18 November 2019
Left in the dark
In a mixture of worker placement, deckbuilding, push-your-luck and dice-rolling, Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops plugs players into the cyberpunk universe of neon lights, futuristic tech and dirty-dealing runners.
Focusing on gameplay, Sprawl Ops leaves the narrative of the Shadowrun universe to its already lore-rich RPG and video game counterparts, although the board game’s rulebooks and cards do contain some lore and light flavour text. The setting primarily serves as inspiration for eye-catching artwork and component design, which the game takes advantage of with a shiny main board and edgy visual design.
But behind the flashy facade, the game feels hollow. It isn’t due to a lack of ideas – there are plenty! – or an inability to string all of its different mechanics together coherently. In fact, the gameplay logic is clear and helps players to settle into its loop almost instantly. Instead it’s because, despite offering so much variety and programming its turns to perfection, Sprawl Ops remains fairly reserved and simple, not daring to push just a little further to make itself more challenging and exciting.
The players compete with each other to be the first to finish a final mission, which can be done at any point during the game. However, before they can attempt to tackle it, players will need to build up their team of runners, equip them with all sorts of weapons and upgrades, and, optionally, complete a few side missions on the way. Runners and upgrade cards all serve one purpose: allow players to acquire dice of different colours, which will then be rolled in an attempt to complete missions. Different factions of characters generate their own types of dice, but both the number of dice and their variety can be increased through upgrades, one-off or permanent.
This means, after a couple of rounds, players will not be lacking for dice. In fact, they will struggle to hold all them in both palms of their hands. Rolling two fistfuls of dice feels really satisfying – several rounds have been spent building up to this moment and here is a small mountain of dice, colourful proof of all that planning and work.
While the physical act of rolling is satisfying, the outcome is often disappointing. This is the first sign of the game playing things overly safe. The dice results are very basic: they have two successes, one fail and other sides are blank. There are a couple of special rules that try to add a bit of strategic flavour to the post-dice-roll resolution, but even they are overly luck-reliant. It feels disheartening that after spending turns building up your team, the outcome is largely out of your control. It seems like the game was primed for different runners to have different dice abilities that could make it more strategic and decision based rather than pure luck. Sadly, that element of control and asymmetry is completely missing.
The runners might look unique and exciting but, apart from their starting dice, they all play the same, with minor exceptions. The Face runners have the special power of getting discounts during purchases, and there is one place on the board that will generate different bonuses depending on which runner visits it, but that’s about it. For some reason, after hitting upon the great idea of making all the runners distinctive to play, it was seemingly left half-baked.
Adding special dice and character abilities would definitely have made the game more complex and less approachable. However, even with that extra layer, the loop of the game – complete side-mission, earn money, get more upgrades – would remain monotonous. There is a spark missing – Sprawl Ops has all the components it needs to make one, but fails to light up.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Designer: Birtolo, Coleman, Derksen, Gofton, Murch
Artist: Benjamin Giletti