Shadows of Brimstone is a beast, more of an adventure system than a boxed game at this point. A behemoth that quickly swallows up any reasonably sized table. Invites you to accompany your band of heroes on a terrifying adventure through time and space in order to save the land from the evil corrupting influence of dark stone and the mutated monsters it has created.
Forbidden Fortress is the starter set for the feudal Japanese setting and is fully self-contained yet also fully compatible with the wider Shadows of Brimstone range.
Forbidden Fortress Is a dungeon crawler at heart. You select one of four playable classes (Samurai, Monk, Ninja and Sorcerer.) Then play through a variety of scenarios that reward your gold and experience that level up and enhance your characters.
You fight enemies, engage in skill test-based events and scavenge items as you explore a procedural castle. On the way, you might find portals to ‘other worlds’ that allow you to transport to a realm inside of a giant beast. You continue to explore albeit now through gastral passageways and fighting half-digested zombies inside of a cavernous stomach.
Each turn you attempt to hold back the darkness which acts as a game timer then move, scavenge and explore tiles until hitting a combat encounter which you must overcome before proceeding.
Each character feels unique to play and this is a big improvement from the previous Wild West iteration where player choice felt very limited when you were actually in the dungeon/castle. The samurai has a deck of tactic cards that he can spend his accumulated fury on giving him powerful moves that require some thought into positioning.
The monk can heal as well as unleash powerful martial arts moves. The ninja starts with stealth mechanics and acts as a glass cannon while the sorcerer has access to four unique decks of spells that provide a wealth of strategic options (provided they can pay the cost in corruption).
After each dungeon run the heroes return to the town where they can level up and purchase more gear. This ranges from bandage tokens and supplies to more powerful weaponry or even gambling their newfound wealth away at the local sake den.
The character classes are chosen also having unique options while in town. All of this, both the dungeon and post dungeon phase all littered with charts and tables that provide random events throughout.
There is also balancing built into the game where enemies will gain ‘elite’ abilities depending on the party level. Having too many powerful items on-hand may cause the heroes to gain too much corruption which then triggers mutations.
This could cripple or in rarer cases enhance their character such as growing a prehensile tail which then acts as another hand. Meaning all of a sudden you can have a samurai with three swords all at the same time!
Tests and combat are all done with handfuls of dice compared to values on large printed cards showing defence, to-hit and armour as well as special rules that take precedence over specific instances.
The board itself sprawls out and over most tables as new tiles are added when the heroes reach the edge of each existing one. A depth tracker then also adds a level of pressure as it acts as a timer on each game that ticks down as the party goes further and deeper into the castle.
There is a lot of game here. The core set has hundreds of cards, enemy sheets, town sheets, hero cards, items, spells, artifacts, exploration cards and many more.
It is a game that requires a lot of logistics to get on the table in a manner that works and as previously mentioned often overflows. The castle itself has nice double-sided jigsaw locking pieces that fit together and make a firm board, the artwork is of high quality and the cards almost all feature illustrations which all add to the atmosphere of the game.
A slight criticism would be to the conflicting art style between the character sheets and the enemy artwork but honestly, this is a minor concern. Along with all the cardboard, you also receive a goodly number of dice and of all things a cd which includes thematic music.
You also receive several sprues of monsters and heroes which do require assembly. Personally, I did not have an issue with unassembled minis but fair warning they can be a bit fiddly to assemble. This all adds up to an impressive amount of content which seems justified given the high price point.
Replayability And Impressions
Shadows of Brimstone is by itself a very large game that despite all its components is not overly complicated. It has a vast amount of depth without complexity, but this is a double-edged sword. The game is punishing at level one and a breeze at level 8.
There is a sweet spot between the two where the difficulty feels just right and that is where the game shines. It has a lot of content and replayability to offer, each hero feels unique and can be built in a multitude of ways so that two players may not have the same experience with the same class.
A samurai could be built as a heavy hitter or as a defensive tank and there are so many choices to make that you can almost never replicate the same adventure twice.
It also has the advantage of being modular. There are many expansions of Shadows of Brimstone and they are all compatible with each other. Once you have a core set you can build on it in any way you desire. Do you prefer fighting the undead, then you can buy enemy sets that only add undead and a new otherworld expansion that caters to that.
Or you can buy a variety and enjoy the absolute chaos as your ninja faces down a zombie outlaw posse on the wreck of a derelict spaceship hurtling through space. It is a game that relishes in its own ability to produce memorable situations that you talk about with your game group for years to come and leaves you hungry to play the next session in a way more similar to an RPG session. But it does certainly have its drawbacks.
There are many downsides to Forbidden Fortress. The game is punishing to the point where you are almost guaranteed to lose your first game without any choice in the matter. The enemies are tough, and an unlucky dice roll could one-shot your character quite easily.
The randomness can also threaten to instantly kill your character off if you roll poorly on a travel event or while resting in town. Enemy combinations might throw every enemy mini in the game at you on your first turn. It can be exceptionally brutal or overly easy.
It is possible to play entire missions with only finding one enemy in the entire thing which is very disappointing given the setup and teardown time.
The vast number of components also can cause a logistical nightmare as you search for a specific reference card that explains how a keyword works. The rules are split between the rulebook, hero sheets, enemy sheets, reference cards, event sheets and more.
It is not a user-friendly game despite how basic the actual game is. These issues can be overcome with experience and once you get rolling it is fairly easy to track everything, but it is definitely one you will want a pad of paper to help with as well as making use of fan-made content to streamline certain aspects such as the hero sheets.
Forbidden Fortress is a fine entry point into Shadows of Brimstone and thematically it is very impressive with almost everything conveying the feudal Japanese theme. It also offers a big box RPG dungeon crawler that will absolutely make for memorable gaming sessions.
The modularity allows it to be easily expanded if you find yourself wanting more and there is a lot of agencies available through the player choices for their characters. It is also an improvement over the previous core sets in that the heroes feel like they have a lot more options in terms of builds and what they can do within combat.
This however is probably not the right game if you want more complex mechanics. The actual combat and most all actions come down to rolling handfuls of dice more than anything else and there is a fair portion of luck involved with all the randomness.
However, in saying that if you are willing to organize the box to help streamline the experience and tweak the occasional rule to balance the game and reduce the bookkeeping then it can be a very rewarding experience that is probably the closest you can get to a dm-less roleplaying game.