Monday, January 26, 2015

Board Game Review: The X-Files

In The X-Files, a board game by IDWGames and Kevin Wilson, one to four players take the role of FBI agents Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Walter Skinner, and Alex Krycek moving across the continental United States solving X-Files cases as they appear, in order to collect enough evidence to unravel the shadow government agency known as the Syndicate. One player takes the role of the Cigarette Smoking Man, who is working against the other players to cover up evidence and delay them long enough to eventually win through attrition and shut down the X-Files department for good. 

On agents' turns, they perform some combination of moving from region to region across the board, trading cards with fellow agents in the same region, collecting influence (which serve basically as action points), and playing cards from their hand -- usually to "investigate" an active X-File case in their region. Each X-File requires a certain amount of "progress" to solve; if an agent plays a card that says "investigate 3," they place three "progress tokens" on the case, and continue playing cards (one at a time, in turn order) until the number of progress tokens matches or exceeds the required amount on the card. For each solved X-File, agents collect a certain amount of "evidence tokens" from a bag, which are used as currency to buy one of nine puzzle pieces that the agents have to acquire and assemble to win the game.

The Syndicate player is a game manager of sorts, in charge of regulating the game's automatic processes -- removing evidence tokens from the bag (and placing duds back in) based on how many X-Files the agents leave unsolved by the end of each round, replacing solved X-Files with new ones, and automatically collecting influence and Syndicate cards to use against the agents. On the Syndicate player's turn, he plays Syndicate cards face down in slots connected to each specific X-File; then, when an agent investigates that particular case, the Syndicate player may spend influence tokens to activate associated Syndicate cards. These cards usually affect the progress rate of investigations, inflict wounds on agents, or make agents lose influence. 

A look behind the Syndicate player's screen.

Each of the four agents has a unique special ability, influenced by their respective roles in the show. Mulder can peek at Syndicate cards that are in play, once per turn at the cost of influence, to know what cases to avoid or how to work around possible threats; Scully is more efficient collecting evidence from solved X-Files; Skinner automatically collects one influence at the start of every turn; and Krycek, as the double agent, can inflict wounds on fellow agents to boost his investigations. The agents also have different skills in which they're either strong, weak, or neutral at performing, such as paranormal, science, politics, and conflict. All agents are equally skilled at "general" tasks. Each of the cards that agents will play on their turn is affiliated with one of the five skills, and require more or less influence to play, depending on their character's strengths and weaknesses. 

Let's get this out of the way first: when this game was announced, everyone was expecting an Arkham/Eldritch Horror-style game with thematic encounters and lots of strategic depth. What we got is kind of an abstract card game loosely tied together by the X-Files theme. It's not as deep, or as complex, or as thematic, or as exciting, or as tense, or as engaging as anyone was expecting/hoping it would be, but that doesn't bother me much because there's already Arkham/Eldritch Horror if I ever want to play that type of game. So I'm judging this game based solely on its own merits.

The X-Files theme doesn't come through very strongly at all in this game. All of the components certainly look like something you'd find in an FBI office, but that means everything has kind of a boring office look to it, with you staring at manila folders and monochromatic card illustrations and a generic-looking map of the US -- on the board itself, and on each case file, as well. Each case is named after one of the episodes from the first three seasons, along with some flavor text quoting a spoken line of dialogue from that episode, but it never [i]feels[/i] like you're actually investigating that specific case because they're all mechanically identical -- place X number of progress tokens on the card. Most of the case cards have some type of effect or modifier (.e.g., "agents suffer one wound investigating this case," or "science investigations add one less progress") which make thematic sense if you're familiar with the nature of that episode, but it's entirely on the player to make these connections between theme and mechanics.

