Why I’m Tired of Shadowfist – and what it says about gaming

I have nothing against Shadowfist. For the most part it’s decently designed and it seems to be rebooting itself fairly well as a more streamlined LCG, thanks to Inner Kingdom. But sometimes thinking about why you don’t enjoy something helps illuminate why you like other things, and we all learn more about our selves and our tastes.

I have the best reason ever not to like Feng Shui: Robin Laws told me I wouldn’t. It was under an RPGNet review over ten years ago; a review like so many that made the mistake of saying the game was for everyone. I explained my reservations in the forums below and Robin replied quickly that the game wasn’t for me. Those reasons briefly – I don’t like high-powered games and I have little contact with Hong Kong action cinema. The latter is the important one. I also have never liked much of Robin’s stuff. I love the way he approaches genre, and we tend to like the same genres, but I find his writing uninspiring and workmanlike, and his actual rules design antithetical to how I run. But as I said, the main thing is I don’t really have a connection to HK action cinema. I’ve seen some of it, but never enough at any particular time to connect emotionally to its tropes. I was just a bit young maybe when the whole bubble happened.

That’s the important one because it was and is still true now, and relevant to Shadowfist. I only got into Shadowfist at all (after trying to read Feng Shui and putting it aside) because I was given a free deck, and because the card game introduced me to the setting itself, rather than the tropes. I love the way the factions are crafted in Shadowfist, so there are few good guys, and so each is distinct and interesting and powerful and flawed and cross-motivated. I fell in love quickly with the desperation of the Jammers and the style of the Ascended (transformed animals are my thing). I particularly liked that both those groups were into destroying magic/chi altogether. That’s a really refreshing idea, when so many games are about how magic is what makes you special and powerful and different from the average peon. The Ascended, the Jammers and the Dragons too are trying to tear all that down. Gorgeous. Problem is, in my head the setting turned into something else, a world where the Ascended are the good guys and it is something more like Milennium than The Killer.

Which means I only have a partial connection to the setting. Likewise, while I adore its sense of humour and continuing insistence to work in some truly spectacular puns into card names, I don’t have any connection or much interest in the other parts. The Hand and the Lotus are ciphers to me, the Monarchs dull. They are also the more po-faced factions, too. And it’s just frustrating: I want to play a game full of disco references, bad puns and transformed time travelling animals, but Shadowfist is only like 15% that game. And mechanically, it doesn’t feel either wacky enough or brutal enough to be an actual Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan film – because instead it tracks the subtle chess game of back and forth done by the secret masters. Which, ironically, is kind of what I want the RPG to be….

The game is, anyway quite slow. It’s about blocks and counter-blocks, with everyone trying to stop the leader, which means most games are won by exhaustion, not brilliance. And they last a long time, as the board can sink into stagnancy of nobody being able to move. This isn’t helped by the fiddly nature of all the abilities and counter-abilities which we constantly forget, causing tap-backs and rewinds. The game is also very tactical, and I don’t really like tactical games. I’m big on strategy, but I can’t really see a battlefield, nor do I feel tempo, and I absolute DESPISE trying to predict other people’s moves. I can stand it in Chaos in the Old World, say, because there are other ways to play, and there are other returns, and I can play that game with people who equally dislike that kind of thing.  Shadowfist, being a tournament game, is full of people who play it because they love it, not for the social time and the puns.

Shadowfist is also full of “junta”, a term I stole off Matt Colville, which he took from the game of the same name. It’s the word for the mind-games you play that aren’t part of the game. Diplomacy, for example, is a game that is almost 100% junta, because there’s barely any rules. It’s all about what you say and pretend at the table – in fact, forcing you to use real diplomacy. Poker too, is full of junta. Games where you attack the leader are full of it, because you have to pretend to be non-threatening. I hate junta, and pretty much my entire game collection is based on avoiding it altogether. I just don’t like lying, or conniving. I don’t want it in my games. These days I try to avoid competition as well, but I don’t mind a bit of that, as long as it’s more of a race to see who can built the most efficient strategy, as opposed to hunting down your opponents and hurting them. That’s also not something I enjoy.

Being a CCG-now-LCG, Shadowfist is based around tournament play, not casual play, and tournament play always ends up with the same problems. I went through these problems in this rant about Netrunner back in April but briefly it just ends up being too much about winning and that kills casual play and social play. You can’t even the playing field. You can’t figure out how vicious to be, or rather, the only way to work it is to be as vicious as possible. And you have to play to win. The game doesn’t really support many other avenues to fun.

Which is where we get to the lesson: once upon a time, a lot of what I’m saying here would be nonsense. I want a game that has other avenues to fun that aren’t built on competition, that aren’t about skill, that aren’t about tactics, that aren’t about deception and out-thinking your opponent, that aren’t about wanting to win. But that was the OLD world. That world is gone. The golden age of gaming has come and none of that is essential any more. Games are about everything you can imagine, and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of games which cater exactly to my needs. And some of them are now so popular that even though they’re not about competition or winning, they sell like crazy and they win the Kennerspiel der Jahres.

I’m not saying Shadowfist is outdated. I’m just saying, oranges are no longer the only fruit, and that is the greatest thing ever.