Full disclosure: A preview copy of Harsh Shadows was provided by Wonderspell. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
This is a busy week for Kickstarters! Both Harsh Shadows and BitterSweet are happening, which is exciting. Haven’t had a double-whammy for Kickstarters in a while. Got a new one from our friends at Wonderspell, which is taking a similar approach to Button Shy but for 54-card games. To their credit, you can do a lot with three times as much game, and so Harsh Shadows is one such game that we’re seeing hit Kickstarter now. Let’s check it out and see what’s happening!
You have finally narrowed down that pesky Spy, and it’s time to put them away once and for all. You’re going to send your top Agent to capture them, but you have to do it perfectly by the book. That means you need Evidence. You can’t afford any red herrings or false leads, and you have to corner them. So get to work! Grab your tracking bug, map out your Locations, and see what you can come up with. Just watch out! This Spy is a bit of a firecracker, and if you’re not careful, this entire thing may blow up in your face (and not just figuratively). Grab a Bomb Defusal Kit and you’re good to go. Can you take down the Spy?
Setup has a few moving parts, so let’s go through them. First, shuffle the 9 Locations:
You’ll make a 3×3 grid, with every card but the center card face-up. Make sure to leave about a card and a half worth of space to each Location’s right; you’ll need that in a minute. Now, remove the Bomb cards from the Discovery cards:
Shuffle the remaining Discovery cards:
Draw 8, shuffle in a Bomb, and place one face-down to the right of each Location. Shuffle the remaining Bombs into the remaining Discovery card stack, and place it nearby. You can set aside the Countdown Card, the Tracking Bug, and the Bomb Defusal Kit:
Now, prepare the Confiscated Items. Shuffle the 8 items together:
Place 3 below the Evidence card, 4 below the False Leads card, and 1 below the Red Herring card:
Place the Spy in the top-left Location and the Agent in the bottom-right Location:
Finally, shuffle the Spy Movement Deck, making sure to rotate some cards around:
You should be ready to start!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to capture the Spy that’s been eluding you for months. This dangerous game of cat-and-mouse may not end well for you, if you’re not careful.
The game is split into two turns: the Agent turn and the Spy turn.
To start the Agent’s turn, you may move them to any adjacent space (including diagonally). The board does not wrap around. If you move onto the Spy’s space, but do not want to Accuse, discard a Discovery card if you’re able to do so. If you want to Accuse, the game ends immediately.
After moving, draw the Discovery card next to the Location, if one is available. If it’s a Bomb, you must resolve it immediately, use the Bomb Defusal Kit, or … lose.
Once you’ve moved, you may perform the following actions as many times as you are able to do so.
- Activate Location Ability: 8 of the 9 Locations in play have an ability that you may be able to use. Generally, some are a bit more complicated, others restrict the Spy’s movement, and others still can provide benefits for you. Once you’ve used a Location’s ability, you will generally flip it over.
- Place Tracking Bug: Certain Locations block this, but if you aren’t on a Location that blocks placement you can place the Tracking Bug there. If the Spy moves onto that Location, the Tracking Bug activates and attaches to them, allowing you to predict their movements! The Spy also needs to be bugged before you can win the game.
- Use Tracking Bug: You can use the Tracking Bug to reveal the top card of the Spy Movement deck, twice. Once you have, it’s off. It stays in play, however, as it needs to be attached to the Spy in order to win!
- Reveal Items: No matter the Location, you can spend Discovery cards from your hand to reveal cards below the Evidence, False Leads, or Red Herring cards. You need all three Evidence cards in hand in order to win, but having any Red Herrings in your hand during the Accusation will cause you to lose! One Location can reduce the cost of these cards, and the x2 card counts as two Discovery cards when discarding.
After your turn ends, the Spy takes their turn.
To take the Spy’s turn, they first move. Reveal the top card of the Spy Movement deck, and move the Spy in that direction. If they cannot be moved in that direction, use the small arrow’s direction. If that doesn’t work, either, rotate the card 180 degrees and try the large, then small arrow again. One of those four options should work, for math reasons. If the Spy moves into your Agent’s Location, you must either discard a Discovery card or immediately Accuse.
