Doth This Sun Rise or Set?
When John Clowdus of Small Box Games announced they were running a Kickstarter for three full games, the question that ran through America’s mind — nay, the world’s — was, “Will Shadow of the Sun be the same as Hemloch, but in reverse?” At least that’s what I was wondering, because although I’ve enjoyed most of the recent offerings from SBG (list of reviews here), Hemloch is probably my favorite of the three I’ve played so far.
I’m pleased to say Shadow of the Sun is absolutely doing its own thing. But since that’s the sort of all-purpose response you could drop about either your son Charles who’s finishing medical school or your son Ted who’s living hand to mouth off a smattering of Ponzi schemes, the better question is whether it lives up to John Clowdus’s other designs. Find out below.
Before we get into it, let’s take a peek in the box. Small Box Games didn’t choose their name on a lark, and Shadow of the Sun indeed fits into very compact living quarters. In fact, this is the best fit I’ve seen even from SBG, with its deck of cards, rulebook, and colorful Monopoly houses resting inside the box as snugly as a sleeping guest in an Osakan capsule hotel. It’s such a good fit, and so wonderfully tiny, that The Board Game Box Review gives it ★★★, the highest honor that can be bestowed by the specialized reviewing criteria made up by me. The components are good quality, especially the thick cards — a must, considering how often they need shuffling. My copy arrived missing two of its green markers, but those were easily replaced by leftover Risk cannons.
Well then. On to business…
… the business of seizing control of the twilight city of Hemloch!
Hemloch is one of those romantic cities with decades-spanning days and nights, filled with powerful houses who spend only the last desperate week before the change actually planning for the future. So, with a mere eight days left before the city enters its period of darkness, you take control of one of these Great Houses and seek to assert your dominance before night falls.
The comparisons between Shadow of the Sun and its predecessor Hemloch end there. Rather than playing dozens of colorful minions across the city, Shadow of the Sun sees you discarding four Minion varieties to activate abilities, engage special actions, and form “legions” to struggle over Hemloch’s four districts. Perhaps the most major difference is that while Hemloch was a dueling game, only suited for 2 players, this is best played with 3-4 — which gives it a definite advantage as a filler game.
Each round, a Day Card is drawn and placed next to the city districts, indicating which district the houses are currently feuding over. Then each player, beginning with whoever is holding the Supremacy Card (which switches every round), takes a turn consisting of five phases:
1. Draw 2 cards.
2. Either draw 2 more cards or add 1 of your influence markers (the little Monopoly houses) to a district where you don’t have any.
3. Use a special ability by discarding two matching cards — so two discarded Darkened cards will let you remove an enemy’s marker from any district, while discarded Ghouls will make each of your opponents grumble and discard a card while you draw one, etc. This step is optional.
4. Take one of three actions. You can Bolster to increase your influence in a district where you already have influence by discarding the appropriate cards; Usurp to attempt a coup and replace an opponent’s marker with your own (and make an enemy); or Preen to discard useless cards in favor of (hopefully) better ones.
5. Draw 1 card.
Once everyone has taken a turn, the day ends with “the Struggle,” in which everyone has the chance to discard a “legion” of two to four cards, with the high combination winning — so four Ghouls beats three Alchemists and a Darkened, which in turn would beat a pair of Courtesans, and so on. Whoever wins (with ties arbitrated by the massive jerk holding the Supremacy Card, who will resolve in his or her own favor each and every time) gets to place influence markers on the district designated by the Day Card.
The game ends at the end of a round when either the supply of Day Cards or a player’s influence markers have run out. Then you tally up the score: influence markers are worth points equal to the total number of your markers on its district, up to a maximum of 4; 1 for each district that you have a marker on; and 2 bonus points of you have a district that nobody else controls (this will probably never happen). High points wins.
There are lots of things to love about Shadow of the Sun. The rules are simple enough that you can have a group playing in ten minutes, and there’s plenty of room for bluffing and backstabbing. Abilities that initially seem weak turn out to be surprisingly powerful — for instance, two discarded Alchemists let you move one of your influence markers from one district to another. This seems like a waste of time until you realize you can vacate a space with the ability, which not only improves your points elsewhere, but will then let you place a free influence marker on that now-empty district in the next round! Now you’re blitzing out markers so fast that your opponents are conspiring fruitlessly against you, and you’re trying not to laugh out loud because you’re holding a full hand of Courtesans and you don’t want to blow your chances at winning the next Struggle.
So that’s the good news. After the first play, everyone wanted to try it again. It will probably appear on our table in the future, especially since it’s a competent and quick filler game, which are always appreciated while we wait for everyone to trickle in on game night.
Even so, we were plagued by the constant nagging feeling that we were doing something wrong. Turns out we weren’t, just some of the rules didn’t make much sense, which led to the bulk of the group’s conversation being about ways to improve or fix or tweak the game. And that’s not a great sign.
“I keep playing Darkened minions onto The Spires district because they’re the same color,” Wedge pointed out.
“The probability of having four matching cards in the Struggle is too high,” Adam said right after a hand where all four of us had revealed four of a kind. “So the Supremacy Card overpowered, since whoever is holding it wins like 90% of the Struggles by just breaking the tie in his own favor.” We all nodded in agreement, and speculated that maybe the cards should be numbered, or there should be a fifth suite to round out the chances and add another special ability, or maybe we should be playing Legions of five cards rather than four.
“Preen is really powerful, since you get an extra card when you do it. It should be zero-sum at least, or maybe cost a card to play, since you’re getting rid of bad cards,” said Somerset. Everyone agreed on that point too.
It kept going like that, complaint after suggestion after observation. And don’t get me started on the Wild cards, which aren’t even acknowledged in the manual. Are they a Kickstarter bonus? Are we supposed to just intuitively know what they do? We ended up not using them, as they skyrocketed the chances of laying out a four of a kind from high to astronomical.
Now, I’m not saying that our recommendations on how to fix the game are any good. They’re obviously untested, and none of us are game designers. But in a game that’s otherwise so simple, it’s definitely a bad sign that everyone had roughly corresponding ideas on how Shadow of the Sun could have been more than a pretty good game.
Because that’s what it is: pretty good. There’s a lot of depth to the actions you can take, and a lot of unobvious ways to nettle at your opponents, and plenty of chances to bluff and game everyone at the table; but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s quite there yet.
Our final score is 7 out of 10.