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Graham Rutland
United Kingdom
Leyton
LONDON
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The full review, including images, can be enjoyed at Ludimus in Londinio

These days you can tap some keys on a keyboard in the former Soviet Union and the next thing you know Wilbur and Myrtle of Jarhead, Ohio wake up to find their pension has been nabbed down to the very last cent – or at the very least it’s been used to pay for cable channels that would make even an MP’s spouse blush or to keep this week’s terrorist cell in semtex and Kalashnikovs. The Ocean’s Eleven-esque heist of yore is no longer a thing.

And let’s not even discuss Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen.

Seriously though: think about it. When was the list time you opened the papers to news of a serious, organised grand heist, much less one that succeeded? The last big heist on these shores (the UK - Ed.) that springs to mind is the infamous Securitas robbery in which a cool £53m was made off with in 2006. Beyond that, only the ill-fated Millennium Dome diamond raid comes to mind – with props to those particular failures for at least giving both a JCB and a speedboat room in their plans.

But the perpetrators in both cases were duly caught and rightly punished, not least of all for making the idiotic move of assuming the blunt-force, barrel-of-a-12-gauge antics of Snatch, the exoticism of a James Bond intro or, indeed, the sort of plans found in Ocean’s Eleven, are still the order of business.

In the 21st Century it’s the Android: Netrunner method that is far more suitable.

Which is appropriate, actually, since we’re about to review the stablemate to FFG’s 5-scoring Living Card Game in the form of Infiltration, which, taking us back to the Android universe, addresses another cyberpunk favourite – the ‘off the grid building,’ unhackable by virtue of quite simply not being connected to the outside world. It’s at these times that you approximate that famous lobby scene from The Matrix and ‘go in’ to get that which can’t be hacked out, or, if you want a slightly more obscure reference, the closing stages of Max Barry’s underrated Jennifer Government, in which Exxon-Mobil decide to go in, smash, grab, download and get out again.

Messily.

This is where Infiltration begins, and, much like its LCG successor Netrunner, it delights in keeping things hidden – in this case, thirteen rooms of a corporate office block split between two floors and a top secret room hidden somewhere else on the premises. It is the job of the operatives (players) to explore the building, steal the as much of the secret data within as possible and, most importantly, get out before the boys in blue arrive since, for the purposes of gameplay, the idiots manage to trip the alarm the moment they waltz through the front door.

Like I said, very Matrix.

But back to the matter at hand: if you’ve played Netrunner or even read our review of it you’ll immediately know what to expect. Hallmarks from that game (and in some cases, even recycled card art and characters, not that there’s too much wrong with that) keep this one familiar and its cyberpunk mythos alive. Thankfully, that mythos is largely restricted to the game’s artwork and general theming of the rooms, and there is none of Netrunner’s complexity. It’s the future and some ne’erdowells have broken into a building and hacking is happening, and that’s about the sum of it.

Crucially, however, Infiltration keeps things far more interesting as the building is randomised each time the game is played. Six cards for each floor plus one of three potential secret rooms are dealt from a pool of 32 cards. Players having broken into the Executive Office at the top of the building in the last game may instead find it just after the elevator in the second – or not even in the building at all. It’s a simple but effective little trick that means no two games of Infiltration are the same and, given that each room requires you to adapt your approach, there are no guaranteed routes to victory either. What worked on the last raid may be utterly hopeless in the next.

Which perhaps explains one of our disappointments with Infiltration: in Netrunner, the Corp or Runner chosen by the player creates a true identity and bestows a special ability, while in Arkham Horror, each persona comes pre-kitted with a series of items and an ability to boot. Instead, in Infiltration, player identities are differentiated only in name and appearance under the standard rules. Variants do exist that specify starting items for each operative, but having properly unique identities with their own, innate ability irrespective of items would have been another feather in Infiltration’s digital hat, and one can only assume that these are missing because, potentially, a lucky draw of rooms at the start of the game would see one character dominate.

It’s a minor point, though, and one that is helped away in no small part by the fact that operatives can collect and use a wide variety of items during their uninvited stay in the corporation building to help them as they advance, interface, download or even retreat safely out of the building – the four major actions in the game, of which players must select two for each operative they control.

Through advancing, new rooms in the building are flipped over and entered, with retreating being the preference once the endgame starts to kick in and getting out unscathed becomes the focus, since remaining in the building once the police arrive is an instant loss. Interfacing and downloading, meanwhile, are two ways of interacting with rooms as they are flipped over. When advanced into and flipped over, rooms are populated with a number of data file tokens, which can be stolen up to two at a time with each download action.

Further, up to two of a selection of interface tokens, tech locks or personnel are found in a room once flipped over. Generally, tech locks or lab personnel are two different ways by which extra data can be acquired more rapidly, with the lock or poor technician in question invariably vaporised. Interfacing, meanwhile, is a one-shot action in the room concerned, and can result in anything from downloading extra data, causing havoc elsewhere in the building or accessing the secret room and the disproportionate store of data it contains.

Adding another layer to this set of actions is the order of play, which passes round the table with each turn of the game. This makes choosing actions incredibly tactical: choose download in a room with another operative but get beaten to it and you can only download one piece of data. Worse, interact with the interface, tech lock or technician tokens in a room after another player has already done so that turn and you come up empty.

It’s a great formula repeated in titles as many and varied as the likes of Tokaido and means that each turn bears careful consideration. Generally, it is assumed that the first player each turn will do the downloading and interfacing while the others scurry further into the building and set themselves up for future turns, performing recon and laying dastardly traps for the operatives they leave behind.

