Jim Felli is a former university professor and currently works as a professional scientist. He has been playing Dungeons and Dragons for over 35 years and prefers AD&D to any system that followed. Jim’s favorite book is Dune, his favorite movie is a toss-up between The Godfather and Alien, his favorite television show is Star Trek TOS, and his muse of choice for creative endeavors is a bottle of Lagavulin 16-year-old scotch. He is the founder and president of Devious Weasel Games.
His epic fantasy tabletop game, Shadows of Malice (published by Devious Weasel), is a bold design, breaking many conventions of its medium and genre. It is available for purchase directly from the Devious Weasel website or from Amazon.
Shadows of Malice is your first widely distributed board game design. What made you decide to create this game, and why did you choose the route of self-publication?
I’m a D&D player from 1977. I loved the social, storytelling, and cooperative aspects of that game. I loved the sense of adventure, the sense of jointly writing an adventure with friends, the sense of shaping the game as you played. But it’s hard to find time to maintain a campaign nowadays, especially among a group of working adults…so I wanted to try and create something that had the social, storytelling, and cooperative flavor of D&D in a fantasy setting that could be played one-off as a board game among friends.
My rationale for self-publication was that if I was going to ask people to take a risk on purchasing my game, I should also take a risk in providing it. Self-funding also allowed me a level of personal and artistic control that I could not get via crowd-sourcing. Take the box cover, for example. Shadows of Malice was designed to be a minimalist, flexible platform upon which players could weave their own stories and describe their own encounters without biases inherent in box and card artwork. A minimalist presentation can be a turnoff for some, especially superficial viewers, and thereby have a potentially chilling effect on crowd-sourcing support. But to present the box cover with eye-popping artwork would have been disingenuous to the experience I wanted to provide. I wanted that kind of complete artistic freedom for my first product, and that level of autonomy is difficult to maintain when using other people’s money.
Just so we’re all on the same page, what’s the elevator pitch for Shadows of Malice? In a paragraph or two, what’s the essence of the game? What makes it stand out?
Shadows of Malice is a purely cooperative game that can be played solo or with up to eight people. (Actually, more than eight people can play, but only eight Avatar markers come in the box.) Players take on the role of the Avatars of Light, beings of pure Light that have taken mortal form to enter the Realm of Aethos in an attempt to save it from falling to the Shadow Lord, Xulthûl. To save Aethos, the avatars must find and reveal *all* of the remaining Light Wells of the Ancients before the Shadows, pseudo-substantial manifestations of Xulthûl’s malice, can find and reveal any *one* Light Well and use its power to congeal into a skin for Xulthûl. To succeed, the avatars must work together as a synergistic team and will either prevail or fail together.
There are several elements that separate Shadows of Malice from other board games. The three most salient are: no player elimination, no player down time, no standard monsters. If an avatar’s physical body in Aethos is destroyed, the avatar reconstitutes a new one capable of containing its Light essence and re-enters play. Avatars can invoke the power of soulshards to influence the outcomes of events on every player’s turn, so every player maintains a constant active role throughout the game. A major element of the overarching storyline is that the growing influence of Xulthûl is corrupting the lands and creatures of Aethos and transforming them into fierce monsters. The manifestation of Xulthûl’s corruption is chaotic and random, and this is reinforced by the Shadows of Malice creature generation system: each creature is unique and randomly created when it is encountered!
How did the Realm of Aethos and its unique history come about? Did you design the game mechanics first, then write a story to convey that theme, or did you begin with the setting and conceive game mechanics to support it?
It started with an amalgam of old worlds I’d created for stories and RPGs and two ground rules: 1) use only d6, and 2) avoid standard fantasy elements and tropes. As I got deeper into the project and realized I wanted something with the open feel of old-school D&D, I tried to develop mechanics that would support a framework rich enough to inspire players to create their own stories without locking them into races, classes, archetypes, etc. That desire drove the creation of SoM’s creature generation system, which in turn altered the story and changed the main antagonist from a “Dark Horde” marauding over the world to a single “Lord of Shadow” whose very existence corrupted living things and transformed them into monsters. Another example of form-function interplay is the terrain maps. I wanted to use hexagonal map tiles from the onset: they offered not only potential economy of table space, but also the flexibility to express my vision of the world without prohibiting players from creating their own by altering the tiles’ arrangement. However, this flexibility could result in non-contiguous tile placement, so a teleportation mechanic proved necessary. Thus, the Gates were born…and then demanded a backstory. Their story will be slowly revealed over time, starting in Seekers of a Hidden Light with the notion of the Fragments of Aeth. In the end, SoM grew out of a constant interplay between mechanical design and evolving story elements.
