Council of Shadows
- Designers: Martin Kallenborn and Jochen Scherer
- Publisher: alea
- Players: 1-4
- Age: 14+
- Time: 90 minutes
- Played with review copy provided by Ravensburger at SPIEL 2022
Council of Shadows is set in the future: “It’s the year 2200. We’re on the edge of the known universe, and a race for a seat on the mighty Council of Shadows is in full swing, with four civilizations vying for admission. Only those who provide more energy to the council each turn and outdo themselves will be successful. In Council of Shadows, you take on the role of one of these four civilizations, secure the strongest actions, take control of important areas, and be the first to make three quantum leaps. This is how you win the race for planets and raw materials and become part of the Council of Shadows!“
Each player starts the game with a player board, a small deck of 6 action cards, a screen to hide their stuff (and also serves as a player aid), and 3 space station tiles. The board is placed on the table, it has 10 color coded galaxies on it and a double scoretrack around the outside (measuring both Energy as well as Fuel). Turn order markers are dealt out, and the player who goes first places their Energy marker on 0, second in turn order on 1, etc… All players put their consumption marker on the 20 of the Fuel track.
The board itself is split into 3 “parsecs” – that is distance from the bottom of the board, and each section has its own set of tiles which are shuffled. The Council of Shadows board is also placed on the table with two decks of Dark Tech cards on it. The deck of light bonus cards is shuffled and placed nearby, and each player is secretly dealt one dark bonus card. A market of AI cards is placed near the board.
The game is played in a number of rounds, each with 3 phases: Buy, Planning, Taking Actions (and maybe scoring). This continues until at least one player has achieved Level 3 of Dark Tech; at which point final scoring occurs.
Buy Phase – The active player can take up to three actions, either Buying an AI card from the market or buying an upgrade to their player board. There are three types of gemstones in the game: coal (black) < gold (yellow) < Crystal (clear). You can use a more valuable gem to pay for a lesser one, but you won’t get any change back. When you buy cards, you buy them from the market on the table. When you buy upgrades, you will mark one of the 13 possible upgrades with a cube next to it – you then either get the one-time or ongoing bonus associated with that space. The next player now takes up to 3 Buy actions, etc, until all players have gone
Planning Phase – this is done simultaneously and in secret behind the player screens. Players choose action cards from their hand and place them on empty action spaces. They can also choose cards to cover cards already in place; but when doing this, only the top card (most recently played) has effect. When all players have chosen, the screens are removed and the cards are revealed. Now determine turn order. Each player calculates the consumption cost of their three cards in play, and whoever has the highest total on their cards gets the Turn Order 1 tile. Players also move their marker forward on the consumption track equal to the value of their three cards. In case of a tie, the player with the highest total consumption breaks ties.
Taking Actions (and maybe scoring) – using the new turn order set in the previous phase, players carry out the three actions on their board in left to right order. Each action is limited to the board area shown beneath the particular card, and all are limited to the type of planet allowed on the left side of the player board. Examples of the actions include:
- Settling a colony – place 1 or 2 cubes on an empty planet. Note that no more than 3 cubes are allowed on any planet
- Collect resources – collect up to 2 resources from a planet where you have at least one colony
- Discover – choose a pile of solar system tiles and draw the top 2, choosing one to put in an empty space on the board, the other to the bottom of the pile. The player can now either settle on a planet on this tile or collect resources from the newly placed tile
- Collect Gemstones – simply take them from the supply
- Upgrade Gemstones – get better stones from the supply
Once the actions are done, all the action cards slide one space to the right. Any cards that are slid off the board go back into the player’s hand. The other cards remain on their new spots to either be used in the next round or covered with new cards from the hand.
Now, the active player can choose to assess (score) each galaxy that he is in. If he chooses to assess, one cube will be removed from the galaxy as a result (this is the only time where a cube will be removed from the galaxy). There are two score values for each system, the left (higher) value is scored when you have more cubes than any other player; the right (lower) is scored at all other times. In either event, if you choose to score, you take your points as well as a light bonus card from the deck. You are limited to a total of 4 total bonus cards at any time, if you take a 5th, you must discard one immediately. You are not obligated to score a galaxy if you do not want to.