But even then you’re not in the clear, as each piece of data carries a value from 1-3 printed on its backside. Since the operatives are on a smash and grab, however, there’s no time to check, and so any stolen data is placed facedown, remaining so until the end of the game. A smug player sat on a dozen pieces of data can end up flipping them over for just 12 points, whilst a player who thought all lost with her paltry 5 pieces of data can flip a brace of 3s. It’s a nice, last-moment twist to the game that means that there are no foregone conclusions, a trait Infiltration ably shares with its younger sibling Netrunner and in fact a number of Eurogames we could care to mention.

Complicating matters that touch further for all the operatives is the small issue of the alarm and the high-ranking personnel still left in the building. The latter have associated rooms, meaning yet again that some games see operatives break into an empty building and others see them facing all of the corporation’s big shots. These characters have a limited AI system that adds to the danger when they are revealed. Some will wound (and therefore delay) your operatives, preventing them from advancing or retreating next turn. Others will attempt to flee the building, further raising the alarm if successful or being… encouraged to lower it if caught. It adds a nice dimension to play and the only shame is that they aren’t brought that little bit more to life with player pieces of their own. Couple them, however, with some of the really powerful items that can be acquired in Infiltration’s endgame (our favourite being a blackmail file that either adds points at the end of the game or allows you to waltz completely freely out of the building whilst keeping a portion of your stolen data for yourself) and things can turn unexpected very quickly. That does mean that Infiltration is as much, if not more, luck than skill and judgement.

They’re small points, however, and ones you won’t have time to worry about when it comes to the game’s beating heart – the proximity and alarm dial, which conveniently doubles as the marker for the first player. At the end of each turn when all operatives have taken their two actions, the first player rolls a d6 and adds that result to the proximity dial, indicating that the police are getting closer. At 99 points, the police arrive and any operatives still in the building are immediately out of the game.

It’s crucial as it places a time limit on a game that would otherwise be a casual stroll back and forth clearing out the building. Instead, Infiltration plays like a cyberpunk Supermarket Sweep – get in, smash and grab whatever you can lay hands on in the time limit, and get out.
That means that, in theory, games can take anything from 16-99 turns, but helping matters along nicely is the alarm dial, which, like the proximity dial, begins at 0 at the start of the game. This dial only runs to 9, but adds it value to all die rolls and can be raised or lowered by personnel, rooms or events. All of a sudden your typical game of Infiltration can be curtailed to as few as 6 precious turns.

And it’s so wonderfully, brilliantly tense. Some players will panic, cut and run way too early. Others will be like the teenager holding the lit firework for just one more second only to have it metaphorically blow up in their faces. Infiltration’s finest moments, however, come from a lucky item or shrewd manoeuvre that sees an impossible escape pulled off. We love it.

Sounding perfect?

It isn’t, sadly. There’s one caveat, and that’s how the operatives themselves play. In a larger, 4, 5 or 6 player game there’s plenty of scope for dicking each other over (although the most brutal PvP fans will lament the absence of eliminations). It’s a thematically lovely outcome. The crack team of operatives, having gotten into the building, realised how much is at stake and that the police are on their way, fragments into an every-man-for-himself race against the clock, as you’d expect it to.

Two player games are far more unusual since each player is called upon to control two operatives so as to keep the building sufficiently crowded, but per the standard rules they aren’t working together and only the single escapee with the highest file count at the end is the winner. This leaves players in a head-to-head game in the perverse situation whereby their own pawns are competing with each other, and the only sensible style of play we’ve found in this situation is to have them operate in pseudo-co-operation, with one operative stealing all the data and the other doomed to capture, laying traps and causing havoc to hold off the police as long as possible. We found that trying to play both operatives so as to have two potential source of stolen data ended up with neither setting the world on fire with their scores should they escape.

It’s at once jarring but at the same time gives scope for some house rules, which you will want to implement, such as teams, shared data pools and so on. Thankfully this game’s few rules (it has one lean instruction manual) mean you can quite happily do this. It’s just a shame that nobody at Fantasy Flight thought to include them as a recommendation.

It’s a minor flaw, though, and another great thing in Infiltration’s defence is that, while the box appears half decent in size it’s actually a very portable game. Broken down, it’s simply a deck of cards, some tokens and a die. It can quite happily be carried in a pocket like any other card game and yet has the appeal and complexity of a good old-fashioned board game. That’s smart.

This is a difficult one to call, but I’m left with that little irritating itch in the back of my mind that says the two player and team rules that work just fine in this game could have been made more explicit in the manual, and I worry that more casual players won’t try these house variants for fear of ‘breaking’ the game – because they won’t. That, and, this is probably the only Infiltration you’ll ever play, as expansions are nil.

Plus, I’m feeling picky, and so, at the very, very top end, Infiltration earns a:

4/5

I liked:
+ Another game set in the compelling Android universe – but far less complex than Netrunner;
+ A genuinely tense affair driven along at a perfect pace by the proximity and alarm mechanics;
+ Actually very portable once taken out of its rather wasteful box;
+ Quick and easy to play;
+ Hidden data tokens add a Eurogame twist to proceedings, with no clear victor until the very end;
+ Sudden reversals of fortune will delight some…

Watch out for:

- …and infuriate others. Infiltration is three parts luck to one part skill – the lucky player able to break into the secret room or hijack the rarest items is invariably the winner;
– No fleshed out personae as in Netrunner under either the standard or variant rules;
– PvP, while present, is not as brutal as some might like;
– Rules, while few, are missing some sensible modifications that will have to do as house rules.

You might also like: The achingly beautiful Tokaido, which we’ll review soon, which centres very much on player order and consideration of chosen action as with Infiltration. Both Netrunner and the Android boardgame (which we will also review later this month) are set in the same universe, and fans of the mythos are likely to enjoy those too.
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