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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past» Forums » Reviews

Subject: In the Shadows of the Past rss

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Charlie Theel
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This is a companion piece to the review I wrote for Geek & Sundry. Given word count restrictions and format limitations, it was difficult to do proper service to such a significant release. If you want a general overview of the game and some of its strong points, read my G&S article. If you want a more nuanced take then hopefully the article below will satiate your hunger.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past surprised the hell out of me. I came into it with shallow expectations courtesy of big name licensed properties soaring solely on nostalgia and not on the merits of the game design. Perhaps it was a mistake not taking into account the pedigree of a man who designed Doom: The Board Game, Arkham Horror, and Android. Perhaps my lack of expectations was actually a boon, allowing a shallow barrier of hope to be shattered by a Michelangelo skateboarding at Mach 3.

There's a lot going on in this game. You have asymmetrical protagonists with unique sets of dice, special abilities, multiple stats, and a selection of skill cards. You have a villain with a personal card activation system whose options are tailored by scenario. The environment you fight in appears somewhat simple, but is layered with tactical nuances that affect positioning and interaction. Play is framed up in a compelling narrative structure of linked scenes forming a comic. Each book progresses a greater story paralleled in the IDW series and gives you a sense of momentum. Innovative mechanisms are packed into every inch of this game and it's one of the most compelling tactical miniatures board games I've played.

Innovation and success is most easily measured with a yardstick comprised of peers. Elements of this game can certainly be compared and even said to be directly influenced by those that came before it. Where it's most interesting is how it diverges from those progenitors and takes the experience to the next level.


While my thoughts on the game are based entirely on retail content, I can't help but marvel at the ridiculousness of the works.


Let's hit this from the top down and take a look at the Comic book scenario structure. It seems appropriate to compare this design to a pizza, in which case this framework of play would be the warm doughy crust that forms the foundation of deliciousness.

The retail package ships with four comics, each comprised of multiple branching scenarios. By breaking action into smaller vignettes of story, you can have meaningful movement in the narrative. Instead of play confining to a single map that you explore in a traditional dungeon crawl sense, you're kicking Foot butt and tearing up alleys over just a couple of tiles. Get in, hit your objective, and move on.

This scene-to-scene approach with the outcome influencing the next slice of action is not entirely new. We first saw this in the underrated 2016 release Dragon Tides. This game lets you actually play Bruce Lee and beat down thugs with frying pans and sewer lids. A session of play typically consists of playing through a movie book with linked scenes following that structure of a branching narrative.

The first time I played this I was floored. It's the main reason Dragon Tides stayed in my collection beyond review. This idea of linked scenarios is also seen in Descent and more closely in Imperial Assault. Playing through to completion within these designs requires an expenditure of a greater allotment of time. These games want you to commit to true campaigns of multiple sessions that reach maximum effectiveness with a static group.


Cleaning up the trash.


The idea of a campaign game is fantastic. I'm a huge fan of Kingdom Death: Monster and wouldn't trade out the length of experience. However, most standard designs really don't have the joy or satisfaction to keep you going. As a board gamer, you want to be in and out and have a compact, highly entertaining experience. Campaigns are great if they are continually hitting high notes, but more often than not they meander. For stretches of play you feel like a three-legged dog trying to keep up when all you want to do is hit the bed and take a rest. Story requires momentum and board games generally don't provide that over multiple plays.

Dragon Tides and TMNT: Shadows of the Past offer a clear and effective solution. The former ultimately failed to be truly special due to a lack of follow through on production which resulted in a solid single over the shortstop's head. The latter cracked the ball over the wall.

Shadows of the Past's achievement extends beyond the macro level. The play of each scenario is rewarding with a surprising amount of tactical depth. This is not Ghostbusters. This isn't even Descent. TMNT is its own animal: a seething green shell of aggression.

The cooperative dice system is a defining aspect of this design and it works really well. Cooperation is meaningful and the choices are interesting. Beyond that sharing mechanic is the use of symbols dictating the actions permitted. This is very similar to the upcoming CMON release Masmorra.

Masmorra is a game that I went into with low expectations and it managed to disappoint; completely the opposite of TMNT in most regards. My lack of enthusiasm is the result of action dice offering very bland choices. The difference here is that the environment to perform said actions is infinitely more engaging, and the inclusion of that sharing element mitigates outcomes lacking potency. The inclusion of Focus tokens that allow re-rolls bolsters this further.


Asymmetry is beautiful.


The only issue with widening the decision space and nuance of available actions is the increase in cognitive evaluation. Turns take longer to execute here than in the typical dungeon crawl design, and downtime can be quite significant at max player count. The opposition does get to activate in between each turtle, so you will have to wait seven complete turns before going again. I wouldn't trade out the depth of the system for greater ease of play, but it does mean I'd prefer to play this with three players to allow cooperation and maximize involvement.

