Cracked LCD- Rogue Agent in Review

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If Panic Station was Belgian designer David Ausloos’ homage to films like Alien and The Thing, then his new game Rogue Agent (just out from Stronghold Game in a special limited edition) is clearly his love letter to Blade Runner and 1980s-era cyberpunk noir. Complete with miniature agents that looks unashamedly like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard character and an “android” gameplay mode that aims to create some of the “is he or isn’t he” suspicion from the film, it’s really mostly a cops-and-robbers game where you gather resources, track criminals and bring them in for bounties back at the Rain City police HQ. And speaking as someone who once owned one of the only 100 copies of it ever made, it is a far better representation of the theme than the legendary Blade Runner game was.

Like Panic Station, the game has been met with mixed reviews, including one from Lord Tom Vasel and a general “kiss of death” sub-seven aggregate user score at Boardgamegeek.com.  I have to admit- again, like Panic Station- that I did not like this game the first time I played it. In fact, it crashed and burned so hard with my group that it almost got the ultimate penalty for an ill-favored game- to be swept back into the box without sorting for storage. I felt like the theme was muddled, with this odd bomb defusing thing going on and lots of dice-rolling to find gas or bullets, which basically means to bump a cube up one of your agent’s resource tracks. I really do not like “roll to find” mechanics in general, so this game was sticking it to me from the get-go. The rulebook, while not as messy as Panic Station’s, still baffled us and I’m not sure anyone defused a bomb correctly in that maiden outing.

So I started to think “oh man, I’m going to have to throw this one under the bus too”. But something about the game stuck with me and I found that I wanted to go back to it. For one thing, I wanted to try it with the android rules, which are effectively a variation on the Cylon/hidden traitor mechanic. But for another, I wanted to look at the game from a different perspective. Because Rogue Agent is not, come to find out, quite the highly detailed adventure game that you might think it is.

With measured expectations (and a couple of different players), I came to realize what Mr. Ausloos was aiming to do with Rogue Agent. Despite the very clear nods to Blade Runner and similar antecedents, Rogue Agent is really pitched more as a medium-weight Eurogame where resource management is balanced with some risk-taking, a little dice rolling, and some surprisingly nasty opportunities to interfere with other players. What’s more, I actually found that the higher degree of abstraction and lack of reliance on flavor text and background fluff actually made the overall setting feel more successful in some ways than Kevin Wilson’s Android. You have to work out on your own why your guy got busted up searching Rico’s Gas Station or why he completely flopped an attempt to bring in Eyon Six or Lola Bruise.

This is a much leaner and more direct game than Android. Your character’s only story is what he has to do his job, what criminals he brings in, and his record at defusing those bombs. You’ve got a resource tracking card that shows how much ammo, gas, information and so forth you have as well as what upgrades to your weapon and armor you’ve achieved. There are some simple mechanics that create a sense of environment. Precinct tiles have skull icons, indicating the degree of low-level thug activity. Unless the Police Squad miniature is there, you either take damage or you can spend bullets to shoot your way out of the bad neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ve got an informant on the streets there that gets you through safely. Criminals make the bombs tick down faster, and assassins will actually break out of their proscribed movement pattern to attack you or your hapless informants you’ve stationed in a precinct.

There is no overarching mystery to solve, all opposition comes from the “datastream”, a bag from which you draw tokens representing criminals and assassins that move automatically through the city and bombs that count down until they explode unless someone manages to get to them and disarm them. Over the course of the game, you’ll move through square tiles representing Rain City to accomplish “Justice” actions. These might be revealing and attempting to subdue a criminal, arresting a subdued criminal to take them in, searching the area (and rolling those search dice that I really don’t like), using information to look at an unrevealed criminal’s card, fighting an Assassin token or hijacking another player’s collar so that you can take him/her/it in for the bounty.

The goal of the game is to be the agent with the most influence (a really rather poor nomenclature for victory points) at the end, based on how many of the game’s diverse bad guys you busted, assassins you thwarted and bombs you deactivated. There really is not much of a cooperative angle here, apart from in the android mode where the android players are working at cross purposes with the agent players.

