Advent reviews: Shadow Hunters

I love secret identity games. In a game that does secret identities well, the air above the table will be crackling with meaningful indications, suspicious gazes and innocent looks. Werewolf does it well, as does Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. A Study in Emerald too, in its own peculiar way. And so does the game I’m looking at today: Shadow Hunters.

What kind of game is this?

In Shadow Hunters, the Shadows and the Hunters are trying to eliminate each others, while a number of other characters are in the middle, trying to achieve their own ends that may take them into alignment or opposition with one or both of the opposing factions.

At the start of the game, everybody receives a colour and a secret identity card. Your identity card will tell you your hit points, special power, allegiance and victory condition. The two latter are connected: Hunters win when all Shadows are dead, Shadows win when  all Hunters or three neutral characters are dead, and neutral characters each have their own unique victory condition, which can be anything from being alive at the end of the game over killing the third character to being the first character to die.

The basic mechanics of the game are pretty simple. The board has two tracks. The first is a health track that starts at 0 damage and goes upwards. Everybody starts at zero, and dies if they reach their health level – so if you have a health of 7, you die if you get to the 7th space on the damage track. The track is marked with the health levels of the different characters, so you can deduce which characters somebody plays by seeing them pass certain characters on the health track. The other track is the location track. This is organized with three pairs of spaces. On each space you will put a location card at the beginning of the game, meaning the pairs will be different each game.

You will be moving on both tracks. Each turn, you will roll the dice (the game uses a d6 and a d4) and move to the card specified. On a seven, you get to choose. Then you carry out the action of the card, then you may any other player on the same pair of locations by rolling the dice and dealing damage equal to the difference.

The card actions are pretty simple as well: heal damage, deal damage, steal items, or draw a card from one of three stacks. Of these, one is interesting: the stack of Hermit cards. Hermit cards contain an instruction like “I bet you are a hunter or a neutral character. If so, take one damage.” When you take one of these cards, you look at it, then give it to another player. They then read it, carry out the instruction, then hand it back to you to allow you to read it again before discarding it face down. This allows you to get an idea of who your opponents are (except, of course, that one of the Shadows may pretend he is something he’s not when being faced with a hermit card).

The game ends whenever somebody declares victory. If this is the Shadows or the Hunters, it will be obvious that they’ve won, but the Neutrals may win at any moment. This also means that several people may have won at the same time – for instance the Shadows may win because the last Hunter has died, while one neutral also wins because he killed the third character and a second neutral because she managed to stay alive for the entire game.

How many people should you play this with?

Many players is good. You can play with four, I believe, but five is really the lowest number I would like to play with. The maximum is eight, as far as I recall, and that can be a lot of fun to play, but I think the best number is five or six.

What do I think of this game?

I really like the game. The design is relatively minimalist, and only shows you what you need to see, and so doesn’t confuse you. There are two things to watch on the board: Where people are and how much damage people have. And all the mechanics are quite simple, but still give you a number of interesting choices.

That leaves you to ponder untangling people’s identities. What beginners often miss in this game is that the most important pile in the game is the one that doesn’t give you any mechanical advantage: the “hermit” deck. The hermit deck is a great mechanic, because something happens between two people that everyone can see, but only two of them know the significance of what is going on. That means that everybody else is involved as they will be second guessing what is going on.

Adding the “neutral” characters is a great way to mix is up. It means you can’t be sure who people are, because you won’t always be told that somebody is a hunter, but that they are a hunter or a neutral. It also means you can’t always predict when the game is going to end, as somebody might have a victory condition you don’t know about.

The game is a bit tough to wrap your head around, and  it is easy to be left in the dark if somebody else quickly find each other. But I’ve enjoyed the game every time I’ve played it. It is also a hidden identity game that can be played with not too many players, and I like that as well.

A few interesting things to note

  • A constant debate when playing the game is whether it is a good idea to hit someone at random when you don’t know who they are. Statistically, you are much more likely to hit someone not on your team – but you don’t KNOW.
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