Review: Shadowrun: Crossfire

Shadowrun CrossfireShadowrun: Crossfire is Catalyst Game Labs’ first real foray into boardgaming. It bills itself as a co-operative deck-building game, which I’ll admit piqued my curiosity.  I love Dominion-style games, and I love co-ops.  What could go wrong?

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: The box feels a bit sparse for a retail $60 game.  There are a few dozen thin cardstock “boards” for players and scenarios, a few various tokens, and about 240 cards.  The card quality is decent but not great, and since this is a deck-building game with a lot of shuffling, I’d recommend card sleeves at least for the Black Market cards (the ones that go in the player decks).  There are also several sheets of stickers, which can be used to create persistent characters; as players complete missions, they can affix the stickers to their player boards as “upgrades”, similar to how the board in Risk: Legacy evolves over multiple plays.  While there’s a decent amount of stuff here, everything would have easily fit into a box half this size, which hints at future plans for a lot of expansions.

In fact, there’s already one available.  Usually, we review only what’s in a game’s retail box, but I feel the need to point something out here.  Shadowrun: Crossfire – Character Expansion Pack 1 was being sold at Gen Con, and the staff at the Catalyst booth (as well as the text on the package) were pushing it as “all new characters and upgrades”.  This is pretty misleading; the expansion contains more of the same character types that are in the retail box, just with different artwork.  The “new” upgrade stickers are just more copies of the original stickers.  There’s not actually anything new in the first expansion, and unless you’re planning to play a lot — or just really want more character board artwork — this is a complete waste of money.

Accessibility:  Shadowrun: Crossfire isn’t a difficult game to learn.  Player turns consist of few steps, and all of the phases are printed on each player’s Role card.  The group ultimately wins by defeating a series of Obstacle cards, which are pretty straightforward: simply play cards matching the colored symbols on an Obstacle to deal “damage” to it.  Characters have distinct stats like money and health, but these are simple concepts that are easy to grasp.

The problem is the game’s absurd difficulty level.  Look, I love hard co-op games.  My all-time favorite boardgame is Space Alert, and I adore the ever-brutal Ghost Stories despite amassing an embarrassing record of losses.  The problem is, when I lose those games, I can look back on my group’s moves and figure out where things went wrong; I can see why we lost.

In Crossfire, difficulty is dictated by the Obstacle cards come up.  My issue is that the strength of the cards in these decks varies too widely.  In one game you might get a first round of high-health, high-damage Obstacles that will absolutely wreck the party.  In the next, you might get a bunch of easy Obstacles and breeze through the first wave in a round or two.  Sure, the harder cards yield a better reward (money that players can use to buy cards and upgrade their decks), but that’s of little consolation when the group finishes the first round with everyone a half-step away from death.

When I consider a game’s accessability, I’m not just thinking about how easy it is to learn or teach.  I’m also looking at the ability to analyze a game after the first play and come up with new ideas for strategies.  With Crossfire, when you lose — and you will — it’s difficult to look back and figure out how things could have gone differently.

Depth: Here’s my other big concern.  I haven’t played this very much yet, but I feel like I’ve seen all of the cards multiple times already.

Turns are often dictated by the cards in your hand.  In many cases, there will only be one or two Obstacles on the board that a given player is even capable of damaging.  The only alternative is to pass and do nothing.  It’s extremely frustrating to feel like you have no options.

And then there’s the most glaring issue: There are only three scenarios included in the box.  Three!  Considering the progressive nature of the characters (you “level up” as you complete scenarios), this is unforgiveable.  And only one of the three seems possible to win with entry-level characters, meaning you’d have to play it over and over (or cheat) to make the other scenarios viable.  There are a few other scenarios available online (including a convention demo that really should have been included as the “beginner” scenario), but I’m more concerned with the lack of content in the box.

Theme: I’ll admit that I know very little about the Shadowrun universe, but Crossfire’s art design and gameplay style convey the idea of a desparate band of misfits and outlaws trying to survive in a dystopian future.  The card art is consistently good with just a few rough spots, and the character boards are beautifully illustrated.  The integration of the mechanics is a bit weird; if I’m trying to evade the authorities by defeating obstacles as quickly as possible, why do I keep stopping at the Black Market to buy stuff every few minutes?

One of my fellow players has a long history with the Shadowrun role-playing game, and he mentioned that while the card art is faithful to the game, nothing in Crossfire’s mechanics made him feel immersed in that universe.  “It’s all just matching symbols”, he complained.  I can’t disagree.

Fun: We eventually managed to win a session, and then another — but there was little joy in our shared victory.  Compare this to my last play of Ghost Stories, where the final move of the game resulted in shouts of elation (and, I’m not too ashamed to say, a victory dance by yours truly).

Our two Shadowrun: Crossfire wins felt like we’d been through a grueling experience together.  We gained enough experience to put a “power up” sticker on each of our character cards, but we could tell from each others’ expressions that we were unlikely to ever take advantage of them.  Nobody wanted to play again, and we packed up the game in awkward silence.

Rating:

2 Stars

2 out of 5

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