Thank you for checking review #80 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
***Note: A review copy of the game was provided for what had been planned as a deckbuilding month. With the medical time spent on my daughter since September, than plan went by the wayside.
***Second Note: I didn’t know there was an upcoming Kickstarter for an expansion, but once I became aware of it, I played the game a few extra times in order to get this review up during the campaign. You can find the Kickstarter link here, and at the bottom of this review: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/shadowrift/shadowrift-b…
An overview of Shadowrift
Shadowrift is a board game designed by Jeremy Anderson that was published in 2012 by Game Night Productions and later rereleased with a 2nd Edition by Game Salute (this review is based on the 2nd Edition). The box states it plays 1-6 players in 45-120 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 2.69.
Haven Town is facing total annihilation at the hands (and teeth) of a horde of monsters from beyond the Shadowrift.
You, the heroes, must band together to drive them back. To do this, you will need powerful spells, skills, attacks and loot. When the game begins, you are a basic hero; you can explore and fight. Luckily for you, Shadowrift is a deck-building game! You can buy new cards to add to your deck, cards that will define you as an adventurer and complement the strengths of your fellow heroes. Unlike other deck-builders, there is constant interaction with your fellow players as you figure out who will gain which benefit from the limited supply of townsfolk, offer their coin to help construct walls, and seek healing from anyone who’s learned such magic.
Shadowrift also features monsters that don’t merely sit waiting to be slain; if you leave them alone, they will rip Haven Town asunder. They’ll kill people, break walls, and kick your heroes in the face. Combat with them is intuitive (though frequently painful). For defeating a monster, heroes gain Heroism, a simple, consistent boost to their power that makes them better at anything they undertake. Since the monsters won’t stop coming until the last Shadowrift is sealed or the town has been built into a mighty fortress, you’ll need every boost you can take.
The second edition of Shadowrift features many improved mechanisms, including a revised system for how monsters choose who to attack (based on types of villagers, instead of specific people) and a new system for monster powers (making them much more dangerous). It also has a revised card layout and a great deal of new and improved artwork.
Differences for 1-2 players
For one player: Assuming one-handed play for solo, you have 8 Heroism rather than 1 per player, and during the Monsters Gain Power round they gain 3 rather than 1 per player. Additionally, the player gets two full turns after each Monster turn; however, the Town and Traveller lineups do change after each player turn. 2 Shadowrifts are added to the deck rather than 1 per player as well.
For two players: Monsters gain 2 power per round, 2 Shadowrifts are added to the monster deck, and 10 Heroism cards are used. Really, these are just based on # of players and in no way changes the rules of the game.
This game was a novel approach to the deckbuilding genre long before it rose to extreme popularity. To put it into perspective, Dominion came out in 2008. This came out in 2012. It came out after Ascension (2010), Arctic Scavengers (2009), Eminent Domain (2011) and Thunderstone (2009), the same year as Legendary (2012), Fantastiqa (2012) and DC Comics Deck Building Game (2012), and before both Star Realms (2014) and Aeon’s End (2016). Compare it to the ones out before, and around the same time, and this one stands pretty tall in its uniqueness. Maybe only Fantastiqa can really compete in that sense. Shadowrift still provides a very unique deckbuilding game that can stand alongside those other names because there isn’t one of them that does the same thing as Shadowrift.
At first this game appears to be about fighting off hordes of monsters. Then it appears to be a town defense game. Yet it is both of those things while at the same time being neither of those things. Some games, when they try to be clever and incorporate too much, lose some polish in the final product. And maybe the 1st edition had some of that. But the 2nd edition of Shadowrift juggles the deckbuilding genre, multiple types of currency, hordes of monsters, and town defense in a way that I’ve never seen before. For an older game (relatively speaking), it is surprising to get such a breath of fresh air from this game’s approach.
There are a lot of combinations in the box. Yes, astronomical computations could be made. But essentially you get six monster factions to fight against using a set of 8 market cards of your choosing. Most people will probably play a monster faction a handful of times, realistically, before wanting to either move on or expand the game. But even there you have roughly 20-25 plays just in the base game alone. The nice thing with these market and monster-driven games is that they are easy enough to integrate expansions into without needing to really change any core rules.
