What's Eric Playing? #182: Dream Catchers [Preview]
Full disclosure: A preview copy of Dream Catchers was provided by Play Nation. Some art and gameplay details may change between now and release of the game, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
It’s been a hot minute (as of writing, at least) since I’ve done a Kickstarter preview; the last one I did was Mars Open: Tabletop Golf, which was amazing, so it really got me back on the train for some previews. That said, between now and when I post this I’ll inevitably do some more, so look forward to those, as well. I think Seize the Bean, Unbroken, and Cooks & Crooks? Who knows.
Anyways, in Dream Catchers, you play as a group of spirits trying to help ward off bad dreams and worse monsters (turns out the monsters weren’t people, all along) that are messing with a kid that’s trying to sleep. Along the way, you’ll tap into the power of Courage, Strength, Love, … Treats, and more in order to bring about sweet dreams and save the day, or at least the night. Will you be able to survive the night? Or are this kid’s dreams not the only thing about to get crushed?
There are a few pieces to this game! The first one is the various boards:
They’ve all got difficulty levels and specific abilities tied to your monster-catching abilities, so pick your preferred level. I’d start at one-star, if it’s all the same to you, because I’m terrible at this game.
There’s also a die! Set that aside, for now, along with the Weaken Monster Tokens:
Next, you’ll need to assign every player a Dream Catcher:
Think of them as the Dream Eaters from Kingdom Hearts 3D, or as cute Dream Friends if you haven’t dug into that Gordian Knot of a series. They each have their own special abilities, all of which I’ll talk about during gameplay.
Next, set aside the Monster Cards:
Now shuffle the Dream / Nightmare Cards together:
You’ll want to put a grid (3×3) above the bedroom. Don’t worry about the blue / red card ratio in the grid, for now, though uh, good luck if you happen to draw 9 red cards. Live your truth and all that.
Anyways, set aside the Treasure Cards (shuffle them and put them face-down):
And we’ll deal with those later. Lastly, deal each player four of the Power cards:
If you’re playing at two players, make sure one player has a Courage (Sword) Power Card and the other has a Strength (Sword) Power Card. You can deal the other three cards randomly.
Finally, add the Time Tracker (white hourglass) to the Time Track, along with the Nightmare Score (red) and Sweet Dreams Score (blue) trackers to their spaces on their tracks, depending on player count:
Also, add the Monster Tokens to the Time Tracker:
Once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to start!
Gameplay takes place over a series of turns. Your goal is to capture Sweet Dreams and Nightmares while fighting off dream-eating monsters!
You win if your Sweet Dream tracker moves all the way to the leftmost (white) space.
You lose if:
- The Nightmare Score tracker moves all the way to the leftmost (white) space.
- Three Monsters end up under the bed.
- The Time tracker moves all the way to the leftmost (white) space.
So let’s try to figure out how to avoid those things!
On your turn you can take 2 Actions, choosing from any of these (you may repeat actions):
- Trade Cards
- Catch Dream
- Catch Nightmare
- Fight Monster
Let’s cover those in turn.
This one isn’t particularly exciting; you can just swap a single card with another player (with their permission). Do this if you don’t have anything else to do, or you want to try to set up another player’s turn.
If you want to Catch a Dream, first, look at the Dream Cards. Each have symbols in the bottom-right corner that match symbols on the Power Cards that you have to discard in order to catch this dream. If you discard that combination of Power Cards from your hand, you catch that dream! Discard it from the grid (do not draw to replace it, yet) and advance the Sweet Dream tracker one to the left. Nice job!
If that Dream Card has a Treasure Chest in the bottom-left corner, you also earned a Treasure Card! Draw it and activate its effect immediately. This can have various effects:
- +1 Time
- -1 Nightmare Score
- +1 Sweet Dream Score
- Gain a “Weaken Monster” token
- Discard a nightmare from the grid
Apply those effects immediately (move the Nightmare / Time Trackers to the right, Sweet Dream tracker to the left, or put a Weaken Monster token on a monster of your choice). If you don’t understand what those do, keep reading; I’ll get to it.
Again, if taking this action / gaining a Treasure causes you to hit the leftmost Sweet Dream space, you win! Congratulations.
Nightmares are pretty bad, and you’d like to be rid of them for currently unknown reasons. Thankfully, you can catch them just like dreams! Nightmares, too, have symbols in the bottom-right that you can find on Power Cards. Discarding that card or cards will let you catch the Nightmare and remove it from the grid! Note that catching Nightmares does not reduce your Nightmare Score. You’re kind of stuck with that.