Next, the Spy adds a Discovery card to the Location they are now at. If there’s already one Discovery card, they add a second one to the bottom of the stack. If there are two or more, they do not add additional cards.
If the Discovery Deck is depleted and the Spy tries to add a Discovery card, they go On the Run! Use the Countdown Card (starting at 4). Every time they would attempt to add a Discovery card and cannot, rotate the card down by 1. If the card would hit 0, you lose!
Otherwise, that’s the Spy’s turn. Back to the Agent!
End of Game
The game can end a few ways:
- The countdown card needs to spin down, but you’re already at 1: You have run out of time! You lose.
- You draw a bomb and you have no Discovery Cards to discard: You lose! Rather explosively.
- You accuse the Spy and have a Red Herring, or you don’t have enough Evidence, or they’re not bugged: You lose!
- You accuse the bugged Spy and have all three Evidence and no red Herrings: You win!
Play until you win or lose!
Player Count Differences
Exclusively a solo game! Love it when that happens; makes this section super easy.
- Location abilities are pretty key. These can be huge. Some can stop the Spy’s movement or force the Spy to move there! That can be a perfect way to set up your final Accusation once you’ve gotten everything together, or it can direct the Spy into a loop where they won’t burn out the Discovery deck while you’re trying to get your last few cards together. My other favorite ability is the Location that decreases the cost of getting Evidence. That can get you an easy Evidence, which in turn can get you an easy Red Herring. That’s a useful Location!
- Moving into the center on your first turn is an extremely risky move. Your odds are pretty even that the Spy will move into that Location as well, given that they can only move to three spots. This means that even if you get lucky and there’s no Bomb there, you may lose a particularly valuable card. I opt to instead move to other Locations that the Spy can’t reach as quickly so I can build up an early Hand to protect myself.
- Remember that one of the 9 starting Locations must have a Bomb. You shuffle one Bomb into the other 8 Discovery cards; therefore, one of the 9 spots must have it. This also, helpfully, means that once you inevitably find that Bomb, the first card at the other Locations must be safe. Once the Spy starts adding cards, the cards underneath are potentially Bombs, but you should be able to draw 9 cards with only one Bomb depending on how you traverse the grid.
- I generally try to leave the Bug in the center if I can swing it. If the Location allows, it’s one of the most likely spots for the Spy to eventually hit. That gives you a decently easy maneuver to get the Bug on the Spy. If the center blocks the Bug, well, not much you can do but try to get clever.
- Try to literally corner the Spy for your final move. If you can push them into a corner, you may be able to have pretty good luck on your next move since they can’t go too far. Otherwise, try to move to the center before you corner the Spy; then you can move anywhere on your next turn.
- If the Spy’s On the Run, you need to manipulate their movement a bit better. You need to prevent them exhausting your Countdown Card, so trying to get them to move to spaces with 2 Discovery cards on them is optimal, especially if you already have all the Evidence you need. Don’t let them run out the game clock on you!
- Eliminating the Red Herring is crucial to winning. You really don’t want to gamble on the Red Herring not being in your hand; I think it’s often best to be sure. Get an Evidence card revealed first; then it’s cheap to eliminate the Red Herring and you can discard it to block a Bomb or something.
- Don’t discard all your Clue cards too quickly; you’ll need them to ward off the Spy and any potential bombs. I try to keep at least a couple blank Clues in my hand for getting Evidence, once I’m away from the Spy and relatively confident I’ve defused all the available Bombs. If you keep a hand that’s just the cards you need, you risk having to throw one away.
- Keep in mind that if you discard a Clue you ended up needing, you’ve lost. You can’t reclaim Discovery cards you’ve discarded, so if you discard something and it’s critical, that’s game over. Naturally, you’d like to avoid that.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Plays quickly. Once you get a sense of how to play and once you get the game set up, you should be able to barrel through it in 20 minutes or so.
- I enjoy the deduction elements. They’re light, granted, since the game is more about movement and control than it is about deduction, but the deduction elements are there if you are looking for them.
