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Coy Kissee
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I first found out about this game on Kickstarter. After reading everything I could find on it, I became a backer. I finally received my copy this week, playing it twice last night with my group. This review is based on those two plays, one with 3 players and one with four players.

Game Overview

Agents of SMERSH is a spy-themed co-operative game for 1-4 players set in the era of the Cold War. Game duration is stated as 90-120 minutes, and the game is for players 12 years of age and up. Players take the role of secret agents, whose mission is to locate the hideout of the nefarious Dr. Lobo and defeat him using the intel that they have gathered throughout the course of the game. For comparison purposes, I would describe this game as a cross between Tales of the Arabian Nights and Pandemic.

What I liked

1) Theme - As a fan of Tales of the Arabian Nights, I was extremely excited to have another game using similar storytelling elements, and I am not in the least disappointed. I have yet to play with the Book of Encounters, but the encounters provided on the encounter cards themselves are thematic and entertaining, so I'm positive that trend will continue with the book encounters as well.

2) Atypical co-operation - Pandemic and many other co-operative games suffer from what is being called Quarterbacking, where one player takes control of all of the other players' actions, to the point where the game really becomes solitaire for one player, with the rest of the players just following orders and not having any fun.

I feel that the possibility for Quarterbacking with Agents of SMERSH is diminished due to the players having full characters to play rather than just a role with a single special ability to exploit. There is potential for more team strategizing (should we focus on gathering intel or should we be getting a Location token into play soon?) with individual play in this format.

3) Variation and playing time - The ability to optionally use (or skip using) the Book of Encounters impacts the playing time. If you want a shorter game, skip using the book and only use the cards. The process of using only the cards is much more streamlined, and this will reduce the playing time by removing: a) much of the Analysis Paralysis of having to decide what option from a response group to choose, and b) eliminates the time it takes to draw a Fate card, determine the encounter number to look up in the book, and then find that entry in the book.

The drawback of using only the cards is the opportunity for duplication of encounters in sequentially-played games, which is what we had in our two plays, as a couple of the encounters that we had were found in both games.

To offset this possibility, you can choose to use only the Book of Encounters (adding 1500+ encounters to the mix), or to even use both the card-only encounters and the book encounters at the same time for the least possibility of duplication.

What I think needs improvement

1) Dr. Lobo's card - this card is way too big for practical purposes.

This game takes up a lot of table space with the board, 4 (or 5) Henchman cards, 9 card decks (6 encounter decks, 1 villain deck, 1 fate deck, and 1 top secret deck) with their associated discard piles, character cards for each player, and 6 token piles (Location, Intel, Injury, U.N. Transport, Airport Closure, Advanced Skill). With that amount of space, having Dr. Lobo's card be sized similar to the Henchman cards would be preferable.

2) The box - as a storage solution.

I love the artwork on the box, from the logo to the menacing villain lineup protrayed on the cover, but from a storage perspective, while everything fits in the box, it leaves much to be desired. At the bottom of the box is a low cardboard insert with two large chambers, one side that is big enough hold the Henchman cards, and the other side larger, but not large enough to hold the character cards.

I have organized my game by making wraps for each card deck in order to keep them together, and all the regular cards fit on the larger side, while the smaller side holds the Henchman cards and all of the tokens (organized and bagged separately), agent standees, wooden cubes, dice and dice bag (which is a really nice bag, by te way) and the pawn used on Dr. Lobo's card. The board sits on top of the insert, along with the character cards, the rulebook, Dr. Lobo's card, and the Book of Encounters (optional). There is a large gap due to the size of the box compared to the size of the board, and with the size of the Dr. Lobo card (see entry #1 above), the contents of the box shift a lot when the box is transported, which can damage the contents, especialy the Dr. Lobo card.

3) The rulebook - organization and consistency.

I think one of the most confusing things about the rules is that the mandatory die that is always rolled is sometimes called the gray die and sometimes called the yellow die. Having it consistently be called one or the other and having an image of the die next to the text would be helpful.

There are also parts of the rules that are written as though there are more rules than there really are that you have to look elsewhere to find. Specifically, the way that the rewards for completing your secret mission are stated, it seems like there are other rewards you can elect to take beyond drawing a Top Secret card, which there are, but only if you have a Status card that says that it can be removed as a reward, which not all bad Status cards have as an option.

Like many games that have a bit of complexity to the rules, we played our first game incorrectly, only realizing it when we were almost to the end of the game. This was certainly our fault, and I do not hold the authors/designers responsible, but when you play you first game, please be sure to completely understand the rules for how Intel and Location tokens work.

NOTE: One critical thing to be aware of is that the Book of Encounters is not provided with the base game, it is a separate purchase. We did not play using the Book of Encounters, so it had no bearing on our games.

Conclusion

Overall, the few shortcomings that I have pointed out are vastly overshadowed by what I feel are the strengths of the game. Even after playing (and losing) both of our games, everyone that played wanted to immediately play again (but unfortunately we could not as time had run out on us). This is a game that I think will be seeing a considerable amount of playing time with my group, much more than Tales of the Arabian Nights and Pandemic combined. This was the first project that I backed on Kickstarter, and I'm very glad that I did!
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Jeff Jarvis
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ckissee wrote:
There are also parts of the rules that are written as though there are more rules than there really are that you have to look elsewhere to find. Specifically, the way that the rewards for completing your secret mission are stated, it seems like there are other rewards you can elect to take beyond drawing a Top Secret card, which there are, but only if you have a Status card that says that it can be removed as a reward, which not all bad Status cards have as an option.


