A little over a week ago, I had the opportunity to try a brand new game that I had not heard of before called Shadowrift. I was at Origins Game Fair and was wandering back to my hotel room early in the morning as someone asked me if I wanted to try a new game. I said sure, why not. I might have been goaded on by someone shouting “Sleep is for the weak!” And man, am I glad I did. I tried Shadowrift and was impressed enough that I bought it that weekend. Since then I’ve had the chance to play it a few more times and thought I would give my impressions.
Number of Players: 2 - 6
Length of Game: 45 – 90 minutes
Difficulty of Game:
Popularity at Local Game Night: Too early to tell
The town of Haven is under attack by creatures from another plane of existence. They threaten to overwhelm the town and kill all the villagers. Who knows where their evil will end. It is up to you and a couple of other adventurers to save the town and stop the creatures. If you don’t step in, the demons will rampage unstopped.
This game is a deck-building game, similar to Dominion. It has some key differences, but I will get into that later. The key point here is that the vast majority of the game is made up of various cards. There are a couple of counters, but they are standard plastic counters and are not noteworthy. They serve their function well. The cards on the other hand are extremely noteworthy. They have wonderful artwork and fit the theme of the game very well. When I first picked up the game, I was very impressed with the artwork and thumbed through the cards just to see all of the different illustrations. The cards are also thick and glossy, and seem like they will stand up to multiple plays without much problem. The game materials definitely get top marks. I have had a little trouble getting the card dividers to fit comfortably in the box, but that is a very minor detail.
So I mentioned that Shadowrift is a deck-building game above. It is very like Dominion, especially with the setup. For example, there are several different monster groups and several different hero cards. You have four basic cards that are always available, eight random hero cards which can change from one game to the next. You also pick a monster group that you will have to fight over the course of the game. In this way, the game has a lot of replayability without being stale, similar to what has made Dominion a great game from my perspective.
In addition to the monster deck and the 12 hero cards, you have a villager deck and a traveler deck. The villager deck represents the people currently living in your town. They can potentially provide bonuses to your heroes on their turn. Travelers are people you can convince to stay in your town, for a price. But, I will get to all of that later.
Before I get into the individual turns, it is important to mention that this is a cooperative game. All the players are working together to stop the monsters and they all take their turns at the same time.
Each turn is divided into a series of phases. The first thing you do is each player draws five cards from their decks. Then, you refresh the villagers available. You only have five villagers available at any given time. So you draw the top five villagers and lay them out. Then you refresh the travelers. There are two travelers available at any time so you flip over the top two from the deck. Now the monsters in play act. Monsters that have come through the gate have three different actions. If they are not killed, they will take one action every turn. After the third turn, they roam free and add to monster power.
Now, monsters gain power. The default is to add one power for each player in the game. This means more monsters come out faster with more players, but if you are only playing with two or three players you are not overwhelmed. After gaining power, monsters are put into play. Each monster has a power rating. If they have enough power, the monster goes into play to attack the town. More powerful monsters take more power, as you would expect. It is possible that a Shadowrift is exposed. If so, it goes into play automatically and adds to the amount of monster power generated until it gets sealed.
Finally, the players get a chance to play the cards in their hand. They all act at the same time and a certain amount of collusion is encouraged. You can attack monsters in play, buy better cards, invest in money for purchasing better things in later turns. You can also buy travelers and convince them to stay in town, or you can build walls that help protect your town. There are eight walls that are available, and they are very expensive and difficult to build. After all of the building, buying, and fighting of monsters happens, players discard any cards still in their hands, and you move on to the next turn.
The game ends and players lose when: all the corpses are in the villager deck (when a monster kills a villager it gets replaced with a corpse), the five cards revealed from the villager deck are all corpses, a powerful monster executes its third attack which says the players lose. Players can win by either building all eight walls or sealing all the Shadowrifts in the monster deck. There is one Shadowrift per player in the monster deck.
Like with most games, this started out slow with a lot of questions when we first played it. However, within a couple of turns, the individual turns were going much faster and there was very little down time. Since all of the characters are acting at once, you are never in a place where you are waiting for other people to act so that you can do something. It is a nice touch but it does mean you will hold up the entire game if you get up and walk away for a bathroom break.
