Set in the shadowy world of Cold War espionage, Talon Strikes Studios' Shadow Network has 2-5 players competing to gather intelligence and build influence in cities around the globe.
You'll be placing agents out in cities to collect intel in the form of briefcase halves. When these different coloured tokens are combined, they make completed briefcases which will earn you influence: a currency you'll spend during the game, including for the upkeep of your agents, but which you'll want to accumulate because unspent influence will also constitute your victory points at the end of the game's four rounds... You begin the game with a Handler, which can be used a finite number of times to exchange intel (swap one colour for another), and when you visit a location with a Black Market, one of the several extra actions available to you is the option to recruit an additional Handler. Players will also take on contracts - delivering set combinations of completed intel briefcases for a usually substantial reward of influence. Get caught with any unfulfilled contracts at the end of the game, however, and you'll be penalised with negative points.
Having previously whetted our appetite by watching a movie of a John le Carré novel, we quickly settled into the world of Shadow Network, thanks in no small part to the atmospheric art by James Churchill and Jason Washburn. Whenever you visit a location to collect intel, you also seed further intel and/or influence tokens at other locations, making them all the more attractive for other agents to visit. With four or five players, the board soon fills and locations become increasingly tempting, but even if you play with two and a less crowded board, you'll still find unvisited locations all become increasingly attractive because at the end of each round the game adds an influence to every city with no agent on it.
Tho' Shadow Network is a medium-weight game, it plays quickly because there's very little downtime. When agents have been placed, players all focus on how they each want to utilise the intel they've collected. This is where they can use their Handlers to process intel, it's where they can combine intel to create briefcases, it's where they collect the influence bonuses and milestones for creating briefcases and it's where they can exchange the requisite briefcases to complete contracts. In effect, this means players are each resolving their own individual puzzles on their player boards, and they are doing so simultaneously. As a result, our games have taken no more than an hour.
Despite the theme, Shadow Network isn't a 'take that' game. Ralph Rosario has designed a game where interaction is essentially limited to trying to ensure that your intel collection doesn't result in you seeding intel to other locations that help your opponents more than you. Of course, you can find opponents taking the Handler you had hoped to snap up but, in the main, this is a game where you can focus on building your own 'engine' to generate and utilise intel without worrying overly about opponents screwing up your plans. Agents don't even block locations: you can still visit a location occupied by the agent of another player, tho' you have to pay them an influence point for the privilege.
Shown here on Board's Eye View is a preview prototype of the game, and we expect to see some tweaks in the finished game - including the incorporation of a solo mode. Shadow Network is on Kickstarter right now. There's no need for a secretive dead drop; just click here to check it out.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)