Minis at war—but not a tape measure in sight.

Here’s the setup: the mirror city of Shadespire has been sealed off by the enraged Nagash, Lord of Undeath. Trapped within the walls of the labyrinthine ruins are bands of warriors representing several iconic factions from the Warhammer “Age of Sigmar” universe. These gangs clash, seeking glory and the death of their foes.

Not that the story really matters; war is eternal and motivations are irrelevant. What does matter is that this game is something fierce.

Shadespire is a fast-paced and brutal design of head to head arena combat that leverages its setting to great effect, allowing for a range of asymmetrical factions and colorful abilities. The boxed game features wild Khorne-worshiping Bloodreavers battering against a smaller force of heavily armored Stormcast Eternals. One faction relies on speed and brutal aggression, the other on steeled nerves and unit cohesion.

As a physical product, the game is surprisingly sharp. It has the expected fantastic miniatures (which remain best in class), but it tosses out the glue and relies on new push-fit technology for assembly. The boards are also smooth and gorgeous, featuring hexes for rapid movement rather than a measuring tape, which makes the game feel slick and modern.

Shadespire’s magic is the ability to expertly straddle the line between “tight” and “chaotic.” This is a brisk 25-minute affair where players alternate performing actions over three rounds. Each round is full of tension, since you’re allotted only four actions to move warriors across the board and crush your enemies. There’s just enough agency and control to feel open, yet enough limits that every exploit cost you another opportunity; you can’t possibly accomplish everything you desire.

You may move each of your miniatures only once per round, which contributes to that sense of tight restriction. That movement may be turned into a charge with a follow-up attack, but then that warrior is done shedding blood for the round and can’t be activated again. Pairing basic move with subsequent attack actions to repeatedly wail on adjacent heathens is ideal, but it’s difficult to corral characters into position, as they can move away or push you back with their own blows.

Shadespire digs its barbed hooks into your flesh through its immersive customization; your mind will stay abuzz with possibilities long after a match, as you can customize the two key decks utilized by your faction.

First up is the objective deck, the lifeblood of the design. These cards cycle through your hand, providing dynamic goals beyond slaughtering your foes. These shifting priorities force you to adapt your strategy on the fly. You’ll have goals such as controlling objective spaces on the board, killing the enemy leader, or performing a charge action with several of your figures in a single round. Accomplishing these targets allows you to amass glory.

You can spend that hard-earned glory as you upgrade your troops with cards from your second deck—the action deck. Warriors will grow in strength and savagery during the game; the resulting arc of character improvement in such a short playtime is remarkable. Other cards don’t offer lasting upgrades but instead provide momentary buffs, such as increasing movement or inflicting additional damage. Many align thematically with specific factions.

This asymmetry does not end at unique decks or unit capabilities. Each character has a thematically appropriate triggering condition which acts as an achievement of sorts. When accomplished, you flip the figure’s profile card over and they’re now “inspired,” yielding additional abilities and enhanced stats. The Stormcast grow in prowess when they roll specific symbols on their defense dice. The Bloodreavers become enraged as an entire group once three figures have been eliminated—regardless of whose side they are on. This mechanism is absolutely beautiful in how it elicits thematic play while boosting strategic considerations.

For all its strategy and thoughtfulness, this is definitely a dramatic game that embraces chance. It’s not afraid of relying on pools of dice and random card draws. There’s a large degree of chaos and you will have games where a player lucks into an objective late in the contest that perfectly fits the game state. Fortunately, it’s easy to shake off a loss when the entire affair feels shorter than a Taylor Swift tune.

Shadespire aims to appeal to both casual and competitive players. The commitment you display to tweaking your decks is entirely up to the player. You can iterate like a caffeinated software developer or take it easy and roll with the pre-built options. The game responds and meets you half-way regardless, as that essential core loop of splitting skulls and accomplishing objectives to play upgrades remains intact.

The variability is cranked with the expansion factions rolling out alongside the boxed game. The greenskins make an appearance with Ironskull’s Boyz. These tough Orruks (Age of Sigmar’s fancy term for Orks) boast well-rounded stats, allowing you to build with a focus on offense or defense. They have a host of exciting new upgrades and their flexibility and effectiveness is easily realized.

The Sepulchral Guard is the largest faction in terms of sheer numbers. These seven skeletons prove difficult to wield effectively due to their absolutely unique play-style. Their leader—who we affectionately refer to as David S. Pumpkins—can resurrect his fallen bone brethren as well as command multiple allies to move with a single action.

Purchasing the Sepulchral Guard or Ironskull’s Boyz enhances the pool of cards available for both your Stormcast and Bloodreavers. This is exciting in that the game will continually evolve and produce new strategic options, but it also means a completionist buyer might as well set up a direct deposit option at the local Games Workshop store. That being said, support is support and I’ll take it over an abandoned line any day.

The future looks bright for this clever and dynamic tabletop game. The blend of mechanisms may appear disjointed or too heavily layered, but in practice it all works incredibly well. With such an evocative presence, Shadespire takes its place as one of the better miniatures combat games—and I’m not just saying that because the Taker of Skulls is breathing down my neck, threatening to guzzle my blood.

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