Two Minds about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past

If this image fills you with the thrill of nostalgia, there's your answer.

Dan is the only human being of his generation to never watch a single episode, read a single comic, or do a single anything else Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles related. Not even one thing. Let that sink in. Not one. Which is why we’ve brought in our resident TMNT expert — yes, we have one of those, our staff is huge — to go head to head with Dan. Give a warm welcome to Brock Poulsen as he debates the merits of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past.

#failedcatchphrases

Turtles, handling trouble with ease.

Dan: Nostalgia. Its call is unlike any other. More wild. More exotic. Or at least I imagine it is, since I feel like I’m the only person whose childhood didn’t include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Brock, since you’re our resident expert on all things cowabunga — and that really is the full extent of my knowledge of these so-called turtles’ cultural contribution, other than as free advertising for Pizza Hut — why don’t we flip-flop for a minute? You tell me what you don’t like about Shadows of the Past, and I’ll tell you what I do like?

Brock: Sure, Dan, just let me finish the knot on this red headband. If I could be cool but rude for a second, I don’t really care for the one-vs-many presentation. I understand it from a player count perspective, and the stigma that pure cooperative games carry in the minds of some. But I think it’s downright unjust that the Turtles fan who excitedly buys this game, as the owner, becomes the de facto overlord. Because it’s just not as fun as being a turtle. A co-op mode is reportedly on the way, but as it is I feel bad for that guy (me) who gets stuck on the side of evil.

Dan: It was sort of interesting when we sat down to play it with your son. He immediately started talking about which turtle he wanted to play as, how he wanted to beat up Shredder, how cool the little miniatures looked. It was an animated moment. That was a pun. Animated. Did you—

Brock: Yes.

Dan: But then he seemed ever so slightly confused when I announced that I was going to be the baddie.

Is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not like, say, Star Wars in that regard? Because I know plenty of people who are totally down with playing as Darth Vader or ushering around squads of Stormtroopers. Are the villains of this universe — Shredder, Old Hob, that bow-and-arrow girl — are they truly so terrible that commanding them in battle is going to be seen as a disappointment to fans such as yourself?

Brock: TMNT, at least in my estimation, is different from Star Wars in that respect. Shredder is definitely an impressive villain, but for someone who mostly grew up on the cartoon, the bad guys are depicted at varying levels of buffoonery. The villains are little more than highly articulated punching bags, which kind of makes the villain player’s role basically just arranging targets for the good guys. The Turtles, by contrast, are heroes in a half shell.

I’m also not crazy about the fact that I didn’t back it on Kickstarter, and thus missed out on all that goodness. But I can’t fault the Turtles for that.

So Dan, what is it that you like about this perfect, gleaming emerald of a game?

Of course, our one shot of the shareable dice, and we pick the loner who doesn't accept shared dice.

The dice-sharing system gives the turtles a reason to work together.

Dan: Cowabunga. You know, I looked up the etymology behind that word, and it was one rabbit hole I’m glad I explored. Apparently its origins lie in the Howdy Doody Show, in which Chief Thunderthud would announce his presence with a nonsensical “kawabonga.” Maybe it predated that as a Native American phrase, but, uh, that sounds fake to me.

Anyway, now that I’m done talking about something I find interesting, let’s get back to Shadows of the Past!

Brock: You’re a monster.

Dan: I believe the thing I like most is just how lively the environments are. Being able to pick up and chuck a manhole cover is cool stuff, especially since that’s a little more powerful than your usual ninja stars. And other little touches, like being able to drop safely from an elevated position by landing in piles of trash or hiding in bushes to inflict a penalty on your opponents’ attacks — inspired. Truly.

Then again, is there a particular aesthetic to this universe? Because the sun-drenched streets shown on the map tiles are cleaner than my neighborhood. And I live in a pretty nice part of town.

Brock: Aesthetic is kind of an odd thing to consider with the Ninja Turtles. If we’re talking the original comic, it’s… unpleasant. It’s ’80s New York grime, which would make for an unattractive set of game boards. This game seems to be somewhere between the 1989 cartoon, a bright and bland New York (or sometimes a hell-dimension, hopefully coming soon) and the current, darker IDW comics. It doesn’t make for the most visually interesting boards, but all the extra environment tokens make for some great variety.

Now what, pray tell Daniel, do you dislike about Shadows of the Past?