There are three currencies in the game, and you start with just the most basic of them in your deck. You can spend 2 to buy coins, which are one-time use and can be spent in a variety of ways. The most difficult to obtain would be the magic symbols, which often appear on spells but then you get the decision, when it is in your hand, on whether to use it for the spell or for the magic symbol. This factors into what I’ll be alluding to shortly regarding the absence of deck thinning, making it essential to decide early how to fill your deck with cards. Nothing is more frustrating than always drawing the Seal you need to clear a Shadowrift and never having a Magic symbol to use its ability.
Another neat deckbuilding decision comes from the Epic symbols on some market cards. On a player round (players take turns simultaneously, meaning the order in which you play cards as a team can matter and so communicating as a team is essential to be as effective as possible) you cannot play more Epic cards than there are players. So in a solo game (one handed, of course) you can play only one. Draw a hand of 3 of them? Too bad (unless a specific villager is in the Town to let you play an extra one). These are often the most powerful effects, usually based around combat in some fashion. You definitely want them in your deck. But you don’t want JUST them in your deck. They add interesting decisions along the way as you play the game, something you’re going to hear me say more and more about Shadowrift.
The Town and the Travelers are what really gives this game flavor and makes it shine when compared to some of the other staples in the genre. At the start you have 10 villagers in the Town deck, each of which have some sort of effect when in the Town or an Aid ability the players can use (once) on their turn. There is also a slightly thicker Traveler deck, which will flip over two cards every round. Some of the cards are people you can buy into the town deck, usually costing Coins and/or Prowess (the generic resource). However, there are some red Infiltrator cards that, when flipped into the face-up Traveler spots, immediately go into the Town discard pile. Which means they get shuffled in the next time you need to shuffle the Town cards to refill those five cards (which happens every round). If you ever have 5 corpses and/or Infiltrator cards into the Town display at the start of the Heroes’ turn, you lose. This deck refills before the monsters go, who then go before the Heroes. Which means even getting out 3 of those red cards can signal danger if there are some monsters about to act and Kill some villagers. Lucky for you, most Infiltators have a cost you can pay to put them back on the bottom of the Traveler deck (which is also where dead townspeople go). It is a simple pair of mechanisms at work here, but they add such intriguing decisions: do you spend resources to buy cards for your deck, or do you add travelers to the Town, or do you try and remove those Infiltrators?
The monsters follow a very simple sequence once they enter play. Every town they advance one space and do what is printed for that space# on their card. Many times it is to Kill some symbol of villager in the Town display, which not only removed that Villager from the deck (it goes to the bottom of the Traveler deck), but it also adds a Corpse card in their place. Which not only thins out the useful cards in that Town deck, it also advances the odds of losing. Because you can see what monsters will do on the next space, you can plan ahead on which ones you NEED to focus on taking out. However, with just 2 attack in your starting 10 cards, you’ll need to “level up” your hero some before taking down the biggest of baddies…
We come now to the elephant in the room that I can already hear people begrudging this game over: there is no deck thinning mechanism. Yep, you read that right. There are ways to remove wounds and afflictions, both cards that enter your deck via monsters, but once you buy a card it is in there forever. Same with your starting ten cards. Bold move? Perhaps, and something no deckbuilder today would dream of doing. Yet it is slightly balanced from the Heroism cards you get from killing monsters, which not only counts as any 1 of the 3 resources, but also lets you draw a card immediately when you draw the card into your hand. There’s also some Might cards that are the cheap currency which allow you to draw a card, but remove themselves when used for anything but a keep-in-play trigger on an action card. Rather than begrude the game for what it lacks, this should be embraced as an interesting puzzle each round. Every card you buy makes it less likely you’ll draw every card in that deck, meaning it needs to carry its weight. Is that generic 1 melee damage worth adding to your deck, or should you just buy a coin instead for a future turn? This is one of the things that makes this game so darn interesting to puzzle out right now, because most deckbuilders you can take thinning for granted and race to remove those starter cards.
Getting the rifts closed is important in the game. With 1 or 2 players, you’re looking for two rifts that are added to a 20 card deck – one in the top 10 and one in the bottom 10. Another element of randomness, you see. However, you have a card in your starting deck that can place the top Monster card from the deck onto the bottom of that deck – and you can always see what the next card is coming off the deck (it is face-up) so you won’t accidentally throw that Shadowrift to the bottom. There are a few other cards that can help cycle those cards, too, letting you dig a little faster. I’ve seen both Shadowrifts only once, but I’m not a great player yet. It stinks that your rifts could be cards 1 and 22 off the deck, but it is great that you can help speed it along.
