Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops – Catalyst Games – Review

Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops




Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is a thematic worker-placement, press-your-luck dice game set in a great sci-fi universe. When the game is firing on all cylinders, it feels like a knife-edge race through the gritty Sixth World.

Drew Vogel


Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs

Designer: Dylan Birtolo

Artist: Benjamin Giletti

Game Type: Deck Building, Worker Placement

Game Type: Dice Rolling, Press Your Luck

Initial Year of Release: 2019

Age Range: 13+

Expected Playtime: 60-90 minutes

Number of Players: 2-4

Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops - Catalyst Games - Review 1

Theme and What is it?





Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is a competitive game for 2 to 4 players that can be played in 60 to 90 minutes. In this cyber-punk worker-placement game, each player controls a team of Shadowrunners that can be sent on missions, loaned to other players (for a fee, of course), and upgraded with new tech and equipment.

Missions are resolved by rolling combinations of custom dice. A diverse team of Shadowrunners gives you access to richer combinations of dice, and your upgrades add even more dice to your pool.

Take on smaller Missions to earn credits. Then, put those credits right back into more experienced Runners and better gear.

Once you think you’ve got what it takes, send your Runners to collect one final score. If you fail, don’t worry; your Doc-Wagon contracts will keep your Runners in the game.

The first player to successfully complete the Final Mission and collect that last big score wins the game!

This game is a worker-placement game set in a 21st century cyber-punk universe that was established in 1989 as a pen-and-paper RPG. The Shadowrun universe is massive and well-documented. It is a compelling world where dragons have returned, and many humans have “goblinized” into Orcs or Trolls. Others are born as dwarves, elves, and other exotic forms. In addition to the return of these mythical/magical forms, technology has progressed and co-exists in this universe. All in all, Shadowrun’s Sixth World is a fascinating sandbox in which to play.

I am noddingly familiar with the Sixth World — I’ve never played the RPG but have read a few of the books set therein. I think the game is still enjoyable by anyone attracted to the mechanics and overall theme, even if they’re not familiar with the specific world.

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Gameplay Mechanics





Once the game is set up, these four phases are followed each round.

1. Place Runners Phase

2. Attempt Final Mission Phase

3. Run Missions Phase

4. Upkeep Phase

Players take turns placing a Shadowrunner (their pawns) on various worker-placement spots. Some of these spots resolve immediately, and some resolve later in the turn.

Once all players have placed their pawns, if anyone placed a Runner in the Final Mission spot, they attempt the Final Mission. Otherwise, actions are resolved. 

The actions vary based on where the pawn was placed, but include upgrades, body modifications, and attempting to earn money (either by a quick dice roll on a Task or by Freelancing your pawns so other players can use them on their Missions). 

Players decide which of their available Shadowrunners to use when attempting Missions (either small Missions or the Final Mission), but once a Runner has been used for a mission they cannot be used again this round.

Players may upgrade their teams of Shadowrunners with new equipment or body modifications, or swap out individual Runners if an stronger Runner becomes available (or if the original Runner dies — this is a common occurrence in the violent Sixth World). Players may also unlock an additional Runner to enhance their team. A team starts with 3 Runners, but can have up to 4.

Teams may undertake Missions which give greater rewards at greater risk. Missions have stages that must be completed in order. Each stage defines dice results that must be achieved in three rolls (up to three rolls per stage). There is some dice mitigation — re-rolls, card effects, etc. — but it is largely luck-of-the-roll that determines success or failure. Some stages in missions grant rewards (typically money) for completing that stage, but many missions are all-or-nothing.

Once players have sufficiently upgraded/modified their teams, they can attempt the Final Mission (which has been visible since the beginning of the game, allowing customized strategy). The player to finish the Final Mission wins the game.

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Initial Impressions





This game looks amazing. The game board, a stylized map of Seattle, is foil-coated so it shines and glitters under any light. It has an impressive — and massive — table presence. There are loads of colorful d6 dice for throwing (2 sides are success, 1 side is injury, and the other 3 sides are blank) and the cards have interesting art on them. People will stop to look at this game.

The manual is dense but thorough, and includes examples throughout. One small complaint is that the font and style of the example text is very close to the font and style of the instruction text, making it easy to slip from instruction into an example, which is jarring. 