Since it is cooperative, there is a lot of table talk, and I think this is a good thing. Some attacks are more effective if they are the first attack or if they are NOT the first attack. Because of this there becomes a lot of discussion of strategy and hoping that you can orchestrate the most advantageous attack. However, this can also be a negative. The first time that we played, we played the game with completely open hands. There were a couple of times where one player dictated what another should do. I can see this game falling into that trap all too easily if you play open-handed: the trap where one player directs how the entire game should go. I strongly recommend not playing with open hands because of this. We found that made the game much better.
It is very important to diversify within your group of players. You find yourself wanting to have players who are specializing their decks. For example, you want at least one player to focus on killing monsters and generating a lot of offense. If you are focusing on sealing rifts (as opposed to building walls), then you really want to make sure you have at least one player focusing on magic. If you try to have every player to do everything in their decks, you wind up getting hurt more often than not. You just can’t generate the spells or attacks you need reliably when you need them the most. By diversifying and focusing at the same time, you make it much more likely that you will have what you need when you need it. You can also specialize further - say becoming a fighter who specializes in attacking first, or specializes in ranged attacks. It gives a bit of flavor and almost adds a touch of roleplaying to the game. Not quite, but it has that flavor.
Because of the fact that you can make different cards available during game set up, I found that this game was fun to play multiple times in a row. Normally with most games that have a fair amount of strategy, we play it once and then put it away to play it next time we have a game night. And that’s if it is a good game! Dominion is one of the few games that we will play multiple times in a row. So far, this game also falls into that category. We put away a few cards, pulled out a few new ones, and played again.
One thing that would be nice to have is a good way to randomize which cards are available. The game does come with some suggestions for set ups, but it would be nice to have something similar to the blue-backed cards in Dominion. It would make it easier to pick what to play with.
This game is the first game of its type that I have run into: cooperative deck-building. I really enjoy playing deck-building games because I like trying to optimize my deck and making the best deck that I can. That mechanic is inherently enjoyable to me which is why I enjoy Dominion as much as I do. To have it put into a cooperative light is a nice touch and is a great experience.
The game is intense, in a very good way. Multiple times while we were playing, we had several people in the game standing up on the table and leaning over it. This wasn’t because they needed to read cards better, it was simply because they were that anxious. They physically could not sit still and just wait to see what happened. Any game which gets people that invested is impressive.
The replayability is huge and worth mentioning specifically in this section. It has the ability to be played multiple times in a row and not be the same game just by changing up a few cards or the monsters that you will be facing. It definitely adds to the longevity of the game and speaks well for its future popularity at game night.
The biggest gripe that I have deals not with the game itself, but the rule book. There is no illustration in the book (or if there is, I could not find it) that indicates how you should set up the play area. If I had not played the game with the designer and had him set up the game the first time, I don’t think I would have a clean set up. There are a lot of cards that are available and there is a layout that makes a lot of sense. But, without that, it can be kind of daunting or confusing. It would be nice to have a recommended set up in the instruction manual.
The other gripe that comes to mind is the lack of an easy way to determine which cards to put out if you are not using a predetermined set up. It would be nice to have some way of picking random cards.
All in all, this was an amazing find at Origins and I am really glad that I stumbled across it. The best comparison that I can give for it is that it is a mix between Arkham Horror and Dominion. Since those are two of the most popular games at my local game night, I felt a need to pick this up. So far, it has been a huge hit, and I am really glad that I have a copy of it. If you like deck-building and you like cooperative games with a touch of horrible creatures from beyond, you have to at least get this a try. It can be a little daunting or overwhelming at first (four different types of cards on the play area at once?), but it gets pretty easy after you play a round or two. And while it is still early, this game was hugely popular when first introduced to my game night, and has already been requested again.
This sounds quite similar to how my wife and I play Thunderstone: a cooperative romp where you have to take out the monsters before they take out you!
However, it sounds like they've targeted that mechanic and thus this game is much more cohesive and a better experience for it. Thunderstone co-operative is great fun, my wife and I have a blast, but we have to ignore so many effects on cards (so that I'm not destroying her deck, etc) that it is, at times, painfully obvious that we are Not Playing The Way It Was Meant To Be Played. Some heroes exist in Thunderstone solely because they mess with other players, and we simply don't use them.
Thanks for the writeup!
Wow, I just played this tonight, fantastic game!!!! I prioritize mechanics and gameplay huge over theme. That being said, I don't have a strong preference to euro vs ameritrash... in fact, there are elements I like and dislike of both. While this game is no doubt amazing thematically, the gameplay is a blast too. So many deck/dice/disk building high-fantasy games have left me wanting. But this was a fantastic experience! Great work guys.