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Subject: Fastlane Fails at Games Review #2: Agents of Smersh rss

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Bryan Lane
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Agents of Smersh. I remember the Kickstarter campaign. I saw the listing and didn't click on it because I thought the name was stupid. "Smersh"? They couldn't come up with something cooler? I didn't realize at the time that Smersh was the name of a real organization and the name comes from some bastardized Russian that translates to "death to spies".

Alright. That's cool enough I guess.

I ended up backing near the end of the campaign after I finally caved and looked into it after hearing a lot of good buzz on Boardgamegeek and taking part in the sponsored BGG giveaway contest (which let's face it is really only good for a free microbadge, since I'll never win any of them. But then, if it wasn't for this contest I may never have looked into "that game with that silly name").

Let me get this straight: a cooperative version of Tales of the Arabian Nights with a spy theme and more of a game going on? Some kind of TotAN-meets-Arkham-Horror-wrapped-in-James-Bond-style-spy-flair? Sign me up!

Components:


Game all set up. Takes a fair bit of table space.


Components are purty. Nice thick, glossy board with exceptional art. Chunky, custom engraved dice in a nice cloth dice bag. Lots of decent quality cards. Attractive stand-ups for the characters. Wooden cubes for tracking character stats. Lots of tokens, most of which are a good size. The airport closure tokens are pretty tiny, but they do the job and it's not like you have to read them or distinguish between them.



Airport closure tokens. Almost need tweezers to handle them.


The character cards are card stock, as are the henchman mats. Art looks nice, and they're a decent size. Not too big, but not too small. Only complaint about character mats is that the abilities that make them unique could be more prominent.

Dr. Lobo track is a bit on the large side. A lot on the big side, actually. When we play, we slide two-thirds of the card under the board leaving only the track exposed. The text provides some nice fluff, but that could have been relegated to the rule book to save some valuable table space.



Seriously, that fluff on the right hand side is great, but takes way too much room.


The rule book itself is full colour, of good quality and reasonable size. The writing... Well, it's all there, I guess. It could be a better organized/laid out, but the game isn't overly complex so you can get by with what's there, but without some kind of players aid or multiple read-throughs, it's easy to miss something like Intel Overflow rules or something before you start playing. My copy came with a single inkjet-printed FAQ sheet, but that sheet mostly detailed the Kickstarter stretch reward components.

I sprung for the book of encounters, and I'm glad I did. It dominates the weight of the box, and contains a plethora of often amusing, always exciting encounters. Vastly superior to the standard Arkham Horror-esque encounter cards. Typos aren't entirely uncommon but it's otherwise excellently written. The numbering makes it easier to look encounters up, since the reader can start looking up the encounter while the player is deciding on his or her "response" (more on this later).



Sure, I could show you what's inside. But then I'd have to... kill you.



Gameplay:

Players work together moving around the globe having encounters, retrieving intel and battling Dr. Lobo's henchmen. Intel comes in several different flavours and when collected it goes into a pool, face-down (players don't know what type of intel has been collected unless some effect allows a player to flip up a token). Henchmen have to be encountered a number of times and must have collected a minimum set of intel determined by the progress Dr. Lobo has made towards his master plan. When the players have defeated henchmen at enough locations and are confident they have collected enough intel, they can end the game and go after Lobo. If they don't have the required intel, they lose. If Dr. Lobo completes his plan by advancing to 9 on his track, the players lose. If they stop him with the proper intel, they win.



Not a lot of time left before Lobo completes his plan...


Encounters are the heart of the game, much like Tales of the Arabian Nights. Unlike TotAN, the encounters are usually easy to pass. Like TotAN, most encounters have an auto-pass clause if the player has the requisite skill, otherwise the player is forced to take a test which involves drawing dice from the bag depending on the stat being tested. The dice all have different probabilities depending on which colour you pull. The black die has very good odds at success (4 in 6) while the brown die has very poor odds (1 in six). the higher you skill, the more dice you can draw and roll.



The custom dice are all big, chunky, engraved dice. Very high quality and easy on the eyes.



Failure, while rare, is brutal. It usually carries some sort of negative effect like an injury, but more importantly it advances Dr. Lobo's track by one or two spots. If you die and fail? You resolve TWO advancements. That really smarts.



Ouch.


