I like my euros dripping with some kind of cool theme. The Gumbo krewe knows that there are certain genres that are just going to catch my eye and make me want to open up the box and try it out.
One genre that will always make me perk up and take a peek is any game that is set in the world of spycraft. Whether it is movies or TV or gaming, there’s just something about that deadly but cool James Bond chic, or the campy gadgetry silliness of Get Smart, or any number of cold war period pieces at the box office that will get me excited.
With a name like Shadow Network, gamers are probably expecting to play a game heavily invested into the spy genre, and of course, they would be correct. The folks at Talon Strikes Studios have a new Kickstarter this week designed by Rafael Rosario, and we were fortunate not only to get an early teach from Jason at Talon Strikes but also to get a review promo copy.
Shadow Network, designed by Ralph Rosario, with art by James Churchill and Jason Washburn, plays from one to five players in about an hour or two, depending on the play count. The project page is live on Kickstarter right here:
Players are rival agency heads in Cold War era Europe, trying to connect information gleaned from their various “handlers” and “operatives” all over a gorgeously detailed map. We previously covered our early plays of this on Gumbo Live! while chatting with Patrick Leder of Leder Games, which you can see here.
NOTE: we played on a promo copy, and so we are uncertain whether the artwork and bits are finalized. But, Talon Strikes Studios is known for their very stylistic graphic design, and Shadow Network is certainly no exception.
Artist James Churchill really dove in deep with the 60s spy era theming: you’ll see rotary phones on your player board, rolodex entries for the handlers, a coffee cup to handle all of your influence, and gorgeous wooden pieces representing the briefcases of information your agents will recover.
I reported back during the PBM Media Mixer about our play on TTS during Gen Con Online, but since then, I’ve gotten in a couple of two and three player games on the cardboard copy. As you can see by the photos, this game even in its pre-production form looks amazing on the table. I love how the blinds seem to cast a shadow on the board, and the light from the lamp on the cover even seems to shine on the board when they are next to each other. This is graphic design and artwork in a perfect marriage, and it really sets up the mood and scene for the game.
But you know already that Talon Strikes Studios makes beautiful games. How’s the game play, you ask? This is essentially a worker placement game with engine building as the thrill horse racing toward the finish line. Players will take turns placing workers on the board on cities spread out on a beautiful map.
You will start with only two of four meeples, but by spending “influence” (the currency in the game) you can earn more. Best be careful, because each round you have to pay for that burgeoning spy network, and yes it can get expensive really quickly.
At each city, you can gain influence tokens, or better yet, secrets and intel, the tools of the trade for any spy master. You might gain military secrets or political info or any of four different types of intel, all represented by four different colors.
In an interesting twist, the city not only gives up the secrets to you, but some of that info is going to get “leaked” back out into the network of cities across the board. That means you not only have to look at the city for what it will give you, but also what free stuff you are going to be giving the other players when they geaux to the other cities after you. Crunchy!
The different types of secrets are weighted in terms of their scarcity and how hard it is to get them, but you have help there. Each player starts with a handler, someone they can use each turn to convert certain types of secrets into others, trading in the whispers from a military general into political favors with someone else. Sure, it is mathy, but there’s a thematic element represented by the faces and needs of the different handlers. And, with the right moves, you can get two more handlers, which you will need to do, because handlers get ‘burned’ if you use them too often.
Why are we doing all this sneaking about in the shadows? Because we have to get the inside scoop on our cast of characters, that’s why! Once we have the right ‘dossiers’ of information, which are put together in typical euro style by combining formulas of colored information into briefcases, we will convert those dossiers into points.
And that’s where the real meat of the game lies, because there’s a big adrenaline boost every time you convert one of the ‘contracts’ you have on a particular spy and bring them in for big points. You might be tempted to grab all of the toughest, highest scoring contract cards, but remember, if you don’t complete the contracts by the end of the game, it’s going to cost you some points.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
First, a caveat — it is a struggle in COVID-19 land to really dive into all of the play counts of this game. Three player games have been fun, but there are a few cities that we never see, and I bet this game absolutely shines at higher play counts. I previously gave some early thoughts during the mixer, but I will update them after our few more plays.
I just love how the designer put two halves of a game together — first, putting workers out to gather resources, new agents, new contracts and new handlers to help you process the intel, and then second, processing that intel into victory points — in a seamless way that leads to no downtime at all for any gamers. The serious lack of downtime may be my favorite part of the game.
The first half of your turn is taken while everyone waits, but that’s just putting down a worker and gathering up stuff. Once that is complete, play passes to the next person, but you can still work on the second half of your turn, taking the resources you have and transmuting them into better resources to match your scoring goals on the contract cards.
That’s the story of this game. Sure, there is a lot of math in the game — I mean a lot! — but while the other players are taking their turns, you have plenty of time to do your actions because placing a worker on your turn is just one part of the game. The real heart of the game lies in the “off turn actions”, basically what you do on your player board while waiting for your turn again.
And while you do these actions, you still have to pay attention to the board because it is important to watch what the other players are doing. Are they going into a city that you need to geaux on your next turn, making it more costly to get the resources you need? Or are they taking that black market action you wanted that leads to more handlers, more contracts, and big changes on their board in terms of intel? If they are, you better have a plan B ready.
It is also very important to carefully think through the synergy between your own handlers (and how many times you can still use them, because it is not limitless how much you can press on your compatriots) and the intel on your board as well as the bonuses in influence you get for putting dossiers on your own player board. In a lot of games, players are staring at you hard while you are thinking through all of this, because you are doing all of this on your turn. But the designer here recognized that it’s a ton of fun to fiddle with your own board while others are playing, trading yellows for purples, calculating combolicious plays if you can just get the right handler on board. Forget downtime in this game, just as soon as you finish your board’s off-turn actions, it is your turn again.
Is there anything that slipped up for me? Not really, although for some reason that I cannot explain I struggled each game to process what was needed for each contract card, and what rewards I would get for transferring the intel into dossiers. I don’t think it’s a problem with the graphic design, which seems clear and intuitive; it may be that there is just a lot going on for my teeny brain.
Of course, if you want dice rolling and randomness in your games, you’d probably be best to look elsewhere. This is at its heart a combination of the American sense of theme driving the mechanics plus a big puzzle waiting to be solved each turn. That might not be your kind of game, so just be aware.
I’ll need more plays to confirm, but after the plays I’ve gotten in so far, Shadow Network is a great blend of euro mechanics with strong theming, with a clever mechanic that keeps you engaged even when it is not your turn. Look for it on Kickstarter this week.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ @boardgamegumbo
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