Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon features a simplistic, turn-based gameplay design. Maps are gridded with squares, and units move based on the number of movement points assigned to their class. Terrain hinders or improves this movement, and gives bonuses to combat stats. Units are arrayed in anywhere from two to five sides, with varying levels of allegiance, from completely controlled player units and simple enemy units to neutral units allied with the player but outside of their control, to allies the player has limited control over, to completely neutral units incapable of being attacked by enemies or allies.
Units are sorted by classes that define movement, available weapons, and general stat growths. Units gain experience points for fighting, killing or surviving fights, and level up after 100 experience points. On level up, all of a unit's stats have the chance to raise, based on character unique growths. Most units can grow until level 20, but are capable of promoting, by using a promotion item any time after level 10. Promotions often result in massive stat gains in either all stats, or in the areas most important to the class in question. The exceptions are the Lord, Ballistician, Thief and Cameleon classes, which do not promote but can reach level 30. Units can also reclass, switching to a different class chosen from a class circle. There are three class circles, two for male classes and one for female. Limits are imposed on the number of units of a certain class you can have.
Combat runs off a simple formula, with the attackers strength or magic, combined with the might of their weapon, dealing damage, minus the defenders defense or resisitance, depending if it was a physical or magical attack. Strength also allows for second hits, speed adds to avoidance, and skill effects hit rate and critical chance. Criticals are rare, but deal massive, usually triple, damage, and are made more likely by certain classes, abilities and weapons. Luck affects unit avoid and lowers enemies critical chances.
Allied units are gained automatically, or are recruited by visiting villages with Marth, or by triggering certain conversations between an allied unit and an enemy or neutral unit. Allied units are always unique characters, with personalities and traits effecting their unique growths. This feeds into Fire Emblem's most unique trait: permenant death. With a couple unique exceptions, characters who die can never be retrieved, and are dead forever. This, combined with the unique personalities of each character, results in players often refusing to accept any losses in their army. You gain generic recruits between chapters if you have taken a large number a casualties, but these units are weaker than unique units, and grow weaker as you get more of them.
Chapters have various victory conditions, ranging from rout (defeating all enemies), to killing a boss, to defending or surviving for a preset number of turns. Defeat can come from the loss of an objective point, or more commonly from the death of Marth. Shadow Dragon also has a unique Gaiden system, where several bonus chapter with extra recruits can be unlocked by having a low number of units still alive, making Shadow Dragon the only Fire Emblem game to encourage unit loss.