As you are scoring points, if your energy marker ever reaches your consumption marker, you have made a jump in Technology and you ascend to the next higher level of Dark Tech. Your energy marker moves back to 0, and you gain a Dark Tech ability card for reaching levels 1 or 2 (you do not get one for reaching Dark Tech level 3 as this triggers the end of the game; you will instead get the Throne). Whenever a player graduates to the next Tech level, any players who have not yet reached the same level immediately get gemstones from the supply as a catch up mechanism.
The game continues until at least one player has reached Dark Tech level 3. At the end of that round, the game ends. Starting with the player who holds the Throne, each player receives points for bonus cards, gemstones remaining and cards purchased. If a player achieves a new Tech Level in the final scoring, the Energy marker should be adjusted according to the usual rules. After all players have done final scoring, the player with the highest Dark Tech level wins. If multiple players have Dark Tech Level 3 achieved, the highest Energy level amongst them breaks ties.
My thoughts on the game
Council of Shadows is a game with a super interesting scoring system. To win, you must progress three times; but your decisions in the game will determine how many points you need each time to progress. You can use to use powerful cards with high consumption values; they will likely give you better results, but they will push your target score further away. Alternatively, you could choose to buy more efficient cards to get the same benefits for a lesser cost. Or, buy a card with provides negative consumption – but if you do this, you’ll give up taking an action at all for that slot. On top of that, your decision on which cards to use will affect your placement in turn order for the turn, so you also have to take that into consideration as well.
There is a little bit of a deck building feel to the game, but buying cards isn’t a huge focus. So far in our games, players are probably buying 4 to 6 cards total. At some point, buying upgrades on your board (especially the ones that provide points) tend to be more useful. In any event, as you only have 3 cards active at any time, you rarely need more than 5 or 6 good cards as you’ll be able to rotate through them soon enough.
Speaking of that, the action card system is neat. If you plan things well, you can play a card in the first slot and then figure out how to use it in all three steps as it moves across your player board. However, your plans might change, and it’s nice to be able to simply cover up a card with something that is more desirable. Of course, you won’t get back that covered card until it slides off the board; but better to have that than a wasted action.
The other thing you need to keep in mind are the limitations on distance for each slot; you always should double check to make sure that you can get to the board portion that you want to be in. Of course, some of the best upgrade cards that you can buy are the ones that grant access automatically to certain types of planets or the furthest away parsec.
The game is mostly played on your own; there is some competition for the cards in the market, and some competition for planet slots – but for the most part, you’re playing cards to your board and doing stuff when your turn comes up. There isn’t too much that your opponents can do to affect your plans. In fact, if your opponents beat you to a Dark Tech promotion, while they will get a nice power (and first choice of them); you will get some resources in return to help you catch up.
The decision on when and where to score is interesting. It is possible to score nearly every turn and just try to pick up points all the time. However, if you do this, you might not get max points each time as you’ll likely not have a simple majority in a system; additionally, when you score, you make it easier for the next person to score as that system will have one fewer cube in it. Now, sure, you’ll get a bonus card each time that you score; but as you’re limited to only 4 bonus cards total, you’ll likely not get that much of a push with cards when you have to discard one each time you get a new one.
Games move surprisingly quickly. Though you need to match your consumption marker three items, and your consumption marker moves further and further away usually with each successive turn, your engine for scoring points tends to get stronger as well, and it is not uncommon to be able to score 40, 50 or even 60 points in your final turn. Additionally, it is certainly conceivable to score enough points for a full Dark Tech graduation in the endgame scoring – so the first person to get to Level 3 is not necessarily guaranteed to win the game.
The rules translation (which we got from Ravensburger in Essen) is OK, there are a few areas that seem dodgy; but from the rules questions on Boardgamegeek, it seems like the rules aren’t particular clear in the native German either. The game authors have been super responsive online to answer the questions, but that doesn’t change the fact that there have been a fair number of questions to be answered. I’d recommend reading the online forums prior to your first game. There are also a couple of cards that seem to have inconsistent icons, or that could point to incomplete rules as well. Finally, the board does have checkmarks under the planet colors in each parsec – but this wasn’t explained anywhere in the rules that we could find. Online, there is a comment that explains that the checkmarks tell you that those colors are represented on every card in that respective deck of cards.
Overall, Council of Shadows is a challenging and interesting tactical game. There are difficult choices to be made each turn, and our games have been tight. In fact, our more recent 3p game had a total spread of 6 points at the end of the game. I like the action card system as well as the moving score target, and for now, this is a puzzle of a game that will stay in the Gaming Basement so I can continue to play it and try to figure out how to do it better.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y, John P
- Not for me…