Licensed games are a funny thing. Visually stunning, you want to approach them and buy ’em a drink, but all-too-often the lights are out and there’s nothing there. It’s easy to market style and it’s difficult to engineer substance. That’s why you should approach board games with franchises like TMNT, Ghostbusters, and Batman with Super Shredder sized skepticism. In this instance, just as Big Bird sings–one of those things is not like the other.
This is affectionately titled a “sewer crawl” as players take on the roles of our heroes in a half shell and kick Foot butt. The surliest member of your group takes control of the adversaries and is expected to taunt the other players with their most sadistic Shredder impersonation. You battle it out over several scenes linked together in a “comic” with an unfolding narrative.
Shyeah, that plays out as awesome as it sounds. Instead of a typical exploratory dungeon-style structure, this game takes a cinematic approach. The game includes four comic books with branching narrative arcs. You’ll break up street muggings and take the battle to the Foot clan. The stories culminate with showdowns against Old Hob, Alopex, and Shredder.
The scenario variety here is engaging and highly diverse. Your goals will shift from sneaking around lobby security cameras to busting heads in the sewers. Villains will show up, allies will arrive, and unexpected twists will bust down the door.
Fueling the addictive story-structure is a slick dice activation system that is wholly unique. Each turn, the turtle players roll their dice which dictate what actions are available. You can move about the board, smack thugs, and hunker down with defense, all while taking your turtle’s personality into account: Raphael favors aggression while Mikey likes to jet around the board and do flips.
That sense of asymmetry is woven throughout as characters possess unique stats, a constant special rule, and a deck of skill cards with abilities. A couple skills are selected for each character from their pool of five prior to beginning each scenario. This means you can tailor your strategic approach to the task at hand, which is incredibly satisfying. Going to be facing huge Foot thugs blocking your path? Grab the skill that lets Raf jump past obstacles or Mikey throw one of his bros across the board. The options are wide open which means replayability is through the roof as no two characters play quite the same way.
In addition to figuring out how to spend your actions each turn, the order of the dice in front of you actually matters. You line your dice up in the order of your choice, with the far left die utilizable by the turtle sitting on your left, and the far right by the ninja to your right. This begets discussion and tactical analysis while also mitigating bad luck. If Donnie didn’t roll a move but really needs to book it across the map, Leo can help by offering a hand, er skateboard. This is excellent because it’s an injection of thoughtful depth without being obtuse.
Despite visual appeal, the map also has a myriad of distractions. Terrain is highly interactive in that you can grind rails, throw trashcans, and climb onto rooftops. All of these little nuances are accompanied by cards detailing the rules and could prove overwhelming for neophytes. Depth and nuance comes at a cost, yo.
If being green ain’t your thing, you can always don a metal lid and control the baddies. I was truly shocked just how enjoyable the role of villain was in Shadows of the Past. Instead of dice, you’re gaining symbols from cards you play out of a hand with several options. Selection dictates what type of minion or leader you can activate and what they can do. Besides offering a really intelligent and smooth way to bring forces to bear, the tough choices it forces are delightful.
Along with overhead, player scaling is a possible issue. The game wants you to play all four turtles for balance considerations. Controlling multiple characters is not overly difficult and it’s actually pretty enjoyable. Surprisingly, the scaling issues arise with more participants. Because you take all of your actions on your turn and you have many options, downtime can be quite unforgiving with slow players and a full table. Discussion will be high and you are invested in the outcome, but you may have a moment or two where you just want to bust Jimmy on the temple with your Bo staff because he can’t make up his mind. Seriously, just punch a dude in the face and get on with it, Jimmy.
Sometimes a game is so good that its flaws can be overlooked. Shadows of the Past is definitely that good.
Two weeks ago I would have bet a paycheck that there’s simply no way a TMNT game could end up being in my top releases of the year. If that were the case today I’d be begging forgiveness from my spouse and picking up a second job.
Are you a TMNT fan? Looking forward to Shadows of the Past? Hit us up in the comments below!
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on twitter @CharlieTheel
Images courtesy of IDW