My first plays of the game felt like I was losing to the luck of random draw. And yes, that will always be a possibility. If you get a strong reaction toward knowing your game could end due to a bad draw, this one might leave a sour taste for you. However, the redeeming quality in here is that you can do things to give that Town deck better odds by buying new Travelers, eliminating Infiltrators as soon as you can, or preventing the monsters from Killing townsfolk. It is a lot to juggle, especially solo. I’ve heard the game is far easier at higher player counts, simply because you have more hands on deck to specialize and deal with the unique areas of the game. When playing solo, those resources are scarce enough that it makes every decision matter. And even when you are playing well, it still could end with 4 of the 5 cards flipping out red and the one monster that just got added happens to Kill the exact symbol that isn’t red. It can happen even if you only have 4 red cards in that deck. Early in the game, this doesn’t sting so bad. But if it happens when you’re nearing the end of a grueling, long fight…that could become table-flipping territory for some players.
When I looked at this game, my immediate thought was Aeon’s End plus Marvel Legendary. While it has some thematic and mechanical similarities to both, this game is nothing like either of those games, but is more like Legendary than it is like Aeon’s End.
What if I told you this game originally came out before either of those games?
Some older games do not age well. Others just take longer to gain popularity and hit their prime. I’m convinced that Shadowrift still has not “arrived” yet in terms of making waves, but it definitely should not be overlooked. This game provides a far more thematic approach to defending the town than you had in Aeon’s End. This game gives a greater challenge, and requires far less setup/teardown time than Marvel Legendary.
And boy, is this game a challenge. Not necessarily because of any heightened difficulty built into the game, but rather because you are trying to balance several things effectively. The obvious threat comes from the monster deck and the interactions brought about by the monsters traveling across the play area. Fighting them is essential, yet clogs the deck through wounds (usually) gained from battle. But if you overlook the travellers coming to town, you could find yourself filled with infiltrators and corpses and bring a premature end to your efforts, no matter how successful you are at fighting back the monstrous horde.
My first loss in the game was bitter. Not only was I doing a poor job at killing dragons, I was poorly managing the cards clogging up my hand and completely ignored the Town deck. It got overrun with bad cards, which meant sooner or later I’d see 5 dealt out to give me the loss. I felt like the game was impossibly hard and lacked good decisions. I tried it again against the same match, with the same market, and had much of the same results. Turns out the recommended starting game wasn’t a great starting one for winning solo.
But as I kept returning to the game and playing further, I started to get better at tracking my deck of cards and keeping an eye toward the Town deck. Have I perfected that balance? Hardly. In fact, I’d argue that I am quite a ways away from hitting that efficient stride after 6 plays of the game.
Which is something I really like about this game, because it makes you think in ways that other games in this genre don’t. Not only are there three resource types in the game, there are also two methods of attack. Resources can be spent to improve your deck, or to improve the Town deck, and sometimes to help cycle the monster deck. The game is more than just get buying power early to get attack power and then stop buying cards while you smack enemies around. The game is more than culling cards ruthlessly until you can play your entire hand for super turns every round.
And that is a breath of fresh air in a genre that, at times, can feel repetitive and stale. There’s a reason why Mystic Vale is my favorite deckbuilder: it takes the genre and does something fresh with it. Aeon’s End did the same thing with the breaches and not shuffling. But this game takes the deckbuilder concept and really makes you have to consider, every single turn, how your decisions will impact your long-term goals.
As a solo/co-op gamer, I hate high win percentages (looking at you, Sentinels of the Multiverse). My favorite game is sitting firmly at a 31% win rate after over a hundred plays, and that feels perfect. The wins in Shadowrift are coming for me eventually. And until then, I’ll enjoy having this hit the table as part of a rotation of games I definitely want to make sure I play every month.
As a reminder, the newest expansion is on Kickstarter right now. And yes, I am a backer. That should confirm things: I enjoy this game and it is in my collection to stay. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/shadowrift/shadowrift-b…