The game seems overly rules-dense for the “weight” of it, and players will refer to the manual often during their first plays. Also included in the manual is a complete appendix of the placement locations and a brief history of the Sixth World which helps set the scene.

This is not a small game, footprint-wise. The game board is large (20×30″), and cards, tokens, and other elements are stored next to and above/below the board, increasing the footprint even more. This would be difficult to fit on a standard card table for 4 players. In my house, it’s too big for our small table and too small for our giant table.

When we demoed it (at Origins 2019), it was crammed onto a round folding table. It barely fit. It’s more comfortable on a larger table to be sure. The demo tables at Gen Con 2019 were more-appropriately sized and gave the game room to breathe.

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Game Build Quality





The component quality is standard and as-expected for this type of game. The game boards seem to be well-constructed and sturdy, as do the tokens and other components. The card stock is good (not great), but sufficient for the game. Cards are well-printed and colorful. I wish the player boards were printed on heavier stock.

Some of the game board iconography seems to be incomplete. As an example, the worker placement spots have icon reminders at the bottom of them (this is good), but for some they’re incomplete (this is bad) which causes the rule book to come out for reference and slow the game down until rules are learned.

Additionally, some versions of the rule book omit an important rule — that all players start with 20 Nuyen (the in-game money). This is an unfortunate oversight, and it makes me wonder what other oversights have not been found yet.

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Artistic Direction




The game uses art resources from the well-established RPG, so it is consistent overall. The art is detailed enough and distinct enough that each new card revealed will be looked at and appreciated. The Sixth World is a dark and gritty place, and the art conveys that effectively.

Card iconography is well thought-out and consistent as well. Once players have learned the icons, they are easy to interpret. I appreciate that icons of the same type always appear in the same spot on each card, and that card iconography is designed so that cards can be stacked, giving back some precious table space.

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Fun Factor





The mechanics of this game are fairly easy to grasp, but the game itself can be brutally difficult. Plan to lose a lot of Runners. They will die. Often.

There are tactical decisions to be made about where to place your workers. Do you want to get body modifications to mitigate damage? Great idea, but be aware that when your Runner dies (see above), you lose those modifications (they’re like tattoos — attached to one individual). Or maybe you want to get equipment that lasts when your Runners go down. Undertake Tasks for some quick cash, or run Missions to try your luck for bigger rewards. Once your Runners are sufficiently bulked up, attack the Final Mission to win the game.

Everything in this game is on a razor’s edge. When the game is humming along and the cards and dice are landing just right, this feels like a high-tech, edge-of-your-seat romp through a world where at any moment things can go sideways.

But sometimes the dice don’t land right. Sometimes only the wrong cards appear.

And the fragility of this game is revealed.

Just know — you can break this game. Sometimes you’ll fail and fail hard, and you won’t be sure if the game is just that difficult, or maybe it just isn’t very well-balanced.

In one of our 4-player play throughs, one of the players got cash-strapped pretty early on in the game. There are a couple options for getting more cash — do Tasks or offer your Runner for Freelance work. The player didn’t want to risk their upgraded/modded Runners with Freelance work, and couldn’t catch a break on the die rolls associated with Tasks. They had a bad time with the game.

When I mentioned this to the developers of the game at Gen Con, they told me to think of this game as a race, and to be sure to use all the resources available (even if it means putting a Runner at risk). They acknowledged the fragility and suggested instead that we modify our approach to it.

We haven’t played again since that conversation, but when we do, we’ll do it as a balls-to-the-wall romp through this nasty world, and hope that things don’t go sideways for us.

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Age Range & Weight




The age range of 13+ seems appropriate, though it may be enjoyable for slightly-younger players if they don’t mind the theme.

The difficulty rating of 3.00/5 on BGG is appropriate because some of the rules are fiddly and the iconography, as discussed above, is a incomplete on some places on the board. A good player aid will fix that issue, and I look forward to that appearing from the community.

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Shadowrun: Sprawl Ops is a thematic worker-placement, press-your-luck dice game set in a great universe. Most of the mechanics feel thematic and appropriate. When the game is firing on all cylinders, it really feels like a knife-edge race through the gritty Sixth World.

Some fiddly-ness and fragility may hamper the game, but if you approach it as a sci-fi action movie, you will have a good time.

There is a 5-6 player expansion available for this game as a separate purchase.

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