This article originally appeared in Pyramid #5
SHAPESHIFTERSPublished by Fat Messiah Games
Designed by Michael Wasson and Neal Sofge
One of the classic powers of all magicians, no matter the myth or story, is the ability to polymorph -- to change forms to any sort of animal, depending on the circumstances. If you need to carry a heavy load, turn into an elephant; for combat, a dragon; for evasion, a rat; for speed, a cheetah. Every fantasy game has a variation on this theme. But it took the folks at Fat Messiah Games to take the concept to its logical conclusion with Shapeshifters, an entire boardgame devoted to a duel between two magicians who both know the secrets of changing form.
Shapeshifters is also a mini-game, a throwback to an era when game companies thought that by providing a neat idea in a small package with short rules at a low price, they'd get people to buy more games. And, of course, some games just won't work as larger format products, because they're too simple or too plain or too whatever; Shapeshifters is one of those. If there were a fancy map board, stand-up plastic pieces, custom dice and a sturdy box, this game could easily cost $25.00 -- and it wouldn't be worth it. At $8.00, however, it's a fine buy.
The action in Shapeshifters takes place on two levels; First, counters representing the dueling wizards move on a simple map with fields, light and heavy forests, a river, a lake and a swamp. Different animals move at different speeds, and the terrain can affect what sorts of animals you can turn into, so the tactical position between the two wizards is an important factor in the game.
But it's not as important as the second game sheet, which keeps track of what form each wizard is in. Laid out like some weird, multi-branching biological table of relativity, it shows all the various animals that can be turned into, all their relevant statistics (movement speed, attack, defense and reflex scores, Magic Point cost and special abilities, if any) and the cost to shift from one form to another. The action on this chart is the meat of the game.
Each wizard has statistics to keep track of, too. It costs Magic Points to change forms, and it also costs points to maintain an existing form (the more dangerous the creature, the greater the cost). Each player gets a "Charge" of magic points each turn to spend, and if he spends fewer than he got in a turn, the excess can be saved in a "battery." This battery has a size limit, too, depending on how powerful the wizard is. This set-up makes for some very interesting tactics; it's common to spend several turns in a low-cost form (like a rat, or a bug), saving up points to spend all at once on a really dangerous form (like a tyrannosaur or a dragon). But transformations can't be too radical -- there's another stat, called Wisdom, that determines how many steps on the chart you can make in one turn. Transforming from an alligator to a tiger, for example, takes five steps on the chart, and is possible for only the most powerful wizards. Alligator to cheetah is six steps, and cannot be done at all. Less-powerful magicians would have to make a major transformation like that over the course of several turns: alligator to lizard to rat to tiger.
The whole idea is to get close to your opponent when your form is more powerful than his, and do him damage; when your opponent has a larger Magic Point reserve and is likely to turn into something dangerous, get away. This makes the initiative phase of each turn crucial. If you've turned into something nasty, like a tyrannosaur, when your opponent has turned into a bird (choices are made in secret and revealed simultaneously), and you win initiative, you're likely to do a great deal of damage. If you lose initiative, however, the bird simply flies away and you've wasted all those magic points . . .
And there's more. If you change into a form that has hands (including fishman, treeman and giant), you can cast a number of spells, some that do damage to your opponent, others that allow you to regain hit points, fly, or even conjure up a magic sword to help you in battle. The game is primarily for two, but there are scenarios (and additional counters) that allow up to four to play. Overall, this is an inventive game that is easy to learn (but by no means easy to master) and takes less than an hour to play. The components are simple (but not too cheap), and at $8.00 the game is a bargain. What more could you ask for?
- Scott Haring
Article publication date: February 1, 1994
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