Dreamwell – A Board Game Journey Step 4

February 2016

One thing I’ve realised on this  journey into the board game hobby so far is that artwork plays a key part in my decision to purchase a game.

All three games in my collection thus far have eye catching artwork that made them stand out from the crowd. Forbidden Island’s artwork almost screams adventure, while the art of Tsuro of the Seas is worth framing and hanging on the wall. If the cover art of Machi Koro had not been so bold and so blue it’s entirely possible that I would have chosen a different game or not picked one up at all.

Dreamwell, the fourth game on my journey, tripped me up and taught me to me look beyond the artwork when considering a game.

Standees and friend cards

I first saw this game on the website for Orc’s Nest, a UK based game shop. The slightly surreal cover art stood out a mile on a home page cluttered with the usual fantasy clichés. A quick read of the game overview and I was intrigued. One half watched Dice Tower video and a couple of skim read reviews later the game was in my collection. After all, the reviews seemed good and it looked like something that would appeal to the kids.

One play in, I realised how wrong I was. Not that Dreamwell is a bad game, far from it. What it is, however, is a puzzle. A puzzle within a puzzle wrapped in a maze of conundrums.

One withering ‘Daddy, you’re an idiot’ glance from my daughter told me this was way too complex for her. Meanwhile, my son can play only with a huge amount of help from his parents. My wife, when she first saw it, hated it. The art was…not to her taste; the actions fiddly and difficult to remember. Me, I thought I that Dreamwell would leave my collection as quickly as it arrived.

The game itself is an interesting idea. It takes place in the land of dreams where players are searching for lost friends.

One turn into the game

The dreamland is comprised of a 4×4 grid of tiles randomly placed and orientated. Each tile has a central figure, at least one door icon and a background landscape all of which play an important part in gameplay.

Friends are represented by cards featuring a character plus two of the tile figures and a background landscape. Each player has two pieces and a friend is considered ‘found’ when both pieces are placed on a tile featuring the one of the figures represented on the card and one of the tiles has the background landscape shown on the card.

The first player to find seven friends triggers a final turn. The eventual winner is the player with highest number of points shown on the friend cards.

On their turn a player can take three actions from the following selection:

  • Move – this can be to an adjacent tile in any direction so long as it is through a door or, if the door icons are aligned, the move can be across multiple tiles. It is also possible to move off and on the board.
  • Rotate a tile in any direction so long as another player is not on it – important to align those door tiles
  • Choose a new friend to find from the cards available. These are displayed to one side of the board and there are always four on display. It is also possible to pick the top card from the deck.
  • Replace the friend card display entirely with four new friend cards from the deck.
  • Find a friend:
    •  Once a friend is found the above choices are modified or added to by text on the friend card until the next friend has been found.

The points system in this game adds to the strategy challenge as the friends provide different options for scoring:

  • Straight points – 2 points or 3 points per friend card, for example
  • Conditional points – 5 points for each set of three albino wolf girls found perhaps
  • Straight points plus conditional points – such as two points for the card plus a further one point for each card featuring the night-time rainbow background

All this makes for an engrossing game. Collecting only friends for straight points is highly unlikely to result in a winning score yet some of these may be required to complete a set of high scoring conditional cards. If the requirements for conditional points are not met, however, no points are scored.

So many decisions

So, what to do?

Wait for those high scoring conditional points and risk them not being available or go for straight points and hope everyone else misses the conditional points.

How to get to the right tile? Rotate to use the door movement or leave the board. No clear early strategy showing so do I replace the friend card display in the hope something presents itself or go with what I have and trust that it improves.

Can’t get to the right tile and claim a friend in this turn, yet that friend on the display looks achievable but it’s the near end of my turn so if a rotate this tile I could move to the octopus ink blob tile using the doors or maybe or perhaps or what about or should I…or…or…or…

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!

Dreamwell melts my brain. There are so many choices and possibilities arising from what seems like a handful of simple actions. Luck and strategy mixing in equal amounts and a lack of either can turn the game against you.

The best strategy in the world can be derailed if the right card doesn’t become available yet luck without a good strategy is a loser every time. Each game can play out entirely differently from the one before or the one before that or the one before that.

And that’s the other thing about this game. It works its way into your life. One game leads to another then another. After that initial expectation defying game we played again, just my wife and I. The next day we gave it another go and it revealed a few more of the tantalising secrets hidden in its depths. The day after that we played again. And again.

Dreamwell is an abstract game that makes you think how best to balance strategy with luck; of thinking ahead while making the best of what you have and it does this very well.

The Nightmare variant…as if the base game wasnt challenging enough

Now this isn’t to say it’s flawless. There are niggles with this game. The lag time between turns can be significant as the opposing player thinks. Not such a problem in a two player game perhaps, yet with four players this could easily be a major drawback. The player pieces used are larger than needed and can obscure the game area at times. If a clear strategy does not present itself in the first turn or two I find it can be exceptionally difficult to turn the game around.

Despite those flaws and perhaps more significantly, despite not being a game we can easily play with the children; Dreamwell has become one of the most played games in our house. Even now, several months after purchase and with many more games competing for our attention, whenever we want a grown up 2 player game it remains near of the top of our list of choices. Despite hating it at first, my wife now lists this as, if not her favourite game in our collection, then definitely in her top three. For myself, it’s a rare day when the chance to play Dreamwell is turned down. It has defied expectation not once but twice in the short time we have been playing hobby games and it deserves credit for that alone.

Addendum: I should probably point out that the post above deals only with the basic Dreamwell game. Included within the box are the components for a more advanced version that adds the option of flipping a tile over and new friend cards to find. If that’s not enough there is also a more competitive ‘nightmare’ variation. Maybe one day, when my Dreamwell induced migraine subsides, I’ll do a short post focusing on these variations.

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