Monday, March 30, 2015

A review of The X-Files, or "This chocolate chip cookie doesn't taste like peanut butter!"

Have you ever bought a game based on either a license or maybe because of the art and description on the box?  You know the kind of game that catches your eye and makes you just have to have it.  How many times did you open that box hoping for something and ended up getting something completely different?  I’m guilty of this on too many occasions to count.  And many of those times, I’ve been mad because the game wasn’t what I wanted it to be.  There’s a game that’s recently come out and it seems to be getting a lot of that treatment.  That game is the X-Files from IDW Games and Pandasaurus Games.

When you think of an X-Files game, your heart immediately goes to thoughts of solving X-Files and adventuring around a board.  Maybe it’s going to be like Arkham Horror but with Scully and Mulder.  Maybe it’s going to be a bit like Talisman.  Maybe it’s even a Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective style game!  Nope, it’s none of those.  And it’s receiving a lot of flak for that instead of being judged on its own merits.

At its heart, the X-Files is a resource management engine powering a race with a nice bluffing element thrown into the mix.  The Syndicate side runs a slow and steady race to grab 25 Evidence points while the Agents are racing furiously against that to get enough Evidence to buy all 9 pieces of Mulder’s “I Want To Believe” poster.  The Agent side is a full co-op which allows the players to work together to be as efficient as possible.

There’s one X-File on the board for each Agent in the game. X-Files have a threshold value that must be met with Progress tokens to be solved.  In order to get Progress tokens, Agents must play cards that allow them to perform Investigations. These investigations have a base cost of 1 Influence.  Each Agent has two strengths and one weakness on their card that can alter this cost. If an Agent plays a card matching one of their strengths, the card is played for free.  Match a weakness and it costs two instead of 1.  This puts a big emphasis on teamwork as an Agent can either move or trade a card with another Agent in the same location on their turn.  You’ll want to maximize the number of free cards you can play because if you run out of Influence you’ll need to skip playing a turn in order to get more. 

Of course, if you are getting cards to Agents that match a strength, they Syndicate will be clued in on that and will use their Syndicate cards to try and slow you down.  These cards are played on an X-File facedown and are revealed when an Investigation takes place. Sometimes they steal Influence. Sometimes they wound the Agent.  Rarer cards stop an Investigation altogether.  The most powerful card, the aptly named “Trust No One” cancels the investigation and removes any progress made on that X-File in previous turns.  If the Agents are signaling too much, they’ll help the Syndicate lay the perfect trap.

And that’s one of the things I really like about the X-Files. Both sides are trying to read what the other is doing so they can play the most effective cards.  If the Agents think a nasty Syndicate card is on an X-File, maybe they’ll go a less effective route to avoid a bigger penalty.  Similarly, the Syndicate can try to bluff the Agents into thinking they’re protecting an X-File when really they’ve played cards that either do nothing or they never intend to play.  There’s a lot of cat and mouse in the interaction between the sides.  If you over-commit, you may lose the element of surprise and that can be hugely detrimental.  The chicanery is subtle, and I think that fits into the theme nicely.  It compares a bit to Netrunner in that way and that’s a big compliment.

I really like how wounds work in this game.  For each wound an Agent has, their Investigation is worth 1 less which can render some cards completely useless until Agents are healed.  Want to heal up?  Any time you could draw Influence, you can skip one to heal one wound so if you skip playing a card to take three Influence, you could skip all three and heal all wounds.  This creates a lot of decisions for the Agents because healing really slows you down.  But if you’re wounded, you’re not as effective.  And there are plenty of cards that cause wounds, some even voluntary.

The aforementioned race aspect is tied deeply into all of this.  If there are any unsolved X-Files on the board at the start of the Syndicate turn, they get to reach into the bag and pull one Evidence token per X-File.  If they take any, they get to drop a Cigarette token in the bag. If the Agents pull tokens and grab one of these, it’s a wasted draw.  This creates a huge imperative for the Agents to solve X-Files as quickly as possible.  If they don’t, not only does the Syndicate inch closer to victory, but the Evidence bag is poisoned which may further slow the Agents down.  It’s sort of an odd feeling at first to know that the Syndicate player is merely trying to the Agents down.  But once you think about how it ties to the theme, it makes perfect sense.  The Cigarette Smoking Man and his colleagues could easily have killed Mulder, but they simply hindered him instead.

The theme is definitely present in the X-Files although it’s not incredibly deep.  The map features some cryptic scribblings harkening back to famous episodes of the show. The Agent cards have artwork from the comic books and flavor text.  The X-Files cards have a big blurb to tell you what it’s all about.  Each of the Agents has a special power that ties into their characters from the show.  The way the Syndicate wins is deeply tied to their motives on the Show.  Mulder’s poster is an awesome touch as well, but what really helps is the art.

There’s some really incredible artwork present in this game. To start, the Agent tokens and badges have amazing renderings of the Agents.  I adore the Agents, especially the artwork on Skinner and Krycek.  There’s also some phenomenal artwork in the Syndicate player’s screen which features the Cigarette Smoking Man. It’s dark, evocative, and really helps set the tone. Unfortunately, the X-Files cards are devoid of any of this awesome artwork and that’s a huge miss in my opinion.  That would have really driven the theme home.

I do feel there’s a slight issue with balance in the Agent count.  The cost for each piece of Mulder’s poster is 1 Evidence per Agent so in a two-Agent game, that’s a total of 18.  Three Agents puts it at 27 Evidence while 4 Agents requires a total of 36.  Compare that to the constant requirement of 25 for the Syndicate regardless of Agent count.  That seems very skewed to the Agents if there’s only two Agents in the game.  In fact, in all my games, the Agents have never lost when there were only two.  The Syndicate also gets 1 Influence per Agent each turn.  Their really strong cards usually cost 3 or 4 which means it can be two turns before they play one in a 2-Agent game and that’s usually enough time for the Agents to solve smaller X-Files.  Definitely play with at least 3 Agents, regardless of Agent players. It’s easy enough for one Agent player to control several Agents.  I’ve even played games where I controlled all four.

As you’ve figured out by now, this is much more Euro than Ameritrash and I’m fine with that.  There’s plenty of theme here, but not as much fiddliness as you tend to find in AT-style games.  That will be a turn off to some, but I feel it opens the game to a much bigger casual audience.  This is definitely directed at X-Files fans who maybe aren’t hardcore gamers.  It could work as a great gateway game to get those folks into other games.  I think there’s plenty of interaction and strategy to please gamers as well.  You may not get the epic detail of a game like Arkham Horror, but you also won’t have 30 pages of rules to slog through either.  I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of detail for a smoother game experience.

What you end up with is a nice mix of story-telling, theme, and game mechanisms that tie together and create a fun experience with just enough depth to keep you coming back for more.  The game will never play out the same way twice which helps keep it fresh.  The game easily supports 5 players but works just fine with 2 and plays in about 60-75 minutes.

The truth is definitely out there, if you care to look past a lot of people who aren’t interested in seeing it.

A review copy of the X-Files was provided for this publication.

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