Richard A. Edwards
Having played 3 games (one solo, one 3 player, one 4 player) I have to admit that I'm addicted to Shadows of Brimstone. Please forgive the length of this review. In truth there is simply so much to this game that there's no way to briefly describe it adequately and even here I barely scratch the surface.
Shadows of Brimstone is an RPG-like, thematic, fully cooperative dungeon-crawl board game for 1-4 players. The setting is the wild, weird west where the players take on the roles of western heroes delving into mines and potentially other worlds while gaining experience, gold, and "Dark Stone" from various encounters and fights with hideous, horrible creatures.
Play in either of the cores sets starts with Character creation, just like an RPG including using a Character Sheet (which sadly you have to scan from the Adventure Guide as none are provided nor is it available, yet, as a PDF). The Swamps of Death comes with the Hero Classes: Rancher, Lawman, Indian Scout, and Preacher.
Once you select a Hero Class, you get their Starting Items and one random Personal Item which gives a powerful bonus as part of your character's background and can never be lost.
Each starting character also has to choose one of three Starting Upgrades/abilities. This further defines your character from the basic Hero Class.
You then get a Side Bag (why didn't they just call them Saddle Bags?) and one item token (Whiskey, Bandages, or Dynamite) before you start playing. As well as gaining 1 Grit (very useful "fate" tokens that can be spent for re-rolls and to fuel some powerful abilities).
The use of Personal Items and Starting Upgrades really personalizes the direction of your character, making it feel different from the basic Hero Class right from the start. Really well done.
These Heroes then go on a Mission/Adventure. Each Mission has a different Objective that the heroes try to achieve in order to Win. Failure can come from all the Heroes being "KO'd" (that is taking wounds equal to their Health or Sanity Damage (why didn't they call it "Insanity"?) equal to their Sanity.
You can also lose by taking too long on the Mission. There is a Depth Track which has a Darkness marker that moves toward the Mine Entrance. If it ever escapes the mine, the Heroes lose.
There is a simple Introductory mission "A Fistful of Dark Stone" which I have played 3 times and never had the same experience.
One time I quickly got to the Objective but could not defeat the many enemies and ended up Running Away (I escaped to fight again, but lost that mission). Another time we explored deep into the mine but failed to find the objective in the time we had to play (3.5 hours! It can be a LONG game) and so ended up Running Away again just to end the game but gained so many Experience Points we all got to Upgrade to Level 2. And another game we found the Objective, beat the enemies and won but got too few Experience Points to upgrade our heroes.
The game plays in turns with four steps. Turns continue until the Objective is won or all players are KO'd at the same time or the Darkness escapes the mines.
1. Hold Back the Darkness.
One character will have the Lantern and rolls 2D6. The number needed is based on how far into the Mine the heroes have gone as noted on the Depth Track. If the roll fails, the Darkness marker moves toward the mine entrance trying to escape. Some positions on the track cause the players to draw a Darkness card (bad stuff) or add a Growing Dread card (more bad stuff) to a stack that will be revealed and put into play when the Objective is finally found. Rolling doubles causes a roll on the Depth Event Chart (more bad stuff).
2. Models Activate in Initiative Order.
Based on Initiative, both the Heroes and the Enemies get to move and then fight. If there are no enemies on the board, the Heroes instead of fighting can Search.
Movement can be done by rolling D6 (and on a 1 you get a Grit, up to your max) and then moving up to however far you rolled. But they also offer an optional rule that allows heroes to simply move 4 spaces each turn instead. We use this optional rule. When doing so you still get to roll the die to see if you gain Grit.
Searching can either be used to go Scavenging on a tile that has not yet been successfully scavenged OR your hero can Look Through a Door and place a new map tile and Exploration token.
Basically the heroes get to the objective by moving to the board edge and then drawing from the Map Deck to reveal the next map tile which is then placed to enlarge the board. When a new room tile is placed, a random Exploration token is placed face down on that tile.
Successful scavenging gets you a card draw which often leads you to goodies but can also lead to trouble.
3. Room Exploration.
Once every hero has moved/searched, if there is an unrevealed Exploration token on the map tile, it is revealed and things happen.
The Exploration tokens will display a number of doors. There is a random system for determining which doors are open and which are closed off as dead ends. One special Exploration token includes an icon for the Other World Gate. When playing Advanced missions, this gate is a portal to the Other World. The core sets have two different Other Worlds: The Swamps of Death (also known as the Swamps of Jargono) and The City of the Ancients and word is more are coming.
