I won’t lie – Shadowrun is one of my favorite franchises and settings ever created. I’ve been playing it since 1989 and enjoyed it through its many incarnations and have loved that cyberpunk urban-fantasy world.
Shadowrun has been translated into numerous other mediums, including novels and video games. Its history with board games hasn’t been as consistent, from the decent deck-builder to the questionable CCG.
When I saw an actual board game, with beautiful mock-ups and multiple possible expansions, I decided to give it a try. That’s how I ended up with Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops, a worker-placement and team-building game of competing crews.
Can you build the best team of shadowrunners, with the best equipment, and be the first to complete the main job? Cast your spells, jack into the Matrix, and get your rig ready – it’s time for the big paydata, chummers.
Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is, at its core, about worker placement, in the Place Runners Phase. You start with a team of beginning characters (one Face, one Decker, and one Street Samurai), and each round you choose where you want to send them.
Locations on the map are essential as each does something unique and may require specific types of characters. Faces are great at getting deals, from purchasing Gear, hiring new Shadowrunners (including Mages and Riggers), or even getting a small advantage on a Mission.
Other locations allow you to do minor jobs for money, hire your characters out for some cash (which other players can purchase), get some new Upgrades (like training or implants), or even get some perks for your next job.
The key to the locations is that many have limits to how many people can visit them or what’s available. The early bird gets the worm, from the first pick of that turn’s Gear or Shadowrunners to being one of the cyber doc’s few clients or the fence’s only customer.
Another concern about locations is that they may tie up your team, stopping them from joining up on Missions. If they’re hired out or working side jobs, they can’t contribute to any tasks you may have lined up that round.
This placement phase is possibly the most strategic as you must think about what you want (if anything) and where to go. Wait too long, and someone else might take something or even the spot; jump at an opportunity, and you might not have what you need for later that round.
The second part of Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is the Missions, from the big goal everyone is aiming for to the many side jobs you need to complete to gain the Nuyen (to buy things) and Loot you’ll need later. The game changes from worker placement to a solitaire experience during the two Missions steps, rolling your team’s dice to try and reach goals.
Each Mission has two or more Phases with a goal to reach; the dice rolled have faces that must match the quantity and type of each icon. For example, a mission with two gun icons and two datajack icons requires you to roll that on your team’s dice pool.
Dice are color and icon-specific: black dice for Street Samurai (guns), green dice for Deckers (datajacks), blue dice for Mages (lightning), purple dice for Deckers (rigs), and red dice for Faces (masks). Each six-sided die has two faces with the career icon (guns, datajacks, lightning, rigs, and masks) and a single face with an Injury icon (a jester).
When you create your team’s dice pool, you add together all the colored dice of the runners on the Mission, whether they match the job’s goals or not. You then roll the dice and try to reach the goal; you can roll up to three times per Phase, and you can accumulate the icons over those three attempts.
Finish a Phase, and you move to the next one; finish all Phases, and the Mission is complete, and you earn your Nuyen. Unfortunately, you can fail a Mission, either by never reaching the goals for a Phase (across all three rolls) or your team being injured (or even killed).
Part of the danger of going on Missions is the chance of rolling far more Injuries than you roll Icons. You can cancel out an Injury with an Icon (of any type), but any remaining jester faces cause you to put an Injury marker on a teammate.
The worst part is that an Injured teammate removes their contributing dice from the pool, leaving you with less chance to complete the Phases and Mission. Not only might you fail, but you might gain more Injuries, which can further knock your team out.
Injuries must be spread out between all members of a team, knocking each one out of the dice pool first before you can put one on another character. If more Injuries are rolled, characters might end up with two assigned to them, which means they will be killed (and discarded) without intervention.
One way to help is to allocate teammates during the placement phase to the Docwagon location and gather tokens. These Docwagon tokens can be placed on characters with two Injury tokens to prevent their death; alternatively, more than one can be saved until the end of the Mission to help a character recover instantly (rather than wait a round).
Another way to prevent injuries is with certain Upgrades or Loot cards. Either way, a dead runner is discarded, along with any Upgrades, although their Gear can be saved for later or given to whoever is still alive on the team.
The main goal of the game is to do regular Missions to earn Nuyen (and occasionally Loot), hire the best Shadowrunners onto your team, purchase the best Gear and Upgrades, and prepare yourself for the big job.
The Final Mission Phase occurs after placement, but before the regular Mission phase, so players must decide if they’re going for it or sticking to smaller jobs to keep building up their group. It also requires the team to allocate at least one person to attempt it; if multiple players try the Final Mission, then whoever assigned someone first gets the first crack.