But let's get back to Masmorra and how in actuality that's not really the best comparative. While the similarities here are direct and clear to anyone who's played both, the real underlying connection of the action system is to Earth Reborn in terms of feel. That is a spectacular game that has yet to be touched in quality. The fact that I am even placing Shadows of the Past in the same ballpark is an enormous compliment.

Earth Reborn is a game that allows you to perform actions based on a tile draw. Characters may only move, shoot, or melee if they're assigned an appropriate tile. Certain symbols contain higher values which allow you to achieve greater effectiveness. This produces a similar feel to TMNT's system in that you can spend multiple symbols to roll more attack dice or move farther. Alternatively, you can break those symbols up to perform several smaller actions-a feature that appears in Earth Reborn for movement.

The similarity in feel occurs through the choices this manufactures. You have limited resources yet more problems than Jay Z. You must always keep those scenario goals in mind, balanced against what capabilities you have and influenced by that dice sharing mechanism. Toss in skills and a wildly interactive environment, you have a compelling tactical scene with real decision points. Every turn isn't about taking a move followed by an attack action. You need to deliberately plan out your approach to the challenges at hand and work to succeed utilizing all of your tools.

It's interesting that the antagonist has a similar set of restrictions accomplished via their action cards. This results in agonizing over which options to play and which types of enemies to activate. The real twist and achievement with this mechanism is that those cards differ by scenario.

Each enemy type contains multiple colored sets of four cards. Some scenarios will feature thugs with handguns that can really let 'er rip and fire with reckless abandon. Other times they'll be weak fodder to clog up movement lanes and tie down the turtles while your Foot soldiers flank and mop up. Even villains like Old Hob and Shredder may perform somewhat differently scene to scene.

The influence in this sub-system came from Eric Lang's work on the Star Wars LCG. That card game uses a pod system of included groups of card to build your deck. Kevin Wilson re-purposed this mechanic into the action card allotments for each enemy. It's amazing how well it integrates and how it feeds into the feel of each encounter. You won't get sick of fighting Stormtroopers or Imperial Officers as the behavior and capabilities are much more dynamic and interesting over the long haul.


Donatello meet Donatello.


The final area I want to touch on is this design's pacing. This is fed from a high level with that comic approach, but within an individual scenario this game mostly nails it. Your goals are clear and a scenario can typically be wrapped up in about 30-60 minutes. This feels great as it's the perfect slice of time and you can either save your progress by inserting a bookmark at the beginning of the next scenario, or proceed to the follow-up right away to get your cowabunga on.

The snappy pace is achieved through clever map setups. Spawn points are carefully selected to produce a specific experience of either being surrounded or facing a large wall of spite. Terrain elements are deliberately positioned to create choke points or multiple paths to the end goal. It feels well developed and heavily playtested to produce a pitch perfect result that coalesces with the game's mechanisms. You can definitely feel the editorial presence within this design as it doesn't fall into the typical Kickstarter pitfalls.

I absolutely love how the game uses a timer sparingly. Most scenarios don't suffer from the Imperial Assault race syndrome and you're not forced to run full speed for the finish line. There are a few encounters structured this way, but they feel fresh and different since they're outside the norm.

However, there is a definite downside to this approach which is why FFG likely included the mechanic in their flagship title. The issue is that you can occasionally hit a situation where the game stalls and the pace hits a brick wall. You'll see this when the Foot player needs to down two turtles to win and the green ninjas need to get all four to the edge of the map. If a single turtle is KO'd, play can break down to a back and forth where you're trying to get your buddy up while the bad guy throws thug after thug into your scrum.

This is reminiscent of the excellent Gears of War board game which had a similar downed/KO status. It mostly works in both designs because it increases tension as you're hanging on by a thread and battling to regain your lost footing. But there's no inherent timer on the conflict and it can sometimes get stalled out and repetitive. This can really kick the length of a scene up by a significant amount and drain the atmosphere somewhat. Fortunately I've found this to occur very rarely in play as typically you'll mount a big comeback and pull your buddy to his feet, or you'll meet your impending doom and be overwhelmed. Either outcome is pretty entertaining as a whole.

Clearly this isn't a perfect game. I don't think such a thing exists and all I can do is laud TMNT for even moving the needle in that direction. If you want a simple, streamlined game to introduce to a group of gateway gamers, this isn't your bag. There is a great deal to manage and a surprising amount of nuance. This is the double-edged katana Leo wields as it's difficult to achieve so many innovations and carefully crafted mechanisms while asking very little of the players. I'll take that tradeoff every day of the week as my copy of Ghostbusters is sitting in a landfill being worked over by a Seagull while TMNT is bolted down to my shelf.