Maybe, you think, the real monsters were people all along? Well, not this time. This time they’re actual, dream-eating monsters. You need to stop them before too many get under this kid’s bed, because then they’ll start demanding representation in local government and they’re beholden to special interest groups.
Either way, you can fight Monsters, too. Take a look at a Monster:
These have three symbols on them. If you have all three symbols in your hand, you can attempt to fight the monster! The number in the top-right corner is the strength of the monster; roll the die and see if you match or beat that number. If you do, great! Discard the monster and the matching Power cards. If you don’t, you may use your second action to try again. If you still fail, do not discard your Power cards. You may be able to fight them on your next turn, again.
Either way, some of these monsters are pretty strong! Thankfully, you can occasionally earn Weaken Monster tokens to reduce their strength by 1 per token. That’s nice.
USE CHARACTER ABILITY (FREE ACTION)
There are also six character abilities, depending on which character you have:
These are, in order:
- Discard 2 “Love” (Heart) Power cards to gain 1 Time.
- Discard 2 Power cards with the same symbol to reveal the top card of the Dream or Monster deck.
- You only need 2 of the 3 shown Power cards to catch a Monster.
- Take 3 Actions every turn.
- Whenever you catch a nightmare with 2 Power symbols, gain a Treasure card.
- Discard 2 Power cards with the same symbol to reduce your Nightmare score by 1.
Once you’ve done two (or three) Actions and your Character Ability (if you want), it’s time for the Night Phase! Draw back up to 4 Power cards.
The Night Phase has steps, as well:
- Time Advances
- Monster Attacks!
- Refill Dream Grid
- Nightmare Attacks!
Let’s cover those.
Move the Time tracker one space to the left. If you land on a Monster space with a Monster token still on it, remove the Monster token — that Monster attacks! Otherwise, if you land on the leftmost space on the Time tracker, you lose immediately.
When a Monster attacks, reveal the top card of the Monster deck and put it under the bed (below the board). If this means you have three Monsters under the bed, you lose, immediately. Try to avoid that.
Now, the Monster eats dreams! Discard all dreams from the grid that have a symbol (of the two that they have) matching the one in the monster’s top-right corner. That’s probably not helpful!
REFILL DREAM GRID
Now, refill the Dream Grid by drawing the top card from the Dream deck and placing it down, left-to-right then top-to-bottom.
If you reveal a Nightmare, it attacks, too!
When you reveal a Nightmare, immediately check all adjacent (orthogonally adjacent, not diagonally) Nightmare cards to see if they have any Power symbols matching either (if two) of the Nightmare’s symbols. If the Dreams match, don’t worry. If there are matching Nightmare cards, discard all matching Nightmare cards (and the drawn Nightmare) and increase your Nightmare score by 1 for each card discarded. If you hit the leftmost space on the Nightmare Score tracker, you lose immediately. Try to avoid that, too.
If there are no matching cards, the Nightmare is persistent! It tries one more time, but before it does that, it moves. Check the arrow in the bottom-left corner of the Nightmare:
In each case, the Nightmare would move in that direction and swap places with the card at that location. If that would move it out of the grid, wrap it around and swap its card with the card on the other side of the grid. Now, check all orthogonally adjacent Nightmare cards again to see if there’s a match. If there is, discard like previously mentioned. If not, you’re good!
Either way, continue to refill the Dream grid and handle Nightmares as they come up until the Dream grid is back to 9 cards. Now, it’s the next player’s turn!
If you manage to get the Sweet Dream score tracker all the way to the leftmost space, you win! Congratulations. You’re ready for a higher difficulty, probably.
Each of the Player Boards also has an ability to go with their difficulty, as follows:
- When a Monster is caught, lose one Nightmare Score. (This is good.)
- When a Monster is caught, gain one Time. (This is also good; move the Time tracker to the right.)
- During a Monster Attack, if the monster eats two or more Dreams, lose one Sweet Dream Score. (This is bad.)
- At the start of each Night Phase, if there are two Monsters under the bed, gain one Nightmare Score. (This is terrible.)
- If there are two Monsters under the bed, you may only attempt to catch the stronger one. As a bonus free action, you may discard two Power cards with the same symbol to add a Weaken Monster token to any Monster. (This is also very bad.)
PLAYER COUNT DIFFERENCES
I think the primary difference here is that, unlike Pandemic (the other hand management co-op I immediately think of), you don’t start with fewer cards in hand, so you end up being able to see more cards at higher player counts. That said, you do have a lower threshold for Nightmare Score and a higher threshold for the Sweet Dream score in order to lose / win, so there’s some balancing on that side. I’d still probably most likely play this at four, though, because you also get the benefit of multiple abilities, even if you have to wait longer to be able to use those abilities.
