Digital Tools Box contains what would be two physical boxes. Each contains a lot of interesting content, though Alphaware is far more fleshed out and approaches the size and complexity of the 5th Edition core rulebook, while the Beginner Box is a quick start guide with an attached setting guide and novel excerpt.
The Beginner Box has a lot of stuff that’s good. The Quick Start Guide is included here, but it would obviously be in print in a physical box (which has its merits). There’s also the Edge of Now introductory setting guide, which is a lot less intimidating but should still give people a pretty good idea of Shadowrun’s feel and setting. There’s a few pre-made characters, one of whom has a solo adventure to allow you to get acquainted with play (and teach players one-on-one). There’s also an excerpt from a Shadowrun novel that is both a great way to have another book on your to-buy list but also serves as an extended immersion in the setting (and covers a run from mostly-start to finish, which could be a great asset to a novice GM).
Alphaware is much more complex, and is essentially the big brother of the Beginner Box. It’s also substantially more complex, sometimes in accessible ways (the reference cards could be really useful) and other times in intimidating ways (the adventures included, both solo ones for each character and in the Plots and Paydata booklet, are pretty much frameworks rather than fleshed out adventures, which may overwhelm novice GM’s). Still, if you wanted to move up to the big leagues, you could do worse than Alphaware.
My largest gripe with Alphaware is that it’s essentially the core rulebook cut up and shortened a little. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but some of the excisions are pretty crippling. You won’t be making any characters using Rules of the Street, though you can at least upgrade the pre-mades. Fortunately, Alphaware may consist of mostly copied page count, but what is new is pretty good for both new and returning Shadowrunners.
Each character (barring Ms. Myth, who had her day in the Beginner Box) has a solo adventure and a play-style guide, which could greatly help with novices who want to learn the game, as well as a more modification-friendly character sheet. Combine this with the reference cards, and players have no excuse for not being able to figure out how to play their character. Rules of the Street is still pretty intimidating, but being in Alphaware instead of the Beginner Box points out that it’s really the first step into more advanced Shadowrun rules; rules that leave out technomancers, a good chunk of the spells and gear, and a variety of other things that you wouldn’t necessarily notice without having seen the originals but that feel a little painful.
Still, I actually really liked Plots and Paydata; I ran an adventure from it with my street-leve group and they liked it, though they were a little frustrated that they got caught in one of the pre-written plot twists. It’s also filled to the brim with great little GM advice snippets, and I’d suggest it for any of my friends who wanted to get into GM’ing Shadowrun.
Alphaware also contains a few maps of locations, as well as a geopolitical map of Shadowrun’s North America and a poster for Shadowrun.
In short, the Digital Tools Box, which contains both Alphaware and the Beginner Box for the Shadowrun introductory set is something that does not contain a lot to revisit to veterans of Shadowrun, but for those looking to transition from pre-4th Edition Shadowrun or looking to take up tabletop gaming as a hobby, it’s got a lot of appeal and charm. Unfortunately, there are a few decisions to cut things that I don’t find agreeable; I find the lack of character creation to be rather stifling, despite the fact that it was probably cut for space constraints.
If you’re interested in checking out the Shadowrun Digital Tools Box, you can find it at DriveThruRPG.