Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Elder Shadows is a two-player asymmetrical card game designed by Nicholas Markgraf and Timothy Tobeck and set in the H P Lovecraftian world. A single Investigator attempts to defeat the evil Cultist and thwart their plan to raise the Old Ones. The Cultist lays traps and summons spectres to waylay the Investigator to allow for their rituals to complete.
Game setup is simple and quick and doesn’t require much table space. After selecting who will be the Investigator, a hand ('satchel') of five cards is dealt from the deck ('cache') for the investigator. Then a hand ('grimoire') is dealt from the deck ('archive') for the Cultist.
Play alternates between Cultist and Investigator following a number of different phases with multiple steps. You will need to refer to the rules frequently as missing a step can have very drastic effects. Card plays have varying effects dependent on the Investigator's current ever-fluctuating sanity level which is measured on a separate sanity meter. In essence, the Investigator will be playing cards to help perform investigations at the three Cultist locations, using a combination of Strength, Agility and Wisdom. They will be battling spectres and avoiding hazards placed by the Cultist to block locations. Each turn, you have three actions to move, heal, investigate and gain cards. When a location is reached, the Cultist plays cards from his hand face down equal to the Investigator's Wisdom and the Investigator must correctly guess the colour of at least one of the cards to succeed. Failing to guess right causes negative effects or increases the Cultist objectives. Similarly, succeeding can have the same negative effects but you do get the compensation of gaining a valuable insight, of which you will need five to convert to rumour token. You need three of these rumour tokens to win, but even then only if you are in the correct phase. If this sounds maddeningly confusing, that’s because it is – Very. But then maybe that's thematically sound; after all, the Investigator is struggling to maintain a slender hold on sanity...
After playing two complete games we were just about familiar with the turn sequence to not have to check it every time. The rules are obviously still work in progress as several important rules (Trauma and starting stats) are only listed in the glossary. This really needs to be addressed as it influences the game a lot. Our plays suggested that if you fall behind it is almost impossible to make any kind of comeback. Thus is because as either side gets weaker their cards become weaker and the opponent's cards simultaneously become stronger, making the gap harder to close.
Card variety is not great, especially for the Investigator. All too often we found that the cards were so situational that all available cards were useless. That said, we were able to divine several strategies that could be played in future attempts to win through. There is a decent game hidden here but the rules really do need further simplification and clarity.
The version we've been playing was a preview prototype so there's inevitably some placeholder art. I'm sure that the issues we encountered and the prototype's fiddly hard-to-read tokens and sometimes hard-to-see card text will be remedied by PawnJoker Games in the final published edition over the course of its imminent Kickstarter campaign.
(Review by Greg White)