For anyone who's never watched the show or simply doesn't "get" what the X-Files is all about, this game will not give them a taste of what it's like to watch (or, as would be the intention of an interactive game, to be a part of) the show. The only way my family and I were able to get into the X-Files theme was by occasionally role-playing our respective characters -- which, again, requires a deep familiarity with the show, and is entirely on the players to create that thematic involvement. In the game's defense, it stimulated a lot of talk about the show, usually whenever someone read the title and quote from a case file and asked "which episode was this? What happened in this one?" There are a few fun references on the board, like Mulder's sunflower seeds, the alien stiletto, the Alien Bounty Hunter, and scribbles on the map that reference other cases, but there's not a whole lot that really draws from the show's deep well of thematic experiences -- it's mostly just lines of dialogue here and there, which, even as a true X-Phile, didn't do a whole lot for me. 

An example of some of the cards in the game.

The gameplay happens entirely in the cards, and fortunately there's some interesting interplay between agent cards, syndicate cards, and case cards. As an agent player, there's a decent amount of light strategy involved in playing the right cards at the right time, and in the right combination. Over the course of a game, the agents traded three "conflict" cards to the person playing as Krycek, who can play "conflict" cards for free; the "firefight" card let him voluntarily take extra wounds to boost his investigation high enough to single-handedly solve a case, then on the next turn he played "chase," which boosted his investigation score for wounds he was already sustaining, single-handedly solving another case while the other agents teamed up to solve another case. On Krycek's third turn, he played a "recuperate" card that healed him of all wounds. 

In another situation, players traded a lot of "science" cards to the person playing Scully, who was able to play cards and get a bonus on her investigations for each additional "science" card she had in her hand -- this was useful because I, as the Syndicate player, had put down cards that would prevent "conflict" and "paranormal" investigations from happening, which the agents knew because of Mulder's special ability to peek under the Syndicate cards. The person playing Skinner was able to use his "political" cards to call for backup, moving another agent to his space while also investigating the case, and then on his next turn, arrange a commercial flight (using a "general" card) to fly another investigator to his space and then play an additional card; he followed up with "question witness," which gave him a bonus on his investigation for each additional agent in the region. 

As an agent player, you always have two or three optimal strategies and actions to play every turn, in terms of which cards to use, whether that involves planning for the long-haul or going for a quick knock-out punch. Every turn, you have some kind of decision to make, so the strategy derives from planning the most efficient route based on what cards are in play, bearing in mind that case cards and ally cards, which remain in play until another ally card is played, modify the way a lot of agent cards work, in addition to the syndicate cards which can change your strategy if you know in advance what you're up against. It's not a very deep game, and luck certainly plays a role in how the cards are distributed, but there's enough play in the card interaction that I think even people expecting a deep, complex game like Arkham/Eldritch Horror will find some degree of satisfaction in the gameplay. 

Players assemble Mulder's iconic poster.

I played as the Cigarette Smoking Man, which meant it was my job to delay the investigators long enough for me to cover up enough evidence to win the game. I found playing as the Syndicate a little boring. Most of what I was doing was automatic upkeep -- removing evidence from the bag, dropping duds in the bag, and refreshing solved X-Files cases -- which isn't very fun or satisfying. It's more like a chore that gets relegated to the Syndicate player because he has so little else to do in the game. Just as the agents didn't feel like they were solving specific cases from the X-Files mythos, I never felt like a nefarious shadow agency. I had exactly one moment in the game when I got to feel like a badass villain -- I played the most powerful card in the Syndicate deck on a case that required a lot of progress to solve, then revealed a card that erased all of their progress and removed their ally, Deep Throat, from play. "Trust No One," the card said, implying that their ally had been working for me all along. 

Otherwise, I spent most of the game passively unable to do much of anything. One case had a modifier that said "conflict investigations add one more progress than usual," so I placed "corrupt law enforcement" cards that would let me cancel an agent's conflict card, but since Mulder looked at the card, the agents knew not to play conflict cards. At one point I placed an ally card (the Syndicate can put allies into play as well, which replace any agent allies in play) on an easy, nearby case, hoping the agents would go to investigate and allow me to get that ally into play sooner, to eliminate their ally, and then they never investigated that case. Other times, I played cards that would prevent a certain type of investigation and the agents just coincidentally never used an investigation card of that type. I eventually won the game, but it felt more time simply ran out, rather than me actually achieving a victory for anything I did. 

