In this new game from Moaideas, players each control a gang of thieves seeking to loot the country houses they are visiting. It's a card game designed by Halifa, where (2-5) players start off with identical decks of character cards, all with cute Manga-style art by AT2. There are always three country house locations to rob, and, on your turn, you choose one to place a character card into.
This is an area control game, in that points are scored for the country house locations when they are filled (ie: the number of hat icons matches the capacity shown on the country house card). It's not the hat icons that determine control, however, but the influence values of the cards players have played. And, as you might expect, each of the cards has a special ability that may be triggered either immediately (when you play the card face up) or when the mansion 'resolves' (ie: when it is scored). Cards can also be played face down, in which case they won't trigger a special ability but they will steal loot. And the loot tokens offer a set collection route to point scoring that can turn out to be at least as profitable as the points you earn from area control...
Tho' game play is easy enough to pick up, the use of the special powers, the importance of position when triggering them and the interaction between players all make Shadow Rivals a game with a surprising amount of depth. And there's more: when cards are recovered from a house after it is resolved, players get to 'upgrade' the character by drawing a version of the card with enhanced stats or special abilities. There are three of these 'powered up' versions of each of the eight basic cards and they are all very different. In fact the differences are so marked that you might, as we did, want to experiment with a 'house rule' variant where you choose the powered up version rather than draw it at random. Likewise, the loot tiles are always drawn blind (face down). You might argue that it adds to the strategy around the set collection element to play with them face up so that you know which of three loot types you are taking.
As we've come to expect from Moaideas, Shadow Rivals is beautifully produced, with sturdy cards. The upgrade cards are available to all and so their ownership is indicated not by the colour of the cards but by the wooden top hat placed on them when they are played to a location. This works well, and also helps to enforce the rule that each player can only ever have a maximum of two enhanced cards, but we did find it distracting that the cards happened to be coloured in what initially looked like a sparkly version of some of the player colours. This gave rise to some confusion in early plays. We'd have preferred it if the cards were all of a colour completely different to those used by the players. This, however, is a minor gripe over what is a good, fast-paced very playable 30-minute game.