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Brian Bankler
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Years ago I dashed off a quick review of Shadowfist after Z-Man games re-released it. Since then, I’ve played over 500 games (averaging an hour each) and spent many other hours building decks, discussing the game, and writing about it. But all of this writing was aimed at other players, and I never got around to reviewing it for the board gaming community.

I will now rectify that situation.

Shadowfist is the Collectable Card Game of Hong Kong action movies. Many people stop right at the CCG. If you are against the concept; I completely understand. For those of you who are worried about spending too much, take heart. Z-Man games produce completely fixed starters. No random cards in the starters. (Boosters are random). If you and a few friends each buy a starter you will have a very playable game. In fact, several years ago one player entered a league. The format was open (play whatever cards you like) against several players who had complete collections. His sum total investment was $20 (two starters). He won several events during the league, and was a constant threat.

The best cards are easy to obtain and are often commons (or fixed in the starter). This compares very favorable with other companies, which make the desirable cards all rare. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good rare cards, but often you only need one or two of the copies you want (usually just trading away the factions you don’t play for the factions you do).

Backstory

In Shadowfist (as in the Feng Shui role-playing game), the Chinese art of Geomancy (or Feng Shui) is real. Key locations control the chi flow of the world – control the locations and you can remake the world according to your whims. Needless to say, various factions are fighting across the world … and across time. Time travel is possible via the netherworld, but not to arbitrary locations. There are only a few eras that are constantly open – Ancient China, China during the Boxer revolution, Modern Day (Hong Kong), and the future. Different factions control each era, but are looking to extend control into other eras. Some expansions have a new era briefly opening up, sending all of the factions scrambling to steal the mystic artifacts or lure powerful warriors to abandon their time and join the fight.

Gameplay

The object of Shadowfist is to control five feng shui sites (hereafter FSS) for victory. FSS provide power (which can be spent on other cards) and also define locations. Whenever you play a site, it forms a column. Another site can go behind it. Only two sites in a column, but you can always start a new column (to the right of any previous columns). Each column is a location – characters played are always at a specific location. Typically the back row site cannot be attacked, but if the front row site is destroyed then the back row site slides forward (and a new site can be played behind it). Feng Shui Sites are played face down (their cost is determined by how many FSS you already have in play), and are not revealed until you want to use their special ability (or if they take damage).

FSS sites form the core of the game, similar to land in magic. But there are a few critical differences between Fist and magic – simple changes that greatly affect game play.

• Power can be stored up between turns,
• Power (unlike mana) does not have a ‘color’,
• Feng Shui sites, unlike land, are also the direct targets of attack

The implications are far-reaching and, in my mind, lead to a more exciting game.

Characters are fighting the secret war, trying to grab FSS for themselves. Each character has a cost (in power) and a fighting. The fighting is how much damage a character dishes out and how much damage it takes to kill them. But damage, like power, accumulates. If a 6 fighting character hits a 4 fighting character, the larger character takes four damage and is now, effectively, two fighting.

Apart from all of their special abilities, characters can always do the following:
• Turn to attack (your turn only)
• Turn to heal, removing all damage (your turn only)
• Turn to move one location sideways
• Turn to intercept an attack at an opponent’s location

In a game based on action movies, attacking forms the core.

Attacking

Characters can attack sites or other characters. The can attack in large or small groups. You can attack as often as you like, assuming all previous attacks that turn were successful. Of course, the other players usually try to stop you. Let’s take a two-player scenario (attacker and defender). The attacker goes after a site with one or more characters; the defender now has the option to intercept. Each character at that location, even turned characters, can block on attacker. [And characters at adjacent locations can turn to move, and then intercept]. Each interceptor can block one attacking character, but multiple interceptors can be declared against the attacker in a specified order. (This is called “Intercepting in a chain”). Each of the one-on-one combats is resolved (with time to play cards). The only rule to know is that if both characters survive a combat, then the attacking character goes home. (He couldn’t “overcome” the defender and was thwarted). If any attackers get past all of their defenders (or none were declared), then they damage the site (as if it were a character) and the attack succeeds.

