Published by Daedalus
Designed by Jose Garcia and Robin D. Laws
Review by Bob Rossney (email@example.com)
2 or more players
Ages 12 and up
$8.00 per starter, two starters required
I got into Shadowfist when I was working on an article about Magic: the Gathering. One game store I visited was full of kids playing Magic, but there was a clutch of grownups at one table with dozens of cards in front of them and a big pile of glass beads in the middle, and they were saying things like, "Johnny Tso's going to go smack the Inner Sanctum, does anyone want to come help?" After I finished up my article, I put my Magic cards aside, and got into the business of seriously kicking butt.
Like Magic, Shadowfist is a collectible card game. But instead of being set in the hoary world of swords-and-sorcery fantasy, the Shadowfist universe is based on the cheesy, preposterous, and often plain weird world of Hong Kong action-adventure movies. As I understand it, Daedalus Games originally developed the universe for a role-playing game (called Feng Shui), and then came up with Shadowfist when they saw how well the CCG genre was doing.
At first blush, Shadowfist seems quite similar to Magic. In Magic, you play land cards to accumulate mana, and spend the mana on spells, calling creatures into existence and sending them off to attack your opponent. In Shadowfist, you play site cards to accumulate power, and you spend your power on characters, events, states, and edges, all of which you use in the service of kicking your opponent's butt. ("Kicking butt" is the Shadowfist term for combat.) The five factions fighting Shadowfist's secret war play the same kind of role, in game terms, that the five colors of magic in MtG do.
But at bottom saying that Shadowfist is like Magic is like saying that 1830 is like 1829. There are a lot of mechanical similarities, but significant differences result in gameplay that is wild and wide-open. Shadowfist is, to my mind, more fun than Magic. Much, much more fun.
To begin with, its universe is a more interesting place. In a typical attack, the Dragons might give their Everyday Hero a Pump-Action Shotgun and send their Scrappy Kid through a Training Sequence to prepare the two for an attack on the Architects' Birdhouse Cafe, which is guarded by an Alpha Beast and a PubOrd Officer - who suddenly whips out a deadly Buro Godhammer and a Really Big Gun - but at the last minute the Shaolin Master shows up to intercept the attack, because the Guiding Hand player wants the Birdhouse Cafe for himself.
Shadowfist is full of a strangely funny and knowing wit. In a welcome relief from the wearisome self-importance of the MtG's universe, Shadowfist is in touch with how bizarre its world is. The cards' artwork, and particularly their text, are full of deft bits of weirdness. The Architects' Helix Chewer (which, if played on an enemy character, gives you a point of power if the character gets smoked) depicts some sort of monstrous extraction being performed on a body in one of their terrible laboratories - grim, but its text reads "Oops! Forgot to have you sign the consent form! Ha ha ha ha ha!"
The Dragons have their Redeemed Gunman ("He's trying - trying real hard - to be good") and the ever-popular Final Brawl ("Hamlet, Oedipus, Dirty Harry - the classic stories always end in blood"), while the Ascended have Mr. X ("I have places to go and people to be"), and the Faked Death ("You're overexposed, Brother Rooster. Time to pull an Elvis.") This makes the steely humorlessness of the Guiding Hand and the ghoulish creepiness of the Eaters of the Lotus work better, much in the way Groucho Marx made Margaret Dumont fun to be around.
But none of this would much matter if the game didn't work. And it works really well.
With four players (by far the best number), Shadowfist progresses through three distinct stages. Each is interesting in its own way.
In the opening, players bring out their first sites (which generate power) and foundation characters (which generate resources). Fighting at this stage is usually to take down someone who's surging ahead of the pack or to perform reconaissance. (Sites are played face-down, and the only way to find out what kind of site your opponent has on the table is to inflict a little damage on it.)
Shadowfist moves into the middle game as two things happen. One is that the players have accumulated enough simple resource-providing foundation characters (living and dead) that they can start using the more complex and interesting characters that require resources to enter play. The other is that the damage that sites have taken during the opening have weakened them to the point where these new characters can start capturing them.
Inflict enough damage on an opponent's site, and you've captured it: you can seize it (increasing your own power-generating capabilities, but giving other players a target to go after), burn it for victory (giving yourself a victory point that you can never lose), or burn it for power (gaining five points of power and ending your turn). A lot of burning-for-power happens in the middle game, as players start building up the reservoirs of power that they need to play the expensive heavy-hitting cards that will carry them through into the end game.
The end game, in a closely fought game, gets quite tense. A player with four sites will win as soon as he gets his fifth, and all of his opponents search for ways to stop him. But it isn't so simple as piling on the leader. Everyone is trying to figure out how to pile on the leader as cheaply as possible, holding in reserve the power and the good cards that they'll need to shoot for the fifth site when it's their turn. Sooner or later someone will succeed, grabbing the fifth site from opponents whose hands and pools of power are too depleted to stop him. There's a pretty significant sense of accomplishment in being that someone.
Shadowfist's biggest problem, I think, is its stiff learning curve. Each of the game's mechanisms are fairly simple, but there are a lot of them. It's very daunting for new players to keep all the rules straight, let alone understand the tradeoffs that are embodied in them. And of course it's the nature of the collectible card game genre for cards to bend and break the rules, which adds another, thicker layer of complexity. The game favors players who are familiar with the kinds of cards that are out there. You don't need to own hundreds of cards to play - indeed, in my experience Shadowfist players will eagerly loan a spare deck to someone who has none just to get a fourth player into a game - but once you've seen what a Bite of the Jellyfish does, you'll hesitate before burning a site for power if there's an Ascended player in the game.
As with Magic, much of the fun of Shadowfist is designing your own deck. I am particularly proud of my High-Tech Nightmare deck, in which the Ascended uses Test Subjects and DNA Mages to produce tech resources, which lets the Dragons' Gadgeteers arm themeselves with Havoc Suits, Disintegrator Rays, and the occasional Combat Aircar, with a few Orbital Laser Strikes thrown in to soften up opposing sites.
And of course, as with Magic, to design decent decks you have to buy a lot of cards. This is expensive, but it's worse than that. Unlike Magic, stores selling Shadowfist cards are hard to find. I made my big haul - a box of Unlimited Edition boosters, about 400 cards - by chancing on a going-out-of-business game store in Cleveland that was advertising its inventory clearance on Usenet. Things like this make me despair for future of this excellent game. Though there's some faint hope that the upcoming Throne War supplement - the first new Shadowfist supplement in far too long - may reawaken interest in the game.
I hope so. Shadowfist is an excellent game. It deserves a larger audience.
To find out more about Shadowfist, a good place to start is Bryant Durrell's excellent Fist page at http://www.innocence.com/shadowfist/. Just follow the links from there. And you can follow Fist-related discussions on Usenet in rec.games.trading-cards.misc; look for postings with [FIST] in the subject.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell