Terrible Gamers first encountered Shadows of Esteren on the exhibitor floor during Gen Con 2013. At that time we were very excited about Shadows of Esteren. Our first look at the game happened by accident. While Daniel and I were walking the floor and trying to navigate our way to the Outbreak: Undead booth something remarkable caught our eye. We saw a number of gamers talking to some very excited volunteers. That is, of course, not to say that there weren’t a lot of excited gamers or excited volunteers at this year’s Gen Con, but rather we were surprised by the spirited nature of the conversations we were seeing. Not only did Shadows of Esteren’s volunteer staff seem universally committed to selling the game to new players, but it seemed to be working.
Here’s the thing the normally happens at Gen Con with new games and the volunteer staff. In most of the cases the Terrible Gamers witnessed, the volunteers for individual game properties only managed to hold the attention of two thirds of the convention attendees who stopped to see what the new game was all about. This did not seem to be the case with Shadows of Esteren. Every gamer we saw at the Shadows of Esteren booth seemed to genuinely intrigued by what they were hearing. Daniel and I decided then and there that Terrible Gamers had to find out why.
After our interview with Outbreak: Undead’s creator, Christopher de la Rosa, we made our way back to the Shadows of Esteren booth. We were greeted there by an Indiana University student who had eagerly volunteered his time to Shadows of Esteren. When we asked this volunteer about the game, he could barely contain himself and his enthusiasm. He explained to us how bored he and his players had become staples of tabletop RPGs like Paizo’s Pathfinder and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.
Apparently, Shadows of Esteren offered this volunteer something above and beyond what he was getting from his Pathfinder games. To find out what that was exactly, we were directed to speak with Clovis Fremont who is one of Shadows of Esteren’s designers, and the man that translated the game from its original French to English. We ended up talking to Clovis for well over an hour and a half, and by the end of that conversation Terrible Gamers was pretty damn excited about getting our hands on press copies of the game.
We learned a lot from our conversation with Clovis about Shadows of Esteren. The game was developed by a team of French gamers turned designers, none of whom so much as work a single day in an “creative” industry prior to work on Shadows of Esteren. Clovis, for example, is still pursuing his degree from a prestigious French translation school, and the game’s other designers, Terrible Gamers was led to believe, had very mundane day jobs.
Despite this, Shadows of Esteren seemed very well thought out both in its conception and its placement amongst other games already on the market. The game is set on the continent of Esteren, which loosely corresponds to Europe. Unlike Europe, the people who inhabit the continent the Esteren are cut off and isolated from the rest of their world. Shadows of Esteren puts a premium on this isolation by focusing the scope of the game on the emotional and mental lives of Esteren’s inhabitants. In fact, Terrible Gamers would go as far to say that Shadows of Esteren is trying to capture the feel of, as Karl Marx would say “the real lived life,” of those who found themselves in late feudal Europe.
If living in the late feudal period were not bad enough, Shadows of Esteren also adds the elements of supernatural horror. Clovis told Terrible Gamers that his game exists at the intersection of narrative indie games and traditional horror RPGs. The idea is that you have a system that focuses on the characters, and the internal conflict living in a horrific, disease ridden, death filled world–much like historical late medieval Europe–causes, while also having strong mechanics that allow the players to bring order to the narrative.
Terrible Gamers really likes the way that Shadows of Esteren’s designers embedded ideological and paradigmatic conflict within the game world. The continent of Esteren is split amongst the three kingdoms, each of which are the embodiment of competing metanarratives. One of the kingdoms is polytheistic and represents the “old way” of life for the people of Esteren. Another of the kingdoms is dominated by the politics of religion and a theocratic monotheistic church (similar to the medieval Catholic Church). Finally there is the state in which new scientific ideas from across a great span of mountains have taken hold.
We see, and totally dig, what Shadows of Esteren is trying to do here. Her designers have created the game world in which the European transition from the ancient Roman order to European feudalism and the transition from European feudalism to the Enlightenment exist simultaneously. In some ways Shadows of Esteren is the postmodernists’ wet dream. It is a game in which players are shown three incompatible, yet equally valid, ways of existing in and cognizing the world, which occupy the same historical place and time.
Terrible Gamers does not want the ambiguous on this point: Shadows of Esteren is a very smart game. We really appreciate when game designers and game manufacturers try to grapple with intellectual, emotional, and philosophical themes (we love you Eclipse Phase!). This is why Terrible Gamers was so excited to get our hands on the press copies of Shadows of Esteren that Clovis Fremont promised us during Gen Con. The only question that remained for us, was how well did the ideas behind Shadows of Esteren holdup when put to text and game mechanics?
Terrible Gamers had to wait two months before we finally got our hands on copies of Shadows of Esteren. During those two months we did a lot of things. We reviewed some stuff, published some interviews, and played some more stuff; however we never forgot about Shadows of Esteren. This meant that when we did finally receive our press copies, the excitement was palpable and the email chatter voluminous.
Stay tuned for our intial impressions of that content! Which you can now find HERE!