I LOVED the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was growing up. From the campy, silly cartoon, to the even campier live action movies, to the toys, and merchandising, I couldn't get enough of the Turtles. I even like the more recent Ninja Turtles movies. I've also been known to fancy 1-vs-many board games, so I'm bound to like IDW's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past, a 1-vs-many game designed by Kevin Wilson based on the comic book version of the Turtles, right? Well............yes.
On first blush Shadows of the Past looks like a standard campaign-based dungeon crawler. It's got maps, terrain, miniatures, dice, and missions, and each mission has a small bit of story that sets it up, with an objective for the Turtles, and a counter-objective for the Villain player. There are four story arcs in the game, and the missions in each can be linked together and played campaign-style. Where it diverges from standard is in character progression or, more specifically, the complete lack of character progression.
In most campaign games there is treasure to grab, enemies to smash, and experience, or some equivalent, to gain on the path to the objective. In Shadows of the Past there are enemies to smash, but there really isn't any treasure to loot, nor is there any experience, nor character growth, to be had. Initially, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that there was no character growth, but after playing the game I've warmed up to the way the game flows, especially story to story. The only bookkeeping that needs to be done in Shadows of the Past is keeping track of which side won the most recent mission, and that is easily tracked via the included bookmark.
Rather than an involved campaign where the Turtles level up and gain new ninja moves, and the Villain player's deck of cards and tableau of baddies gets deeper and more complex, the missions in Shadows of the Past has both sides start at full power every time. There's no need to wait for your Turtles to be able to kick some shell, because they are already gnarly butt-kickers. Some missions do grant access to an Ally card, but those allies are function more to give the Turtles a small boost rather than a whole new power level. Usually, the winner of a mission will get some small reward in the next mission, although the winner of some missions can determine the path the campaign will take, and which mission will take place next.
This game is sure to leave you wanting if you approach it looking for a deep, RPG-style campaign with tons of treasure, loot and character progression, but there are many people out there who enjoy campaign games, but loath the paperwork that they usually involve. These are the people that Shadows of the Past is perfect for. Rather than a heavy dungeon crawl, it's more of a skirmish beat-em-up with a running story arc. This is a great game to set up and play if you enjoy 1-vs-many games and campaign games but want a lighter option that doesn't come with the upkeep that this style of game usually requires.
Even though it strips back many of the mechanics that drive campaign play, Shadows of the Past neatly avoids becoming a boring grind thanks to interesting mechanics, both on the Turtles and on the Villain sides. The actions that the Turtles can take each round are determined by a pool of dice. Each Turtle has their own, unique dice that they roll at the beginning of each round, and the result of those rolls determines what each Turtle can do on their turn. The roll itself is important, but not as important as how each Turtle organizes their dice in front of themselves. Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo all have a pool of only three dice each, but they also share one die with the Turtles to their left and right. This not only bumps their total action pool to five each round, but it necessitates that the Turtles all work together to maximize their efficiency, and it really sells the idea that the Turtles have to work together to succeed.
Raphael, on the other hand, doesn't need any help from anyone. He has six dice that he uses instead of using actions rolled on the other Turtles' dice. Raphael still shares the dice on either end of his roll with the Turtles next to him, so the Raphael player still needs to act as a part of the team, he just doesn't have to rely on the others to provide him with actions. This is such an excellent, thematic touch that really sells the character, and fits in perfectly with Raphael's personality.
Further selling the attitude and personality of each Turtle are Special Move cards. Each Turtle has their own set of cards that not only provide powerful effects, but also fit in thematically with each Turtle's personality and character. Coupled with the fact that each Turtle's dice have a different layout, the theme of the Turtles' personalities shines through surprisingly well.
