Harsh Shadows, no harsh words

Posted on 2022-04-02

Harsh Shadows is a solo spy-chase game, where you play as a secret agent searching for a spy, and the evidence needed to pin them down for good.

BGG Link

In Harsh Shadows, you have 3 goals:

To accomplish these goals, you move around a map of 9 cards, whose relative position is randomized each game. If a location has evidence (called a "discovery card"), you can take it. Sometimes the discovery is a bomb, which makes you discard a prior discovery to defuse.

Meanwhile, the spy is moving around each turn as well, leaving a trail of discoveries and the occasional bomb. If the spy lands on your location, you have to discard a discovery you are holding.

Here's the tricky part: at the beginning of the game, you don't know which pieces of evidence are the three you need. To make matters worse, there is a Red Herring - a single piece of evidence that will completely ruin your case; if you have it in hand at the end of the game, you lose regardless of whether you've checked off the required win conditions.

Luckily you're a reasonably good detective. Sometimes you will discover clues the spy leaves behind. You can spend these clues to learn more about the randomized roles of each of the 8 pieces of evidence. And that's where the beauty and elegance of Harsh Shadows' design becomes clear.

You can uncover the 3 needed pieces of evidence and the Red Herring, which costs 7 clues total. Or you can uncover the 4 false leads and the Red Herring and discover the evidence by process of elimination... which costs 7 clues total. Or you can save your clues as ammo for defusing bombs, and only reveal the Red Herring for 3 clues... but then you need to collect all the remaining 7 pieces of evidence to ensure perfect coverage.

It's a very simple system but it leads to several unique strategies that change how you view the game. And the concept of the Red Herring card is a stroke of genius - it flips the bomb/spy encounter discard mechanic on its head, making you WANT to discard a card if you accidentally end up drawing it.

The deck of discoveries provides a perfect timer, and the spy chase at the end of the game feels exciting and dynamic. Once again, a mechanic is turned around - after avoiding the spy for most of the game, suddenly you're trying oh-so-hard to run into them again for one final showdown before they escape for good.

I love this game. It's nice and short but extremely satisfying. My only "complaint" is that, despite its miniscule box, it takes up a decent amount of table space. But it's not like any of that space is wasted, so I really don't mind. Oh, and the art is pretty good too - nothing groundbreaking but it's quite nice to look at.

My last game ended on the final turn, with a 50/50 chance of me winning depending on which one of two cards I chose to draw. That, to me, is the most exciting way a game can possibly end. There's something about Harsh Shadows, mathematically, that just works. I'm not surprised that the number of cards, costs of everything, chances of drawing this card or that, all added up perfectly to a beautiful ending tonight.

By the way, I won. 🎊