Shadespire – Review
It was a cold, bright day in Edinburgh when I once more stepped into the familiar embrace of Games Workshop, or Warhammer as it is now called, on the High Street. I had been in a few times over the last decade since I stopped playing their games, just to see what was going on, but this time a new product had enticed me back in.
Shadespire is a recent release from Games Workshop and would be best described as a team arena brawler. Duncan, a gent I knew from my time at Tabletop Cafe, gave me a quick demo, and I had read enough to know it was up my street: fast, pacy mechanics, fantastic push fit miniatures and an interesting customisable card deck driving the whole thing. I bought it on the spot!
This was the first time in a decade I had bought a games workshop product and I did so because not only did the game intrigue me, but the price was right. Let’s dive in and see what sort of bang you get for your buck.
Entering the Citadel
At £40, and you can get it for a lot cheaper, Shadespire actually feels like you are getting your moneys worth. Nice thick folding boards with beautiful illustrations are paired with some of the nicest push fit minis I have ever seen. Say what you like about GW but their miniatures really are second to none and these ones have blown me away with the detail and ease of assembly.
Alongside the two sets of minis you get, one for the Stormcast Eternals, I personally prefer the community name of Sigmarines, the other for the Khorne Reavers, you get a bunch of nice thick cardboard tokens and a slew of cards, which are of a disappointing quality. The cards feel like the sort of thing you might cut out from a magazine, and I instantly sleeved mine.
My grumble about the card quality aside, the setup of the decks is really well done. There are two prebuilt decks, one for each faction that includes objective and power cards and are all ready to play with. These cards are used to learn the game and it is great touch that you don’t have to construct decks before getting going. There is even a little tutorial sheet to show you how the mechanics work, but I have to admit that I just dove straight into the rulebook. The 3rd deck is full of extra cards you can chuck into decks once you are more confident. Excellent stuff.
So we have some lovely minis, a load of tokens and a board as well as some cards. What’s next? Once you’ve done some setup, which has some subtelty to it but basically involves chucking some objective tokens about and pushing the boards together, you stick your minis down and battle is joined!
The game is incredibly pacy consisting of only 3 rounds with 4 Activations per side with the aim being to gain the most Glory by the end of the game. On an activation you will usually be choosing one of your fighters, each of whom comes with their own card, and deciding what to do with them: manuevering and fighting to get the coveted glory points.
Killing an opponent gains you 1 glory point but for the most part you will find the majority of your glory coming from the objective deck. These objectives are extremely varied and range from holding one or more of the objective tokens on the board to having only 1 man left standing. As this deck is customisable and only has 12 cards in it, deciding how you are going to actually win the game starts before you even get your minis on the table: maybe you’ll build so that taking out your opponents’s troops garners extra glory, focus more on position and taking objective markers or maybe you’ll come up with something leftfield.
Movement is an interesting affair as each miniature can only move once per round, baring the playing of cards or special abilities. In addition if they move and attack, charge, then they can no longer attack for the rest of the round. This restriction on moving and attacking gives another dimension to your tactical choices, with careful positioning rewarded and brash moves punished.
Clashing on the board is a joy, and flows well in a ballet of mitigating luck and calculating risk. The core of an attack is rolling a number of custom dice for attack and defence and comparing successes. I really like dice as they seem just complicated enough, adding some nice positional subtlety to the system. If I attack you I’m only looking for a hammer or sword symbol to hit. If have a mate I also count the half circle symbols as successes and two mates I count the full circle symbols as well.
This support system works in defence as well giving an interesting puzzle to solve about how to best push your advantage and frustrate your opponents. The defence dice have a further subtlety in them that if you are looking for shield as a success you are more likely to get it, whereas the dodge defence is less likely. Add a system of critical hits into this and you have your combat.
It’s all in the cards
The cards add a further element of strategy to what would have otherwise been a fairly straightforward brawler. After each activation, starting with the player who just had their turn, you can play ploy and upgrade cards which are the cards that make up your power deck.
Ploy cards are one off effects that could make someone hit harder, heal a guy or give him extra movement etc. You can only include up to 10 ploy cards in your deck and only a single copy of a ploy by name, so choosing which ones you put in is a vital component of getting good at the game.
Upgrades are permanently attached to one of your characters but only if you can spend a glory to play them (the glory isn’t lost in terms of victory conditions). These can be very powerful: creating new attacks, giving better defence dice etc. but as you are going to have a limited amount of glory to spend you have to choose your cards carefully. Like the ploy cards you can only have one of a given upgrade in your deck so choosing the correct ones to take is important.
The character cards contain everything you need to know about the individual members of your faction including a neat little picture of the relevant miniature. Wounds, defence dice and movement speed are on the bottom of the card: once a mini has taken enough wounds it is out of play and removed from the board.
Flip these cards over and you see a hulked up version of the same character, which is what happens when a character becomes Inspired. Each faction has a different way of their troops becoming Inspired: the Reavers when 3 or more models are out of play, the Orks when they take a wound etc. When a character becomes inspired you flip their card, which will change their stats, maybe making them faster, tougher, better attacks etc. You don’t have to be inspired to win, but it does come in very handy.
The core set has two factions in it but there are already two more out and a bunch of expansions on the horizon with each having their own way of doing things. Each faction comes with cards that only they can use plus a bunch of new generic cards for expanding your existing decks.
Sigmarines: One of the core factions, these tough but slow guys can really take a pounding. However with only 3 models in the faction they have to be careful not to lose troops too early.
Reavers: One of the core factions, with 5 models in this faction you have to consider who gets to do what each round. Weaker, faster and with many of their abilities off getting damaged they feel more risk/reward driven then other factions. They become inspired once 3 models are out of action, making them excellent in multiplayer, possibly too powerful? (I have not played multiplayer as yet).
Sepulchural Guard: probably the most interesting faction so far and with a massive 7 models to their name. The undead become inspired when they are brought back to life. The warden, their leader, can take an action to bring one of his men back form the dead, or move two of them at once. I’ve enjoyed this faction the most so far.
Orcs (they still aren’t orruks): Tough brawlers who become inspired when they take damage. With 1 more mini than the Sigmarines the Orcs feel like a really good intro faction for a new player and have some hilarious cards.
Hinted at in the rulebook are Fyreslayers, or Trollslayers as I used to know them, another Stormcast and Khorne team and the Skaven. The Skaven have been shown off already and I am really excited to see what they release for the game. I would love to see new cards, boards etc. and certainly the implication from the rules is that you should bring a board that suits your faction to each game.
Aspire to greater things
Shadespire is an incredibly solid game that I am really enjoying. Everything feels important in the game from choosing an individual ploy choice in your deck to each hex of movement, there doesn’t feel like there is any extraneous design which I really like. The combination of deck building, tactical board game and short playtime really appeal and I am looking forward to experimenting with all the factions.
It seems like GW really have their heads screwed on straight with this one and they are already talking about Organised Play kits, tournaments etc. very much in the vein of the FFG X-Wing model. I don’t mean that as a criticism, that model is immense and has seen X-Wing become absolutely massive, whether that can happen for Shadespire, remains to be seen.