I really liked playing the basic game with more aggressive players that realized that intercepting bounties was a good way to get other players to do the heavy lifting before effectively stealing their collar. With more passive players, the game does feel less interesting and the shifting of cubes up and down the resource tracks feels more grinding. But the android mode is, I suspect, the way that most folks will want to play it and a couple of extra rules pay off nicely. The thing I like the most about the android rules is that you’re not given an identity at the outset. The android tokens you get only increase the possibility that you will be revealed as an android. So true to the Blade Runner theme, you’re not really sure what you are when the game starts. This is brilliant.

As an android mode game progresses, you might be forced due to game effects to show one of your identity tokens to other players and you can choose which to show.  If at any point you’ve reveal two android tokens, you’re a dirty skinjob and your role is to attack agents and damage city locations. You might also have to reveal identity tokens if you are cornered by another agent and subjected to a scan action to reveal identity tokens. Blade Runner fans will recognize that as a Voight-Kampf Test. “Whaddya mean I’m not helping?”

So it took a good three games for me to come around to Rogue Agent. The first was a disaster, the second I had adjusted expectations plus a more aggressive group of three other players and in the third we did the android mode game and had a really good time with it. But I still feel there are some rough spots and over-complications that I really wish had been ironed out in development. The bomb defusing sub-game is an interesting concept, somewhat similar to the kinds of mini-games that were in Mansions of Madness, but it comes down to good or bad luck on big die rolls too often. The end game scoring is needlessly complicated, with players getting bonus points for having multiple members of one of the game’s syndicates. Some criminals have effects that trigger if they have been investigated by a player, others have effects if they have not been investigated. But neither state really adds to the story or gameplay.

I keep coming back to a Panic Station comparison, which was also a compelling mix of thematic mechanics that were near-brilliant and overcomplicated elements that were counterintuitive. But I think that, after just three published games, it’s pretty clear that this is very much the Ausloos style and it’s apparent that the Ausloos style can be pretty divisive. What it comes down to for me is that what I really like about this Ausloos style that is on full display in Rogue Agent is that he completely commits to a thematic vision and tries to make mechanics work with it, logic and sense be damned. Sometimes that’s awkward, sometimes it’s overly complex and kind of just makes you confused. But other times- when his games are really working, you kind of just give into his directorial concept and let it just work in the context of his rules and the environment he creates.

Cracked LCD: Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men in Review

 

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Wizkids’ new Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers versus X-men is a sensation. The starter sets are sold out everywhere because demand simply outstripped supply. There is already a healthy aftermarket with players and collectors shelling out $40 or more for “super rare” cards. Tournaments and organized play supported by Wizkids are waiting in the wings and the buzz over the game is overwhelmingly positive. It looks like it’s primed to be one of the most significant hobby game releases of 2014. Building on their design work with Quarriors and the Lord of the Rings “dicebuilding” game, Mike Elliot and Eric Lang have produced a hybrid that exists somewhere at the crossroads of those games, Dominion and Magic: the Gathering. All coated with a billion dollar Marvel Comics paint job. Continue Reading…

Jumping the Shark Podcast #207

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Episode #207 of Jumping the Shark is a throwback to old times as IGN’s Mitch Dyer re-joins Brandon and me for some long overdue catching up. Just to complete the picture we even wrote a new script for our Bill Abner character, which delivers the goods in the form of many, many musings about Dark Souls II. And there’s plenty more. Hear all about Mitch’s DOTA obsession, Brandon plays himself some Child of Light, and we talk a bunch about the highs and lows of dealing cards in Hearthstone. There’s more Hitman Go and FTL musings, and some old-fashioned TV talk to wrap it all up. Lastly, we’re going to our next recording due to my upcoming nuptials. So, look for JtS #208 on June 2nd. Sorry all, but Mexico beckons!

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Commands & Colors Greek Expansions (1 and 6) Review

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When you’re ankle-deep in streamlined, strategic board games from the European school of worthy but tedious game design, it’s easy to forget sometimes that part of what makes gaming great is the feeling of being there. C&C:A might be a bunch of cards and wooden blocks, but when it works you’re not sat at a 20th century table any more: you’re Scipio on the dusty plain at Zama, Hannibal on the gore-soaked field of Cannae.

I forgot this whenever I used to talk about the C&C:A expansions. Spoiled by the mechanical contrivances added to their respecting games by the expansion boxes for Memoir 44 and C&C:N, I played them and airily dismissed them as not adding sufficient extra strategy or interest to the game in comparison.