The Final Missions works just like regular Missions but is much more difficult, with each Phase having high goals to reach. Failure works as usual, either washing out or becoming to Injured (or dead) to continue.
If someone finishes the Final Mission, they win, receiving enough paydata and fame to retire or become the premiere shadowrunning team in the city. If nobody wins, then the round continues as usual, often with those who failed having to nurse their injuries (or replace their dead), in the hopes of aiming for the job once more.
Overall, Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is a fun game with some great strategy during the placement phase. I was shocked by how vicious we could be, trying to get things first, blocking each other from specific locations, and sometimes risking it all to be the first to complete the Final Mission.
Unfortunately, it has several flaws, mostly involving the dice and the Mission phase.
The Missions are often repetitive after a while, especially since they’re mostly solitaire experiences, with no interaction from the rest of the players. They blur into repetitive dice rolling, sometimes with huge pools reminiscent of the original RPG, and require significant space to roll and tally up the results.
(Let’s not even get into the footprint of this game, which is huge.)
Also, the die faces, with 1/3 positive and 1/6 negative, leave success less to strategy and more to randomness. If you bring bigger die pools, you have a better chance of getting what you need, but you also have a higher probability of Injuries.
This strange mix of strategy followed by RNG (random number generation) often leads to unexpected failures that cause the game to draw out far longer than the 60-90 minutes they state. We’ve had games run 2+ hours, with a lot of it thanks to teams that had to keep recovering from failed missions, despite massive dice pools and preventative measures against Injuries.
Another problem surrounding the dice is those massive pools often use up so many of the included dice that players can’t simultaneously complete their missions. The game does have an Automatic Success rule, but Injuries still occurred as some dice are rolled.
Another major complaint involves the rulebook and components themselves, which may or may not change for the final retail version.
We’ve talked about formatting and fonts before, including at our 2019 AwesomeCon panel, and this game is a perfect example. The rulebook is written in a horrific font and layout that makes the text hard to read and the rules difficult to follow.
The rulebook reads more like a fanzine printed in the ’80s or ’90s than a professional product, and it’s no wonder players made a lot of mistakes. Also, a Contents list should be precise on how much of what tokens you have, rather than write them as “tokens for… & more.”
Speaking of tokens, without the precise manifest and explanation, some of them weren’t clear; for example, in-game money is counted in thousands (listed with the Nuyen symbol and “k”), but the money tokens only say “1” or “5”. The Kickstarter exclusive box, which also included expansions, didn’t help by containing additional materials but no manifest list explaining the use for these tokens and cards.
The positive side is the quality of the boards and artwork and the sheer amount of expansions and variations of the game (all of which we received as a single shipment).
Each of the boards we received is full color, with a shimmering metallic laminate that adds to the feel of the cyberpunk genre. The artwork on the cards is also gorgeous and feels like you’re playing something related to the original game.
Shadowrun: Special Ops has several new boards and modes, and the former can be played without the latter. The base game comes with Seattle, but you can also play in Tokyo, Berlin, and Toronto.
Tokyo makes for a more PvP experience, where you can interfere with (or even harm) the other team, while Berlin has increased difficulty for earning money and completing missions. Toronto is designed for the co-op expansion, allowing players to work together in the final Mission.
Speaking of expansions, there’s the (obviously) cooperative one, one that grows the game to 5-6 competing teams, and several small options that can add a new location to the board or even put a Dragon into the mix.
Despite the criticisms about the Missions aspect and rules/component design, one thing this game isn’t lacking is in variation and replayability. When the retail version hits the shelves, hopefully, these expansions are cheap, because each of them is worth the purchase.
Am I satisfied with Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops and its addition to the legacy of the franchise? Overall, yes – I believe this game satisfies on several levels and continues the joy (and feel) of the setting.
Hopefully, with more plays, not to mention variations, the Mission rules don’t become as frustrating, as the worker placement aspect is fun. I also wish they’d spent a little more time making sure the rulebook was written and designed better, as well as making clear what the components are (and how many you have).
Looking past these problems, this game is a solid worker-placement and team-building game that has a lot of potential.
Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is currently available for pre-order at some distributors. 2-4 players, 60-90 minutes, Ages 13+.
I give Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops a chill 3.5 Mr. Johnsons out of 5.
(We’d like to thank Gamers-Corps in Ellicott City for providing us the space to playtest and demo this game!)