- It’s a fun theme as well! Essentially solo Fugitive, in a few ways. You just always play as the Agent every time. I would love a Spy variant of the game, but I think that would just add a lot more cards and a lot more complexity.
- Pretty portable, as well. It’s just a stack of cards, so if you’re traveling or looking for something to do quickly, it’ll fit in a bag or a Quiver or something.
- I really like that the character cards can be flipped for alternate character options. It’s a simple thing in the art that really improves representation, and I really appreciate that! It’s nice seeing people who look like you in the game.
- The locations having their own abilities is interesting, especially as you learn how they synergize based on where they’re located in your grid. It makes the game pretty interesting in its configurations, since each one becomes its own puzzle based on the Locations (and whichever one starts spent). There are many good abilities, if you can reach them.
- Similarly, I like the simplicity of the Spy Movement Cards. They’re simple to understand and easy to execute, making the Spy turns quick. Being able to just rotate them to convey a different outcome is a nice way to randomize the Spy’s movement without hitting any weird edge cases. As a result, the Spy moves very quickly.
- Setup can take a hot minute. It’s just a bit longer than you’d expect because multiple decks of cards need shuffled and placed and organized and reshuffled and placed again. Not the biggest thing in the world but it is slower relative to other card games of a similar size.
- A game where you need to place cards underneath of other cards is always going to have that one weird annoying bit where it’s hard to lift a card and you regret not having a playmat. I hate picking cards up from flat on the table. It’s one of my least favorite things to do in a board game, because it always ends up with one player just clawing the edge of the card with their fingernails rather than sliding the card off the edge. Thankfully, this is a solo game, so just make sure you don’t do that. This is a problem solved rather nicely by a playmat or table covering of some kind, as well.
- It’s definitely one of those things that saves some costs, but I don’t love the Countdown Card (in general for these types of things). I think I generally don’t like cards as substitutes for other game components. I played a game once where you had three Action Cards in your hand, and every time you used an Action you’d pass it to the next player. Over time, we would just forget about the Action Cards, and it’s a similar problem with the Countdown Card. I’d almost rather have a set of four cards and discard them than having a single card, but that’s components and costs for you.
- It is a little funny when you draw a bomb on the first turn. It’s also annoying, but hey, that’s what the Bomb Defusal Kit is for. It goes back to the idea that when you’re dealing with a solo card game there’s usually an element of luck, but you do have a 1 in 9 chance of that happening.
- As with many solo games with an element of luck, that luck can sometimes work against you. Essentially, you can get a pretty bad setup where you need cards that are buried at the bottom of the Discovery Card deck. It’s a similar problem to Hanabi, where you can potentially have an essentially-invalid game state by just having the wrong cards at the bottom of the deck. There are, thankfully, ways to mitigate that, but whew, I had it happen to me twice that the game came down to me needing one more turn than I had, and it’s hard for that to not feel bad.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Harsh Shadows is pretty fun! Solo games aren’t usually my thing, but I can usually get my act together for a few plays, and I did here, thanks to Jonathan Liu reminding me it was a solo game. Whoops. Anyways, I think the thing that really drew me in was the theme. I still have a soft spot for intrigue and spy games and that whole thing, so this sort of stuff appeals to me. I do kind of wish the deduction elements were stronger. It’s very light, which is fine, but I really like deduction, so this just ends up making me want to play The Search for Planet X for a harder deduction experience. They’re different games, but I really like deduction. Again, anyways, I also like the idea that the AI opponent isn’t actually acting antagonistically, but they’re essentially dumping cards around the board that you have to pick up. It’s an interesting spin on AI opponents and for a quick solo game I’m into it. The Spy Movement cards are particularly clever, in my opinion, and the whole thing has some nice elements of a strong design. I’d probably be more interested in this as a two-player game, but that’s just because a lot of solo games haven’t really “clicked” for me. I like what Harsh Shadows is doing quite a bit, though! The effects of the cards and the Spy work together quite well for a quick solo experience, and the variability of the Locations means you have to plan a new way to capture that Spy every time. That all ends up making for a game that I’ve enjoyed, and if you’re looking for a quick and fun solo title, you might enjoy Harsh Shadows, as well!