Designed by Zain Memon and published in India by Memesys Culture Lab, SHASN is a ‘take that’ area control game with a political theme that can be adapted to different localities and periods of history through the choice of scenario packs.
The 2-5 players each have a board showing four oligarchs with their own individual focus and agenda: The Capitalist, The Supremo, The Showstopper and The Idealist. Each turn you’ll draw a card that raises a political question that you answer as one of these ideologues. You’ll then get resource tokens that relate to the corresponding oligarch. The cards are assigned too to the oligarch and collecting them will trigger special abilities. Tho’ one of the strap lines for SHASN was the ‘What will you stand for?’ refrain from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, you’ll actually want to tailor your answer to the resources you most want to collect; so tho’ some of the scenarios raise live very real issues, canny players will probably forego answers that reflect their own personal views. In that sense, the dilemmas in SHASN are reminiscent of those in The King’s Dilemma (Horrible Guild). Some of the cards raise ‘sensitive’ issues, and these are marked with a clear Trigger symbol so you can decide to fillet these out to avoid offending the sensibilities of any of the players.
You’re collecting resources so that you can spend them to buy/'influence' voters. There are always three voter cards available and these will give 1, 2 or 3 votes. As you might expect, the more votes a card gives, the more resources are needed to buy it, and the exact mix of resources varies between the various cards, so that’s another set collection aspect to the game.
When you buy votes these are placed out as pegs on the dual-layer mapboard that’s divided into nine zones, each of which holds a fixed maximum number of voters. Over the course of the game you’ll be trying to secure majorities in as many of these zones as possible, which means that, for example, in a zone that holds nine votes, you’ll need to have five voter pegs. When you place out votes, you can place them in any zone but where you are placing more than one then all have to be in the same zone. The game ends when there are majorities in all nine zones or when there are no spaces available for any more voter pegs. When the final reckoning comes, players only score their majority values - so 5 points in that nine-vote zone, even if you actually had all nine spaces. Just as in real-world first-past-the-post elections, you could win the popular vote (have in total more pegs placed than other players) but still lose the game.
Nobody expects a game with a political theme to be a genteel stroll in the park so it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the nub of this game is gerrymandering to manipulate votes. When you achieve a majority in a zone, it gives you the ability to move a non-majority voter in any neighbouring zone in or out of that zone; for example, between two adjacent zones. This is more often than not a ‘take that’ move that will adversely affect one or more opponents.
Each zone has a spot on it marked as a ‘volatile area’. Pegs placed here cannot be gerrymandered but they require a ‘Headline’ (event) card to be drawn and activated. Some of the Headlines are favourable but a majority will give a negative effect to the player who has to draw them. Players can also spend any combination of 4 or 5 resources to buy a Conspiracy card. These deliver a benefit that you can either claim immediately or keep secret and save for future use, including as an interrupt on another player’s turn…
In a game with a political theme, you might expect negotiation and horse-trading, and that’s certainly here in SHASN, particularly at higher player counts. Resources can be freely traded between players and tho’ the rules prohibit a player from simply donating resources to another (perhaps to help stop the player who is in the lead), it’s perfectly legal to offer an absurdly favourable exchange of, for example, five tokens for just one. Be warned, however, that tho’ favoured-status trading may offer a useful catch-up mechanic for a player lagging behind, ganging up on the leader is likely to extend playing time. You’re playing till all the zones have majorities, so you can expect games to run to at least two hours but as the oligarchs’ special powers increasingly come into the game as play progresses, so game play becomes all the more susceptible to quite wide swings of fortune that can also extend playing time.
Flipping pegs so that they are icon side up when you have a majority in a zone might seem unnecessarily fiddly – we found in our Board’s Eye View plays that we usually didn’t need the icons as a visual aid to see at a glance when a player had a majority. However, you should still do it because there will be zones where a player can have more votes than needed for a majority and it’s only the number needed for the majority that are flipped. This then makes it visually clear where there are votes that are still susceptible to being gerrymandered.
The game incorporates some optional elements, including unique ‘Home Turf’ special powers for each zone. These inevitably add to the rules overhead and they introduce some practical difficulties because it can be hard for a player on the far side of a table to read the text on the tokens when they’re assigned to slots on the board. On the other hand, we’d readily recommend playing with one of the scenarios that start each player off with resources, cards and voter pegs in place so it’s like starting off several rounds into a ‘start-from-scratch’ game. Playing this way means you are playing from the outset with asymmetric powers, which will appeal to some more than others, but it can easily shave an hour or more off the playing time.
You can tell from our review last year of Distrix that we think gerrymandering can be a great element of any politically themed game. Tho’ the questions/dilemmas in SHASN might initially have a party game feel, the development of ideologue powers, manipulation of resources and the all-important gerrymandering of voting pegs makes for a gripping if sometimes swingy games night experience.
Kudos to Memesys Culture Lab for the high production quality and the very distinctive art from Soumik Lahiri. Shown here on Board’s Eye View is the Presidential Edition which includes separate card decks covering Ancient Rome, USA 2019-2020, India 2019-2020 and Earth 2040. The latter is obviously a futuristic setting but, given that the creation of this game predates Covid, there’s an almost uncanny prescience to several of the cards that refer to measures to cope with a pandemic. The varied campaign decks add to SHASN's huge replayability; and with a standalone expansion (AZADI) in the works, there are more on the horizon, including American Independence 1776, Russian Revolution 1917, Egypt 2011, and Colonising Mars!