Monday, June 23, 2014

The Shadow Over Westminster, by Robert Huss

On a shadowy evening in London, three cloaked figured gathered in a hidden Agency to discuss their plans. The Outsider, The Watcher, and The Illuminati Shadow joined forces to discover, and ultimately defeat, an unknown Cataclysm sure to poison the world with Evil.

Given no warning, the heroes immediately found Darkness creeping into the University nearby, unbeknownst to the population of Westminster, but a sure threat all the same. Unsure how to push back the roiling wickedness, the trio sought out Cult Activity in the Underground, seeking clues as to the origins of their plight. After a few horrid hours sneaking silently through the back alleys of London, the Agents returned to the University to pour over their findings. As clear as day, the danger facing the city was the result of a Hive Mind coming to dominate the people of Westminster, then all of the Continent – then the world.

Though endowed with powers unnatural to normal humans, the Agents were ultimately incapable of holding back the darkness spreading through our great city, thanks to the media unwittingly spreading the Hive Mind’s influence. I’m only allowed to tell you this tale because I gave into the Hive Mind early – the rest of you weak, struggling humans will be consumed by its darkness!

Players in The Shadow Over Westminster are working together to stop a randomly-selected Cataclysm from engulfing the world. If they’re able to amass enough investigation power, or otherwise meet the criteria presented by the Cataclysm, players share in victory. If Darkness engulfs six locations on the board the Cataclysm occurs, and players are defeated – as is the rest of humanity!

While the Cataclysms are selected before the game, they aren’t revealed until players gain a certain level of knowledge in-game. Players spend the “first half” of the game (until they’re able to reveal the Cataclysm) on the same team, but may end up at odds once they know more about their world. A few of the Cataclysms are “Betrayals” which grant a unique win condition to one of the players if they’re able to complete a secondary task that is counterproductive to the team.

Players are generally trying to quietly gather information about the Cataclysm while holding back Darkness that slowly or not-so-slowly engulfs the locations as the game progresses. They’re also doing their best to avoid exposing their research to the public, in order to prevent mass hysteria. If players have to abandon Disturbances or are otherwise revealed to be combating dark forces, they’re given Exposure cards that muck up their decks and serve few useful purposes.

The Darkness deck, cards, and tokens are the “clock” of The Shadow Over Westminster. At the start of each turn, the active player flips a Darkness card from the deck, and adds a Darkness token to the location named on the card. If the location already had three Darkness tokens on it, then the location is engulfed. All cards at the location are removed, and any Agents there are returned to the Agency. The Cataclysm gains a Darkness token, and the unseen forces spreading evil creep one step closer to victory.

Each turn players choose to move to one of 5 locations on the board and take the action associated with that location. The locations provide players the opportunity to combat Disturbances in Westminster, gather information about the Cataclysm, and acquire needed supplies that boost their ability to Investigate and Research. These are the locations and related actions:

Agency: Players start the game in the Agency, and return here each time they fully investigate Disturbances, or are at a location when it’s engulfed by Darkness. Players at the Agency can skip their turn to remove all Exposure cards from their hand, or, they can use Research to purchase better cards for their deck. The Agency does not receive Darkness tokens.

Underground: The Underground is where the action’s happening. Players come here to reveal Disturbances threatening Westminster, and to help their fellow Agents fully investigate them. Some cards give players extra Exposure cards instead of presenting them with additional Disturbances. When Disturbances are fully investigated, the cards are awarded to any of the players who were present when the investigation was completed.

Warehouse: The Warehouse is identical to the Underground, except there’s only enough space for one Agent to explore it. This makes investigating Disturbances quite a bit more difficult, as players can’t rely on other Agents pitching in with additional investigation.

University: Once players have fully investigated Disturbances and acquired those cards into their decks, the cards can be dropped off at the University to increase the Agents’ understanding of the Cataclysm. This is the main way for players to put themselves in position to win the game, as turning in Disturbance cards allows players to increase their hand sizes (collectively), unlock their Agents’ special abilities, and reveal the Cataclysm – which is required in order to win the game.