Aside from D&D, I’d love to hear your influences for Shadows of Malice. These can include other tabletop games, video games, or anything that influenced the flavor, like movies or books.
Other than D&D, my strongest influences in creating Shadows of Malice have been the original Legend of Zelda and Out of This World for their compelling abstractness, sense of discovery, and ability to evoke engagement with minimal graphical support; Michael Moorecock’s Elric of Melnibone and J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 for their recasting of “good” and “evil” as opposing forces of “order” and “chaos”; Michael Reeves’ book The Shattered World for his outstanding treatment of a world broken into pieces; and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos for his vision of extra-dimensional threats that are “evil” by their complete indifference to mortal sensibilities. And for those curious, the name Xulthûl in Shadows of Malice is a derivative of the name X’theX’lo, a daemon of corruption I developed in a story I wrote in the mid-’90s. Later, I modified the name to include “ulth” as an homage to Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” and “ûl” as a tribute to Tolkien’s “nazgûl.”
Shadows of Malice was on my radar for a while before I first played it. Ironically, it wasn’t a review that sold me on the game, it was a reply you made in a forum topic. You wrote: “If you are looking for eye-popping artwork and grand presentation, you will not find it in Shadows of Malice. The game was designed to be minimalistic with the intent to stoke players’ imaginations to come up with their own stories, their own descriptions, their own visualizations, their own….” Can you talk more about this design goal?
I wanted the game to engage players’ imaginations and provide them with a fun, flexible platform on which they could weave their own stories, so I specifically designed all the elements to serve as minimalist, colorblind-friendly story prompts. I didn’t want any artistic representation (even my own) to “lock in” an image for a player. I wanted them to have complete freedom to envision everything for themselves. Granted, some people don’t like that, and that’s okay. But my goal was to create a board game that could channel human proximity and interaction into an exciting social experience, a common experience where friends and family could build on each other’s ideas, trade quips and jokes, and together create a story entirely their own that’s different every time.
Similar to the visuals, the text of the game is a curious mix of minimalism or abstraction and evocative, almost purple (in a good way) prose. For instance, creatures that the players might encounter come in a variety of genera, kept intentionally vague. I’m going to paste the Creature Type explanations from the rulebook in full:
Arboran Creatures derived from plants, vines, trees, or other vegetation or vegetal material.
Avian All feathered, winged, warm-blooded, egg-laying creatures.
lchthyic All fish, cephalopods, water serpents, and cold-blooded aquatic creatures.
Mammal All warm-blooded, hairy animals including canines, felines, primates, equines, humanoids, etc.
Protean Creatures of slime, ooze, mold, and fungus.
Reptilid All cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians, including lizards, serpents, crocodilians, turtles, frogs, etc.
Sectoid All insects, arachnids, arthropods, and like creatures with exoskeletons, segmented bodies, or antennae.
Terrovan Creatures derived from earth, mineral, rock, jewels, gemstones, or metal.
In contrast, the sections of the rulebook describing actual rules mechanics are uncharacteristically florid compared to many board games. When an Avatar dies, it “‘Returns to Light’ in a flare of radiance.” When a Shadow uncovers a Light Well, it will “thicken into a skin for Xulthul” (the demonic antagonist of the game). A similar blend of the vague and the precise crops up on the cards. Can you talk about the process of putting the game and its rules into written form?
Yeah…that was tough. I think visually, so I had my own mental images about everything, yet I really wanted players to form their own and not default to mine. It wasn’t until I started to write the rules that I realized just how difficult it can be to provide flavor without imagery. In the end, I tried to write the manual in a manner that would provide “thematic imagery” without “visual imagery.” For example, “returning to light in a flare of radiance” is thematic but not specific: it doesn’t suggest any sound, concussive force, color, size, etc. These and other details are left to the players’ imaginations. The same holds with “thickening into a skin.” It’s thematic but falls short of forcing “my image” into “your mind.” To me, it’s a creepy and organic conversion; to you, it may be a mere material solidification.
The parts of the manual that are “intentionally vague” are areas where I tried to provide creative substrate without defaulting to archetypes. So, where possible, I tried to use general language with a more clinical presentation. With respect to creatures and abilities, this resulted in providing characteristics and exemplars so that players would have a set of possibilities from which to build creatures rather than default to common tropes. There is no “werewolf” in the game, for example, but there is a “mammal” creature type and a “lycanthropy” ability so that a player could encounter a “werewolf.” But what happens when a player draws the “lycanthropy” ability for an “ichthyic” creature type…how does a “werefish” fit into the story? That’s where imagination is unleashed!