- Don’t be afraid to trade cards. There are plenty of turns where you just can’t do much. Instead, you should spend your actions setting other players up and deferring to their special abilities, if you can.
- To each according to their ability. Let players use their player powers to do the actions that they’re supposed to be doing. Don’t fight monsters if the player who reduces the cost by 1 can (unless you absolutely have to). Let the player with three actions handle trading cards. The player who can add time with Love should pretty much always be doing that, unless there are no other options. Optimizing like that is the only way you’re going to be able to win.
- Maybe skip Treasures on the first turn. In most cases, you won’t be able to use a few of the potential rewards (you might be at the minimum Nightmare Score, or there aren’t any Monsters to weaken), so that might be a waste. Plus, saving your Courage and Strength to fight a monster might be a better long-term strategy than the short-term gain.
- Don’t ignore Treasures completely, though. You will inevitably need some if you expect to be able to win.
- Don’t ignore Nightmares. If you leave too many on the board you’ll get a huge cascade and lose tons of points. However, if you spend all your time clearing those, you won’t score enough points to win. You should especially not ignore double-symbol Nightmares, as they have an increased chance of matching with other Nightmares and tanking your score.
- Really, try to balance everything. You’re managing a bunch of different elements and you need to make sure that no one of them gets too far away from you for you to be able to recover. At the same time, you need to score points in order to actually win. It’s remarkably similar in style to Pandemic, just without the route / network elements.
- Eventually, you can ignore monsters. If you have a clear underbed and only two monsters left, neither of them can lose you the game, so you’re pretty fine just focusing on clearing the Dreams.
PROS, MEHS, AND CONS
- Nice art! It’s very whimsical and reminiscent of Dixit, and you really can’t get much better than unique art on every card. It makes the game feel more vibrant and alive than, say, Splendor, which has lovely art but a fair number of repeats. The problem is, that sort of thing is rather expensive, so you don’t see a lot of games with completely unique art, especially with that many cards.
- Nice pieces, too. Honestly, everything about the game is really well-made — the pieces have a nice, solid feel to them and they’ve got cool construction. I mean, even the insert is nice!
- Really solid insert. It’s really well-made. And, after playing plenty of games with insufficient / no insert whatsoever, lately, (Rhino Hero: Super Battle, Magic Maze, and The Quest for El Dorado), it’s a nice change of pace.
- Plays pretty quickly. Usually because we lose pretty quickly, but, I mean, that happens sometimes. Sad.
- The nightmare scoring triggers are kind of interesting. The movement and the matching are both kind of interesting things to watch out for, and that makes the game challenging in a cool way.
- The insert might actually be … too nice? It’s kind of hard to get some of the cards out. Could probably have used a tiny bit of wiggle room, alas. (Apparently, this is getting fixed for the Kickstarter release.)
- This game is very hard. It’ll be the right difficulty for many people, I imagine (I’ve taken to calling it Cute & Fuzzy Ghost Stories), but it’s probably a smidge too tough for me, I’m fine admitting.
- Fairly long ruleset to get through for the length of the game. The mechanics all make sense as you progress through it, but it’s pretty dense for your first play. We missed a few rules in the first play, but if you have someone who knows the game play it with you your first time you can mitigate this a fair bit.
- As with all perfect-information cooperative games, you should be mindful of how much each player is contributing. Try to do your best to manage any situations where players are telling other players how to play their turn or trying to take their turn for them (typically called quarterbacking). This can be an issue in any and all cooperative games where all players have access to all information, such as Burgle Bros., Pandemic, and others. Just something to be mindful of.
- A couple of the Nightmares are … vaguely disturbing / graphic? They’re not like, terribly scary or something, but they might be stressful / upsetting for kids, even though this seems like an otherwise very kid-friendly game. The exposed brain in one and the tied-up kid about to get poisoned in the other seem kind of stressful. I’ve had a few comments on those when they come up.
OVERALL: 7.75 / 10
Overall, Dream Catchers is a solid cooperative game! I feel like it’s pretty difficult (and I’ve played a lot of co-op games), so that’s kind of saying something. Sure, with perfect information co-ops you have to worry a bit about quarterbacking, but just show obnoxious players where the door is. It’s a light and whimsical game about protecting kids from their nightmares (which, can get pretty real), but there’s a nice, deep level of strategy and planning that you need to do to mitigate the bad luck that will inevitably come your way. If you’re looking for a challenge and you’re not afraid of the dark, check out Dream Catchers!