Compare this with magic, and you can see how your options grow. You can have multiple attacks (and attack with characters you just bought), and attacking does not prevent the characters from defending (it just limits them to defending the location they are at). It’s possible to take multiple sites in a turn, but risky to split your attacks because you must succeed to declare another attack.

Shadowfist is often played multi-player. In that case, once an attack is declared, other players can join in. Additionally, each player has the option to intercept attackers. A player can actually be on both sides of the combat, attacking and intercepting other attackers to try and kill them off! A player’s characters never fight each other, of course. Players go around the table joining the attack, then go around intercepting. Each combat works the same way; there are just more of them.

If an attack does enough damage to a FSS, then the attacker has four options:
• Smoke the site (put it in the discard pile … rarely done).
• Seize the site and add it to his site structure (behind a site or starting a new column). The controller now gets all benefits of the site.
• Burn it for a burst of power (ending your turn but getting a healthy influx of power for your next turn).
• Burn it for victory. It now counts towards victory, but you get no benefits from it. However, it can never be taken away!

Other Cards

Apart from FSS and Characters, there are other card types. There are non-feng shui sites. These do not count towards victory, but often provide a nice benefit (power or ability). They occupy the site structure like any other site. You can only play one site a turn. States are played onto another card, and modify that card (I believe Magic refers to these as “local enchantments”). Typical states are weapons and vehicles, which provide a boost to a character. Events are like the instants and interrupts in Magic. They do something, and then are out of play. Events are also the only cards that you can play during another characters turn, so provide the bulk of defense. Edges affect the entire game world (“Global Enchantments”)

Resources

Power, as mentioned before, is “colorless”. There are no (ok, very few) FSS associated with a particular faction. That doesn’t mean that you can play cards wily-nily. Each card has resource requirements and providers. Playing a faction’s leader may require 4 or more resources. Some characters (“Foundation characters”) do not require resources, but provide them. These resources are not spent, but accumulated, even if the characters are later killed (“smoked”) and put into the discards (the “smoked pile’). Any cards that are discarded without ever going into play are put in a separate discard pile, called the “toasted” pile. Cards in the toasted pile do not provide resources, and cannot ever come back, while cards in the smoked pile sometimes return to play.

In addition to the faction resources, some characters provide talents (magic, chi or technology). Some cards require one or more talents to play.

These resource rules expand deck-building options. In magic, if you want to play a blue deck, you need islands (for blue mana). That effectively determines 1/3rd (or so) of your deck. In Shadowfist, your faction doesn’t determine your Feng Shui sites. If you are playing Dragons, you may use FSS that provide extra power, strong defense, strong offense, comeback potential, or whatever scheme you wish. The talents also make allow some cards to be played easily by a subset of the factions. Several factions have easy access to technology, while other factions don’t. This means that technology cards are (effectively) several factions (“colors” in magic) at the same time.

Deckbuilding

Deckbuildng is part of the enjoyment of CCGs, and ‘Fist allows for a wide variety of decks. There is no minimum or maximum deck size (but if your deck runs out, you are eliminated at the end of your next turn). You can have up to five of any card in the deck, but some cards are unique (only one copy in play at a time) or limited (you may not play a copy if you already control one). One particularly enjoyable tournament format is called “Comrades-in-Arms”, which says that you must have a certain number of cards that share a designator (word in the title or subtitle). So you have “Cop” decks, “Demon” decks, and even “Righteous” decks. Single and multiple-faction decks both work well.

Minor Rules

There are more rules, of course. Each card may have a special ability (like all CCGs) and there are specific traits like Ambush (a character does damage first when attacking, instead of simultaneously) or Stealth (the ability to bypass one interceptor). One very important rule – you can’t just play your last FSS to win … you have to take it in combat. Also, each turn you discard and draw up to your hand size (normally six). You can discard as many cards as you like, but if you discard more than one, you don’t generate power that turn.