You’ve been particularly supportive of the game post its release, responding actively to player comments and queries online and suggesting many variants to ease people into the game or add a new twist to gameplay. What’s it been like on your end to see the game go out into the world and hear the things, good and bad, people have said about it?
It’s been both gratifying and terrifying. I am pleased, of course, that so many people have reacted positively to Shadow of Malice and appear to appreciate what I’ve created. It’s been particularly exciting to see people take ownership of their game experience by making clever modifications to the base game, creating cool player mats, and suggesting interesting house rules. And I greatly enjoy responding to people who pose questions or challenges in the BGG forums. It can be troubling, of course, when people are negatively judgmental without apparent cause, but that’s their choice. Overall, I’m very grateful for the people that have opted to take a chance on my game.
You’ve been teasing the first expansion, Seekers of a Hidden Light (formerly called the “Quest Add-On”), for the past month or two. Having played a prerelease build of the expansion, I can say that it adds a lot of cool features to the game–obviously, the quests are the main thing, giving players short-term goals to work with, but the new types of especially powerful potions and runes also give the heroes an (in my opinion) much-needed boost in taking down Xulthul. What can you share about the process of designing the expansion and preparing for its release? What was your main motivating factor?
I’ve always had hopeful plans to expand Shadows of Malice. The base game is about strategy, resource allocation, and combat. For the first expansion, I wanted to increase the roles of terrain and Mystics while giving the players a new set of intermediate objectives that would increase their immersion in their story and introduce a tradeoff between remaining banded together and working independently. I also wanted to try and keep costs low by packing a lot of playable content into a small number of additional components.
In the base game, the importance of terrain as anything other than a movement obstacle was indirect: there are several items that are “keyed” to creature types (e.g., reptilids) and the chance of encountering a needed creature type is based on terrain. The new quests will require avatars to travel to specific terrain types to find items or fight creatures. As for the Mystics, the base game presents them as independent, hermetic folk that brew potions and provide a specialized service (e.g., healing). In Seekers of a Hidden Light, the Mystics will be revealed as important agents in a clandestine network of magical folk. In this larger role, the Mystics will both assign quests to avatars and draw power from the objects of those quests to enable the creation of extremely powerful potions and runes.
Oh yeah…there will also be a few hints dropped about relationship between the Realm of Aethos, the Fragments of Aeth, and the Void between Fragments.
I’d like to repeat my previous question about the creation of the Aethos setting, but specifically in regard to the expansion. You’ve mentioned several ways that it expands the setting. Did you have those ideas in your head at the start, or did the new insights into the world come from the new game mechanics you introduced in the expansion?
Some mechanics were present in the pre-production design but cut out to simplify the core game (e.g., corruptions), some were concepts that were not included in the base game due to the complexity they would add to a core rule set (e.g., quests), and others were inspired by the unfolding setting (e.g., Lux). I’ll give you a few examples. My original vision of quests was quite plain: get a mission, accomplish the mission, get a reward of potions and soulshards, repeat. Similarly, my original vision of tile placement was simple: players would either arrange the tiles according to my vision or their own, then play the game. The story elements of a fragmented world and Lux, however, began to crystallize when I decided to elevate the role of the Mystics by making them part of a larger, clandestine network of mages. I had originally placed the Mystics next to the Gates to make it easy for the avatars to reach them; now there was suddenly a story-driven reason as a Mystic’s primary responsibility was to serve as a keeper of a Gate. This raised all kinds of thematic questions: “Why did the Gates need defenders?” “What threatened the Gates?” “What were the roles of other members of the network?” Seekers of a Hidden Light introduces quests and uses Lux as a vehicle to elevate them from simple collection tasks to strategic undertakings. The expansion will also reveal Aethos to be a realm of fragments and provide some insight into the roles of two other groups within the network of mages: the Alcheme and the Lumere.
Probably the toughest question yet: do you feel that Shadows of Malice was/is a success?
It’s certainly not a game with mass market appeal, which is fine by me. I believe, however, that for its target audience–coop players seeking an innovative, creative, and narrative driven game experience–Shadows of Malice has proven an enjoyable and exciting game. For myself, it has given me a vehicle to try and convey to others the sense of free adventure, unfettered imagination, and boundless wonder that I so vividly recall from my early days of D&D. And if even one person shares that sense of true magic, then that’s success enough for me.