Full disclosure: A review copy of Shifting Stones was provided by Gamewright.
I think this one’s going to be my last review for July, which is fun, unless I decide to / get the opportunity to push a few reviews up in my schedule. I’m trying to maintain three reviews a week, right now, which seems like about the right pace given how few games I’m playing. In the past, I was usually hovering around 100 games a month; now I’m lucky to clear 40. That’s how it goes, sometimes. Rather than sorrow about that, though, let’s get to the review! This time I’m checking out more titles from Gamewright, the first of which is going to be Shifting Stones! The others will come later.
In Shifting Stones, you’ve discovered an ancient grid of nine mystical-looking stones. So, you’re gonna mess with them. Is that a good idea? Probably. Are they cursed? Hopefully not. But why not find out the way God intended by just pushing them and seeing what happens? You may be able to flip one over, if you put your back into it. Arrange the tiles into patterns and see what that gets you. Will you be able to solve the mystery of these incredibly ancient rocks?
This one is super easy. Shuffle the nine tiles (and flip them a bit; they’re not the same on both sides):
Shuffle the cards, dealing each player 4:
You should be ready to start! Place the draw deck at the top of the grid to indicate where the “top” is, for card-playing purposes.
Thankfully, game’s not too difficult to play, either. Your goal is to essentially make combinations present on the cards in your hand by moving and flipping tiles. The challenge is, the cards are the currency by which you perform actions. I’ll explain.
On your turn, you may take as many actions as you are able to do.
Swap Adjacent Stones
You may discard a card from your hand to choose any two orthogonally adjacent stones and swap their positions.
You may discard a card from your hand to choose any stone and flip it over.
Score a Card
If you have a card in your hand with a tile pattern that can be found in the current 3×3 tile grid, you may play it face-up in front of you to score it. The card’s orientation must be upright in order to score (the top of the grid is the same for all players). You may only score a Pattern Card once, even if there are multiple instances of the pattern in the grid, as well.
Certain cards reward a tile being in a certain spot in a row, column, or in the grid, so there are many potential opportunities, depending on what card you have!
Skip Your Turn
If you would prefer, you can, instead of taking any actions, draw 2 cards and end your turn. You should end your turn with 6 cards!
You can’t skip your turn twice in a row.
End Your Turn
At the end of your turn, you can refill your hand to 4 cards. If you run out of cards, shuffle the discard pile and treat that as a new deck.
End of Game
The final round is activated when any player has scored a specific number of Pattern Cards, based on player count:
- 2 players: 10 cards
- 3 players: 9 cards
- 4 players: 8 cards
- 5 players: 7 cards
Finish the round so that all players have taken an equal number of turns, and then the game ends! Total your points from your cards. The player with the most 1-point cards gets an additional 3 bonus points. (If multiple players are tied for the most, they all get the 3 bonus points.) The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
There aren’t a ton, mechanically speaking, beyond the game ending with fewer cards scored. The key difference is that you’ll end up with a lot more entropy between your turns as the player counts increase. As players shift and swap and flip tiles, you may end up in a situation where the board state on your turn is completely different than it was a few turns ago. And, I think, that’s part of why fewer cards are required to end the game. It’s a bit harder to get big combos together. I will say that the increased entropy can make the game seem a bit more luck-dependent, as you can just happen to end up in circumstances where the tile configuration you need is already in place (or close to it) at the start of your turn. But, it’s also probably equally likely that it won’t be. At lower player counts, it’s simpler to get what you want done done, as long as that doesn’t directly interfere with your opponents’ plan. I generally prefer lower-entropy games, but this game is still quick enough that I don’t mind it at higher player counts, either. So only a soft recommendation for the lower end of the player count spectrum; I’d probably still be happy to play it with 5 players.
- You kind of need to figure out the right ratio of cards spent to points gained. It’s an economy, of a sort. You have to spend cards to do actions, but you really want to keep some cards that are at least attainable in your hand so that you can play them for points. Figuring out the balance of when to waste cards and when to score cards is pretty much the crux of the game. I would say that spending three cards to gain 1 point is not a good breakdown, for instance.
- Spending your entire turn to get a 5-point card, for instance, might be a good decision. Here, you’re trading three cards for 5 points. I generally recommend about a one card to 1 point ratio, if possible; doing better than that is good, as well. Three cards to 3 points isn’t bad, but two cards to 3 points is a much better swing. Three cards to 5 points in this example, would be pretty fantastic.
- Don’t rely on the tiles staying too consistent from turn to turn. It’s pretty unlikely that there will be no flips or swaps (unless you get lucky-ish and your opponents decide to skip their turn), so you should not rely too much on having the same or similar board layout every turn. This means that some turns you may not be able to do a ton with what you’ve got.
- Your goal is also tactical efficiency, so make sure you’re not wasting your cards. That said, it’s fine to waste your cards if you don’t want them and think that, by discarding them, you will be able to partially or completely block an opponent’s play next turn. If they seem like they’re setting tiles up for a big turn, try to dunk on them by moving some tiles around. Keep in mind that you may be helping them, though! That’s the risk. If you’re looking to wisely spend your own cards on your turn, try to make sure that moving tiles doesn’t mess up other cards in your hand that you want to score, as well.
- You should look for orientations of tiles that will let you score multiple cards if you can. Sometimes making a few good switches or flips in the right spots will allow you to score multiple cards, rather than just one. Whether or not that’s good depends on the card values (two 1s are, of course, not better than a single 3), but if you can make it work that can usually be pretty good.
