I adore Hanamikoji, and its designers have released another excellent 2 player game with a tied in theme / aesthetic.
Like Hanamikoji, Shadows in Kyoto has a classic Japanese theme to it, but this time players take on opposite sides of the Meiji Government and Oniwaban in a battle to uncover the other side’s spies and capture key intelligence without being misled.
Each player controls six pieces with values ranging from 0 to 3. There are Stratego-like elements of piece values being hidden from the opposing player and the “weakest” piece being able to capture the opponent’s best when attacking. From there on though Shadows in Kyoto is entirely its own game.
The core of the game revolves around the concept of “key intelligence.” Two of each players’ pieces are marked as carrying their key intelligence. Thematically this means they have “real” information the enemy wants and the rest of the pieces are carrying “fake” information to confuse them.
A player wins if either of their two agents carrying real intelligence reach the opponent’s back row, or if they capture both their opponent’s such agents. However if a player captures too many (three) of their opponent’s agents with fake intelligence they LOSE.
There are also clever card based mechanics related to moving player pieces. Basic colored cards relate to spaces on the board and can move any friendly piece forward (straight or diagonally) into a space of that color. Limited tactics cards add options like moving/attacking sideways or backwards, swapping pieces, or forcing an opposing piece back. The two types of cards are drawn from separate decks giving players interesting hand management options.
Finally, the base game can be modified by the addition of included asymmetric character and equipment cards with special abilities that increase variability and strategic choices.
First off, there’s nothing tying Shadows in Kyoto to Hanamikoji beyond the art style and setting. But that’s fine, as both games shine as their own unique creations and the common aesthetic is a nice enough touch.
I’ve always enjoyed the hidden information aspect of Stratego, and this pulls the best elements of it and improves them several fold with the concept of real and fake information and multiple victory conditions. The added dimension of often needing to attack yet having to be careful about capturing too many of the “wrong” pieces gives a fantastic extra layer of strategy and a strong “cat and mouse” feel to the game.
The asymmetric elements seem well varied and balanced, and again add an intriguing extra layer to the solid basic gameplay that extends replayability. There are some nice thematic ties running through the powers available to each side as well, particularly given the Oniwaban player always goes first.
The imaginative new take Shadows in Kyoto brings to classic gameplay elements and the depth arising from the hand management and asymmetric power aspects combine to something really fun and engaging. I loved this accessible, intriguing game immediately.