Classic Games: The Shadowrun Trading Card Game

February 21st, 2012 by Billy Gibbs

You’ve probably heard of Shadowrun, the cyberpunk/fantasy RPG created by the now defunct FASA Corporation. What you may not know is that in 1997 FASA also made a Shadowrun Trading Card Game. It didn’t take long to track down a sizable quantity of cards and start hacking, rigging, gunning and ‘running.

The first thing that pops out is the art. Some cards shoot for a more noir look, especially those flavored as detectives. Others are bathed in art that would make an 80s metal band stereotype proud. A few could double as covers for Heavy Metal, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. On the whole the art is great, evocative of the setting, and walking on that fine line of balance between genres that Shadowrun has always walked. This is a good thing, because you’ll be seeing the same art too often if you buy the sealed packs.

Gameplay centers on making runs on objectives, much as in the RPG. Players assemble teams of runners to either sneak or fight their way past challenges played by their opponents. The sneaking mechanic is pretty interesting, most runners have skills outside of combat, and sneaking past challenges is controlled by the skills that the team has. For example, you can sneak past alarm systems with an electronics specialist. Failing to sneak past a challenge renders all other challenges on the objective unsneakable, forcing the team to accept the bad stuff, often combat. Combat handles almost identically to Magic with two big changes. The first is that damage doesn’t “fall off” at the end of the turn. This makes the game more lethal and healing valuable. The second is Armor. Runners with armor ratings ignore their armor’s worth of damage from each attack. Very nice for keeping your runners alive.

The game’s resource system is a pool of Nuyen to which you can add four to every turn. Nuyen doesn’t disappear between rounds, so you can save up, and there are also ways to improve your cash-flow. An important lesson I learned is that if you take too many cards that cost more than four, you’ll only be able to play cards every other turn. I did notice that the designers took this into account, so you will get what you pay for with expensive cards, but it’s still a smart idea to have some cheap runners who will work for peanuts.

Overall I love the game and how it plays. I’ve been told that it plays much better with three to four players than one-on-one, so I’m looking forward to that once I build a third deck. That brings us to the game-killing flaw.

There are two main flaws I see in this game, and only one of this with the game itself. The first and most game relevant is that there are too many card types. There are Locations, Objectives, Challenges, Contacts, Gear, Drones, Spirits, Spells, Cyberware, Cyberdecks, Programs, and, of course, the various categories of Runners. This makes deck-building a headache for the novice player. The starter packs are simply seventy-five random cards, and of the two I bought, one didn’t provide enough objective cards to play the game. That last bit is the second issue, but I’d like to talk about the deck-building issues first. It’s terribly difficult to build decks with any semblance of balance.

Here’s an example: the primary advantage of mages is that they can cast spells. That’s not that bad on its own, but spells are useless if you don’t have a mage in play, just like drones are without riggers, programs without deckers, and skillsofts without runners with the Chipjack cyberware card. All those extra cards provide utility for runner types that often have nothing else going for them than their ability to take that type of gear. The last one is particularly bad because it’s a card that has to be played on a card already played on a card. That’s a pretty difficult requirement for the minor utility they provide. Deckers are notoriously terrible at combat, but require so many cards to support them it’s often difficult to fit combat capable types in around it, not to mention mages and other specialties that may be required for challenges. Without outside help it would have taken me forever to figure out a decent guideline for deck design. That’s a high entry threshold for early adopters, especially for something before widespread internet.

To make the learning curve even worse, the pack distributions are horrendous. Really, really, bad randomization. Terrible. You know how the first edition of Magic tried to hide the rarities by not indicating them on the cards, and then printing an Island at rare? I don’t know if these guys went so far as to put an island at rare, but I think that they were trying to hide the rarities by alternating the rarities inside the pack. I only know this because it is very easy to see the pattern when you open packs to find four commons, four uncommons, three of the same commons, another common, and then a few cards that may be rare/uncommon. The important bit there is that in my 36 packs, I’ve had at least ten packs with doubles in the same pack. That’s just after I noticed what was going on. I could predict from the first card in the pack what the next three cards would be because they were always in that order. Every time, without fail. I never got to be able to predict the uncommons simply because they were more distributed in the pack, and I got less of them than the commons, naturally.

To give an example of how this is an issue, there are at least four kinds of Skillsoft card, and I believe them to be commons. There are two types of Chipjack, one common, one uncommon. This means that even with a less crazy distribution you’re very likely to have Skillsofts you can’t use because you lack a Chipjack. As it stands it meant I was halfway through the box before I got one, and just now opened a pack with two. I mentioned earlier that one of the starter packs didn’t contain enough Objectives to play. That would be really bad for a beginner because Objectives are only printed at rare, making it really hard to turn your spare pile of cards into a deck. That’s an issue, because you’ll need a gigantic cardpool to make a decent deck. I’m not talking Pro Tour Magic player good, I’m talking functional. The distribution is so bad it likely killed the game without any help from the competition or the card type over-population.

My ruling on it is that if you can get a box and some starters off ebay for cheap like I did, do it. If you can get some decks built by someone who used to play, do it, if you see a starter or two on the dead game shelf at your local game shop, know you’ll have to invest in more cards to play. If it’s 1997 and you’re somehow reading this, don’t buy unless you have lots of friends to trade with and don’t mind only having one deck apiece out of your combined collections. I’d also like to say that y2k wasn’t that bad, and not to invest in Enron. Special thanks to Silva at Dumpshock.com for giving me a crash course on deck design.

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2 Responses to “Classic Games: The Shadowrun Trading Card Game”

  1. Comment by Michael Bolis

    This is cool. Not American Idol CCG cool, but cool.

  2. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    I now feel the need to play an American Idol CCG. If there isn’t one, I will make it.

    On second thought, I won’t make it. That woud require me to watch it.