Why ‘Fist

Shadowfist forces decisions. In fact, it’s almost a ‘perfect storm’ of rules that give you a large number of options. I’ve already compared the difference of attacking in Magic (once/turn, no choice of targets) vs. in Shadowfist (multiple times per turn, lots of targets). The fact that you fill back up to your hand means more card flow and board positions are less static.

This applies to the game as a whole. A player with no cards on the table halfway through the game can still win. Partially this is the card mix (some cards provide bonus power if you have recently suffered setbacks), the resource rules help (smoked characters still provide their resources0, and finally the accumulated helps (a player may have nothing on the table, but still have enough power to play a full hand of cards). I have been down five sites to none (in a two player game you play to six sites, not five) and won.

The rules conspire to shove the game along. Many of the abilities (like Ambush and Stealth, mentioned above) only work while attacking. Additionally, the attacker can play many more cards during the attack, providing a distinct advantage. There is often the element of bluff. The target is often a face down Feng Shui Site, which may yield a nasty surprise when revealed (Many FSS have abilities that trigger when they are attacked or damaged). And, of course, a player may have a world full of hurt in hand.

Z-Man Games has been a good custodian of the game. Unlike Magic, cards do not have planned obsolescence for tournaments (where only the last X sets are allowed). All cards ever printed in the game are still playable, although some errata exist. As collectable card games go, I find it easy to collect. As I stated, most of the best cards are common. Despite being a completist (wanting every card), I typically only need two or three boxes of a set to have all I need. Players who just want to play a single faction will typically only need to buy a few boosters (~10) from each set and trade to get the cards the want.

Shadowfist is interactive and multi-player, which provides for effective ‘at the table’ balance. While you can often run over a single player, rarely can one player dominate two (or three) opponents. You have to pick your attacks (and interceptions) to weaken the table enough to go for the killing blow without giving another player an opening. In fact, the best skill to have in Shadowfist is the ability to “read the table” and evaluate the position.

Finally, and personally, I like the theme and humor in the game. [I’ll discuss the factions in a separate post].

Why not ‘Fist

The first reason to avoid Shadowfist is that you need opponents. While you can play two players, it’s not as interesting. The evaluations are much simpler, and you can just try to bulldoze your way through. Degenerate decks (those focused on card or resource denial, instead of fighting) work much better in two player. No Collectable Card Game is good without other people, but Shadowfist works best with a three player minimum. On the flip side, games with five or more players can take a long time, three hours or more. If that doesn’t appeal, stick with three or four players.

The finer details of the rules cause confusion. In particular, the timing rules often catch new players off guard. [Shadowfist uses a “Last In, First Out” system]. To be fair, Magic has similar problems. [My personal favorite CCG for clean timing rules is Legend of the Five Rings]. The complete rulebook for the most recent starter set (“10,000 Bullets”) is online [http://www.shadowfist.com/documents/pdf/10KB%20rulebook%2011...], but I do not believe the superior “Year of the Dragon” rulebook is. The Year of the Dragon rulebook is larger and contained numerous examples to demonstrate the rules. Hopefully the next set (“Critical Shift”) will improve on the rules. Any CCG will have areas of rules ambiguity. I personally do not find the rules that difficult, but for a new player just joining the game, some of the details will be missed and some of the fine distinctions on timing, location shifting and the like may catch you by surprise.

I’ve rated over 500 games here at the Geek, and I’ve given out exactly five ratings of ‘10’. Shadowfist is one of them. Check it out.
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Alexander Kuprijanow
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Great review! Very thorough and complete. I like to see SF getting some solid coverage - one of my favorite games back in the 90s.
 
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marty ward
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Excellent review.

Just been browsing the Shadowfist entry here at BGG, as after 10 years I pulled out my 'fist collection from the closet, and had to see what is up with the game.

 
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