Steffanie isn’t fond of Mafia (as the title might suggest; also called Werewolf); the atmosphere the game tends to create is aggressive, unfriendly, and untrusting, at least in her opinion. So comparing a game to Mafia wasn’t a selling point for her, but when we tried out this game, we both found we liked it immensely.
Shadow Hunters has Mafia-like elements, but has many advantages over those kinds of games. For one, it runs from five to eight players (in our opinion, it’s best at seven), meaning you don’t have to gather a huge group. For another, it’s not a large group against a minority; there are two equally balanced sides, with the rest of the players filling out a Neutral faction.
Each player is assigned a secret Role card, which gives them a specific character that is part of one of three factions. The two opposing sides are the Shadows and the Hunters, hence the name. The Hunters win by eliminating the Shadows. The Shadows win by eliminating the Hunters (or, in the seven player game, either both Hunters or all three Neutrals). Each Neutral player has their own victory condition; some are “just survive” passive, while others are actively aggressive. Players’ roles are hidden from each other at all times, so even the teams don’t know who their allies are without extra information—it’s not uncommon for two people to spend a few rounds beating each other up, only to then learn that they were on the same side the whole time. Each character also has a special power that can only be used when their identity is revealed. Thanks to the game balance, becoming a known factor isn’t Game Over, and in fact might just be the beginning. Play continues until someone has achieved victory, which often requires some good time spent damaging one another.
Barring a dramatic reveal, information about each other’s identities is gained through one of the three decks of cards, the green Hermit cards. Each card has a statement on it, for example, “I bet you’re a Shadow. If you are, take 1 damage.” This card will be handed face-down, in secret to another player, who will respond with action, not with word. For the above example, they would move their damage counter up by one if they were a Shadow, and say “Nothing happens” if they were not. Either way, the card is discarded, also face-down. The first player then knows something about the second player…but there are quite a lot of players, and you don’t get Hermit cards every turn.It takes some time to deduce who everyone is, and in the meantime you have to decide on whether or not you want to act on whatever incomplete information you have.
Some people compare Shadow Hunters to the venerable “BANG!”, and while they do seem to share some of their DNA, having played both we rather favor Shadow Hunters. So, how are they similar? Well, in both games the ‘sides’ are typically more even in number than they are in Mafia. Both games feature some degree of randomness rather than being ‘pure’ deduction — very spotty draws in BANG! and some draws and some dice rolling in Shadow Hunters. But Shadow Hunters adds some significant meat to the bones in the form of the White and Black item cards — rather than everything being one of a few basic card types and drawn from a single communal deck, Shadow Hunters utilizes two decks (three, if you count the Hermit cards) that roughly segregate the many, many unique cards that you can come across. While deduction games naturally have a high replay value, Shadow Hunters extends its life further with the fact that you are highly unlikely to see all the White (Defensive and/or Hunter-favoring) and/or Black (Offensive and/or Shadow-favoring) cards in one, or even a few playthroughs, and they’re very distinct and impactful cards.
Another improvement, at least in our opinion, is the combat system. Both games feature Range and Damage mechanics (as opposed to Mafia’s “you’re out” mechanic), but while BANG! features range determined by the order in which players sit at the table and a very punishing damage system, Shadow Hunters uses a game board to determine range (with the exact conditions of the board potentially changing each time you play) and a more D&D-esque “the only hit point that matters is the last” sort of life system… combined with variable and hidden values for the amount of damage you can take. Lastly, while damage is fairly bounded (on a bell curve; technically 0-5 but hits of more than 2 are very rare) the fact that it is a random single roll makes, while perhaps not a better experience on its lonesome than BANG!’s cardplay and counter-cardplay, at least a more fulfilling game of cat and mouse where you feel like you can do something any given turn. BANG!’s fighting is more like Lunch Money (a game we’ll talk about later) where if you’re stuck with a bad hand you will often want to spend a lot of time attempting to sculpt it while being beaten (or gunned) to death by your rivals. In Shadow Hunters, you are never deliberately encouraged to waste a turn: even a late game trip to the Hermit’s Cabin, when everyone is revealed, can do something valuable by putting you in (or out) of another player’s range or the ‘telling’ effect of a Hermit card.
Which brings us to the biggest difference between Shadow Hunters and most Social Deduction games… the deduction. It doesn’t seem like much, but the ability to assemble clues (as well as the continued ability to attempt to divine the tells of your friends from their gameplay or mannerisms) gives Shadow Hunters a new dimension, one of using logic and evidence to narrow down not just the possible alignment but potentially the exact role of your rival, rewarding diligent investigation even if someone has a really great poker face.
One of the big advantages this has over not just BANG! but most other Hidden Role games is the balanced sides and steady accumulation of evidence we mentioned earlier. There aren’t accusations of someone “acting like a traitor” or the table’s behavior devolving into witch hunts. It’s more purely deductive and ends in less bitterness around the table. In addition, the special powers that each character has give the game a fun edge, and the fact that the available characters are randomized means every game is different even with the same group. Further, the individual roles make the endgame, where people basically know who is on what side, a fulfilling light tactical brawler on its own. Indeed, in a genre of games where keeping yourself secret is typically paramount, It’s nice to be able to decide, fully strategically, to stomp out into the open in favor of having the power, but no secrecy. This brings Shadow Hunters to a unique and fulfilling conclusion where players are legitimately ‘in’ until they drop dead. And as far as the player elimination aspect goes… the game seldom goes too long once the bodies start hitting the floor. If you like the thought of crossing Clue with Mafia to make a game better than either, then this is the game for you.