To view other reviews I've written check out this Geeklist

If you're seeking more TMNT: Shadows of the Past discussion, you can hear additional details on the most recent episode of Ding & Dent
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Geoff ...
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Thanks Charlie, great review.
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Charlie Theel
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Thanks!
 
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Hardboiled Gregg
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Another great review. Thanks for taking the time to share your unrestricted thoughts.

Just a note, this isn't entirely true.
charlest wrote:
The opposition does get to activate in between each turtle, so you will have to wait seven complete turns before going again.


The heroes can actually change their turn order from round to round. So, worst case, it could actually be 13 turns between a particular hero's last and next turn; obviously, then, best case it's 1 turn. So, I guess 7 is kind of the average?
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Jerome Nowak

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Amazing review. Thank you so much for getting this out here!
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Tristan Brunet
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Wonderful review (I read every word
of it), even more informative and visceral than your former one. Man did you hit hard with your reference to the stellar Earth Reborn.
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Charlie Theel
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Thanks guys.

HotHeart wrote:
Another great review. Thanks for taking the time to share your unrestricted thoughts.

Just a note, this isn't entirely true.
charlest wrote:
The opposition does get to activate in between each turtle, so you will have to wait seven complete turns before going again.


The heroes can actually change their turn order from round to round. So, worst case, it could actually be 13 turns between a particular hero's last and next turn; obviously, then, best case it's 1 turn. So, I guess 7 is kind of the average?


Good point! We did play that correctly and choosing the order is very important occasionally. Especially when trying to get someone up. Raf seemed to be KO'd the most in our game and have to wrestle with the fact: "Do I try and go with him and hope to stand up now while there's only one thug next to him." or "Maybe I should wait until I can move Donatello adjacent and hope the bad guy can't get anyone else closer."
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Peter Bowie
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Brilliant stuff! The comparison to KD:M fills me with anticipation, especially since TMNT is a competitive game (my bread and butter).

Seeing as the individual mission length is quite short, it seems like it'll be a perfect game for a single hour long play, or a multiple campaign trail. Very excited to receive my KS copy!
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Turtle Freak
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C3Gaming wrote:
Seeing as the individual mission length is quite short, it seems like it'll be a perfect game for a single hour long play, or a multiple campaign trail. Very excited to receive my KS copy!


As someone who has yet to finish a campaign of Descent, I'm very thankful for this. My game group doesn't meet regularly, and we rarely have the same people consistently. Being able to finish a comic in a couple nights should be much more manageable and enjoyable.
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Charlie Theel
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Turtle Freak wrote:
C3Gaming wrote:
Seeing as the individual mission length is quite short, it seems like it'll be a perfect game for a single hour long play, or a multiple campaign trail. Very excited to receive my KS copy!


As someone who has yet to finish a campaign of Descent, I'm very thankful for this. My game group doesn't meet regularly, and we rarely have the same people consistently. Being able to finish a comic in a couple nights should be much more manageable and enjoyable.


Absolutely, I'd love to see more games take this approach in the future. It gives you a sense of continuity while still fitting into the schedule.
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charlest wrote:
Turtle Freak wrote:
C3Gaming wrote:
Seeing as the individual mission length is quite short, it seems like it'll be a perfect game for a single hour long play, or a multiple campaign trail. Very excited to receive my KS copy!


As someone who has yet to finish a campaign of Descent, I'm very thankful for this. My game group doesn't meet regularly, and we rarely have the same people consistently. Being able to finish a comic in a couple nights should be much more manageable and enjoyable.


Absolutely, I'd love to see more games take this approach in the future. It gives you a sense of continuity while still fitting into the schedule.


Sounds like it has more of a Last Night on Earth feel in relation to game length and scenario play. I think that is a good thing.

I have a mate receiving this from KS. I look forward to giving it a crack.
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Thank goodness I backed this. Had I not and then read this I would have been kicking myself. Plus my girlfriend is a TMNT fiend and she would be kicking me too. I hate getting kicked.
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Mike Clarke
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This was completely off my radar. Never really watched their cartoons or movies. BUT your review has got me interested. (I also own Earth Reborn.) Thanks, Charlie!
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Anthony Ferrise
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Fantastic review with a lot of it's own nuances!

I appreciate the comparisons to a lot of other games. Mine is set to show up today and this has only made me more excited to break that huge Works box open and get playing ASAP.
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Ryan Everly
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Dragon Tides
Gears of War
Earth Reborn

Holy sh*t, man! You referenced three games that have permanent places on my shelf in a review for a game I wasn't even sure I would like. Now I feel so, so very horrible for not going in on The Works Edition.

Oh well. Hindsight is 20/20, I guesscry
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Charlie Theel
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Thanks everyone.

jaray wrote:
Dragon Tides
Gears of War
Earth Reborn

Holy sh*t, man! You referenced three games that have permanent places on my shelf in a review for a game I wasn't even sure I would like. Now I feel so, so very horrible for not going in on The Works Edition.

