- Designer: Cedrick Chaboussit
- Publisher: Studio H
- Players: 3-5
- Age: 10+
- Time: 30-40 minutes
- Review copy provided by Studio H
Shamans arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago, but it took awhile to get to the table because we have a surprisingly large backlog of new games to play right now – and because our group is taking the opportunity to play some campaign games which span weeks of our game sessions. But, we’re always up for trick taking games, and Shamans advertises itself as a trick-taker, and so I wanted to give it a try.
Per the publisher: in this game, “Shamans try to restore harmony in a world threatened by Shadows. You’ll need to pick a side.” That’s somewhat true, as there are some times where you might get to pick – but oftentimes, you end up on the side that you were randomly assigned to… In this game of shifting allegiances, players are assigned to either the Shamans or the Shadows. In a 4 player game, three players are secretly assigned to be Shamans and one player is a Shadow.
There is a small gameboard placed on the table; this shows the passage of time. Each round of the game represents a lunar cycle. The goal of the Shadow is to move its pawn to the end of the track before the end of the round while the Shamans work to prevent this from happening. A deck of cards is constructed (based on player count) – in a 4p game, it is 6 suits each numbered 1 to 6. This deck is shuffled and each player gets a hand of 9 cards. 2 Artifact tiles are placed ace up on the board with the remainder making a facedown draw pile next to them.
The first player then starts the first trick by playing any card from their hand. Then, in turn order, each other player must play a card. There is no obligation to follow suit. [I found it interesting that the rules also state that “You may speak freely about your cards, as long as you do not mention their colors, worlds or numeric values.”. Which, to my mind, leaves very little left to talk about – other than the quantity that you have, the fact they are made out of card stock, etc].
If the card played matches the suit of the led card, it is played face up in front of the player. If the card does NOT match the lead suit, it is instead placed next to the board in the area for that color. The Shadow is also moved one space forward on the track. If the Shadow pawn makes it to the moon at end of the track (10 spaces in a 4p game) – the Shadow player wins. Also, if the card played is the final (sixth) card of that color to be played, the player who played that card gets to immediately perform the ritual of that color. (more on Rituals in a bit).
Now, it’s time to resolve the “trick” – but we’re only considering the cards played in the led suit. The player who played the lowest value card in the suit gets to take an Artifact tile (one of the two face up tiles OR the mystery meat from the top of the draw stack) and then resolve it. Options include:
- Portal: play at any time to immediately move the Shadow pawn +/- 1 space on the track
- Mask of Truth: you must immediately reveal your team affiliation
- Ritual Dagger: you are now armed with a dagger which may be used later
- Moon Shard: collect these, and if you are alive at the end of the round and have at least two of these, you will earn 2VP
If needed, flip over a new tile from the draw stack to replenish the face up supply to 2 artifacts. If the special eclipse tile is seen at the top of the stack, all players must immediately pass one card to their neighbor in the direction indicated on the eclipse tile.
Then the player who played the highest number collects all the cards of the led suit and places them next to the board area for that color. If this completes the color (i.e. all 6 cards in the suit are there), that player gets to perform the ritual shown for the color. The rituals are:
- Illumination (purple) – gain 1 VP
- Neutralization (green, brown, red, grey) – if you have a Dagger artifact you must use it to eliminate another player. If you eliminate the last Shadow, then all the Shamans win the round. If you eliminate a Shaman, the shadow pawn moves forward one space for each card in the hand of the eliminated player. These cards remain hidden.
- Permutation (yellow) – exchange your role card with a player of your choice
- Stabilization (blue) – move the Shadow pawn 2 spaces back OR take an artifact tile
The player who won the previous trick now leads the next trick. This continues until one of the teams wins. The Shadow wins if its pawn reaches the moon space on the board. The Shamans win if they can eliminate the Shadow OR all the cards are played and the Shadow token has not reached the last space.
If the Shamans win, each Shaman still alive at the end gets 2VP.
If the Shadow wins, the Shadow gets 3VP.