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Cracked LCD: Simpler Times- Nostalgia for the Wooden Boot

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I recently picked up a second hand copy of Origin, a game that Asmodee released last year that didn’t really have much of an impact in the face of the countless deckbuilders, Kickstarter zombie miniature games, worker placement titles and LCG add-ons that crowded it out. It just came in the mail and I popped open the colorful box, depicting a friendly scene of some folks playing the game. Inside were all of these wonderful people pawns laid out in the insert each engraved with primitive detail, mimicking the kind of early sculpture the expanding civilizations depicted in the game might have made. For the first time in a long while, I was charmed by the contents of a game box and the presentation of them. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Monster Derby in Review

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A few years back when the Japanese roll-and-move rumble Magical Athlete was making the rounds, my friend Frank Branham pulled this esoteric and extremely ugly game from the deepest recesses of his voluminous game collection. He said it was a lot like Magical Athlete, and he wasn’t kidding. This 1994 title had a similar “racing monsters with special powers ” concept but it was slightly more complex with die-rolling combat, terrain effects and a mutual control scheme whereby players secretly try to maneuver their win, place and show picks to earn points when- or if- they finish. I was surprised to see that the game was designed by Jeff Siadek, who has become known in recent years for a couple of really good small press titles such as Battlestations, Lifeboat and World Conquerors. Continue Reading…

Jumping the Shark Podcast #206

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Alright, listen up. We have a new episode of JtS. It’s #206. That means… well it means Brandon and I talk about stuff. You know the drill. This week Brandon admires Hitman GO to an extent with which I’m not entirely comfortable . He also completes his Bravey Default adventures and begins a foray into Hearthstone (iOS). (One that I, with much regret, have since joined.) I’m also not quite done with my adventures in FTL: Advanced Edition land. This week I get into more of what I think works best and the stuff that feels a little off-balance. (Spoiler: There’s not much.) Finally, we wrap with a big-time, spoiler lamp is majorly lit, discussion of Captain America: The Winter Solder and its affects on the rapidly improving Agents of SHIELD.

It’s all here. Come get some.

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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review

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After a lengthy public beta, a general release on PC and Mac and then an agonizingly long one week delay following a “soft launch”, Blizzard’s much-ballyhooed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has finally hit the platform that could potentially make this free-to-play collectible card game a phenomenon. Hearthstone on iPad is a masterful implementation of a masterfully designed game rich with the kind of polish, refinement and attention to detail that has qualified Blizzard’s best work reaching back to the very first Warcraft. Bar none, Hearthstone is the best card game available on IOS and it may just be one of the most significant examples of video games finally repaying all of that debt they’ve had to tabletop games for all of these years. Continue Reading…

Wiz-War: Malefic Curses Review

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Wiz-War makes me angry. I get angry when I have the wrong cards, when the dice fall wrong, when the wrong people gang up on me. But that’s good anger. The bad anger is all the years I spent not playing this great game while it was out of print, until Fantasy Flight picked up the license for an eight edition. Now, in true Fantasy Flight style, there’s an expansion: Malefic Curses.

The box contains a board and pieces for a fifth player and three new schools of magic. A lot of people have been waiting for this largely for that fifth participant, but I’m not one of them. Wiz-War is a pretty chaotic game, and works best when clipping along at a premium pace. Five, I think, is too many. The additional interaction is fun, of course, but it’s not enough to compensate for the extra downtime.

Still, the fact that the new board is purple is a bonus since it now means no-one has to play the urine yellow mage from the base game when you’re playing with four. So it’s not all bad.

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Cracked LCD- Hey Kid, Wanna “Back” a Copy of Catacombs?

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I recently had a moment of weakness. I failed a saving throw and started thinking about “backing” a Kickstarter “project” despite my sincere reservations and general animosity toward the shift the hobby and video gaming industry has made toward crowdfunding everything. I’m not quite sure how gaming consumers could not be tired of the seemingly endless parade of vaporware products sold on cute videos, pictures of prototype miniatures, a phony sense of exclusivity and of course the nonsense notion that you are somehow supporting creators’ dreams rather than just paying up front for a product that may or may not meet expectations. It’s a sad day and age when all of these carpetbagging hucksters shilling zombie dungeon crawl tactical skirmish miniatures games (with REAL metal coins) are making a kind of money that has eluded the hobby industry for a couple of decades now by selling games based on “stretch goals” rather than product quality and company reputation. Continue Reading…

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