But that brings me to my biggest complaint about the game. It is far too easy for a cooperative game. Luckily, the movement die and the fifth henchman provided as Kickstarter bonuses help here, but even using both of these and the dirty intel variant in the rulebook, we almost always win. I know, the point is the story, and it is VERY well done. Full points there. But my group really prefers a brutal challenge if we're forsaking traditional inter-player competition for a cooperative game. I'm happy I have some things to make the game harder, but it concerns me that most of these were Kickstarter exclusives.

The only other thing I wasn't a fan of was the "reactions". If you're used to playing TotAN, you will remember that you encounter someone or something, then you decide what you're going to do. You have encountered a crafty beggar. What Do you want to do? Beat him? Help him? Attack him? Rob him? Talk with him? Trick him? You don't have a ton of information, but what you choose to do is generally pretty evident. Well, it's not like that in AoS. The description of the encounter and the "reactions" are pretty cryptic. Rather than reacting to an encounter, it feels more like you're helping shape the encounter, if that makes any sense. I got over it pretty quickly, but my first play or two I found it a little jarring.

Sometimes the combination doesn't make a lot of sense at the time. An encounter "Run!" Includes such reactions as "No compromise", "Scoff" and "Meditate". How does one meditate and run at the same time? What does "no compromise" mean when running? This question was brought up on the BGG message boards, and the response was that "run!" encounters are all chases. You might be chasing, or maybe you're being chased. The reactions add further detail to the encounter. Meditate might mean that the character needs to draw on some deeper motivation or source of strength during he chase, for example. It's not quite as intuitive, but you get used to it after a couple of games.



Nothing like trying to blend in while you're being TORTURED.



Verdict:

Getting down to brass tacks, this is a difficult game to rate, but it is easier if you can use TotAN as a reference. If you have played and enjoy TotAN, and you like the spy shtick (007, Get Smart, etc.) you will love this game. If you didn't like TotAN because there wasn't enough game there, you might prefer Agents of Smersh, but if you're looking for a brutal challenge for your group, you might be better off looking at something like Ghost Stories.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is almost more of an experience than a game, and so it is with Agents of Smersh. There is more of a game with a more concrete goal in AoS, but its strength lies mainly in the storytelling and it does a great job there. Some people in my group have told me that they actually prefer Agents to Tales, but know that the games don't appeal to everyone. If you have a really competitive person in your group he or she might not appreciate this one. If your group can appreciate something with a good story at the expense of difficulty/interesting decisions/skill required, this is pretty special. It's definitely a niche kind of game, but what it does it does well.

There is an expansion in the works that will add Australia into the mix. I'm looking forward to it, but I just hope it ups the difficulty somehow.


Number of players: 1-4
Play time: listed at 90 mins, but we find it runs a bit longer. Usually a solid two hours.
Table space required: large table or an average table with a side table/tv tray to hold the cards.
BGG link: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/111105/agents-of-smer...
Fastlane's rating: 7/10. A great storytelling game that is good for some laughs with the right group, but too easy for a cooperative game. Probably try this or Tales of the Arabian Nights before buying to see if this kind of game is a fit with your group.

(Cross-posted from my new gaming blog! Fastlane Fails at Games)
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Dustin Crenshaw
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way to easy? strongly disagree.
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Chris Wood
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The henchmen have been kicking my arse recently. Mr big has repeatedly pummeled me with his bat.
 
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Bryan Lane
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It's not like we haven't lost, but it's only happened twice in all of our games, and we play with all any rule/variant we can to make it harder. A coop game should have more teeth than that.

Still fun even if we do win all the time, though. If nothing else, it's something that can't be said of many coops.
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Dustin Crenshaw
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that's crazy, we don't win half of ours.
 
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Fedor Ilitchev
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Nice review. I just don't get the title - its depressing... have some confidence man!
 
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Bryan Lane
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Fastlane Fails at Games is the name of my new blog. It's a bit tongue in cheek. I love games, but I tend to lose a lot more than I win (with the exception of a few specific games). Part of the reason is that I'm very prone to AP, but I make a conscious effort to keep play moving, often at the cost of making very boneheaded mistakes.

Rather than get depressed about it, I like to laugh at myself a little

Anyway, I've been thinking about doing a few game-related projects (reviews, session reports, let's play videos, etc.) for a long time, and I created the blog to motivate me to stop thinking about it and actually do it. It also gives me a place to jot down some gaming-related thoughts.
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