Oh well. Hindsight is 20/20, I guesscry


I would totally recommend the retail version over skipping out on this game. I've still yet to play with any Kickstarter content except for the alternate turtle sculpts. The base game has plenty going for it.
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Ryan Everly
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Oh, don't get me wrong. I snagged an EB pledge at the last minute... I just wish I had splurged a little.
 
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Aaron Gelb
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How fun is it to play the "overlord?"

I know its different than playing the good guys, I"m expecting I'll play the baddies the first time around while my friends take a turtle each.
 
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Charlie Theel
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asgelb wrote:
How fun is it to play the "overlord?"

I know its different than playing the good guys, I"m expecting I'll play the baddies the first time around while my friends take a turtle each.


It's fun because you have a wide variety of guys with different powers. The system itself features card draws so you can't just activate whatever you want, when you want. This adds a bit of drama and suspense and a hand management system that's not complex but is interesting.
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Excellent review. Bad for my wallet.

I passed on this KS because it's from IDW. They have had some comic tie-ins that were decided stinkers (Kill Shakespeare, anybody?) and some premier designers whose games were decidedly meh (Rob Daviau and V-Wars?).

My reaction to the Kickstarter? Instant back. Wait... Let's go through the list... Kevin Wilson? Check. Ninja Turtles? Check. IDW? Wait and see. Cancel pledge. Waffle back and forth a bit, but ultimately leave this one alone.

I don't know if it's because IDW exercises some heavy-handed influence over the design process, heavy-handed editing post-design, or just uninspired contractual requirements that hamstrings otherwise excellent designers and game concepts, but I approach anything bearing those three letters with a heavy degree of wariness.

So I am glad to see that Kevin Wilson's talents are allowed to shine through. I am sold based on this description of play, the favorable comparisons to Earth Reborn and KD:M, and ... I bought one of the few KS editions Miniature Market has for sale. DOH! Well done, sir!
 
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How would you compare this to the Others? Any reason you'd choose one over the other on game night?
 
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Charlie Theel
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I enjoy The Others but am not a huge fan. I was slightly disappointed honestly, as I was expecting a bit more being a huge Eric Lang fan.

My review of The Others (a head to head with Michael Barnes) can be found here.

I probably prefer the theme of the Others, but the integration of theme/setting is stronger in TMNT. The overlord player is much more interesting in TMNT. I think the corruption mechanism in The Others is great, but I prefer the dice based system in TMNT when comparing each game's core selling point.

The structure of each scenario is more interesting in TMNT as well. There's a stronger narrative and I care a bit more about what's going on in the background because of how the game is designed/structured.

The Others has better minis, of course. Those minis are unbelievable for a mass produced board game.



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Michael Gardner
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charlest wrote:
I enjoy The Others but am not a huge fan. I was slightly disappointed honestly, as I was expecting a bit more being a huge Eric Lang fan.

My review of The Others (a head to head with Michael Barnes) can be found here.

I probably prefer the theme of the Others, but the integration of theme/setting is stronger in TMNT. The overlord player is much more interesting in TMNT. I think the corruption mechanism in The Others is great, but I prefer the dice based system in TMNT when comparing each game's core selling point.

The structure of each scenario is more interesting in TMNT as well. There's a stronger narrative and I care a bit more about what's going on in the background because of how the game is designed/structured.

The Others has better minis, of course. Those minis are unbelievable for a mass produced board game.





I've picked this up and should receive it by the end of the week. Interestingly, I didn’t originally pick it up because it appeared to be an uninspired design based on a comically dated IP. In the review you linked, the other guy (I think) accused The Others of this while I found the Sin Player and corruption mechanisms the exact opposite of uninspired design, to the point where I think he and I are playing different games! It's a Top 5 game of the year for me, so Im excited that TMNT could be right there with it.
 
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Frank La Terra
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Kirk Agathon wrote:


I've picked this up and should receive it by the end of the week. Interestingly, I didn’t originally pick it up because it appeared to be an uninspired design based on a comically dated IP. In the review you linked, the other guy (I think) accused The Others of this while I found the Sin Player and corruption mechanisms the exact opposite of uninspired design, to the point where I think he and I are playing different games! It's a Top 5 game of the year for me, so Im excited that TMNT could be right there with it.


Agreed, the "DM" in the others plays like no other DM I can think of.
I'm hoping Turtles is the same.
 
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Kevin M
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Hey Charlie!

I'm another person that backed this game and then pulled out about halfway through to toss my money at other things.

When I saw the game itself sitting on your game table, pored through the materials, and witnessed the fun you guys were having while playing it, I had insta-regret for not staying with the Kickstarter and backing it.

Now I'm reading all these positive reviews and I'm really kicking myself.

As a result, I'm getting my "Works Edition" copy of it today.

Cowabunga dudes!
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