four game turns. At the end of each year players will earn points based on the current state of the board position.
Each player gets one turn during each game turn, that is made up of their main phase, when most of the action takes place, and an end phase during which recruiting occurs.
During a players Main Phase they may move their leader, build a structure (advance on the tech tree), use and action ability(shown on cards), recruit an ally if the conditions are met cull cards from their deck and gain cruelty, promote a card, and attempt to conquer a province. These actions may be performed in any order to the player’s best advantage, and some may be performed multiple times.
During a player’s End Phase they resolve any end of turn abilities they may have and then recruit. The player must recruit a card from the deck that matches the type of province their leader is in and may recruit a second one from the same deck to increase their merciful rating by one.
That is the basic turn structure. Pretty standard stuff in many ways, but the standouts are the impact of the culling in regards to cruelty, the recruiting and its effect on mercy, and a very interesting combat system.
As the name of the game implies there are two major paths that players may pursue in the game. One of those main paths is cruelty and it is done by culling cards from one’s deck. Most cards have a strength value and it may be used to cull (remove) other cards from the player’s hand or discard pile. Each card culled increases the player’s cruelty by one. Mechanically this thins a player’s deck and improves their draws. Thematically, this represents a cruel leader who only keeps the strongest and most fanatically devoted to the cause. Taking this path allows the player to push their cruelty to a level where certain cards grant benefits for such behavior!
The other primary path is that of the merciful leader. While there are a number of ways to boost a player’s mercy, the most straightforward is to recruit an extra card during the End of Turn Phase. Much like culling for cruelty, this is interesting both thematically and mechanically. Mechanically, the player grows their deck and weakens the average strength of their draws, but as many cards provide end of game victory points it can improve their chances for victory. Thematically, it shows a leader who accepts all who flock to the banner and attempts to rise to power through creating as large a coalition as possible.
Both of these features are integral to the game and a player should commit to one or the other as the middle is a terrible place to be. As Machiavelli said you can generally be loved or feared and it the Path of Light and Shadow either is effective, but you must choose one!
Lastly is the unique combat system which is also linked with the terrific 3D towers that represent the strength and value of the castle in a province. Unlike most area control games an empty province is not free for the taking. Each province already has an existing stronghold and its strength and value are determined by the number of pips on the tower pieces in the province. Even if it is not controlled by another player, it must be still be conquered to bring it under one’s sway. Even more interesting is that doing so may very well result in damage being done to the towers and reducing its future strength and value! This is awesome! I have never played a game that employed such a mechanic despite it being such an intuitive and realistic outcome of a battle.
Not destroying the province one conquers is important not only for its eventual point value but also for the defensive value it provides should another player try to take it. This is because an attacking player declares it chooses a number of cards from hand, places them facedown, and declares the number of cards that are being used to conquer. If the defender has any cards in hand capable of a defense they may now be declared. Both players, resolve any battle abilities on their cards, calculate their strength and roll a number of battle dice to modify their strength. The defender also adds in the number of pips on the tower in the province being defended and the player with the highest total wins.
This is just a brief overview of the combat system, but I assure you it is great! There is a sense of unknown on the part of both players that creates tension. The attacker has to worry about going too strong and potentially causing damage to the prize, but also deal with the danger of attacking too weakly if the defender has enough cards in hand to react. Mix in the custom die rolls and there is an opportunity for some wild outcomes depending how much risk you are willing to take. I say risk you are willing to take, because despite the number of unknowns a player can be cautious and almost guarantee victory if they want to wait for the right conditions. However, time is tight and fortune favors, and sometimes crushes, the bold and a well-timed gamble can really pay off!
At the end of the 12th turn players once again score the pips on their castles and receive bonus for controlling multiple provinces of the same type, as well as any influence value on cards in their decks, influence for their allies, any points for structures they have built. The player with the highest point total is the victor!
I am a big fan of this game! Path of Light and Shadow is fascinating because it is full of new takes on familiar mechanics. It is absolutely an area control game, or as those of us who love them like to say, “a dudes on the map game.” Yet, each player will only ever have one actual dude on the map! All players begin the game with a near identical deck of cards that will be augmented over the course of the game as cards are mercifully recruited or cruelly culled. Yet, it is in almost no way a traditional deckbuilding game. It is more of deck and hand management game, where a player’s deck is representative of his civilization/faction and the strategy it is pursuing towards victory. There is a tech tree through which players are able to enhance their faction and customize the strategy they wish to follow. Yet, this is no run of the mill civilization building game that takes countless hours to play and effectively renders itself unplayable in the process (more on this later). It is most certainly a game about conquering lands and battling the other players. Yet, unlike many such games the players will be forced to choose a moral path where they will either mercifully renew the lands that they liberate and seek to defend or cruelly and wantonly destroy everything leaving a wake of destruction for all to contend with. This is a game about decisions and the consequences that a leader must face as a result of those decisions.
I mentioned earlier, as the name implies, it is game with two primary paths. However, there are numerous ways to pursue both of those paths creating many different ways to play. The word that I think best describes it is…room. There is so much room in this game to explore that it calls to a player like me! I love games that allow players to experiment with a wide array of play styles and Path of Light and Shadow completely delivers in this regard.
Another great thing about the game, and one that makes my previous observation possible, is that it plays in a very reasonable amount of time. You can have as much “room” in a game as you want, but if it takes 10 hours to play no one will dare to explore creative strategies as time invested is too great to take such chances and possibly ruin your experience. The Path of Light and Shadow plays in about 90 to 120 minutes, and I felt engaged the entire time. It is possible they have achieved one of the Holy Grails of game design…a civ game(sort of) with a with manageable play time!
Players simply have so many options from the factions on which they focus, the structures they build, promoting their weaker cards or cruelly culling them, and whether to defend powerful castles or watch the world burn that the Path of Light and Shadow will demand many plays to even begin unlocking all of its secrets! I would advise caution to those who dislike direct conflict or games of a hardcore nature, as it can be quite punishing, but for all others it is a must have! It is because of this that I give it my highest recommendation and urge those with tastes like mine to back it on Kickstarter or seek it out when it reaches retail! It is a great game that offers an epic experience and tons of fun for those brave enough to conquer it!