The components also made the game a bother to play. The board feels a little too large for this type of relatively lightweight card-driven game, and as the Syndicate player, it was impossible for me to reach all the way across the table any time I needed to interact with it -- which was once every round, when it was my turn, and any time an agent investigated a case file. I had to get up from my chair and walk part way around the table to reach the cards on the other side of the board. I could have turned the board to it ran parallel to my edge of the table, but then there wouldn't have been enough room for two of the agent players to set up their things; I could have put the board closer to me, but that wouldn't have left me enough room for the Syndicate's "GM Screen," which is kind of useless anyway since the players already have a good idea about how many evidence tokens you've collected (courtesy of the score tracker) and you can keep your hand of cards secret easily enough by leaving them face down. All it really hides is the amount of influence you have available to spend, and even then, you have to reach over the screen any time you interact with the board, or else take it down and set it back up every time. Even the puzzle that the agents assemble to win the game -- Mulder's "I want to believe" poster -- feels completely unnecessary, since there's a score tracker on the board that measures the same thing, and the puzzle itself takes up too much additional table space, anyway. 

The game as it looks in action.

Though they don't serve much practical purpose, the Syndicate's "GM Screen" and the "I want to believe" poster add a small bit to the game's theme and atmosphere. My family thought it was kind of cool assembling the poster, and my brother commented that he felt like the "GM Screen" made me look and feel more like a villain making devious plans in secret, even if I wasn't really doing much behind that screen. Most of the components are of decent quality; I have no complaints about anything, except that some of my components had something weird going on with the red ink, leaving cards and chits of the same type to look more or less saturated. Otherwise, the comic book art style used on the agent and syndicate cards didn't do a whole for me. I realize that's IDW's thing, with them running the official 10th season in the comic series, but having never read the comics, the imagery on the cards didn't feel like authentic X-Files to me. Also, I don't like how the symbol for "general" skills is a UFO -- several of my players kept getting it and the alien head confused, thinking the UFO stood for "paranormal" instead of "general" skills. I would have thought there'd be a better icon for "general" skills. 

This game was seemingly designed to be accessible to non-gamers, to allow it to be played by any of the millions of people who have watched the show, but who aren't avid gamers. Whether you consider that selling out to mainstream audiences, and whether or not that's a bad thing, is entirely up to you. But as a game that's meant to appeal to fans of the show as well as non-gamers, it doesn't quite work. There's just not enough theme here to satisfy hardcore X-Philes, or to draw non-X-Philes in; the gameplay mechanisms, meanwhile, are perhaps just a little too complicated and nuanced for people who have only ever played Monolopy and Candyland, and not deep or complex enough for serious gamers. It's hard to say who this game will really appeal to, because it doesn't hit a strong mark in any category. My non-gaming family members were able to play the game, but I had to constantly remind some of them how turn sequences worked -- despite the player-aids that tell them how turns work. If you're looking for a pure Gateway Game, this probably isn't it, but it can work as a Gateway Game with the right audience: people who have some interest in the X-Files.

I think, in general, The X-Files Game by IDW and Kevin Wilson is decent for what it is, but not inherently the most engaging or interesting game of its weight and footprint. If you're a fan of the show and can put some more theme into the game with a bit of your own references, role-playing, or discussions, then it's a slightly better investment, especially if you treat it as a medium-light gateway game. For what it's worth, my family of casual gamers and non-gamers enjoyed it and wanted to play it again; I would be happy to play it more as well.

Consider this more of an impressions article than a proper, thorough review. I would prefer to get several playthroughs with different groups of people before making a verdict, but since there's so little buzz surrounding this game at the moment, I figured sharing early impressions would be helpful for some people. I'll come back to edit or comment on this review if my opinions change significantly with more plays.  

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