Buzzworthiness: Harsh Shadows

Thanks to Wonderspell for providing a pre-production review copy of this game.

Time for a review of a solo card game coming to Kickstarter later this month:

image by BGG user mborda

Harsh Shadows is a game designed by Rachel Bruner and to be published by Wonderspell, which is a new company formed by Jason Tagmire and Jason Greeno. Like Tagmire’s other publishing company, Button Shy, Wonderspell is bringing games of a certain card count to market – this time, however, it’s 54 instead of 18. Harsh Shadows is a game of espionage, where you’re trying to gather the right evidence to catch a spy.

The game comes with 9 locations cards that are shuffled and dealt into a 3×3 grid, with all but the center card having its ability face up. Nine discovery cards (including one bomb) are dealt randomly face down next to each location. The spy is placed in the upper left corner, and the agent (representing you) is placed in the lower left corner. There are also three case file areas, each containing a certain number of “Confiscated Items”: False Leads has four, Evidence has three, and Red Herring has one. The spy, being controlled as it is by an AI, has a movement deck, and there are also a couple of tools you can use in the game.

setup – preproduction cards

On each turn, you will first move your agent to an adjacent (orthogonally or diagonally) location. You will take and reveal the top discovery card there. If it’s evidence or a clue, put it an area known as your Discovery Tableau. If it’s a bomb, discard one card from your Discovery Tableau.

After this, you can take additional actions if you want to, or can. Clues can be spent to reveal Confiscated Items – one for a False Lead, two for Evidence, and three for the Red Herring (though if an item of Evidence has been revealed, the Red Herring only costs one). There are also abilities that you can activate on eight of the nine locations. Once you’ve used a location ability, however, it gets flipped and is unavailable to you for the remainder of the game.

You can also make an accusation of the spy. To do this, you need all three items of Evidence in your Discovery Tableau and you need to NOT have the Red Herring. If this is the case, you win.

Assuming you haven’t won yet, once you’ve finished your actions, the spy moves. Reveal the top card of the spy’s movement deck, and move in the direction of the big arrow (or the small arrow if you can’t, or rotate it 180 degrees if you still can’t move). Draw a new Discovery cards and place it by the Spy’s location, under a card that’s already there if need be (there can never be more than two cards at a location). If the Spy and your Agent are ever in the same spot, you have to discard a card from your tableau.

When the Discovery deck is depleted, the Spy becomes “on the run”, and you’ll rotate the Countdown card so that the side with four dots is on top. Every time that the Spy goes to a location without a Discovery card, the Countdown clicks down. If time runs out, the Spy wins. Try not to let that happen.

sample discovery cards – preproduction

I was sent a preproduction copy of this game, so I can’t speak to final quality of the components. But it looks great in this current incarnation, and with nice art and clear instructions. It’s very obvious what everything does.

Thematically, it’s like a game of cat and mouse as you’re hunting the clues you need to defeat the spy while trying to stay away from the spy. The locations are very spy, and you can create a story as you’re playing, if that’s your thing.

Really, the game is all about the hunt. You’re searching for the right discovery cards, and at first, you really want clues. These are fingerprint cards that will help you to reveal the confiscated items that will in turn let you know what evidence you should and shouldn’t have in order to win. Evidence is good, the red herring is bad. The false leads are cheap to reveal, and you could reveal four of them for less than the cost to reveal the evidence, and then use process of elimination to determine what you need. But then you’d also want to know what the herring is, bringing the cost up. So it’s up to you what path to take – certainly, the false leads are easier to reveal, but they don’t as useful.

There is a significant luck element to the game as a result of this hunt. You don’t know where the discovery cards you need are, so you’re basically bouncing around and hoping you get what you need. Being able to manipulate the movement of the spy is helpful in this case, as you usually don’t want to be in the same location. Also, if you can get them to a spot that already has two discovery cards, they won’t add one and the deck won’t run out as fast, which gives you more time. Location actions are only one-time use, however, so you have to be careful about when you use them.

I’m not sure I like the bombs in the game because of the luck aspect. It’s a random event that causes you to discard a card, which is fine if you know you’re carrying false leads or the red herring. But sometimes, you will have to discard something that you have no idea what it is, and that can be devastating if you happen to choose the wrong thing. There’s a bomb defuser you can use once, which is helpful, and it’s nice that the first nine discovery cards only have one bomb in them. Still, it’s not my favorite aspect of the game.

I really like the way spy movement is handled. The deck of spy move cards has two arrows, and there’s a certain order of resolving them. It makes it very difficult to predict how the spy will move, but it’s a good system.

The game has a fairly sizable footprint for a 54-card game. The 3×3 grid is really a 6×3 grid since you have the discovery cards nearby, and there needs to be space so you can read the action under your agent. Also, you have to have room for the confiscated items and the spy movement deck. So, while portable, this is not a game you can play on an airplane. Even if you could, I wouldn’t recommend it – I don’t think they like talk of bombs on planes, even in a game setting.

A lot of times, solo games feel like a puzzle that needs to be solved. I don’t really feel that here because of the luck involved. There’s not really any deduction, just find what you need and catch the spy. But it’s still challenging. Trying to manipulate circumstances to your advantage and deciding how to use your clues are critical to your success. You’re still likely going to face instances where you can’t control the outcome, but those where you can do feel satisfying.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I enjoy Harsh Shadows. It’s a good solo game that’s all about the hunt. Though there’s a significant luck factor, there are enough decisions to make it feel strategic. It’s unlike any other solo game I have in my collection, and it’s one you should check out. The Kickstarter should be going live on April 27, and I’ll update this with the link when it does. (UPDATE: I got the date wrong…it’s fixed now, and here’s the preview link)

Thanks again to Wonderspell for providing a review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

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