Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Prepare to kick some shell!
enlarge / Prepare to kick some shell!

Brady Dale

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend take on table games! Check out our full coverage of board games at cardboard.arstechnica.com and let us know what you think.

The first afternoon I played the new board game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the PastMy friends and I had been fighting ninjas for an hour before anyone realized that Leonardo had a special ability: he could spin over the heads of two street poor to keep them from getting away. My friend was so excited by this reveal that he grabbed the Leo figure and played a physical flip on and over the thugs. Turtle power!

Shadows of the Past comes from IDW Games, the gaming division of the same company that publishes the latest version of the Turtles’ comic books. The game is built around its own simple story that includes 16 possible battles. One player controls the Big Bad, Shredder, and oversees all of the villain actions in the game, while all other players control the four Turtles.

The story in Shadows of the Past works just like a video game: players fight through increasingly difficult levels of play, most of which take on different types of bosses.

Each level has a slightly different game board configuration, although the goal isn’t always to defeat a mini-boss. In my first six hours of play, my group got through three fights. We went after some gangsters. We fought some bad guys in the harbor. Then we tried to destroy a nefarious machine protected by Shredder’s best soldiers, but failed.

You make your way through these missions in a series of rounds, each containing eight turns: one for the four Turtles, then a rogue move for each Turtle.

Each turtle has its own set of three dice (although Raphael has six) with its own color and its own special ability; the faces of these dice indicate which actions a Turtle can take in turn. The basic actions on each die are moving, hitting, defending, throwing shuriken, or using the yin/yang symbol (which heals the turtle and makes him change that die into a different face).

These dice are rolled at the beginning of each round and each die can be used once. So, in one turn, a Turtle can potentially move, hit a Foot clansmen, move to another Foot clansmen, hit him, and then move again.

But here’s the game’s unique conceit: Before a round begins, each Turtle arranges these dice in a line, and the lines are formed in the perimeter of a rectangle. Thus, each Turtle’s dice line touches two other lines, and Turtles can share the two extra dice adjacent to their line. (Check out the image if this sounds confusing.)

This setup symbolizes how the Turtles work as a team. It also indicates that battles are also best fought as a unit.

The dice rectangle.
enlarge / The dice rectangle.

This setup portion of each round is really important. For example, if players want Michelangelo to run as far as possible, they might want Donatello and Leonardo to place any move rolls next to Mikey’s line so Mikey can use them too. Players will quickly learn that it pays to think carefully about how they lay out their dice at the start of a round (and that it also pays to remember that Leonardo can change this configuration during his turn).

Each turtle also has a special ability on its character card, along with a handful of special abilities chosen from the hero skill deck.

All this can be a little difficult to keep track of. When you play for the first time, it’s easy to forget that you have a skill on your character card or a special move that you could have used. But as the mastery of the game grows, players should have a good time choosing which of the powers to play, then relish when they can finally put them into action.

Turtles and villains also have a resource called focus that’s good for a few things, but mostly for do-over rolls. A tip for new players: don’t collect focus (and don’t ignore Donatello’s ability to regenerate it).

Special power cards.
enlarge / Special power cards.

Brady Dale

The villains’ game is determined by a deck of cards rather than dice, but these cards use the same symbols as the Turtles’ dice. So, villain skills are assigned in a similar but more predictable way.

Shadows of the Past really wants to imagine the Turtles as they are in the movies and the comics – characters who work on the street and are just as happy on the roof of a building as they are on the ground. So part of the board can become a roof or an alley or a fire escape. Some of these features are adjacent to other levels and some are not. The level design all affects where you can jump, where you can throw and how fast you move.

Understanding how to take advantage of a space can be a key to victory. Our second fight had an anti-climatic ending as the villain realized that the Turtles – not taking into account the speed of the main villain – had left his escape route open. The only way he could reach it was with a risky jump from a rooftop, but he only needed to get through it with one health and the villains would win. Unfortunately for him, he got a bad pitch, took too much damage and was eliminated. The Turtles won, but this gamble in space was still a smart move.

The layout of the game board for one of the scenarios.
enlarge / The layout of the game board for one of the scenarios.

Brady Dale

Slow and steady

So does it work? Yes, but playback may be slow. I like to think that after playing a well-designed game a few times, a game group should be able to set the rules, and the game becomes fast and smooth. But after six hours of Turtles, my friends (who are experienced gamers) started to lose their temper. The corners were still too slow.

(For this reason, I personally liked two-player games the most. Even then, you’ll have to wait a long time between games, because every time a Turtle makes a move, the bad guy gets to move multiple characters.)

It also takes a while to set up. The game has a lot of pieces and a lot types of pieces. Players must assemble a specific playing card, place a variety of additional geographic pieces on top of that card (such as cars and garbage bags), and then assemble the deck of rogue cards. That deck changes every game, forcing the player running the villains to search for that last blue Foot clan card among the pile of cards he doesn’t need before the game can begin.

And the manual leaves some points unclear.

Shadows of the Past works best if you like slow burning dungeon crawls that require patience and reward. However, once you get the hang of the rules, future expansions promise endless immersion into the world of the Turtles. (IDW sent us a review copy of the game and the first expansion, which allows you to add April O’Neil as a player character.)

Brady Dale is a writer in Brooklyn. He is a newly converted player to Magic‘s Commander format.

List image by IDW Games

By akfire1

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