As a fan of cyberpunk since the early 90s and a D&D player for even longer, the fantasy/sci-fi mashup of tabletop RPG Shadowrun always appealed to me. Though it could sometimes feel as if not enough is done with its fantasy elements – and that it may as well just be straight cyberpunk – it does have an appealingly detailed setting and plenty of intriguing elements.
I’ve written about how much the SNES version of Shadowrun means to me too; it’s one of those universes that I’m always interested in playing around in, no matter the format. Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is, however, the first time I’ve played Shadowrun in board game form.
Sprawl Ops is a satisfyingly chunky game with some absolutely beautiful art (though one area in which the visuals fall down is with the less than impressive box art), which we’ve come to expect from Shadowrun. The neon and chrome colour schemes are brilliantly evocative of old school cyberpunk and it has the same feel as the recently released sixth edition of the TTRPG.
It plays quite like the worker placement of Dungons & Dragons board game Lords of Waterdeep (which I’ve also covered), though of course set in the future sprawl of Seattle, rather than a bustling olde worlde fantasy city.
Each round, players take turns to place their Shadowrunners at a location on the massive, shiny red foil board (which is a lot bigger than it needs to be) and carries out the action that’s allowed at the location they move to. Some locations allow you to purchase gear or body modification upgrades, others allow you to accept dangerous missions or even make your runners available for hire by the other players (at a price of course). The ultimate aim of the game is to be the first player to successfully carry out the final mission (chosen at the outset), which is available to be attempted right from the start if you choose to – though it’ll be at least a few turns until you’re anywhere near powerful enough to give this a go without killing your team off in the process.
Unlike Lords of Waterdeep, mission cards can’t be completed by assigning collected cubes to them; instead, players must tally up all of the dice symbols the characters on the mission have and roll for a certain number and type of success. The random element adds some excitement and danger – but just a few unlucky rolls can turn even the most seemingly achievable mission into a fatal nightmare that is very difficult to recover from.
The final mission can turn into a bewildering volume of dice and success tracking that – even with the large dice pool included – you can quite frequently not have enough dice for, which makes is even more difficult to track and resolve.
That said, the general gameplay is pretty satisfying and it’s absolutely dripping with theme and a nicely narrative feel; though the bucket-of-dice mission resolution can be frustratingly random – particularly when you spend ages building up a powerful, skilled team – Shadowrun has always been known for its excessive use of lots and lots of dice -so it is at least in keeping with what players of the TTRPG are likely to expect.
The components are a weird mix of quality levels; on the one hand, the board, dice, cards and box all feel nicely done – but things like the player boards and mission trackers are extremely thin and flimsy. The rules have a few issues too; it could definitely do with some more examples or clearer explanations of some locations and/or the timing of certain events.
The endgame can become a tedious slog, unfortunately, with attempt after attempt to complete the final mission, one player at a time. However, the theme really is well integrated and Sprawl Ops does feel like a jaunt through a dark, urban fantasy/cyberpunk Seattle. If you’re only a passing fan of the theme – or not a fan at all – however, it’s likely that the flaws will deter you from enjoying Sprawl Ops. However, as a long term fan of Shadowrun, I found Sprawl Ops to be an enjoyable and thematic – if inessential – experience of life on the seedy side of the future.
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