Actually there are. When you complete your secret mission you can get:
1) Draw a Top Secret card
2) Gain 1 Resolve
3) Gain a UN Transport Token
4) Increase any basic skill
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Daniel Kearns
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ckissee wrote:

3) The rulebook - organization and consistency.


Nice review.

The rulebook is killing me though. It is just so poorly written, which is really disturbing for a story game. Inconsistently-applied terminology and imprecise descriptions are all over the place.

Another inconsistency I found last night is "Intel Overflow" and "Intel Limit". Plus, it seems like two different "hints sections" in two different parts of the rulebook went to print. Plus reading the hints, the hints didn't make a lick of sense to me. Even the basic nuts and bolts of play seems to demand almost constant inference as to what the author intended (rather than a clear and explicit explanation).

Gah, makes me want to rewrite the rulebook with track changes. Might even try after the semester is over...
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Coy Kissee
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Jarvis wrote:

Actually there are. When you complete your secret mission you can get:
1) Draw a Top Secret card
2) Gain 1 Resolve
3) Gain a UN Transport Token
4) Increase any basic skill


Yep, I found those options in a separate place in the rulebook, posted after three sets of variants.
 
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Coy Kissee
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dkearns wrote:
Gah, makes me want to rewrite the rulebook with track changes. Might even try after the semester is over...


Check the files section. There's a very good concise rules document in there: 80799

I found this after writing my review. I would have liked to have found it before playing my first game.
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William Cunningham
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In spite of the rule book's shortcomings, I'm really enjoying AoS. I've got two solo games under my belt now and both were just great fun. Can't wait to give this a go next week with a gaming group!
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τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν
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I liked the idea, but thought that the story samples posted on the Kickstarter were pretty subpar so ended up passing on it. Did they go back and edit these, tighten them up, make them less crap? Or is it the same ol' stuff?
 
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William Cunningham
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It's a board game set in a cheesy, fictional world of super spies that draws inspiration from shows like Man from UNCLE and early James Bond films, not Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground.

In that regard, it succeeds well. I'm not sure what you consider "crap", but if the writing in AoS was unbearable for you, I wonder if board gaming is really the hobby for you, as I can think of no game that is written any better or worse. They're all created by game designers, not novelists.
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chearns
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hepcat1 wrote:
I'm not sure what you consider "crap", but if the writing in AoS was unbearable for you, I wonder if board gaming is really the hobby for you, as I can think of no game that is written any better or worse. They're all created by game designers, not novelists.


Huh?

Personally, I love playing board games and I am glad they are made by game designers and not novelists. I can only imagine how terrible Pandemic, Agricola, or Medici would be if they were designed by novelists. So, pretty sure this is the hobby for me.

However, in a game where reading fiction is part of play, I would expect the writing to be way way better than the flavour texts found in the rulebook of your typical board game.
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William Cunningham
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Then you'll be happy with AoS. The writing is fun and fits the atmosphere of the game nicely, while still allowing the game to actually play like a game.

p.s. NOT a slam against Tales of the Arabian Nights with that last line. I love that game dearly. But I always felt it was less a game than a social experience. Which is absolutely fine. AoS is a challenging game at the same time it's a story driven coop. As such, it may not be on par with ToAN, but I think the limitations in enforcing the gameplay is more to blame.
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Michael D. Kelley
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As a quick note to the review, we've been putting Dr. Lobo's huge card under the game board, with only the level 1-9 track showing on the left side of the board. The card now takes up very little space (comparable to two of the henchmen cards), and all of the important information is clearly visible.
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Daniel Kearns
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GameMasterX0 wrote:
As a quick note to the review, we've been putting Dr. Lobo's huge card under the game board, with only the level 1-9 track showing on the left side of the board. The card now takes up very little space (comparable to two of the henchmen cards), and all of the important information is clearly visible.


Simple, obvious, and I NEVER would have thought of that. Thank you!
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Evan Stegman
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GameMasterX0 wrote:
As a quick note to the review, we've been putting Dr. Lobo's huge card under the game board, with only the level 1-9 track showing on the left side of the board. The card now takes up very little space (comparable to two of the henchmen cards), and all of the important information is clearly visible.


That is a good idea.

However, although for some unfathomable reason it doesn't say it in the Villian Advancement section, you are supposed to put the advancement cards on Lobo's mat because there are encounter rewards that let you remove them (and have the counter go backwards). I suspect that is why the mat is so big.

But putting them next to the track should work just fine.
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hepcat1 wrote:
It's a board game set in a cheesy, fictional world of super spies that draws inspiration from shows like Man from UNCLE and early James Bond films, not Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground.


There's still a difference between good pulp writing and terrible pulp writing. The samples they posted during the kickstarter were pretty bad. Setting up strawmen like 'THIS IS HARDLY MEANT TO BE GREAT FICTION LIKE ANNA KARENINININA SIR!' is silly.

Quote:
In that regard, it succeeds well. I'm not sure what you consider "crap", but if the writing in AoS was unbearable for you, I wonder if board gaming is really the hobby for you, as I can think of no game that is written any better or worse. They're all created by game designers, not novelists.


Wow. I donno what version of Agricola you're playing that requires you to read a lot of fiction penned by the game's creator, but it does not sound very fun. Now my copy of Android: Netrunner does have some flavor text on the cards, but it sounds like your version actually comes with books you have to read every round? That sounds downright unpleasant, no matter who wrote them!
 
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