The Villain, on the other hand, only uses dice for combat (the combat for both sides is a fairly standard, dice-driven affair). Instead, the Villain player constructs a deck of various Villain Ability cards each mission, as determined by the mission being played. Each baddy has red, blue, and green Ability Cards, and the Villain deck is made up of a combination of those cards. The Villain takes a turn immediately after each Turtle, and chooses which miniatures to activate based on which two cards they play from their hand. This makes playing the Villain a very strategic experience, because the Villain has to decide the best course of action based on what cards are available to them at any given time. The randomness of the card draw also helps balance out the randomness of the dice on the Turtles' side.
On top of determining which figures can activate and what those figures are allowed to do, many Villain cards have ongoing effects, such as providing certain types of figures with extra defense. The two most recently played Villain cards remain in play through the next Turtle activation, so the Villain player is smart to try and balance the actions that they take versus the benefits granted by the cards that they play. If the Villain gets desperate, they can also take a Desperation Activation to take a limited activation with one figure at the cost of playing a single card face down.
The dice mechanic for the Turtles and the card-driven play of the Villain keep the game surprisingly well-balanced and strategic. Both sides do have access to Focus, which can be spent for various Turtle Special Moves, to add minis to the Villain's pool of reinforcements and to re-roll dice, which adds a nifty bit of luck-mitigation that further helps deepen the strategic layer of the game. The Villain gains focus at the end of each round, whereas the Turtles usually only regain focus on certain die rolls, so the decision of when to use what precious little Focus you have can spell the difference between victory and defeat.
A note on player count: Shadows of the Past always uses all four Turtles and the Villain, and so it scales perfectly from the minimum of 2 players to the maximum of 5, although having a single player manage all four Turtles can be a bit much for some people. It's easy to drop players in and out between sessions, and you can play with a full compliment of players without having to worry about the play-time swelling because of it. It is also incredibly easy to have players change roles between missions, because there isn't much that carries over from mission to mission. It's easy to swap between playing the Villain and playing a Turtle, which is nice for people who like to play as the bad guys, but don't necessarily want to do it for the duration of the campaign.
A note on “chrome”: The art in Shadows of the Past is very good, and most of the cardboard chits and cards are also nice. The boards themselves have a tendency to warp slightly during play, which is slightly annoying, but they don't warp to the point that it hampers gameplay in any way. The miniatures themselves are larger than average, but some of them are lacking fine details. The rulebook is tightly written, and surprisingly short, but it still does a good job of teaching the game, and it's easy enough to reference during play to answer any questions that you might have.
The bottom line:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past is a great 1-vs-many game that's really a campaign skirmish game disguised as a dungeon-crawler. There isn't really any character progression, and essentially zero loot to grab, aside from the assistance of the occasional Ally card for the Turtles, but the story arcs escalate nicely, and the small changes, or different path through the stories based on who won each mission, do a good job of connecting each battle to one another. If you are looking for deep character customization, you will be disappointed, but if you want a mid-weight game of knock-down-drag-out fights that can be strung together with essentially zero bookkeeping, then you are in for a treat. The dice-as-actions mechanic for the Turtles is excellent, and the Villain deck keeps things interesting for the Villain player and makes the Villain plan and strategize as opposed to simply piling on to the weakest Turtle, which is the usual strategy for success in this type of game. The randomization of the dice and the Villain deck can lead to situations where one side or the other goes on a tear, but more often than not it leads to a very balanced, even battle.
Get this game if:
You like campaign games, but dislike the bookkeeping that they usually require.
You love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
You want a game that is perfect to play with pre-teens and early teens.
Avoid this game if:
You are looking for a traditional dungeon crawl where you collect treasure and level up.
You dislike 1-vs-many style games.
The copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past used for this review was provided by IDW Games.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past is a great, lighter weight 1-vs- many game that does away with the bookkeeping aspects of many campaign games, yet remains interesting and fun thanks to thematic flair and interesting mechanics. If you are in the mood for a story driven skirmish game, or a campaign game with almost zero upkeep this game should be a great fit for you, especially if you are a TMNT fan.