Regardless of who wins, if any player still alive has 2 Moon shards, he gets 2VP.
The game ends if someone has 8 or more VP. That player wins. Unless there is a tie for the most VP, then you keep playing until a round ends without a tie.
My thoughts on the game
Well, I really do like trick taking games, and in fact, I try to attend an annual convention where all we do is play trick taking card games…. But, through that experience, I’ve learned that I generally don’t care for trick taking games where players may follow the lead suit but are not obligated to do so.
Sure, there are a few exceptions… Potato Man and Mit Liste und Tucke come to mind. But that list is pretty short. I think that most of this comes from my upbringing playing traditional trick takers where following suit when possible is the rule. At this point, my brain just seems hardwired into that must-follow process, and I personally get frustrated when games break that sacred rule because I have a harder time predicting what cards will be played. To be clear, this is an issue on my part – not with the games that have may-follow. I like the more logical pursuits of calculating the probability of card distributions and using my knowledge of who is void in what suit to make interesting and smart card plays.
So, unfortunately Shamans had that going against it in my book. But… hidden roles are another of my less-favorite mechanisms. Sure, there is some fun puzzling in trying to figure out who has what role, and it can be an interesting puzzle to try to play your cards in a way to not bring suspicion upon yourself if you are the Shadow… And then, there is the possibility that your role can be switched without your permission based on one of the suit rituals (sure, it’s great when you’re the one who gets to do the switching – but it really sucks when you’re the one who gets switched on…) – all the work that you may have been doing can get swept out from underneath you! That’s a bit more randomness (or perhaps better to use the term “uncertainty”) than I want in my games.
That being said, there is some room to try to make some clever plays – as you don’t have to follow suit; sometimes you can try to steer play to a certain color so that you can play the final card in it (or win the trick with the final card is that suit was led) in order to get a Ritual action that you want. You are free to play whatever card you like, though I guess you always need to keep in mind how your play affects the movement of the Shadow marker (and how others might perceive your role). There can also be an interesting bit of metagaming near the end – say if someone has 7 points (one short of winning), they could become an easy target for assassination by the other players; not necessarily beacause they are the Shadow, but more because eliminated players don’t score points at the end of a round – so in some cases, other players may plan of knocking off the leader in order to increase their own chances of winning!
Sure, I know it sounds like this is a negative review so far – and that is mostly true – but all of the things that I find negative about it thus far are due to the fact that I don’t particularly like the chosen mechanisms in the game. The game itself works well, and I think that there are plenty of gamers out there that might enjoy Shamans – as long as they like may-follow games, like hidden roles or high levels of variance. If a game had only one of these three, I might still have a good chance of liking the game, but this one hits a lot of my personal negative hot buttons.
Games probably go 3 to 5 rounds on average- because in each round, someone is getting at least 25% of the way to the victory point target number – and possibly as many as 5 points! Of course, the game could go on infinitely because if there is a tie, the game continues until the end of a round where there isn’t a tie…. though given the role switching and moon shard scoring, I’d think that it wouldn’t be more than one or two rounds for someone to break the tie.
The art for the game is also hard for me. The art is thematic, but very dark. In my somewhat dark game room, many of the colors are hard to tell apart – especially the brown/yellow/grey sets. When directly next to each other, it’s not too bad, but it’s hard when you get one on their own. Sure, the colors also have their ritual symbol with them that can also help identify them – but the yellow and brown share the dagger symbol!
Furthermore, the board, which many gamers adore, has a highly reflective foil print on it that I personally find difficult to read. I also think that the ambigram for the game title is neat, but would be neater if the game was Shamanz as it reads instead of Shamans. The art in the body of each card is pretty nice; though it is just flavor, you only need the background color and the number in the index area for game play.
Shamans is very possibly a good/great game, but it’s definitely not for me. Based on the mechanisms described above, maybe you’ll give it a try if you like the mechanisms that I do not enjoy. For me, there isn’t enough feeling of control in how the game plays out. I’m going to try to give this to one of the other Opinionated Gamers and see how it fares in a different group.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor