The Shadow Over Westminster

My Dear Robert,

Thank you for the wonderful care package! It was well received, and our friends toiling in the field made quick use of your gifts. You always did have a knack for cooking up just the right recipes during the busy times, which is fortuitous as the last few months have been quite so. Honestly, I’m never quite sure how you make the time to look out for us with the recent uptick in your competition of late. Who knew book stores could be so dangerous? Alas, apparently no business trade is completely safe these days.

Anyhow, we hope all is well. You must certainly seek us out for tea the next time we’re in town, which could be a matter of weeks. At least, that’s what we’re hoping for.


Carol F. Thewdarov


The Premise

The world stands on the precipice of doom, but few outside of the mysterious task force known as The Agency are aware of it. This alliance of secret organizations have bandied together to investigate what the great hidden peril may be and, if possible, stop it. Each player leads one of these secret organizations and must work together to hold back the encroaching darkness.


The Rules

The Shadow Over Westminster grows with every passing moment, so it’s helpful that setup for this Co-Op deckbuilder is rather quick. The game consists primarily of a central board, a small pile of cubes, and numerous decks of cards arrayed around the board.

A Cataclysm card. Yay Bioweapons!

A Cataclysm card. Yay Bioweapons!

To start the game, a handful of cards are placed at several Locations on the board. Chief among them is a randomly chosen Cataclysm card, which is placed face down. Players must first discover this dark event before stopping it.

To begin, each player receives three Case Log cards (which generate Research) and four Basic Investigation cards (which generate Investigation) to form their starting deck. Players also receive a character card of their organization, granting them a unique ability and access to buy Special Investigation cards of their faction. Each player begins with three cards. The first player is chosen randomly.

Shadow Over Westminster is played out over a series of turns. First, the player reveals a Darkness card, the majority of which adds a Darkness token to a Location. Should a Location try to add more tokens than its maximum, it is Engulfed. When that happens the Location is reset and players suffer negative consequences, including adding a Darkness to the Cataclysm track. Completing Location objectives can also clear Darkness.

Then, the player may move to any Location and take its action:

  • An Artifact card

    An Artifact card

    Agency: Trash all Exposure cards OR spend Research to Special Investigation cards

  • Museum: Spend Research to purchase an Artifact. Once played, Artifacts stay out providing recurring abilities
  • University: Deposit a Disturbance card. The University upgrades once it can trash enough Disturbances matching its next level
  • Warehouse: Perform a solo Investigation
  • Underground: Perform a group Investigation
  • Cataclysm: Once the University reaches Level 3, the Cataclysm is revealed and its powerful ability goes into effect. From that point onward players may perform its Investigation

Finally, the player may keep one card in Reserve before discarding their remaining hand and drawing cards equal to the University level. It then becomes the next player’s turn.

To perform an Investigation, the player places Investigation cards against Disturbance cards. Once the total Investigation points all players’ cards at that Location are equal or greater than the sum of the Disturbances, it is completed. The Disturbances are claimed and the Location reset. Investigations can take place over multiple turns.

The Warehouse has been Engulfed, moving players one step closer to losing

The Warehouse has been Engulfed, moving players one step closer to losing

Players will also gain Exposure cards throughout the game. These serve no purpose in a deck and represent the hindrances of being revealed to the public. Exposure is gained a number of ways, including through an incomplete Investigation.

Should players contribute enough Investigation points to thwart the Cataclysm, they win and the world is saved. Players will retreat to the shadows with the general populace blissfully unaware how close Earth game to devastation.

However, if the Cataclysm is ever Engulfed, then it’s probably best to find a hiding place…because things are about to get a whole lot worse.


Living On The Edge

Designing a game with the right amount of suspense is no easy task. Make it too difficult and players give up. Too easy and they lose interest. Remarkably, Shadow Over Westminster doesn’t just fit into this happy middle ground – it thrives on it. Don’t expect to breeze your way to victory here. Every session walks a fine line between between being triumphant and dying horribly, as the game simply doesn’t provide a large margin of error for success.

In a 4-player game, for instance, Cataclysms require 30-45 Investigation points, depending on the scourge you’re facing, but you’ll collectively only start with 16. Thus, much of the game involves scrambling for Artifacts and upgrades to give your team a fighting chance – which is easier said than done.

SOW final battle

With four players The Rift War requires 45 Investigation points. Even with the bulk of their resources brought to bear, players currently only have 36.

The primary way to get more Research points to buy more potent Investigation cards is by way of Investigations. So, it’s not uncommon for players to be routinely working those Locations regularly. This does create a slight sense of linear progression, and while the game never feels like it’s on rails, but there are a limited number of strategic paths to victory.

In short, with Shadow Over Westminster, the amount of time you have to stop the apocalypse is inversely proportional to having the resources to do so. Finding the right window to make your stand is both essential and part of the game’s inherent challenge.

Can you get one more Disturbance to the University before it gets overrun?

Can you get one more Disturbance to the University before it gets overrun?

Yet it’s precisely the mounting desire for survival that makes this co-op so engaging. The longer the game goes on, the more it feels like every decision matters. What’s more, this impending sense of tension and dread scales particularly well, providing the exact same sense of apprehension and difficulty whether playing with one person or four.

