In Dreamwell (Amazon, BBG), you are in a strange world where children wander while they sleep. You are searching for your friends — the dreamkin — who are lost in this realm. While you search for these lost souls, you will navigate strange terrains, enlist the aid of fantastic creatures, avoid the dreaded Nightmare, and keep an eye on the other denizens of the Dreamwell . In strictly game terms Dreamwell is an abstract game where players, through careful hand management and grid movement/manipulation, will score points (rescue souls) in order to win.
To set up, each player takes two standees of their color and one marker. The board is set up by randomly placing 16 tiles in a 4×4 grid. The tiles can be in any orientation and in an advanced variant they can be flipped to a “dark” side as well. A market of four cards is opened at the top of the grid and each player is dealt out a starting hand of two cards. This is your dreamscape to explore and search for the souls of children lost in the land of dream. Each tile has doors located on the edges or corners which allow for easier movement, a creature in the foreground, and a terrain in the background. The goal is to meet the requirements of cards (one terrain and two creatures) in order to play them for instant bonuses, game long abilities, and points. On their turn players can take three actions:
Each player starts off the board with two standees in their color to move around the board. When using an action to move, players are limited to only one tile (adjacent or diagonally) and can only move if in the direction of a door. However, if they move through connecting door on the other tile they get an additional free movement action. In this way, with properly connected tiles, players can move the length of the grid easily.
Rotate a Tile
In order to line up doors, a player can rotate any tile. They don’t have to occupy the tile to rotate it so they can make traveling more difficult for other players if they wish.
Play a Friend Card
Each friend card has three requirements (two creatures and a terrain). If these requirements are met (their standee occupies tiles with corresponding creatures and terrain), that card can be played. Each card will provide a score plus a benefit which is resolved immediately or a game-long bonus ability.
Draw a Friend Card
Take a friend card from the market or draw one off the top of the deck.
Refresh the Friends Card Display
Discard the market of friend cards and deal out four new ones.
(Advanced) Flip a Tile
If you are choosing to play the advanced variant, you can flip any tile from light to dark or dark to light.
And that is about it. You are moving your standees around the board in order to line up the requirements to play friend cards and score points. The gameplay is simple and like any abstract game, your are rewarded when planning a few moves ahead. Lining up doors can move you long distances and chaining the right cards can gain you immediate bonuses or game-long abilities.
The artwork is an immediate draw to the game but, while delightfully surreal, the terrains aren’t distinct enough from each other and often I found myself having to move the standee to see the terrain or move several tiles in order to rotate/flip one. Along with Kodoma: The Tree Spirits, Action Phase Games is certainly on point with art direction. However, unlike Kodoma where the art was added to an already stellar design by Daniel Solis; in Dreamwell, it feels as if they wanted to build a game around the artwork (Edit: Upon review this is actually the case according to the artist’s blog…which is kinda awesome). And they certainly succeeded. Tara McPherson is amazing, more games need to be made based on her artwork, and I have since made a pin of my favorite creature, the Skullflower. Given the choice between Dreamwell with Tara’s artwork and Little’s solid design and some cat/bear/baby-related thing coming out of The Oatmeal, I’ll take Dreamwell in a heartbeat.
The gameplay is abstract so if you enjoy …and then, we held hands or other abstract games with card play, then this is probably your game. While the theme in the description of the game is engaging, it barely relates to the actual mechanics. Which is a shame if you like a game to be immersive. If you like abstracts though, this isn’t an issue. You are each a person exploring this world but you have two standees (where your divided soul is represented by balloons?) and also you are competing over the rescue of souls? There is an amazing cooperative game in there somewhere. Even providing the names of the friends, creatures, and locations, didn’t help (although I really appreciated it).
A modular board ensures that the game will benefit with repeated play and the card play is engaging. When you have a good feel of the cards, you can start chaining them together and the game can really move forward quickly.
There is very little player interaction. While flipping or rotating a tile may slow down an opponent, the fact everyone has two standees means that you have quite a bit of freedom of movement across the board. Again, this isn’t a criticism and if you enjoy the solitary feeling of Splendor or Dominion, then this could be the type of game you prefer. But if you are looking for interaction, other than standees getting in your way, everyone else may as well not be there.
Bottom Line: Great artwork, and accessible gameplay makes this an enticing game for new players. Lack of player interaction and strategy may not attract experienced players for more than a couple plays. But if you have some friends or family who need a second step game or want to step out of Dixit into something just as strange, then Dreamwell will suit your needs.