How It Plays
In Shapeshifters, each player is a wizard who can transform into the different creatures of the animal kingdom (and a few plants). The key to the game is the transformation chart. This 11" x 17" display shows all of the available animal forms arranged along an interconnected tree. Connections between the forms represent the pathways you must follow when transforming into a new creature.
For example, in the detail shown at right, the "Man" form connects in one direction to "Rat," and in another to "Ogre." Further paths lead from rat to bat, and from ogre to bison (and then in turn from bison to rhino). Other pathways branch to other creatures.
This "Tree of Life" encapsulates the game's entire transformation system. First, it shows how many points you must spend to transform from one creature to another. Then, once you have become a new creature, the transform chart lists the abilities you have when you assume that creature's form. For example, the rat has low attack and defense, but high reflexes. It can move on the ground or swim in the water, and is particularly good at hiding.
The transform chart includes 54 different animals, ranging from the mundane (fish, lizard), to the monstrous (giant spider, triceratops), to the mythological (hydra, griffin).
Play proceeds as follows:
At the start of the turn, everyone gets a certain number of spell points. Some players may also have spell points saved from previous turns. These are the points you spend to transform into a new creature.
Next, players decide whether they are keeping the same form they had last turn, or transforming into a new creature -- and if so, which one. Players keep their decisions secret until everyone has made up his or her mind, and then all players reveal at the same time.
The core of the game's strategy occurs during this phase. You don't know what another player will transform into, but you know how many spell points they have and what creature they were last turn. The transformation chart limits the possible "routes" you can take between forms. (For example, lizard is closer to serpent than it is to T. Rex.) This allows you to make an educated guess as to your opponent's next move and possibly outsmart him by pulling off a surprising transformation.
Of course, you may be on the receiving end of the surprise...
Move and Attack
The actual movement and combat take place on a map (see inset below). After everyone has transformed, players roll for initiative. A creature's reflexes contribute to the initiative roll. For example, the rat or the tiger will tend to get the jump on the slower ogre or the even more ponderous brontosaur. Players move and attack in order of initiative.
Movement can occur in several distinct modes: along the ground, through the air, swimming over the surface of the water, or diving under the water. An advantage to flying creatures is that against earth-bound creatures they can choose whether to attack or remain in the air, safely out of reach. Diving creatures have a similar advantage against creatures that cannot go under water.
Combat is resolved on a simple chart, by comparing attack strength against defense strength and rolling a die. There are rules for hiding to avoid being attacked, and for pouncing on hidden creatures. Several creatures have special abilities, such as the dragon's fire breath and the serpent's poison.
Fast & Furious
Shapeshifters was designed for fast play. If you make a boneheaded transformation and your opponent gets the edge on you, on the following turn you can hope to turn things around to your advantage. The transformation chart is rich enough to provide real strategy, but the game doesn't bog down in minutiae. Games generally take from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the scenario and the number of players. (The game comes with 6 scenarios, and we've put several more on this site. And it's fairly easy to devise new scenarios of your own.)
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