There’s nothing better than a good night’s sleep, sadly sometimes nightmares — and monsters under the bed — are out to ruin that. You take on the role of the Dream Catchers, out to save the da… night.
Play Nation Studios’ Dream Catchers is a short, co-operative board game for two to four players. It puts the players in a race against time and charged with keeping children safe throughout the night. You do this by capturing sweet dreams, removing nightmares and cooperating with the other players to make each of your moves as effective as you can.
I’ll explain here, early on, that I don’t think this game really matches up with what you might perceive as its target audience. It looks like quite a cute, child-friendly game, and in many ways it is — its setting is cute and cuddly and even the monsters aren’t terribly horrifying. However, a couple of things in Dream Catchers don’t quite fit a younger player group. For a start, the round time — even on the ‘tutorial’ child — is actually incredibly short. You really need to work as a team in order to get through. Secondly, I just mentioned that the first child is a tutorial, that’s because each of the double-sided children cards is a different scenario, monsters appear at different times and other systems change around too. Flicking through the different scenarios reveals a few of the children living in situations a little too real for some younger children. That said, if you’ve already explained extreme poverty and injustice to your kids then crack on.
Anyway, on with the game.
I’m a massive fan of how Dream Catchers uses its space. There are a couple of decks including modifiers, power cards, monsters and dreams, which sit around the child board. Above it is a three-by-three grid of dream and nightmare tiles, these make up a dreamscape that you’ll be trying to clear and manipulate for the duration of the game.
You’ll each take on the role of a Dream Catcher, each one has their own ability and as such a speciality, mastering this is the best way to ensure a successful night, because in some cases simply trading won’t slow down the game enough in order to win. You’ll need to be specific and particular rule-readers if you want to get through with a success, and while that is a surefire hallmark of a game which demands you start up a second or third game in one evening, it is a confusing experience when you look at the game all laid out. The only way to win is by getting enough sweet dreams in place by daylight, having kept the number of monsters under the bed under three, while not letting nightmares grow and control the night.
That might sound like quite a lot, and frankly, considering the appearance of the game, it is. But, the trackers, which as I said before are all part and parcel of the child/scenario card, do a great job of tracking it.
One thing I will say about Dream Catchers is that it isn’t a chaotic game. It’s certainly not something you might play at a leisurely pace, but once you have a grasp of the systems it is something where all the mechanics click together, and that’s definitely something the team behind it can celebrate.
Play structure is relatively simple. Each player starts the game with their character and a hand of cards, each of the cards has an icon on it which corresponds to the type of dream, nightmare or monster that it can resolve against. You can take two actions on your turn and this can involve, well, trading or resolving those issues. If you capture a good dream then you’ll start solving that tracker, if you clear a bad one then you’ll stop the bad tracker from resolving (and maybe get a good reward) and if you defeat a monster then you’ll prolong the night for a bit longer and more than likely grab a decent reward too. These trackers don’t roll backwards though, so you have to keep forging on against increasing difficulty and filling buckets as the night goes on.
Once each player has done their turn the night phase takes place, dreams and nightmares populate and shift — with pairs of nightmares quickly filling up the nightmare tracker. Occasionally a monster will spawn too, and when it does it’ll eat up any positive dreams of the same type as it. This can be devastating, especially if the spaces are filled with nightmares. You truly feel like you are at the mercy of the shuffle here, which is never a great feeling, but one hard to avoid in tile-based games like this. Fighting these monsters is handled by a dice roll — this is something that, if you’re already convinced the tiles are against you in a game, you won’t find reassuring. Thankfully you can tinker with these dice rolls using modifiers, but you’ll have to really throw yourselves into teamwork in order to come out on top.
Due to the design of the game, it’s quite hard for the much-feared alpha player to appear, however, you do definitely need to communicate about what the team needs to do considering there are three departments (Sweet Dreams, Nightmares and Monsters) which need to be managed and the maximum (15) rounds it takes for the game to end comes around really quickly.
Let’s get back to aesthetics. The group that I played through Dream Catchers with absolutely adored the artwork and themes. We thought it was great that some of the children’s artwork, and some of the monster artwork, and some of the dream and nightmare artwork all clearly tied into each other, and it almost made it feel like there was a cinematic, perfect way to play through the game in order to have all the imagery work in sequence. While we got a bit frustrated with how quickly trouble stacked, and we had to reread the rules before a quick replay, we did quite enjoy the game.
Dream Catchers is a game I’d recommend to players teenage and up, but definitely for players who are used to failing a few times before things click into place.