Shadows Amsterdam review — Hamsterdam?

Deduction games seem to be quite popular at the moment, with the likes of Osprey Games’ Cryptid and Detective from Portal Games making a big splash during 2018. Shadows: Amsterdam takes a lighter look than some of these, with real time gameplay and a team based focus that has one player guiding the others in the style of Captain Sonar. With so much going on though, can Shadows: Amsterdam pull it off?

Overview and turn structure

Actually, yes. It does. But that’s not to say Shadows: Amsterdam is flawless — it’s the kind of game that blends a number of mechanics in such a way that makes it feel unique, but at the same time, quite familiar. There’s a real Disney-esque (I’d say Zootopia, specifically) feel about Shadows: Amsterdam and whilst there are some complex elements to the game that I’ll discuss later, I’d say that Shadows is aimed squarely at family audiences.

The basic premise is simple. Two or more (ideally in even numbers) players split into two teams of detectives, then split again into one intelligence officer and then a number of detectives. The intelligence officer on each team will then sit at the same end of the board behind their own personal privacy screen. The two intelligence officers then pick one orange and one black map card with matching numbers, which they place behind their screens. These map cards show them (but no one else) where the evidence for their team is hidden, as well as which spaces have a police presence that won’t take kindly to amateur detectives working on their patch.

The board will have been randomly setup based on a number of large tiles and then a handful of smaller, individual ones and then a set of ten location tiles will be laid out near enough that the intelligence officers can reach them. Once the game kicks off, it is played entirely in real time (assuming you go with the base rules) and whilst there is a structure to follow, things can get quite chaotic. To summarise, the intelligence officers must lead their team around the board by choosing one or two of the location tiles that are available to them, but without ever speaking or gesturing in any way.

This is where Shadows introduces its own unique flavour, because each of the location tiles is different and the stack of them is huge, So, if an intelligence officer wants to move their team one space towards a red cafe with a bear in it, she might have to pick cards that feature red, or a bear, or something even more abstract like food, or a large mammal that is a similar colour. It all depends on what is available. Once the card (or cards, with the max being two) are shown, then the teammates must decide how to proceed. Once their move is confirmed, the intelligence officer confirms any consequences – be that collection of evidence or, on the downside, the need to collect a police warning.

This continues (with the location cards refreshed each time they are used) until one team has collected and dropped off three pieces of evidence, or when one team has been warned by the police three times (which results in a loss.) The real fun in Shadows comes when the intelligence officer is intuitively able to identify the kind of clues that resonate with her team, at which point the gameplay will flow nicely. On the contrary, some players just don’t “get” the abstract nature of the clues, which can be very frustrating.

Components

The contents of Shadows (which comes in a pleasingly small box, given how much table space it takes when set up) are a bit of a mixed bag in terms of quality. The artwork is varied and of an exceptional quality, especially considering that there is so much of it on the various map tiles (which are double sided) and on the location cards. The miniatures are of a nice quality, depicting two cute animals riding mopeds in the colours of the two teams, whilst most other supporting components (including the instructions) are good overall.

Where Shadows lets itself down, however, is in the quality of some of the components. The map tiles, for example, are made from very thin card, as are the location cards. This might simply be for practical reasons — it does feel sensible to have map tiles and location cards as the same thickness and using thicker board would have made the stack of location cards absolutely unmanageable. That said, the map tiles will likely get bent and damaged over repeated plays, so that is something to be aware of.

There are a few other oddities in the box. Evidence trackers are represented by little standees, whilst the intelligence officers track their teams on the very well done evidence tiles, although the actual tracking is done by a miniscule wooden disk that I’d bet a lot of players will lose within a few games, given the hectic pace of Shadows. The manual is very good, with a clear explanation of how the game flows, including the correct order of resolution, despite Shadows being a real time game.

Game experience

Whilst I hinted at a couple of spoilers about how Shadows plays earlier, I’d say that it is a fun game overall, especially if you have someone experience enough at the table (ideally on both teams) to coach the other players a little bit if needed. Shadows is the kind of game that can immediately click with some people, but completely miss others and the abstract clues are where the success or failure of the game with any audience will pivot. There are definitely combinations of map spaces and location cards that work better than others and sometimes a clue can fall completely flat.

It’s at these times when that traditional “dungeon master” role is needed. Someone who knows when it’s OK to bend the rules a little bit and introduce a sensible hint system or similar can really help Shadows succeed where otherwise it might simply fizzle out with both teams abandoning it midway through. These possible low points are weighed in equal measure by the highs, which is where Shadows can soar — when two teams compete in perfect harmony, the game can flow in a fluid, exciting way.

In truth though, it’s rare that either of these extreme circumstances will occur. More often than not, some of the clues are well received and feel like momentary works of genius, whilst others in the same game will go badly wrong. It’s having the ability to shrug off these minor setbacks and enjoy the high points that will determine whether Shadows is a success at your table and I certainly found that players in the ten to thirteen years old bracket have enjoyed it a lot during the Christmas holiday break.

Conclusion

Shadows: Amsterdam is likely to occupy a fairly unique, albeit niche location on any game shelf. It’s an abstract deduction game for sure, but the ability of each player to interpret clues may or may not within their control. Players with very literal ways of thinking can struggle, but creative and imaginative brains seem to engage well with Shadows. In any case, it’s a fun game if played with the right audience, which for me is a family with children around ten to fifteen years, ideally. Definitely worth a closer look, if the basic concept sounds appealing to you.

A copy of Shadows Amsterdam was provided for review purposes, and can be purchased from all good local games stores. For online purchases, please visit 365 Games

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