Gaming Unplugged: Deceive or die in Shadow Hunters

October 7, 2011

A popular activity among large groups is the logical identity deduction game Werewolf (sometimes called Mafia or any number of other names). In these games, each player is randomly assigned a secret role by a neutral judge (who runs the game and keeps everyone honest), and the non-evil players must determine via public discussion which of their companions are responsible for the nightly killings and “lynch” one of them via popular vote, at which point the dead player’s true identity is revealed. Then there is a “night” period during which the evil players retaliate, and the cycle resumes until one side is dead. Some players have special abilities to aid in these inquiries, but must be careful about revealing too much information lest they become the next night’s victim. There is a team dynamic at work; a “lynched” werewolf is still considered to have won the game if his remaining companions dispose of the rest of the town, and vice versa. Manipulation, misdirection, subterfuge, and all other kinds of chicanery keep the game interesting, at least among shrewd players.

While this style of games has a large following– indeed it is rare to find a decent-sized internet forum that does not include a sub-forum for playing these games, and I know of at least one forum dedicated entirely to them– they are not without their faults. The logical component required to really succeed is only as strong as the players’ grasp of such, which can be swiftly negated by a persuasive and/or charismatic argument that is woefully incorrect (although sometimes intentionally, which I admit is part of the fun), and the whole day/night mechanic is more a matter of the honor system than anything else (in real life, anyway; playing on forums does at least eliminate that issue). Initial lynchings are often based on little to no evidence and come off as feeling random, and early victims are then shut out of the remainder of the game; if you get killed on the first night, why even bother playing? Then there’s the player who isn’t actually playing the game, the judge; there are definitely people who enjoy this role, but to me it doesn’t seem very entertaining and yet it is absolutely necessary in order to play.

Unless you want to play Shadow Hunters instead, that is. This Z-Man title replicates the general feel of a Werewolf game (crossed with elements of Bang!), but replaces the moderator with a more structured format and relies on individual actions instead of an easily-manipulated popular vote and the day/night system to do the dirty work. The set-up is simple: from four to eight players (although at least five are recommended) each receive two colored markers and an identity card that tells them if they are Shadow, Hunter, or Neutral; the specific mix of cards is determined by the number of players. The board consists of three pairs of randomly-assigned location cards and a damage track; three decks of cards: white, black, and hermit (green) are face-down nearby.

On a player’s turn, (s)he rolls two dice (one 6-sided, one 4-sided) and moves to the corresponding location card; rolling a 7 allows the player to choose any location, although they may not remain on their current card (reroll any result that would require this). Each location has a special action that the player may then take, if desired. Usually this action is drawing a card. White and black cards are divided into “single use,” which happen right away, and “equipment,” which remain with the player; white cards tend to be defensive and healing, sometimes benefiting Hunters, while black cards tend to be aggressive and harmful, sometimes benefiting Shadows. Hermit cards are the key to the game; after drawing one and reading it (privately), the active player then gives the card to another player who must then suffer any actions indicated, if applicable. A typical hermit card reads like “I bet you are (faction)! If so, (consequence).” Neither player is allowed to reveal what was written on the card (they are discarded face-down), but either way the active player has gained information about the other player that will be useful in future interactions… and maybe the other player might think that the active player now knows too much.

The final step of a player’s turn is combat. A player may attack one other player in his “range” if desired; a player’s range is generally defined as the two paired location cards where his marker sits, although some equipment can modify this. To attack, a player simply rolls both dice and subtracts the lower result from the higher one, creating a range from zero (identical numbers, which is a failed attack) to five (6-1) damage, with more common results in between. Damaged players move their other marker along the damage track. Each identity card has a listed number of hit points; when your damage marker reaches that threshold (which are also indicated on the track itself), your character dies and is revealed. The lowest HP total is 8, so it is unlikely that anyone will be eliminated by just one (unaided) attack. If you died as the result of an attack, your killer gets to claim one of your equipments and discards the rest. Shadow players win when all Hunters (or three Neutrals, if the set-up allows) are killed, and the Hunters win when all Shadows are killed; each Neutral character has his/her own win condition(s), which are indicated on their cards. It is possible, but rare, for multiple players and/or factions to win simultaneously, although it is more common for one of the large factions to win and one or two Neutrals to meet their condition(s) as well.

Finally, it is worth noting that each individual character has a special ability in addition to a faction and win condition(s). Players may use their ability at the appropriate time, but at a cost of revealing their identity. Generally this will only be correct when doing so would aid a player in achieving their win condition, although it can also be used to let your teammates know who you are (or are not, in the case of Neutrals). Players should also be aware that one of the Shadow players might be “Unknown”, which has the power to lie about the results of hermit cards (without revealing itself, obviously). Process of elimination can also help to determine which players are remaining, thanks to the HP of each identity being public knowledge. Groups of seven or eight who want a bit more challenge can play with one additional identity card in the mix but undealt, creating the possibility of uneven numbers on one side or the other. In this case the first player to die transitions to the role of judge and checks the undealt card, thus being the only one to know for certain how the game could end; this player still wins according to his original faction, but cannot reveal the missing identity to anyone.

Shadow Hunters plays quickly (generally under an hour) despite being able to accommodate up to eight players. The randomness of movement and combat is marginal and really only impacts the early stages of the game; later on players should have both a better idea of whom they want to attack and equipment and/or abilities to make doing so easier, although a whiffed combat roll is still unsuccessful regardless of equipment and can ruin plans. Identifying other players early is key; once the first character has died pieces should fall into place fairly soon after, but knowing when not to attack is just as important. Shadow Hunters has been out of print for a while now, but an upcoming reprint (possibly this winter) will also include the new-character expansion cards for further variety. On its own, Shadow Hunters retails for around $30, and I can’t imagine that ten more cards would change that price too much.