Game of Shadow Thrones
When you play the game of Shadow Thrones, you win or you die. Or you come in second place but you’ve recruited so many agents on the victorious side that you kind of win anyway.
Come along, I’ll explain.
The conflict at the heart of Shadow Throne centers around three factions vying for control of the kingdom. There’s the king himself, red-handed and happy to execute anyone to preserve his power. His wife the Queen has had it up to here with his crap, and now she’s formed a big popular rebellion with strength of numbers. Meanwhile, the king’s daughter has run off and joined the church, and is converting anyone she can to its side.
Not that you’re taking sides, at least not exactly. As a member of the shadow government, the secret society that wields power behind the scenes, you’re more concerned with coming out on top no matter who wins. Cue a drafting game where players can recruit freely from all three factions, picking between troop-killing kingsmen, troop-stealing churchmen, or hordes of stinking rabble.
For anyone familiar with the drafting formula, Shadow Throne offers few surprises, handing six cards to each player and letting them take one before passing the lot on. There are plenty of little things to consider with each pick, especially since your choice of cards will determine how well you fare at each round’s big concluding battle. For instance, some characters generate gold while others cost it, so even those wimpy Outlaw and Tax Collectors begin to look mighty appealing when you can’t afford the services of the heavy hitters. You also have to pay “hush money” if you play the same faction twice in a row, so favoring one side quickly becomes expensive.
If the drafting portion is the game’s meat, then the battle is its gravy-smeared mashed potatoes. Once everyone has assembled their set of agents — which the game informs us is done by blackmailing or kidnapping, though this isn’t codified in gameplay terms in any way — players will play four quick rounds of a simple conflict, deploying agents to boost a faction’s strength and make use of special abilities. Most of these abilities fall into the same categories I’ve already spelled out twice (red kills, yellow converts, blue boosts), and while there isn’t all that much variety on display, there are a couple standouts. Langman, a rebel who sticks around for the next fight if you lose the current battle is one; Simone the Sufferer, who gives you wads of influence if she’s martyred is another.
Influence is the key to the kingdom’s back door. Your favored faction might win or lose any given battle, but outright victory rarely matters all that much. At the end of each fight you collect influence from every character matching the winning faction, so with clever card play it’s possible to gain at least some influence no matter who wins.
Or, well… I say clever, but Shadow Throne’s greatest weakness is its randomness. Quite a few agent abilities only trigger when certain enemy types are revealed during the same wave of battle. For example, the Bentheon Knights kill all commoners in the same wave, while Datura kills all nobles — but even when paying close attention to the draft hand you’re passing on, there’s simply too little information to reliably trigger these abilities. Many of the game’s coolest moments, like when one of the all-too-rare abilities wipes out an opponent’s plan, occur more by chance than by design.
The blandness of over half of the agent cards does the game no favors, simply adding money or to their faction’s strength in battle and little else. It’s a shame the designers of Shadow Throne didn’t spend more time coming up with cool things for their cards to do, because the concept and broad execution are perfectly solid. Every single person I’ve played this game with has had the exact same reaction, an enthusiastic “That was okay!”, followed by a discussion about how there could have been cooler abilities, many of which are found in other games of this caliber. In a game about a shadow government, where are the abilities that peek at an opponent’s remaining cards? Or those that can use targeted abilities for lots of money, rather than only activating if an opponent played the right type of card? Or characters who attack characters of the same faction — what, do these ruffians suffer an overabundance of scruples? Or agents who generate extra cash if a character meets the right condition? It often feels like only a sliver of the potential game space has been explored here.
Still, Shadow Throne is a fun enough little drafting game, even if it fumbles a bit along the way. There’s also something to be said for its trimness, though given the choice I’d rather have both trim and muscled.
I’d add something pithy, maybe a quick You win or you die; there is no middle ground — except there truly is a middle ground. And Shadow Throne is it.