In 2006 Wizards of the Coast launched a seemingly bizarre product that was actually
expertly positioned and far ahead of its time. Dreamblade was released in a collectible miniature game format, but with structure firmly bent towards the board game realm. It’s a weird product with pre-painted miniatures that have clawed their way out of the world of Hellraiser. There’s even a little warning blurb appealing children to not stare directly at the figures in order to avoid altering brain development. That may or may not be true, but the key point here is that these little plastic dudes are creepy as hell.
The game was packaged in a starter set with a paper map and a collection of miniatures, with expansion material offered in blind boosters. Yes, groan.
Luckily in 2016, we can avoid the exhilarating money sink of random allocation by picking up bucket loads of these disturbing critters second-hand. Throw a few wads of bills at your screen and they will come pouring in, invading your game room and house. The painted plastics are so extraordinary and compelling that you will find uses for them in Mansions of Madness, Arkham Horror, or even your weekly RPG session. You may even find yourself pawing over titles at your local game store trying to find more ways to get these mutilated badasses into your life.
But don’t scoff at Dreamblade proper–this is an equally badass game.
Each player brings 16 of those deranged figures to play forming a customized war band. The asymmetrical units boast special abilities and stats that thirst for synergy and combo-building. Creativity is awarded fully and the power is thrust into your hands.
You alternate taking turns of summoning your monsters, then performing two actions. Each action can either consist of a shift, which allows each of your nightmare warriors on the board to move one space, or fight which triggers brawls in any contested spaces.
Your goal is to control scoring spaces on the opposite side of the map by eliminating or displacing all enemy horrors in contention. It comes alive and grabs you by the throat with its claws when those special abilities start to impact the conflict. The game plays like this jacked up version of Chess where you’re mainlining some bad tequila with smelling salts jammed up your nostrils.
Beyond the standard passive ability fare, the majority of units possess effects which trigger off the special blade icon rolled during combat. Those with shaky hands and weak hearts need not apply, as Dreamblade has you rolling trough-fulls (yes we’ve moved beyond buckets at this point) of special six-siders to collect these sword symbols.
Typically you do damage to kill or displace enemies, but those exceedingly powerful and interesting abilities trigger when you meet the blade requirement. Sometimes you’ll deliver a massive blow, other times you’re teleporting other creatures around the map. Sometimes you can even blast a figure in another space. The fact that we have hundreds of unit options all with unique abilities really blows your mind and makes for a strikingly unfamiliar power landscape upon each entrance to the arena. It’s exciting and extremely enjoyable.
Yet, even walking scissors and pinhead tri-faced warriors have their warts. Beyond the obvious downside of tracking down a game whose DNR policy was exercised, you need to do a little research and keep a watchful eye when diving in. Later sets boasted the dreaded power creep and undermined the stellar balance of the first couple waves. It can also be expensive to acquire specific rares if you’re looking to complete a certain range or fulfill your collection. Finally, you have to convince Rachel or Jimmy to buy into the system or at least supply them with a war band if you want a living and breathing opponent. These challenges are not insurmountable but they are something to consider before you dive in.
If you can get past those difficulties, you can tear into the range of decisions and subtle strategy here that is really the prime meat. You’ll need to decide how best to spend your damage, what abilities to activate, and in what order to spawn your horde. While the weight and options are never overbearing or complex, the nuance is myriad. This is what brings the satisfaction and urges you to return to the hellscape. This is what has you opening up a new browser window and frantically searching for a huge lot of Dreamblade figures before the chump next to you grabs them out from under your bent wings.
What forgotten and out of print games are you still playing or collecting? How do you track these games down and who do you play them with? Let us know in the comments below!
Cover image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast/BGG