The Trance of Trick-Taking
Longtime readers know my blind spots. Trick-taking is a big one. My wife grew up with trick-takers. They were a regular family activity, so she learned their rhythm: the subtle tells, the contrasting modes of pressure and conservation and cooperation, the possibility of someone running away with a hand. When we try a new trick-taker, it doesn’t matter how different or innovative or oddball it happens to be — she settles back in like it’s the same game she’s played a hundred times before.
Shamans, the trick-taking game by Cédrick Chaboussit, falls into the oddball category. But despite a few departures from the normal template, it’s the first time I’ve slipped into the trancelike mindset of the trick-taker.
How to explain Shamans? It’s probably best to start with the hidden roles.
I know social deduction has become blasé in this the year 2022. At this point, it’s the cranberry of board games: it had a great run, but it doesn’t need to be paired with every juice product known to man.
What’s amazing, though, is how smoothly it fits. The idea is simple. Players are either Shamans trying to protect the natural order or Shadows in service of chaos. The Shamans stick to the genre’s beats. They’re trying to play tricks, get rid of everybody’s cards, complete the hand. The Shadows are running interference. Whenever somebody fails to follow suit, the shadow track nudges closer to total collapse. This ends the hand prematurely. Fortunately for the Shamans, they can also win by killing off the Shadows. That’s much easier said than done.
Each hand — which consists of up to eleven tricks depending on player count and how quickly one side or the other wins — also sees players receiving new roles. That’s because this isn’t a social deduction game in macro, with either Shamans or Shadows claiming ultimate victory. Rather, players are chasing points. If the Shamans win a hand, every (living) Shaman player at the table receives a couple points. If the world falls into shadow, it’s no big deal; the Shadows earn some points, and then everybody packs up and heads to a new world, and by extension a new hand.
Leaving aside the game’s knotty cosmology, this has a profound effect on how you approach each and every play. As Shamans or Shadows, you’re nominally allied with everybody on your team. But you’re not allied with the players inhabiting those roles. This leads to some terrific conundrums where you’ll be allied with somebody but you can’t afford to let them win any points. Maybe they’re in the lead. Maybe you’re tied with them. Maybe you’re holding a grudge from the last hand. Whatever the reason, you now have a strong incentive to kill your own ally.
That last possibility, the grudge, raises some interesting questions about the magic circle and the lusory attitude we adopt when we play games. I think most people would agree that it’s bad form to hold grudges across multiple games. But what about across multiple of Shamans’ hands, which in a sense are all their own games-within-the-game? This isn’t an idle question. Rather, it demonstrates something that Chaboussit was either very shrewd or very unintentionally clever to include. Specifically, there’s a flavor of transgression in Shamans’ best plays. Murdering an ally because they hold more points is always thrilling because it’s permitted and desirable within Shamans’ metagame, but also because it flirts with — and, at times, contradicts — the common understanding of what it means to occupy the same team in a social deduction game. Not to mention this weakens your team and puts you at risk of failure. To play Shamans well, you need to work against your own interests, at least sometimes, at least in the short term.
Which is to say, the social atmosphere is layered. So layered, in fact, that it achieves degrees of consideration that never occur to many boilerplate social deduction games. Hidden roles often translate to bluffing and little else. To be sure, Shamans contains plenty of bluffing, especially because it isn’t required that you follow a trick’s lead suit, so it behooves Shadow players to keep their fibs straight unless they want to be outed early. But Shamans is also about broader considerations. Jealousy, pettiness, selfish grabs for artifacts; all fodder in Chaboussit’s hands.
And those considerations are written not only into the social dynamics but also into the game systems. Historical and fictional shamanism often operates on maze-logic, its processes of totemism and divination requiring specific steps that appear indeterminate or nonsensical to the uninitiated, but are entirely consistent and efficacious to its practitioners. Shamans operates in that same overlap of rigid procedure and unknowable appeasement: the rules are ironclad, but the behaviors of your fellow players are anything but. When an entire suit has been used up, it triggers the corresponding ritual. Most rituals are simple. Reduce the shadow track. Take a point. Swap roles with somebody. That sort of thing.
One ritual, however, has a more fatal consequence. The ritual of neutralization, it’s called. It lets you kill somebody.
But only if you already hold a ritual dagger. Hence some significant play-by-play tension. Whoever plays the highest card in the lead suit takes control, becoming the lead player for the next trick and enacting any rituals that were filled up. Meanwhile, the lowest card in suit takes an artifact. Portal artifacts increase or reduce the shadow track. A mask of truth forces you to reveal your identity — a landmine for anybody thinking to draw blindly from the artifact stack. Moon shards are often the most desirable option. If you hold at least two when the hand ends — and you’re still alive — then you’ll walk away with a couple of bonus points. Since they’re so hotly contested, moon shards often serve as a red herring, distracting from the contest between Shamans and Shadows. Other times, they provide the last nudge to the victor.
It’s the final artifact, the ritual knife, that lets you kill somebody, although only once the ritual of neturalization triggers, and then only if you’re the lead player at that precise moment. This enacts two contrasting atmospheres. First, the process of murdering a fellow player is the result of a logical sequence of steps. Everyone can see when you’re holding artifacts. Even if you’ve drawn blindly, they’re forced to guess whether you’re holding a knife, a moon shard, or something else. The rest of the table’s information is open: which cards have been played and which rituals are close at hand. Second, however, there’s that layered social space. Between Shamans’ competing teams, meta-competing players, randomized hands, and hidden roles, there’s plenty of room for even informed guesses to fall apart. This is what makes Shamans so enthralling. It feels like magic, both grounded and watery at once, jittering between causal and dreamlike.
There’s a lot we could discuss on that front. We moderns have a tendency to sneer at the magical worldviews of former cultures without bothering to understand why those worldviews were useful, even necessary. That for people terrifying aware that they were too large and too small to fathom the universe around them, magic stilled the rush of the inchoate and carved solid causes and effects into apparent chaos. That humans both depended on one another but couldn’t wholly trust one another, so they invented fictions that knit them together with reliable social guidelines. That magic was simultaneously consistent and negotiated. In many cases, that apparent contradiction is more familiar than we know, especially for those of us who traverse in the muddy streams of rule and parlay that dominate tabletop games. It’s easy to overlook, for example, that artifacts like the Biblical urim and thummim were dice. From rules and randomness, one hears the voice of… something. God. Fate. Destiny. Chance. Call it what you like.
Shamans dips into that stream. Its fictive elements hum with understanding. The same goes for its negotiated social waters, clashing between the firm and the infirm. The result is a remarkable statement, equal parts masterful design, gripping plaything, and trancelike exploration. This thing is magic. Literally.
A complimentary copy was provided.