Shadows in Kyoto

Designer: Wei-Min Ling

Artist: Maisherly

Publisher: EmperorS4

Artwork is fantastic in this game! It is unique, tasteful and definitely has an Asian feel to it. (Photo credits: Wei-Min Ling@BGG)

Stratego is a game I have fond but rather vague memories of playing as a child. In my case, I played a version of Stratego that was more popular in the Asia Pacific region. It featured land, sea and air military personnel and the game has a blocky wooden feel to it. I remember enjoying it and always wanted more of it. However, that feeling disappeared rather quickly once I grew up and I stopped playing Stratego. I wasn’t really interested in picking up a generic copy of the game. Why would I? Lots of amazing games out there to play. Well, that changed when I picked up Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings: Confrontation, a game that was inspired by Stratego. Confrontation opened up the possibility of a less luck-based version of Stratego by making it into Euro.

Shadows in Kyoto is clearly inspired by Stratego and picks up where Confrontation left off. It is designed by S4 which is based in Taiwan and I am impressed with the new twists introduced in the game. It is not better than Confrontation, but different. Very different actually. It all starts with the unique victory conditions. Each player has 6 pawns on each side of a very small 8×5 board. Each pawn has a value printed on one side of the pawn, hidden from the opponent (2x value 3, 2x Value 2, 1x Value 1 and 1x Value 0). Two of these pawns with values 2 and 3 have a 真 character in Chinese signifying the spies carrying real information. The other unlabeled pawns all carry fake intelligence. The game is won by one side when 1) you capture your opponents 2 pawns carrying real intelligence; 2) you fool your opponent into capturing 3 of your pawns carrying fake information or 3) you move one of your pawns with real information all the way to opposing end of the board, thus infiltrating your opponent’s home base. These 3 victory conditions set up some really interesting dynamics in the game where you can win by being the aggressor or passively baiting your opponent into capturing your fake spies. It’s really unique.

Each round, players will play either a site or tactics card to advance one of their pawns forward. A site card simply allows a pawn to move on a matching color square – i.e. a red card moves a pawn to a red square. There are several squares that have restricted access only to specific players, but in general, most of the squares are accessible to both players with the proper card play. The other type of card is a Tactics card that allows a variety of unique maneuvers including swapping location of pawns, pushing back opponent pieces while advancing or allowing lateral moves. In general, cards allow forward progress and when two pawns occupy the same space, a challenge is initiated and the defense reveals the pawn. If the result is a tie or if the attacker has a higher value pawn, the attacker wins the contest and the losing pawn is eliminated. If the victory conditions are met, then the game is over. It’s interesting that the game somewhat favors the attacker since win or lose, the defender’s identity is revealed while attacker remains hidden if they win. I can’t remember if this rule is part of Stratego as well.

The game is fast, but not without some angst at each step. Luckily, the cards in your hand will limit your options, forcing players to choose the best path forward without being bogged by unlimited possibilities. I tend to think that is a good thing while some will not like these constraints. Even with the limited card choice, there is a lot of room to make clever plays. When I play the game, I feel a constant push-pull between all three victory conditions as potential routes to victory. While you might be aiming for hunting down the two real spies with an aggressive approach, you may end up having to shift your approach midway because of circumstances. The victory conditions are such that you never ever feel out of contention and at all times, each of these victory conditions still feel viable. I think that is what makes the game fun and unique because what is true for you, is true also for your opponent. One cannot entirely eliminate any of the routes to victory or ignore the possibility of a sneaky maneuver from your opponent. The tactics card plays a huge role in this regard: they provide dramatic moments through unique pawn movements. For example, one can swap pawns across the column or row with a specific tactics card. Imagine moving a real spy closer to enemy lines after bluffing with a fake one with a direct swap. One can also use the same tactics card to swap and move a powerful value 3 pawn backwards to defend the home base from incoming spies. The “bait” tactics card is also quite neat. It can delay an opponent’s advancement to the home base, potentially buying enough time for you to snatch victory from defeat. All these tactics make the game unpredictable, but incredibly fun.

You can’t take Shadows in Kyoto too seriously as this is still a variant of Stratego which means that luck still matters and this is reflected through card draws and how the pawns are initially matched up on the board. There is no way around that. That said, the game is a vast improvement from Stratego and it is a nice blend of luck, calculated bluffing and some strategic maneuvers to try and gain an upper hand in a fog of war battlefield. I find Shadows better than Confrontation in terms of variability in victory conditions, but still lags behind in theme. In this regard, I am a little heartbroken because I do not identify with the theme even though the folks at S4 have done a superb job fitting an Asian historical background to the game. As always, artwork by Maisherly from S4 is delightful. The characters are colorful, respectful and has a unique Asian feel. I have mentioned in the past that artwork can serve as a way to differentiate geographical identities of games published in different regions. This is a great example. Overall, if you are looking to add a unique two player, Stratego-like game to your collection, you can’t go wrong with Shadows in Kyoto even though you already own LOTR: The Confrontation. Highly recommended.

Initial impression: Good

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