Dreamwell is a 2 to 4 player grid movement and set collection game designed by Nick Little and published by Action Phase Games. Action Phase Games has a history of high quality art in their products, and Dreamwell is no exception. In fact, it's probably a fact that Dreamwell's initial appeal is entirely owed to the art and design of "pop surrealist" artist Tara McPherson. Luckily for us, there's a great game in that beautiful box as well.
If you are not familiar with McPherson's work, check our her website (warning: some art might be NSFW) or if you're near NYC, check out her boutique store Cotton Candy Machine. The characters presented in the game come from a line called "Gamma Mutant Space Friends," or at least that's what the vinyl figurine line was by Kidrobot was called. Each character, creature, and terrain has its own name or title, which is a welcome addition as it adds extra flavor to the game. The "friend" characters are very fitting: the boys wear costumes that look almost like footed pajamas, and the girls sport sharp and flowing outfits out of a futuristic space opera. The colors and designs are familiar yet otherworldly, adorable yet slightly creepy. McPherson's art is what drove me to get the deluxe version of the game, which comes with an alternative art slip cover, tarot-sized cards, and an additional print from the artist. The tarot cards are a bit difficult to shuffle due to their size, but they're definitely worth the cost as they look fantastic.
In Dreamwell, 2-4 players each have control of two "Mr. Wiggles" pieces of their color, and take three actions each turn. These actions include moving one of their pieces from one tile to another (or even off the board), rotating a tile, playing or drawing a friend card, or resetting the cards available to choose from. The game enters its final round when someone plays their seventh card, and the winner is the player who has collected the most points.
The game is deceptively simple. Each tile has two or three doors on their edge, pointing in the direction a Mr. Wiggles pieces can move to. If there's a matching gate facing it, they can take an extra movement for free. With the right set-up, a piece can move across the board in only one move. In order to play their friend cards, they need to have their pieces on tiles matching the creatures and terrain from the cards in their hand. So if one player wants to play a friend card that has Cosmo the pink whale and Nova the black swan with a Black Sky background, they need to have one piece on a Cosmo tile, one piece on a Nova tile, and at least one of those two needs to have the Black Sky terrain. Once a friend card is played, the player gains a benefit that is listed on the bottom right of the card. You can check out a how-to-play video guide from the creator here.
Since playing friend cards gives you bonuses, it's possible to create a chain of card collection and movements that optimizes your turns. The game keeps players fully engaged as they try to figure out the best means of acquiring and playing cards with their limited actions. There's also a significant matching strategy with the friend cards, as some require you to have pairs, sets of threes, or multiple friends to score points. For example, in my second game, my first friend card ended up scoring me zero points. The high-risk, high-reward point systems reminded me of Sushi Go!, where a set of three cards would get you more points, but it was a lot more difficult to complete then just going for pairs.
The game scales well with each player count, but the board does get pretty full at four players. With eight possible pieces moving around the tiles, it becomes trickier to develop strategies as there's a greater chance of your tiles being rotated and or your preferred cards being drawn. It doesn't make the game any less fun, but it does mean that there's a different experience with a higher player count.
Dreamwell is not overly complex, and as such I can see a lot of veteran gamers who want something crunchier becoming bored. Luckily, Dreamwell has two variants included that make the game more complex without sacrificing simplicity. The first variant is the Advanced Game, which introduces a new friend, additional cards, and the ability to flip a tile upside-down. Each tile has an opposing character and background, and the player aide cards tell you which side will appear when they flip. It also pushes the number of friends that end the game from seven to ten. Flipping tiles creates a new level of strategy and creates complexity without losing the nature or spirit of the game. Unfortunately, it can also create analysis paralysis, as players will spend extra time trying to figure out which tile will flip to the side they need.
The second addition is the Nightmare Variant, where a nightmare token is placed on the board and moved from tile to tile at the end of each player's turn. When the nightmare is on a tile, no piece can move onto it, and it cannot be flipped or rotated. When someone moves the nightmare onto a tile with a Mr Wiggles, it's "scared" off the board (but can move back on during the player's next turn). This variant is the only means of direct player conflict, and it's not overly aggressive enough to completely change the nature of the game. A player could even move the nightmare into one of their own pieces, moving Mr. Wiggles off the board and giving them better access to a tile they need.
The game's only drawback that actually annoyed me is the obstruction of the artwork when a Mr Wiggles piece is on a tile. They cover most of the tile's artwork, making it difficult to see where you are. This really is a minor issue, but it was one that frustrated me enough that I felt it was worth mentioning.
I was lucky enough to play a demo version of the game at Dice Tower Con in July, and I purchased my copy the minute I arrived home afterwards. The unique art and ease of play make this a winner that I don't see leaving my collection any time soon. It's also surprisingly affordable as far as board games go, with quality components and a winning design. If this looks like your kind of experience, and the art draws you in like it did for me and doesn't let go, then I highly recommend checking this game out.