Shamans is a hidden-role trick-taking game that plays out like someone combined The Crew, a cooperative trick-taking game, with Deception, a hidden-role game where you’re trying to identify which player is the killer. Played over a series of rounds, its rules aren’t intuitive the first time around, but once everyone understands their quirks, it plays very quickly, and the combination of cooperative and competitive elements makes it worth a try, especially if you wanted a game like the award-winning The Crew but with more interaction.
Designed by Cédrick Chaboussit, whose previous titles include the heavy Euro game Lewis & Clark and its lighter spinoff Discoveries (which I like quite a bit), Shamans has a deck of cards in five to seven suits, depending on player count, with up to eight cards per suit. It’s a trick-taking game, like bridge or hearts, which means that players will each play a card to the table, with the first player setting the suit for that trick with whatever card they choose to play. In Shamans, however, you don’t have to follow suit—playing the same suit as the first player—if you’re able to, which differs from most trick-taking games.
There’s a central board in Shamans with a track that ends at a moon on one side and has a peg that starts around the midpoint of the track, with the location varying slightly by player count. Players start out each round with secret roles, either Shamans (white cards) or Shadows (black), with at least one Shadow player and no more than two. Shadow players must either push the peg all the way to the moon end, or eliminate all Shamans from the game. Shamans are trying to eliminate all Shadow players, or simply keep the peg from reaching the moon end until the round ends (when no active players have cards remaining).
Choosing whether to follow suit is a strategic decision in Shamans, because it can reveal your role when you may not want to do so, or end up hurting your side. If you don’t follow suit, you move the peg one space towards the Moon, and then place your card next to the location on the edge of the board matching its suit. If you do follow suit, your card stays in front of you until everyone has played. At that point, the player who placed the lowest card gets a free Artifact tile, either one of the two face-up tiles or the top one from the stack. These can give you the right to move the peg one space in either direction; grant you two bonus points in the round if you get a pair of matching tokens and survive to the end; or eliminate another player if you get to perform a Neutralization ritual.
The player who played the high card in the round takes all matching cards played and places them next to that suit’s location on the edge of the board. If all cards of that suit have now been played—cards one through six for a three to four player game, and cards one to eight for a five player game—the player then performs that site’s action, called a ritual. If it shows a dagger, and the player has a dagger tile, they pick one other player to eliminate in a Neutralization ritual. Four of the seven suit locations show a dagger, one gives the player a free point, one lets the player swap roles with any other player, and one lets them move the peg two spaces away from the moon.
When a round ends, if the Shamans win, each surviving player gets two points, and if the Shadows win, each surviving player gets three points. Players with two or three Moon Shard artifact tokens get two points each. If any player has eight or more points, they win the game. If there’s a tie, you continue playing until one player has the most points.
The rulebook isn’t that well written or edited, and I’ve played this twice now and made mistakes every time—some key points are just buried within the text, probably in service of keeping the rulebook from being longer. That said, once you get going, the game moves very quickly, and things get tense as the peg inches towards the Moon, which is inevitable since players can’t always follow suit. The Shamans will probably figure out who the Shadows are, but then have to get the token and complete a suit to eliminate those players—but you can’t complete a suit if a Shaman still holding any of those cards is eliminated. And when a Shaman is eliminated, it pushes the peg further towards the moon.
There’s a strong game in here if you can parse the rules better than I did, especially for three or four players. I haven’t played with five, but there’s some lively debate online over whether the game is balanced enough to work with five players, with the Shadows perhaps having too much of an advantage—although since the roles change every round, that doesn’t mean it will favor any particular player, and the Shamans have other ways to gain points even in rounds when they lose. It’s suitable for kids as young as eight if they can grasp the concept of suits in card games, with no text involved in game play, and game times running under an hour. If you like trick-taking games and enjoy player-elimination games like Coup, Shamans is worth checking out.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.