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Subject: Achieving Balance - A Review of Shadows Upon Lassadar rss

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Chris Hansen
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This review is part of my series reviewing games that were entered in the 2011 Solitaire Print and Play Contest. All reviews in the series are available on this geeklist. Shadows Upon Lassadar won second place in the contest.

I am also reviewing the other games in the Lassadar Series.
Shadows Upon Lassadar: Sorrow of Salilth: Review Link Coming Soon
Shadows Upon Lassadar: Revenge of the Raven Consort: Review Link Coming Soon

Game Summary
The Grayking has long been banished to The Tower of Ash on the far side of the Barrier Plains by the Wardens of Lassadar. Over the years the defenses have weakened and the Grayking has managed to escape his imprisonment. The Wardens are now too old to fight him so they must send you, one of their students, to battle him. You are singularly unprepared for this responsibility as you know only two fairly weak spells and have little combat strength. However you will quickly gain a magical knowledge as you battle the Grayking’s many servants. Once you are prepared, you must seal the three gates that stand between Lassadar and the Barrier Plains before the Grayking can reache the kingdom. This will not be an easy task. As you learn new spells, the Grayking’s servants become more powerful and the very magic you will use to fight them can corrupt your own spirit.

All of the game components.

Game Play
Shadows Upon Lassadar is a solitaire fantasy adventure game with light wargame elements and loads of theme. The goal of the game is to retrieve three stolen keys from the Grayking’s servants and lock the Barrier Gates before the Grayking reaches Lassadar. You lose the game if the Grayking reaches Lassadar or if your Spirit becomes fully corrupted due to the overuse of magic.

There’s several components to the game, but the rulebook contains a very useful setup diagram to help you get started. At the start of the game you are assigned health levels for both Mana (your ability to cast spells) and Spirit (your life points), you choose two spells to begin with, and the Grayking is placed on a track leading to Lassadar - his exact placement depends on the difficultly level you’ve chosen.

The game set up and ready to play.

The rules are generally pretty easy. The bulk of the game is spent advancing through the Quest Deck. These cards represent the cities and villages of Lassadar plus a few of the Elder Wardens who can aide you. The cities are clearly marked, those with a black bar on top have been overtaken by the Grayking’s servants and you must conduct battle there. Those with a white bar on top are sanctuaries where you can restore your Spirit, learn new spells, or gain Mana. When you find an Elder Warden, they will join you on your quest and provide assistance for a brief time.

Battles are conducted by rolling a certain number of dice (the exact number is determined by the spells that you know) and then rolling the same number of dice plus one for the Grayking’s servants. (No matter how many dice you roll, the Grayking’s servants will always roll one more die than you.) Despite having less dice, you must roll higher to win the battle. There are several spells that can assist you in this. Some let you reroll certain dice, others add a value to your total depending on what sort of servant your fighting, and one even lets you flip dice to their reverse side (for example, if you roll a 1, it could become a 6). After winning or losing a battle, you will determine what happens by revealing the next card in the Quest Deck and getting the result from that. This mechanic ensures that the result of a battle will never be known just by looking at the card currently in play. The benefits and damage range from healing or damaging your health points to moving the Grayking on the path toward Lassadar.

A resolved battle. My dice are on the left and the Grayking’s servant’s dice are on the right. I used an extra die provided by Elder San to win the battle.

Most battles are resolved in a single round, but certain city cards lead you to one of three extended battle maps where larger battles take place. Each map has specific instructions about how many servants will be in the city and the special instructions for using magic. When playing on these maps, you’ll draw Servant Cards to determine what enemies you’ll be facing. These cards have hit points, range, and attack strength for the servants. Because the map is a hex grid, maneuvering is available but in practice this is fairly limited. Spells work the same on the extended battle maps but they carry far more risk. Each time a spell is cast, you roll a die to check for additional results. Sometimes these are helpful, such as gaining an additional hit against your opponent, but other times the spells are harmful and will corrupt your Spirit. After winning the battle on an extended battle map, you will be able to lock one of the Barrier Gates and get that much closer to victory.