Museum: The Museum is home to precious artifacts that possess mysterious powers. Players can use research cards to acquire these Artifacts into their deck, ultimately to be used for additional research power, or for the Artifact’s special powers. The Museum does not receive Darkness tokens.

Players start the game with a deck of basic investigation and research abilities that are just enough to acquire basic Artifacts and fully investigate basic Disturbances. As players progress through the game, they’ll acquire more Artifacts, Talismans, Disturbances, Exposure, and advanced cards unique to their Agents. Each of these cards is added to players’ discard piles when acquired, just as you’d see in any other deck-building game.

In most games that use cards, any cards that go in your deck have identical backs. The Shadow Over Westminster introduces card backs that identify the types of cards, though not the specific card coming up. There are quite a few cards and abilities that allow players to either draw cards or manipulate the top of their decks, and this lets players have additional control over how they spend their turns. It’s a nice bit of design, and one of my favorite parts of the game.

Additionally, each Agent’s special abilities and unique cards are designed to interact with one of the core mechanics of the game. This makes the role each player plays in the game different, and adds some strategic elements as players race around the board trying to keep pace with the game. In a world with lots of cooperative games, The Shadow Over Westminster stands out for these elements that subtly increase the depth of the game.

Many cooperative games, particularly those with no “betrayal” mechanic, suffer from what we call the “Alpha Gamer” or “The Pandemic Problem” – namely, that in games where there is no hidden information and no opposing agendas, it’s easy for a single player to dominate the conversation about what each player should do in game. If you’ve played cooperative games, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The Shadow Over Westminster didn’t make me feel like Alpha gaming was an issue, though it’s worth saying that if I can’t find the  Alpha gamer in my play group, it might be because it’s me.

The Agents differ from each other in small ways that are really brought to light by the Agent-specific cards that are acquired during the late part of the game. These cards are designed to interact with certain portions of the game, like controlling Darkness tokens, using Research cards, or managing Exposure cards. Each player has to know what their cards do and how to best use them, so there’s likely a little too much information for a single player to dominate the strategy conversation. Not only was it nice not to have to deal with this in my game, it was also really cool to find out that my fellow Agents had helpful abilities that could get us out of jams. 

Artwork by Eddy Shinjuku (© 2014 Zenion Games, Inc)
Four of them, all very different, all very cool
I played four games of The Shadow Over Westminster with Phillip Jenné, the Art Director for the game, and Cody Lewis, one of my game-designer buddies. The three of us play games together often, and consider ourselves pretty accomplished game players. As noted in the intro, we got absolutely crushed in our first game, and lost our second game handily as well. Our third game came down to a single flip of the Darkness deck – with every single Darkness space on the board full, anything other than “Take an Exposure” would have caused us to lose.

We figured we had a 40% chance of winning, so we took a second to sum up the drama, as game groups tend to do, then flipped the card: “Darkness at the University” – which may as well have read, “YOU LOSE.” It was high-tension and high-entertainment, and even though we lost, it made the two hours playing three games completely worth it.

At the time of this article, The Shadow Over Westminster is live on Kickstarter. I’m a backer, and though my friends are making this game, I first found interest in it after hearing a description through Tabletop: Deathmatch, a competition the game was entered in. If you’re a fan of the general Lovecraftian theme, this is a no-brainer (pun fully intended). If you dig deck-builders but you’re tired of the same re-skins of simple mechanics, I think you may enjoy TSOW. The deck-building component is ever-present, but never feels like it’s what you’re doing - it’s just a mechanic that you use while you’re in pursuit of larger goals.

The result of the various mechanics and themes is a compelling cooperative game with multiple sources of tension: racing against Darkness in the locations on the board, revealing the Cataclysm and a possible Betrayal, and ultimately finishing the Cataclysm before Darkness engulfs the world. I recommend The Shadow Over Westminster to anybody who enjoys high-tension, medium-depth cooperative games like Pandemic, Eldritch Horror, or Ghost Stories.

Watch a Play Video of The Shadow Over Westminster with Robert Huss and Damien Lavizzo from Team Zenion

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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