- Sometimes the best thing you can do is take two extra cards and skip your turn so that you can wind up for the next one. You can’t always crush it every turn, and you might just not have the cards you need to make any good plays work. If so, take a turn off, draw two additional cards, and see if you can set yourself up for success on the next one. Plus, your opponents may shift the state of the game around enough that you might be in a better position on your next turn. Besides, you can’t skip your turn twice in a row, so, you do kind of have to come up with something on the next go around.
- Just, make sure you don’t skip your turn too often; you do need to score points. Skipping every other turn does give you a lot of cards, but you may end up missing out. You don’t need that many cards to end the game. I usually would only skip my turn maybe once per game? More than that and I think I’m starting to get diminishing returns, unless I had a superb turn after my first skip.
- Similarly, watch out for the sunk cost fallacy. I watched a player spend a few turns trying to set up a 3-point play, which isn’t particularly efficient or advisable. Sometimes you gotta just write something off as a lost cause.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Kwanchai Moriya’s art is, as always, excellent. I really like this one! The game looks like it was kind of discovered and has an ornate quality to it that I really like. The colors also pop on the table, which is fun, and the shapes are all pretty distinct in lieu of the colors, so it’s got a nice double coding to it.
- This one plays super fast, which I appreciate. Very quick, especially since you can only take four to six actions per turn. Which actions in what order matters quite a bit, but you can be flexible on that front. I would not call this a particularly long game. It might be a bit longer at 5 players, but who even has four distinct friends? That’s the real mystery.
- I like the ability to take two cards and end your turn to store up for a bigger turn. Banking actions for later is something I often wish I could do in a game, so I’m excited that the option is now available to me in this one. Given that the action economy of the game is so tight, it’s great that I can expand my options a bit, even if it does cost me a full turn.
- The tiles are great! They’re embossed, heavy, and a great color. Like I said earlier, the art is great, but the texture of the tiles is also extremely good. The layered texture of the tiles absolutely rules, and for a lightish family game makes the whole thing seem really high-quality.
- Not too hard to learn. You really can only do four things with a card, so it’s more about the tactics of planning what you want to do with the cards than it is about learning rules complexities or rules interactions, which I appreciate. Gamewright does a great job picking up games that aren’t a ton of extra work to learn, and I think that suits their line pretty well.
- Getting a 5-point card activated feels amazing. You gotta have a few “this feels really good for the player” moments in a game, and if you can make a 5-point card work for you, that’s one of them. It’s really awesome when it happens (but it definitely doesn’t happen every game).
- Additionally, adding the “player with the most 1-value cards gets 3 points” is a good bit of strategic cover. It’s not going to win the game for someone that refuses to get any cards that aren’t worth 1 point, but it’s a nice way to make up for the random luck of what cards you draw. Sometimes you have to make the best with what you’re dealt, so if you’re dealt a ton of low-value cards, it can be handy to have the opportunity to make extra points off of the deal.
- There’s a lot of entropy at higher player counts, which I don’t particularly care for. It’s not quite enough that it pushes to a negative for me, just something I think is worth mentioning. Your tolerance for chaos will probably dictate your preferred player count for this game.
- I think this is one of those boxes where the box lid is slightly shallower than the box bottom? I’m never sure why that is. This honestly vexes me because it makes me think that the box isn’t fully closed when it, in fact, is. I like boxes to fully telescope; I’m not sure why there’s a gap with my copy. It’s not a particularly useful thing to fixate on, but, this is my review and my Mehs, so this is a very firm Meh, for me.
- You’ll see this happen decently often, and it’s frustrating, but players don’t always do well planning moves when their action cards are currency, and that can cause turns to get messed up. I think this is the thing that’s going to probably irritate the most players, but it’s just part of the game. Since you can score your cards or play them to do things, you’re going to see a number of off-by-one errors where a player thinks that they have enough actions to do everything that they want, only to find out that they’re invariably unable to do something because they need one extra card. The fact that you can get that close, only to fail, will definitely irk some players, but that card economy management is just how the game works. I’d recommend being flexible with players and letting them withdraw cards or undo parts of their turn if they miscalculate. This can be a tricky part of an otherwise pretty simple game, so some grace for players is always recommended.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Shifting Stones is pretty great! It’s one of those very quick, tactical titles that I tend to enjoy as a break from longer, heavier fare, and I think that it fits very well into that niche. Component-wise, it’s got a lot going for it; the tiles are excellent quality, fun to flip, and honestly just pop from both a color and an art perspective. My only major concern with the game is that the action economy is so tight that players will often make mistakes (thinking that they can play a card that they intend to score), which can lead to frustration. Thankfully, my group tends to be pretty forgiving on that front, so we usually just let them undo the things that they regret having done. No big deal. There’s also the opportunity for some satisfying combos or big plays, which I think is a great way to let players feel great about their turns (if they can swing it). On a less positive note, the box top being shorter than the bottom is weird, but, sometimes people make weird box decisions for aesthetic reasons. This isn’t going to be the heaviest game in someone’s collection, but it has enough fun choices and options that I expect to come back around and play it every so often. And I quite like it, on that front. If you’re looking for a game that’s tactically challenging, a short and fun tile game, or you just wish that Nine Tiles weren’t real time, you might enjoy Shifting Stones! I definitely did.
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