I make no secret my love of deckbuilding games, and I also tend to view cooperative games very favorably. Deckbuilding games provide a constant sense of growth and reward, and unless an alpha-player takes over and runs (ruins) the game for everyone, you either win together, or lose together when playing cooperatively. Shadowrift combines deckbuilding and cooperative play (a combination that I know I like) and gives the players a thematic motivation that actually feels heroic. I really enjoy it, and it will be staying in my collection, although there are a few rough edges that might turn some players off.
I'll start with my favorite aspect of the game. As I mentioned, Shadowrift actually makes the players feel heroic. This feeling isn't imparted directly via the theme, which is very standard fantasy fare, but in how aspects of the gameplay marry to the theme. The players take on the role of heroes who are attempting to save the town of New Haven from one of a number of differently themed monster groups (dragons, undead, etc). A lot of games task you with fulfilling a heroic objective, such as saving the world, but Shadowrift's heroics are really cemented thanks to one of the victory conditions, and one of the loss conditions. You see, you can win Shadowrift by sealing a number of the titular Shadowrifts equal to the number of players, which is a bit gamey and MacGuffin-ish. You can also win by building all of the available Walls, thus turning New Haven into an impenetrable fortress that is safe from any enemy. Either path you take is difficult and, while it's more satisfying to build the Walls, it's also harder to do, and even though sealing the rifts isn't as fun, it's nice to have multiple options.
Not to be outdone by multiple paths to victory, there are a few ways that you can lose a game of Shadowrift. Certain powerful monsters can simply annihilate the town if they aren't dealt with in time. This is actually the least likely outcome in my experience. A loss is more often triggered when too many Walls have been broken and too many Villagers are killed leaving nothing but corpses and traitorous Infiltrators in the Town. As the monsters rampage through town, they often target specific types of Villagers. As Villagers are killed, they are replaced in the Town deck with Corpses, and as the body count rises, it becomes more and more difficult to stay in the fight.
When you combine the desperate attempt to fortify the town against the oncoming baddies with the desire to keep individuals alive, it really gives a sense of fighting for something real. When you lose a Villager, you don't just lose some random person, you lose the Baker, the Child, or a city Guard. Each Villager has a unique ability to help you in your fight, and so, with the exception of the Guards, losing them feels like you lost an individual, not simply some nameless, faceless score-tally. Even when you lose a Guard it hurts, because more often than not they are giving their lives in place of one of the civilians.
As a counterpoint to the fragility of the Villagers, the player characters take wounds but can't die (unless the world gets annihilated of course), but those wounds can add up and make you far less effective as they gum up your deck. There's a constant balancing act between protecting Villagers, building Walls, sealing Rifts, buying new cards to augment your power and throwing yourself into harm's way to damage and kill monsters. You feel heroic and strong, and the deeds that you are performing feel heroic in a personal way, not just a 'save the world' way.
There are various different enemy decks to play against, all with their own mechanics, and there are quite a few different types of Hero Cards that can be used each game. There are recommendations for which lineup of Hero Cards should be used against each enemy deck, but there are also randomizer cards that can be used to generate brand new combinations, or players can simply choose their favorites and play with those. There are some combinations of cards that are far less effective, so the power level can swing wildly game-to-game, but the combinations laid out in the rulebook all feel well balanced and provide a good challenge.
Shadowrift also differs from the standard by having players all play their turns simultaneously. In theory, this means that the flow of the game will keep players constantly engaged with very little downtime. In reality, it works almost as advertised, although if you have an alpha-gamer in your group it may end up devolving into one player telling everyone else what to do. Even when the players make their own decisions simultaneously, there is almost always at least some discussion between players, because, other than at the very beginning of the game, there are almost always multiple actions that need to be taken, but not enough resources to cover all options. Also, the game generally takes an hour or more to play, so it may drag on a bit too long for some. Even though it does have a longer play-time, the level of tension remains high throughout, and other than the odd hand of cards that is mostly wounds, there's almost always something of value that can be accomplished by the players every hand, and there's often more that needs to be done than can be done.
A note on “chrome”: ShadowRift has nice cards that stand up to shuffling very well. I've played about a dozen times so far and I haven't noticed any real wear and tear on any of the cards, even though there is quite a bit of shuffling involved with player decks. The game board, while not really necessary, is a nice way to keep things organized, and the rules are straightforward, although they are written with the assumption that you've played a deckbuilding game before, although most of the things it references are to tell the reader not to assume that it works like other deckbuilders, so if this is your first, you shouldn't have trouble learning it.
The bottom line:
There aren't really any new concepts in ShadowRift, yet it has become one of my favorite deckbuilding games. I'm already partial to deckbuilding and cooperative games, and the theme just gives it that extra oomph that really has me hooked, because it gives me a Thirteenth Warrior vibe (in feel, not really thematically), as if the players have traveled to New Haven not to gain treasure, fame or fortune, but because they are the last hope of a people under-siege. There may be nothing new mechanically here (which isn't inherently bad, unless you're only in the market for new and fresh), but the game is solid mechanically, and something about the game makes you feel heroic and altruistic. When you win, you feel like you've done something good for someone other than yourself, which is a great feeling. There is enough variety in the box to keep the game interesting over many many plays as well, which is always a bonus.
Get this game if:
You enjoy challenging cooperative games.
You like deckbuilding games.
You like games that have multiple win conditions and multiple lose conditions.
You like games where you are the one under siege, scrambling and fighting to survive.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike cooperative games.
You dislike deckbuilding games.
The copy of ShadowRift used for this review was provided by Game Salute.