A battle on extended battle map #2

Quality of Components
As should be obvious from the pictures in this review, the components in Shadows Upon Lassadar are very well done - especially for a free Print and Play game. The artwork in this game easily bests many published games and gives the game a very distinctive look and feel. Apart from looking great, the artwork is also very functional. The cards, maps, and charts are all clear and it’s easy to tell at a glance what is going on in the game.

The rulebook is well done and fairly clear although I was left with a few questions after reading it. The designer has been very fast to answer rule questions in the forum but I wish he’d incorporate some of these clarifications into the rulebook. Overall though, the rulebook explains how to play very well and features some tremendous illustrations explaining how the game works.

Theme
Shadows Upon Lassadar is a heavily thematic and immersive game. Todd Sanders has done an incredible job of depicting the cities and people of Lassadar. The game primarily uses medieval woodcuts for artwork which Todd has photoshopped, tinted, and edited to acheive a foreboding appearance. When playing the game, it becomes apparent that the images weren’t just arbitrarily assigned to the cards. They match with the flavor text on the cards and speak to the care with which this game was designed.

A few of the city cards.

The game’s mechanics also work very well with the theme. For example, as a student, you are must learn the spells in a certain order and due to a lack of time, some spells must be sacrificed in order to learn others. This creates one of the games many decision trees since you must decide which spells to learn and where to focus your learning. Some spells increase your attack strength and others help you to heal yourself.

The spell chart.

Even the game’s card back and Grayking’s progress chart are thematic. I don’t know what context the picture of an isolated tower in the middle of a barren field was originally used in, but it’s hard to imagine a more fitting image for the game.

The Grayking’s tower

Print and Play Section
How Much Time to Make? How Difficult is it to Make? And What Components Will You Need?
Some of the photos may make it appear that there are a ton of components, but Shadows Upon Lassadar is actually a fairly light print and play game to build. There are only six pages of components (12 if you include card backs). As with all of Todd Sanders’s games, Shadows Upon Lassadar features clear crop marks so it is easy to cut with strait lines and get uniform card sizes. You have the choice when building the game of cutting each component evenly to make a deck of 54 cards or of leaving some components (such as the extended battle maps) intact. The game is perfectly playable either way, although I find that leaving the boards intact makes them a little more aesthetically pleasing. The card backs are identical for all cards so they aren’t essential, but once again, I think the game looks much nicer with them included.

Each one of these boards is actually two or three cards that I’ve left uncut and mounted.

You’ll need to shuffle the cards quite a bit during play so you’ll want them on a sturdy paper and probably sleeved as well. I’d recommend printing everything in the game on heavy cardstock and perhaps mounting the various charts and maps on thin cardboard or foamcore for extra stability. The only tools you’ll need for the game are an X-acto knife and strait edge (or a pair of scissors if you are better than me at cutting strait). You will also need to provide a several cubes or other markers to use when playing the game.

What’s the Ink Damage?
The artwork in this game is amazing but it will use a lot of ink to print. The cards, card backs, and game board are in full color with very little white space. A lot of the game is in brown or golden tones so you’ll be using every cartridge in your printer. Even the rules use a lot of ink. You’ll probably need to refer to them during play so I’d recommend printing them but they would still be clear if printed in black and white if needed.

The full color components.

Final Comments and Rating
Overall Shadows Upon Lassadar is a very well done game. It has a lot of great qualities but also has a few problems. The game does a terrific job of balancing the pros and cons of casting spells. Each spell you cast damages either your Spirit or your Mana strength so you must be careful in how often you cast them. It’s nice if you can win a battle by a lucky roll, but since the servants always roll one more die than you, this doesn’t happen often so you’re constantly choosing between accepting the loss or using magic to win but damaging yourself in the process. This is especially pronounced in the extended battle maps where using magic could potentially severely damage your Spirit.