Dan: Well, I don’t know if I necessarily dislike it. But I am approaching it from a place where I don’t usually enjoy these one-vs-many corridor crawlers all that much. My operational sense, at least historically, has been one of vague boredom. Clock-watching. Semi-intentionally wandering into trouble just to get killed a little faster. When we were playing it together the other day, how was it that you put it?

Brock: With many of these games, a session can sometimes devolve into two rows of figures, just smacking each other back and forth. There is some risk of this with Shadows of the Past, but I’ll talk more later about how it avoids it.

Dan: Right. Lots of dice-chucking, no tactical thinking. And for me, the exception has only appeared very recently in the form of Fantasy Flight’s new DOOM game. There, the baddie player feels every bit as fleshed out as the good guys, though without expecting him to be a sort of Game Master whose job it is to make sure everybody’s having fun. Rather, his job is to rip and tear and rack up frags. In TMNT, my time as Old Hob and Shredder felt like a whole lot of waiting around, watching my guys get beat blue, then taking very brief, very underwhelming turns. Part of this maybe has to do with the dice system, which I actually think is pretty interesting, though it only applies to the Turtles.

To drive home the point, we even laid out a duplicate card. BORING.

The bad guy’s system doesn’t inspire quite as much confidence.

Brock: If I could Don my purple bandana for a moment… Get it?

Dan: Oh no.

Brock: —then I’ll explain the smarts of this game. Where the nunchuck really hits the nose is those lovely chunky dice. There are three color-coded dice for each turtle (Raphael works a bit differently, holding six dice instead), which are rolled at the beginning of the round. The dice allow the turtles to move and attack, or provide them with additional defense. Each Turtle can share one of their dice with the Turtles sitting next to them, meaning five dice are available for each Turtle’s turn (again, Raphael is a loner and doesn’t borrow; he only shares). The dice-sharing is an elegantly clever mechanic that beautifully melds theme and gameplay. Sharing dice mitigates the luck factor and spreads out the individual turtles’ strengths, while also capturing their collaborative, improvisational fighting style. It’s genius, and turns each turn into a little optimization puzzle.

Dan: On the other foot — see, I can do puns too — the villains are limited to drawing a handful of cards and resolving two of them each round. Which is perfectly fine, nothing fancy. But it does make the bad guy feel painfully reactionary, where rather than moving those elite ninjas who might deal damage, you’re shuffling around Foot Clan Pajama Warriors — I think that’s what they’re called — and plinking away at those half-shells for a whopping zero damage most of the time. There is an option to discard a card to act with any single unit, and I do appreciate that, but that’s not quite as exciting as pulling off special moves and so forth.

Brock: It really pales in comparison to the Turtles’ turns, since they’re so versatile.

Dan: I hate to keep bringing this back to DOOM, but talk about gratifying. One side is always talking teamwork, about getting behind cover or sprinting up to pick up a medkit, while the invader is brooding and spending special tokens and activating special moves. If you go a single turn without doing something cool, you probably did something wrong.

Then again, maybe I’m giving it a pass because DOOM was more the defining artifact of my childhood. I couldn’t get enough of it. Nostalgia strikes again.

All right, enough of my whining. What is it that works about TMNT? Why pick it up?

Turtles get beat up, that's the verdict.

Verdict?

Brock: For a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it feels like a no-brainer. The box is hefty with nostalgia, yes, but the other part of that weight is its cleverness. It’s not a cheap cash-in, or even a good design with a coat of Ninja Turtles paint; the design really gets what makes the Turtles special and fun.

Dan: I don’t even disagree. There is something very slick about the precise way it emphasizes teamwork, even if the bad guys feel more pedestrian. Those dice really are a clever way of letting you raise shell.

Yeah, I looked that one up.

Brock: The dice, along with the individual Turtles’ abilities, give you tons of options without drowning you in minutiae. The ability cards themselves are what help the action hurdle (sometimes literally) the pitfall of “line up and punch each other.” The Shredder player is getting the short end of the stick, but I’m willing to excuse it because it’s easy to learn, so you could easily rotate the responsibility within a regular game group. Scenarios are short enough that no one will have to fill the role for too long. And the missions are laid out in a comic book!

Dan: Sounds like a strong recommendation from you, a tentative one from me. Depending on how you feel about mutated reptiles.

Brock: Indeed! There are too few mutant animals in our games. Diversity, Daniel.

Dan: Diversity?

Brock: Diversity.

Posted on February 13, 2017, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Glad this series is still going! I’m not big into these sorts of games, but this just might be the thing I pick up for my son. For nostalgia’s sake.

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