Disclaimer: No realms are shifted in the process of playing Shifting Realms.
And that’s honestly a shame, because relocatable fantasy dimensions could have added something wonderful to this competent but by-the-numbers take on the gather’n’build genre.
In theory, every game of Shifting Realms is vastly different. That’s thanks to its five boards, of which three are selected each time you arrange it on the table. These are the shifting realms of Shifting Realms, and it’s here that the game makes its grandest promises and, ultimately, takes the gravest missteps.
Like miniature theme parks, each realm comes parcel with its own motif. There’s the pirate realm, where players can raid for booty and, uh, cards. The orcish realm where noble orcs toil under the watchful oppression of the troll king. The dragon realm, the presence of which technically transforms every realm into a dragon realm thanks to the far-ranging nature of its fire-breathing nuisance. The elvish realm, which is so distinct that I nearly forgot about it, and the priest realm, where you’ll be rewarded for doing the same things that every other realm rewards.
Three of these realms are laid in a line, and thus the contest to control them is set into motion. Not that their arrangement will cause any sharp intakes of breath. In fact, each realm is blandly similar. Other than the occasional coastline, there are hardly any distinguishing features about them. An orcish forest is an elvish forest is a pirate forest. Don’t get me started on priest forests. At least those guys want to blend in.
And don’t mistake this for a complaint. In fact, the lack of distinction between each realm’s appearance is a handy shorthand for the rest of the game. Like those forests and quarries and plains and coastlines, nothing offends — everything functions, everything is visually comprehensible — but nothing quite sparks any excitement, either.
For proof of this workaday competence, look no further than your usual turn-by-turn gameplay loop.
There are two flavors of henchman to command, soldiers and scouts. The first act as bodyguards, protecting your guys and occasionally waddling over to rough up some opponents. Combat itself is a distraction more than anything, useful for seizing a much-needed resource but not generally worth the action cost in any other situation.
Scouts, though, are the real deal. As soon as they reach the proper space, they slide into one of its three resource slots. From that moment until the end of time — unless they’re left unprotected and punched by a rival soldier — every turn they’ll gobble up the resources provided by that space. Gold, timber, stone, mana; everything you need is pulled in by your scouts, often in surprisingly voluminous quantities.
And then you exchange those resources for buildings. Each realm has three options, usually consisting of automated resource-gatherers, utility buildings, and big boring points-earners. Some are interesting, especially the middle tier that provides some lasting effect. The Tunneling Workshop, for instance, lets you bounce a unit from one end of the map to the other, while the Pirate Ship unlocks the ability to send soldiers on raids.
Most of the time, however, buildings are primarily erected to provide points and not much else. The loop is brought full circle: you hire scouts and the occasional soldier, trundle them out to a resource spot, squat there until you have enough resources (this won’t take long), and then set up a building. Everything else is a snake’s hand, a tantalizing but inessential distraction from the principal task laid before you.
There isn’t anything strictly wrong with this loop. It’s just that there usually isn’t anything particularly compelling about it either. And that’s saying a lot considering that Shifting Realms packs some radical ideas about, you know, slapping different objectives into the same play space. Because the game only ends once two of its three objectives have been met, a leading player is obligated to spend some of their actions forwarding those goals. By stepping away from the central gameplay loop, others begin to catch up. That’s a form of low-grade tension in its own right.
And every once in a while, these interlocking objectives provide a glimpse of what Shifting Realms could have been. When the dragon rampages across the countryside, nibbling on scouts as it goes, that’s great fun, and can represent a tangible setback to someone’s plans. When a realm’s story deck provides something other than a resource or victory point, it’s a tidy reward for taking the time to draw a card rather than gathering or building.
On the other hand, most of these objectives are bland sideshows more than captivating in their own right. The priest realm’s objective is about drawing through its deck. Huzzah. The orc and pirate realm sound exciting — battling a troll king or going on a pirate raid is the stuff of legend — but both amount to sacrificing a soldier or two and pulling in a few more of the game’s abundant resources. The elves, meanwhile, want you to build all their castles. As though there’s any universe in which those point-stuffed piñatas weren’t getting built.
It didn’t need to be this way. At its best, when the dragon is closing in and a rival is en route to exterminate the scouts you’ve got squatting on a mana mine, it grazes its fingertips across the surface of something intriguing, where each realm truly offers a zany twist on its formula.
But much like the game’s deterministic combat, where soldiers bash each other out of existence on a one-to-one basis and simply sweep away unguarded scouts, there’s scant risk to any of its adventures. The game is ultimately about racing to complete the best buildings while the occasional fantastical oddity pops and fizzes in the background. It clearly wants to buck formula. It yearns to throw some spice into the pot, to imagine a world that’s a joy to uncover.
Instead, it marches straight back to the comforting predictability of its inviolable loop, churning workers into resources into buildings. Even its start-of-game bid for turn order is comfortably dull. The order matters, you see, because the game might end at any instant, and players aren’t guaranteed the same number of turns. But then it chooses your order half by bid and half by random chance. Rather than doing something interesting, it settles for an awkward compromise between player control and meaningless randomness. I’ve experienced yawns that prompted more conversation.
As I’ve said, none of this is strictly bad. Everything in Shifting Realms has been constructed with all the competence of a neighborhood of identical homes, the occasional flourish of fencing or landscaping distinguishing one from the next yet signaling no meaningful difference. Habitable, yes, but also unsuitable for those dwelling in the midst of a golden age.
Put another way, Shifting Realms is on the right track, inclining its ear toward the first whisperings of something unknown and uncertain. It just hasn’t yet managed to translate their meaning.
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