First Impressions: The Agents

Sometimes, there are surprises in life you just don't expect, the same is true in the gaming community. The Reaper Bones Kickstarter is one example of a surprise no-one could have predicted, a miniature company raising over $3 million through crowd funding. Now The Agents, by Saar Shai hasn’t raised quite that amount but with 18 days still to go and over $140,000 raised it’s not doing bad, especially when you consider this is a first time designer out of Israel, not a country synonymous with Board Game Designers.

Now, Saar contacted me several months ago to ask me if he could send me a preview copy of The Agents. I get a lot of these offers because I feature a lot of Kickstarter projects in my news feed. Unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to do reviews any more and I feel I can better serve my readers by concentrating on published games, rather than games that might come out, if it gets funded and if there are no production issues etc.

So I was ready to turn down Saar’s offer but, for some reason I clicked through to his site and read a little more. The first thing that hit me was the artwork. This was a professional looking game for, at that point, a very pre-kickstarter project. I could see that Saar had invested some time and effort into the project and I liked the style the design was taking.

Then I read about the “double edged cards” mechanic, when you play a card in The Agents you can either play it for the points or for the ability. However, which ever you choose your opponent gets the other. This was what sold me and so I replied to Saar and asked for a review copy of the game.

Gameplay

Lets take a quick look at how the game plays. You have two factions, one you share with the player on your left and one you share with the player on your right. In addition you have facing, cards with an Order facing you can be activated by you, cards with points facing towards you can be scored by you.

The game has two types of cards, Agents and Mission. Agents have orders and points and allow you to manipulate the state of play. Missions have a task you must complete, as long as you are completing that task you can score the mission at the end of your turn.

On your turn you may take two of the follow actions:

1. Play a Card (Agent or Mission). If you play an agent the order must be completed by the player it is facing.

2. Activate an Order facing you on an already played agent in either of your factions

3. Retire a mission and pick up a new one from the deck

4. Buy an Agent for 1 point or a mission for 3 points. For an additional point you may choose the top most card from the relevant discard pile instead.

The meat of the game is in the cards. Regular Agents look like this:

Each Agent has two versions, a black version and white version. Each Agent also has a colour which is important for some missions, plus an icon and text that explains their “order”. Also at the top of the card is a half icon. A complete icon facing you is worth two points, this basically means two black cards next to each other with the arrow icon facing you is worth two points and the same with two white cards. A white card and a black card next to each other is worthless (most of the time)

The second kind of agents are Free Agents:

Free agents are one off special cards that can be played on any player, not just the two you share factions with. You can choose to take the points or use the ability (the points area on this card is blank because the values have not be finalised yet). After the order is completed the Free Agent is moved to the agent discard pile.

The game is played until one player reaches 50 points or until all the factions are full (in most games this means 5 cards in each faction). As the game offers very few ways to remove played cards from the table (even assassinated agents stick around) you will spend most of the game using orders to manipulate the cards played to fulfil missions and score the most points before the last agents is played closing out the factions and ending the game.

Thoughts

That brief overview doesn’t really explain everything but it gives you a general idea. Most of the game of The Agents is in the cards rather than the rules.

At first you may think that playing a card and giving your opponent points is a bad thing, but here is the trick. A basic agent requires a second agent to score you points, however an order on a card can be activated as one of your actions as long as it is facing you. Most of the orders allow you to rearrange the faction in some way, swapping cards, or eliminating them or even rotating them.

Giving your opponent this power, to use at his whim is far more dangerous than a potential to score points. Thus your turn becomes about manipulating the table in your favour so you score points but leave your opponent scoring none. As scoring is done at the end of the players turn you will want to think about just how best to mess with your opponent. If you spend an action denying your opponent a point that he can get back with a single action then you are probably fighting a losing game.

The meat of your points will probably come from missions, a player who is allowed to complete a mission multiple times in a row will likely run away with the game. Removing the mission or the components allowing him to score it is vital to success.

In The Agents you need to both manipulate the game to your advantage and at the same time sabotage your opponent. That is a delicate balance to strike with only two actions per turn. The Agents requires you to plan ahead, often your moves in a turn will seemingly grant you little to no benefit, but they set you up for a coup d'├ęta in a following turn.

The game features very little luck, except in the draw and even that can be mitigated by buying cards from the top of the discard pile. But it does feature chaos as your opponent is essentially working with the same cards as you. In addition, in a 3+ game you are playing against two opponents meaning you could be facing two entirely different play styles and trying to beat them both.

Basically what I’m driving at here is The Agents is very well structured game if you enjoy working out puzzles, playing several moves ahead and direct conflict. This game may well burn your brain, not with it’s rules which are very simple, but with it’s gameplay.

Did I like it? Yes, but I wouldn’t say it is for everyone. Do I have anything bad to say about the game… well… yes.

The copy I received was a prototype so much of what I’m going to say now could have changed in the final design. The problems I had with the game lie in the graphic design and the composition of the rulebook.

Ignoring typos and obvious rule conflicts (such as the rules stating players can have two missions per faction and then a couple of paragraphs later saying only one), I found the rules overly wordy for what they were trying to achieve and the order in which they were laid out was not necessarily intuitive and easy to follow. I hope that Saar uses some of the additional cash generated by the Kickstarter to hire a good proof-reader to really streamline the rules and hammer out the inconsistencies and ambiguous language. 

Other than the rulebook I found the text on the cards to be problematic. For example a mission card “Reinforcements” states “Score 4 points for Two Agents of the same type facing you in this faction” however the rules state that the two agents must be adjacent. Given the size of the cards there is plenty of room for a full explanation of how the card works. Again this is something can be easily fixed with a good proof reader and some extensive playtesting. Ambiguous language and discrepancies between cards and rules can turn a great game into an argument very easily, especially in a game as confrontational as this one. Good rules can’t fix a bad game, but bad rules can make a good game inaccessible.

Final Thoughts

So, in conclusion, I think The Agents will be a great game for players who enjoy this confrontational style of game and I really hope it doesn’t let itself down with it’s rules and it’s card text.

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