As such, there isn’t a lot of room with this deckbuilder for unconventional tactics or dalliances. For any hope at victory, players must use their deck with a sense of purpose and must do so as a group. Because of this, don’t expect Daredevils or most Socializers to be joining the ranks of The Agency anytime soon. Likewise, although Shadow Over Westminster is very objective-driven, Strikers will be torn on this one due to how much luck of the draw can affect a given turn.


Hidden In Plain Sight

To offset random chance, the Shadow Over Westminster takes a decidedly different route when it comes to deck optimization. In this game it’s difficult to remove any cards from your deck besides Exposure, meaning that your deck will grow more unwieldy over time. Rather than focusing on deck thinning, though, the game instead looks towards mitigating undesirable draws. Aside from upgrading the University for larger hand sizes and saving cards in Reserve, there are two particularly creative ways the game accomplishes this.

The Templar with their potential arsenal of abilities

The Templar with their potential arsenal of abilities

The first is through the evolution of the factions themselves. Between their innate powers and Special Investigation cards, each faction provides distinct strengths to the team. The more you invest into your card upgrades, the more skilled you become at certain abilities.

The Illuminati, for example, are adept at eliminating Exposure, and so in time they can become highly adept at tackling Investigations. This fosters a real sense of character growth as the game progresses, even though deck composition doesn’t change all that drastically. Architects will definitely be drawn to the idea of upgrading via cards. Indeed, their only gripe will be that each faction only has a half dozen or so cards to choose from.

The game also takes advantage of the top of your deck. Shadow Over Westminster doesn’t use uniform card backs, so you are always able to see what type of card your next draw will be. At a minimum this affords you some idea of what your next hand may look like, but through the use of player powers and certain Artifacts, there are also a number of ways to manipulate that top card to your benefit. The only caveat to this aspect is that having to look away while shuffling can be a little odd.

In either case, Shadow Over Westminster’s unorthodox deckbuilding approach, coupled with the various discoverable combos should entice most Tacticians into lending their services in this secret war.


Scratching The Surface

The game’s solid mechanics and gameplay can be easily missed, however, if judged solely on its appearance. That is, while the framework to Shadows Over Westminster is unquestionably sound, its aesthetic overall is decidedly more mixed.

On the one hand, the game does a decent job conveying its abstract Lovecraftian-like gothic horror setting. Everything comes with a dark and prescient sense of dread, from the unpredictability of which Disturbance cards you’ll face to the perpetual creep of unseen forces working against you in the form of Darkness cubes. Clearing a Location of Darkness provides a temporary sense of relief, but it is short lived as the effects of the Cataclysm march onward. Indeed, the longer the game goes, the more it feels like the other shoe is about to drop.

Choose the form of the Destructor!

Choose the form of the Destructor!

This says nothing of the great variety of flavor of the Cataclysms themselves. The number of potential endtime scenarios is impressive, and each comes with an imposing challenge on how you’ll have to face it. From time travelers, to demonic wars, to engineered plagues, every Cataclysm plays out differently. And the entire gothic theme is done without ever mentioning the name Cthulhu. The end result is a deckbuilder that carries enough ambiance to even attract the interest of Immersionists.

That said, little of this is immediately recognizable from a cursory inspection. This is largely due to the game’s components. For one, there’s the issue of the board itself. Although thematically fitting due to the perils being faced, the board’s almost overly dark colors comes across as unfinished. It appears too washed out and lacking in any distinguishing characteristics beyond the six Locations, making a board that’s more utilitarian than a centerpiece of the game.

A Disturbance card back

A Disturbance card back

More importantly, though, is the visual inconsistency with many of the game’s cards.

While several of the decks come with excellent custom artwork and graphic layouts, such as the Cataclysms, Investigators, and Artifacts, others have very little agency to them at all. Basic Investigation and Darkness cards, for instance, are little more than simples line of text. While functional, these cards often feel incomplete next to their counterparts, as if only partially finished. Moreover, while Disturbance and Exposure cards each come with unique texts, their nearly identical visage one another makes it easy to overlook their hidden flavor.

Plus, pictures or no, the card stock overall could stand to be a little more durable. As Shadow Over Westminster is predominantly a deckbuilder, and one with a high degree of shuffling at that, it’s unfortunate that its cards can begin to show slight wear after just a handful of playthoughs. As such, we recommend sleeving them.


The Takeaway

The Shadow Over Westminster doesn’t look like much at first glance, but like the workings of its secret organizations there’s plenty transpiring just beneath the surface. Although some aspects of the game are less than picturesque and its cards could be more resilient, Shadow Over Westminster’s gameplay more than makes up for any poor snap impressions. With a finely-tuned deckbuilding system, distinct player powers, and copious end of the world scenarios to stare down, every game is a taut race along the razor’s edge as you strive to save the day. The game doggedly embraces both its gothic horror premise and co-op nature, conveying both a progressive sense of urgency and a foreboding realization that stopping the Big Bad requires nothing short of everyone’s combined efforts. The result is a game that is as punishing as it is addictive, and it ensures that even if you lose, you still win.


The Shadow Over Westminster is a product of CounterClockwork Games.

Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Artwork: 3.5
Rules Clarity: 3.5
Replay Value: 4.5
Physical Quality: 3.5
Overall Score: 4