Sometimes the Exploration token will be a Clue, which can advance you toward the Objective. Out of the 12 Exploration tokens, 5 have Clue icons.
Often the Exploration tokens will spawn Attacks (or even worse, Ambush Attacks). At this point Enemies are then added to the board and fighting ensues. While fighting is going on, no one can Search further.
But sometimes the Exploration tokens reveal Encounters which cause you to draw an Encounter card and then use your character's skills to interact with the story in different ways. Often good things (XP, gold, items) may occur if you succeed in your skill tests and bad things happen if you don't. Different encounters require one or all or a random hero to take the test.
4. End of Turn.
Things that last for the turn end and a new turn begins.
Basically, when you (or the enemy) gets to Activate in initiative order, after moving you (or they) attack. To attack, you select Range or Melee (based on your weapon and abilities) and then roll the number of D6 indicated (based on your Combat or Weapon). Each die that rolls your To Hit value or greater (based on your character and cards and abilities), causes a "hit".
If you are hit by an enemy, you get to roll a D6 for each hit to see if you can succeed at Defense (rolling the value or greater listed on your character). For each hit you "save" this way, you take no damage. For each hit that still gets through, you take Wounds or Sanity Damage depending on the type of Hits being done.
When you hit enemies it's slightly different. Your hits roll D6 for damage (plus any modifiers) and then each value has the enemy's Defense subtracted before doing wounds to their health.
If a creature takes as many wounds as it's health, it's defeated and you gain XP. If a hero takes as many wounds as his/her health or as many sanity damage as their sanity, they are KO'd and out of the fight until it's over.
Once the fight is over, heroes get a chance to Catch Your Breath, heal a little bit, and recover KO'd characters (who must roll on the Injury or Madness chart, potentially changing their character permanently).
Once the Mission Objective has been achieved or Darkness escapes the mines or all the heroes are KO'd, the Mission ends. If you win, there's a reward; if you lose, there are sometimes effects.
There are a dozen basic and advanced missions. Given the randomness of the way the map is created and the encounters are resolved, every game feels unique. I think this game has a HUGE replay value. Adding another core set and other expansions will make it feel like a RPG campaign that could go on for years.
I feel that they have also done an excellent job of scaling the missions to the number and level of heroes. When Attacks occur, the Threat deck drawn from is defined by the number of heroes. Revive tokens are also provided, depending on the number of heroes, that can be used to immediately Revive a hero who is KO'd. Higher level heroes must face the Brutal side of the enemies sheet instead of the easier "normal" side.
This game was designed for long campaign play.
After completing a mission, win or lose, you have to check for Corruption (if you're carrying Dark Stone) and then head to Town. Going to Town is a mini-game all by itself! It includes traveling there (with events), going to various locations (each of which have long lists of possible things to buy or ways to intereact), and running into various events while in town.
Character advancement, in addition to the many items and artifacts you can find during the game or buy in town, is also very detailed. When a hero has enough XP to advance a level, you get a random Upgrade Bonus and then select a special ability from your Hero Class Upgrade Chart.
Summary (sorry for taking so long to get here).
I have barely scratched the surface of this game! There is SO MUCH going on that while at first it can be a bit overwhelming (various cards and abilities interacting in different ways, good and bad, all at the same time) it is really well done and most of the information you need is on the card in front of you.
The rules are fairly simple and straightforward. Most questions seem to come from unusual situations that are not precisely defined in the rules but seem pretty obvious given the direct nature of game.
The heroes can feel like real RPG characters. I cannot imagine any two characters, even sharing the same Hero Class at the start, being close to each other for long after some game play.
Once you get the hang of it, the game moves right along, but there's so much happening all the time it can take quite some time to play. Set aside several hours per mission. It's like Warhammer Quest on steroids!
I find this game to be a great Weird Wild West dungeon crawler with lots of RPG feel. This game will see a lot of time on my table. Even just with one core box I feel like my group can play for months before we'd want anything else. And with added expansions and content there is surely years of gaming here.
I'd rate it a 10, but having to assemble the miniatures (and it comes with lots of them) I have to dock it 2 points and drop it to an 8/10. If you enjoy assembling and painting miniatures, then you might actually find this a bonus. For us board gamers that just want to PLAY, it was a huge disappointment.
As to the high cost of two core sets and coming expansions, you can certainly play with just one core set, which is still admittedly expensive, but the hours and hours of play it contains makes this a very cost effective game in my collection.
Finally, I know I left out a lot. I'm sure folks can find lots of things that I should have mentioned (you should feel free to comment!)