George turns 40 next week, so his lovely wife Staci opened their brand spankin' new home in Newberg for an open house party. Sadly, several people had conflicts, so while I was there it was just Tim, his wife Carrie, George, and myself playing In The Shadow Of The Emperor.
Both Tim and I had played once before, and this was a first time for both Carrie and George. Shadow is a fairly involved game, with several segments in each turn and several actions that players can take during their turn. For the first-time player, it can be downright overwhelming, and in fact Carrie thought she might just play randomly for the first turn or two. However, once you've played a game, the strategies start to open up and a real gem shines.
Set in the Holy Roman Empire in the time leading up to the 30 Years War (circa 1500-1600), players compete for victory points by building cities, being elected Elector (reminding me of the old Cheech and Chong Horrendo Revolver bit - "There's a session in session"), being emperor at turn end, and backing the right horse in elections for emperor.
I never realized that Emperors were elected, but there you go.
I will describe the game in terms of how it starts, which means that we start with the middle of the turn (the first turn skips the first few segments). The meat of the game is the Action Phase, when players take turns buying action cards from the pool. Each card carries a cost (players start with 7 thalers each, and the cards range from 0 to 5 points to use). Each card also has a blue or pink background, which is important later on, but for now the players will either get to do a special action immediately with their card or gain an advantage when voting for emperor. The actions range from placing or moving barons, knights or couples on the board, aging your opponents barons/couples (or rejuvenating your own), and upgrading a knight to a baron or a baron to a couple. When you run out of money, you can pass, or (if no one else has taken it), you can make a run to become the emperor yourself. Also, each electorate has a special action it can do, often free, instead of taking an action card. Once all of the action cards for a given action are taken, players can't pick that action for the rest of the turn.
Once actions are complete, players check each of the seven Electorates to determine if a new Elector has been elected. Ack. Knights, cities and barons give you one vote each, couples are worth two. In the case of a tie, the current emperor chooses which player gets to advance to the Electorship, which gains you two points. In fact, this is by far the best way to score points. In my first game, it became clear that the idea was to take over an Electorate, then shift your units over to another Electorate the next turn to take it over instead. Holding your old Electorate is sometimes a good idea, especially if you like the special action it gives, but if you have to spend most of your money holding on you'll find you don't score as many points.
Next, players vote for a new Emperor, assuming someone took the Rival card. Each Elector gets a vote, plus the votes (or cancellation of votes) from various action cards. If the rival and supporters end up with more votes than the Emperor, the Rival takes the throne and the supporters get a VP. If not, the Emperor's supporters get a VP. Note that only the supporters get VPs in this segment! The Emperor gives a couple of advantages: you choose who gets an Electorate in ties, you get a vote for any "empire" cities in the electorate, and you get stuff at the end of the turn, based on which turn it it. Usually, it's a VP or two, maybe a little cash for next turn, and early on you get to place or move Empire cities. This is also where the game ends and you move to a new turn.
At the start of the turn, everyone gets money based on cities, money left over, and any special income (one Elector, Emperor on Turn 5). This amount is typically around 7 early, 9 in the middle turns, and 10 or more later on. Obviously, more money gives you the ability to do more actions, but at the end of the game you find that many actions have been used up and there isn't as many options as you might like.
Next (and this is really the unique element of the game), all of your barons and couples age. If they are at max age, they are removed. As such, you are constantly balancing between bringing in new barons/couples, keeping them alive a bit longer with doctors (while others may be killing them off with doctors), and trying to keep your units as effective as possible. Since you only get seven barons/couples combined, this management aspect is a critical part of the game.
Finally, you look at the action cards you collected from the previous turn. If you have more blue cards, you have a son and you can place a baron in an unoccupied aristocrat space (bumping a knight, if there is no other choice in that Electorate). If you have as many pink (or more) than blue, you have a daughter and can propose to marry her to another player's baron on the board. If they accept, they flip the baron to a couple, and you get a VP. If not, you get a thaler added to your total because your daughter ends up in a convent. Really.
If this sounds like an involved game, it is. Early on, there are so many options that the game is a bit daunting. However, different players will have different strategies and sometimes they work out pretty well. I like to build all three of my cities early even though it is very expensive to do so, as you gain income every turn and VP, plus votes for electorates. I also like to try to fight for at least one new Electorate every turn. On my first turn, I managed to take three of the seven, although I did lose my Emperor status to George.
It became fairly clear at that point that I was the leader, having racked up close to 10 points in the first turn (that's a lot), although people were figuring out that it was good to take over electorates pretty early. I was down to one electorate a turn for a couple of turns, but was scoring points by taking the VP action card and building cities.
At the end of turn 4, I took back the Emperor from George, although I really shouldn't have. I'd thought I had a couple of extra votes, enough to clinch the vote even with everyone voting against me, but in reality I only had enough to win if one player helped me. Carrie did vote for me, and she did get a VP, but it was enough to help me take an electorate from George on the last turn because I now controlled two Empire cities in that Electorate. Even though Tim took the Emperor at the end of the game, I had enough points to win. Final score: Me, 26; Carrie, 21; Tim, 19; and George, 16.
This recap really doesn't do the game justice, as there is just so much going on. What was interesting was that as the game went on and people started seeing the strategies, the pace picked up quite a bit. My very first game took about two hours, which seemed pretty long. This game, including teaching, took about 90 minutes, maybe a little longer. With people who have a couple of games under their belt, this could easily play in 75 minutes, which is just about right. I'll also note that I stunk the joint up in my first game, but did much better even after not playing for several months.
Eric stated several times in my first game that ItSofE had perhaps the strongest theme he'd seen yet in a Euro. The backstabbing and machinations, while present and an important part of the game, are not so nasty as to make things unpleasant, but there is a definite balance of offense and defense in this game, and fortunes can change very quickly. Just the fact that having been successful in one turn sets you up to be spectacularly unsuccessful in the next is a great feature.
After my first game, the verdict was that the game needed more playings before we could give a fair assessment of the game, but I have to say that I enjoyed it quite a bit the second time around, and will be pulling this one out more often in the future.
Thanks to George and Staci for hosting in a house that is so new that they got both their washer/dryer and their refrigerator that morning! I'm already jealous of the bonus room...