Cowabunga! Playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ new sewer-crawl board game

 arstechnica.com  5/20/2017 4:00:33 PM   Brady Dale
Enlarge / Prepare to kick some shell!
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The first afternoon I played the new board game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past, my friends and I had been ninja fighting for an hour before someone realized that Leonardo had a special ability: he could flip right over the heads of two street toughs to prevent them from getting away. My friend was so excited by this revelation that he grabbed the Leo figure and played-acted a physical flip up and over the thugs. Turtle power!

Shadows of the Past comes from IDW Games, the gaming division of the same company publishing the latest iteration of the Turtles’ comic books. The game is built around its own simple narrative that covers 16 possible battles. One player controls the Big Bad, Shredder, and oversees all the villain action in the game, while all other players control the four Turtles.

The story in Shadows of the Past works much like a video game: players battle through progressively more difficult levels of play, most of which include facing off against different kinds of bosses.

Each level has a slightly different game board configuration, though the object won’t always be to beat a mini-boss. In my first six hours of play, my group made it through three battles. We went after some hoodlums. We fought some bad guys on the docks. Then we tried and failed to destroy a nefarious machine protected by Shredder’s best soldiers.

You make your way through these missions in a series of rounds, each of which contains eight turns—one each for the four Turtles and then a villain move for every Turtle.

Each Turtle has his own set of three dice (though Raphael has six) with his own color and his own special attribute; the faces of these dice indicate which actions a Turtle can take on his turn. The basic actions on every die are move, strike, defend, throw shuriken, or use the yin/yang symbol (which heals the Turtle and lets it change that die to any other face).

These dice are rolled at the beginning of each round, and each die face can be used once. So, in one turn, a Turtle could potentially move, strike a Foot clansmen, move to another Foot clansmen, strike him, and then move again.

But here’s the game’s unique conceit: before a round starts, each Turtle arranges these dice in a line, and the lines are formed into the outline of a rectangle. Each Turtle’s line of dice thus touches two other lines, and Turtles can share the two additional die that adjoins their line. (Check out the picture if this sounds confusing.)

This arrangement symbolizes how the Turtles work as a team. It also indicates that battles are best fought as a unit, too.

The dice rectangle.
Enlarge / The dice rectangle.
This setup part of each round really matters. If players want Michelangelo to run as far as possible, for instance, they might want Donatello and Leonardo to place any movement rolls they have adjacent to Mikey’s line, allowing Mikey to use them, too. Players will learn quickly that it pays to consider carefully how they lay out their dice at the start of a round (and that it also pays to remember that Leonardo can change this configuration on his turn).

Every Turtle also has a special ability on his character card, along with a small handful of special skills chosen from the deck of hero skills.

All of this can be a bit hard to keep track of. When first playing, it’s easy to forget that you have an ability on your character card or a special move you could have used. But as mastery of the game grows, players should have a pretty good time picking which of the set of powers they want to play, then reveling when can finally put them into action.

Turtles and villains also have a resource called focus that’s good for a few things, but mainly for do-over rolls. One tip to new players: don’t hoard focus (and don’t ignore Donatello’s ability to regenerate it).

Special power cards.
Enlarge / Special power cards.
The villain plays are governed by a deck of cards rather than by dice, but these cards use the same symbols as the Turtles’ dice. Villain abilities are thus allocated in a similar but more predictable way.

Shadows of the Past very much wants to imagine the Turtles as they are in the movies and the comics—characters who work the streets and are as happy on the roof of a building as they are down on the ground. So part of the board might become a roof or an alley or a fire escape. Some of these features adjoin other levels and some don’t. The level design all impacts where you can jump, where you can throw, and how fast you move.

Understanding how to take advantage of a space can be a key to victory. Our second battle had an anti-climatic ending because the villain realized that the Turtles—failing to consider the main bad guy’s swiftness—had left his escape route open. The only way he could reach it was with a risky leap from a roof, but he only needed to get through with one health and then the villains would win. Unfortunately for him, he got a bad roll, took too much damage, and got knocked out. The Turtles won, but this space-based gamble was still a smart move.

The game board setup for one of the scenarios.
Enlarge / The game board setup for one of the scenarios.

Slow and steady

So does it work? Yes—but play can be slow. I like to think that after a few plays of a well-designed games, a game group should be able to nail the rules down, and play becomes fast and smooth. After six hours of Turtles, though, my friends (who are experienced gamers) were losing patience. Turns still moved too slowly.

(For this reason, I personally found two-player games the most enjoyable. Even then, you wait a long time between plays, because each time one Turtle makes a move, the villain gets to move several characters.)

Setup also takes a while. The game has a ton of pieces and a ton of kinds of pieces. Players have to assemble a specific play map, set a variety of extra geographic pieces atop that map (like cars and trash bags), and then assemble the deck of villain cards. That deck changes every game, leaving whichever player runs the villains to search for that last blue Foot clan card amidst the pile of cards he doesn’t need before play can begin.

And the manual leaves a number of points unclear.

Shadows of the Past works best if you love slow-burn dungeon crawls that require and reward patience. If you master its rules, though, future expansions promise endless immersion in the Turtles’ world. (IDW sent us a review copy of the game and its first expansion, which allows you to add April O’Neill as a player character.)

Brady Dale is a writer in Brooklyn. He’s a newly converted player to Magic’s Commander format.

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