The game also balances a challenging victory scenario (especially on the hardest level) with ways to make your quest easier. The Elder cards and Warden location cards each offer a great benefit but none are so strong that they assure victory. Most of these cards increase your Mana or Spirit by a few points but a few allow you to learn as many spells as you can afford or heal yourself without limit - with the cost of the Grayking advancing closer to Lassadar. This creates a great tension since the additional spells make you more powerful in fighting the Grayking but also leave little room for error since just a few battle losses could be enough for him to enter Lassadar.

I’ve learned several spells, but the Grayking is only one move away from destroying me. Also, I can’t cast any spells since I’m out of Mana. (Not a wise strategy on my part.)

Unfortunately, the game suffers a little due to the repetitive nature of the battles. Once you have learned the majority of the spells, the tactics you use in the battles becomes fairly static and can become a little tedious, especially on the extended battle maps where you may be fighting against enemies with a combined total of as many as 11 or 12 hit points.

The extended battle maps have a lot of variety in terms of initial placement, number of servants that will be fought, and effects of magic, but are overly similar in most other ways. This is perhaps an unfair criticism since Shadows Upon Lassadar doesn’t present itself as a wargame, but the maps could use more wargame mechanics. The images on the board are just there for aesthetic reasons and provide no differentiation for the hexes. There are no terrain effects which means that despite their large area, there is little actual maneuvering in the battles. Most of the time is spent moving in and out of the one hex that will recharge your spells.

The redundancy problems are actually largely alleviated in the Last Stand expansion (which is included in the base game) in which you battle the Grayking at the Tower of Ash after sealing the three Barrier Gates. The Grayking reacts directly to the spells you cast which drastically changes the nature of the battles. The battles are suddenly much more tense and the decisions about when to cast spells are much more difficult. It’s one of the most challenging, fun, and innovative parts of the game. I recommend always playing it after winning the game. I only wish there was more of this battle variety in the game.

The Last Stand expansion.

Despite these few problems, Shadows Upon Lassadar is an excellent game. While I’ve been extremely lucky a few times and easily won, I find that most games tend to hover dangerously close to the line between victory and defeat. Either the Grayking is within spitting distance of Lassadar for most of the game, or I’m struggling to keep my Spirit from becoming corrupted. It is almost always possible to improve your situation slightly, but it never seems like quite enough and defeat could almost always arrive at any moment. The game really does a phenomenal job of balancing these elements which makes the play very tense and creates a genuine sense of accomplishment when you manage to win.

Is this game worth the time to print, assemble, and play? Definitely! Your ink cartridge may suffer a bit but this is a great game that will be enjoyable for many plays. The theme alone is strong enough that the designer has built it out into a full trilogy of games. I’d love to see this game evolve to have battle mechanic equal to the quality of the theme. I think that with a few tweaks, this game could be a nine or possibly even a ten but for now I’ll rate it a 8.
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todd sanders
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thanks so much for the review. i agree with everything you've commented on. designing the trilogy was a great learning experience for me.

good battle mechanics can be difficult, especially in a solo game. i didn't want to have players be bogged down with all sorts of charts and tables so for this first game i kept the battle calculations on the light side.

one thing to mention is that although the Grayking's servants always roll one more die than you do, as you increased in power and gain more dice, the average roll curve tends to flatten. so the Grayking is always more powerful than you but you grow in power as well.

if i were to revisit the battle mechanics of this game i would take some of what i learned about nomographs used in the 2nd part of the trilogy
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Andreas Hellwig
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Thanks for the great review Chris !!! thumbsup
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CJ Dornfried

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Fantastic review of this excellent game! Well done Chris!
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Mark Cookman
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An outstanding review of an outstanding game. Great job.

Mark
365ZED
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Stefan Daniels
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I'm just printing up this game now and this was a wonderful review. Overall, Todd has done something that I was hoping to accomplish at some point: have a wide variety of games set within the same, consistent universe. His Aether Captains and Lassadar universe are both familiar yet unique. I can't say enough about this man's efforts and design esthetic. I just wish that publishers would take note.
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todd sanders
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very much appreciated stefan. i am hoping a couple more of my games get signed soon as well
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Chris Hansen
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Thank you everyone for all the nice comments on the review as well. I worked pretty hard on this one.
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