Game Review: Rogue Agent

Rogue Agent bigRogue Agent

  • Designer: David Ausloos
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-4 (Agent Mode), 3-4 (Android Mode)
  • Ages: 11+
  • Time: 90 minutes
  • Times played: 5 plays (2 Agent Mode, 3 Android Mode)
  • Review copy provided by Stronghold Games

Dystopian visions of the future are all the rage in film (The Hunger Games, Divergent, Children of Men), in literature (The Giver, The Passage), in video games (Half-Life/Portal, EVE Online) and in board games (Arctic Scavengers, Bioshock: Siege of Columbia). At some level, the whole zombie mania (please, no more games about zombies – I beg you!) has elements of dystopia – and, in many cases, a severe lack of imagination.

The previous paragraph needs footnotes:

  • Yes, I’m aware that The Passage is a zombie book of sorts… I loved the first couple hundred pages & then completely bogged down when time shifted.
  • Yes, I’m also aware that there’s a lot of crossover between various media formats in my examples above.
  • No, I’m not likely to get over my dislike of zombies any time soon.

Back to the matter at hand… the dystopian inspiration for Stronghold Games’ Rogue Agent is pretty obviously the touchstone film for the genre: Blade Runner. (And, no, we’re not going to waste our time arguing which cut of the film was the best.)

  • Strangers hiding among us: check. (They’re called “androids” rather than “replicants” – but, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? A murderous creature by any other name would still be lethal.”)
  • Dark, gloomy futuristic city: check. (Welcome to Rain City. Now go home.)
  • Bizarre criminal lowlifes: check. (All of whom come straight from Future Gone Wrong central casting.)
  • Anti-hero(es): check. (That’s you, in case you were wondering. Or maybe you’re an android. Only time will tell.)

As an operative of “The Agency” (a shadow group attempting to keep the peace in Rain City), you work to acquire resources & equipment, arrest criminals, “neutralize” assassins, and defuse bombs. If you manage to interfere with the other rogue agents at the same time, so much the better.

Agent Mode is the introductory (read: training) mode of the game – and, frankly, was less than fully satisfying as a game experience. Android Mode is the full (read: best) mode for playing Rogue Agent… and involves all the potential actions & activities of Agent Mode, as well as the possibility of androids having infiltrated The Agency beginning a reign of death & terror.

Armed only with a decent knowledge of Cityspeak, a few resources (gas, ammo & evidence), way too little cash & a strong moral compass buried beneath a world-weary façade, the agents head out into the downpour to protect and serve.

Play

Each round (there are 8 rounds in Android Mode and 6 rounds in Agent Mode) begins with a Time phase. The start player (designated the Operations Chief) draws the appropriate number of wooden discs from the bag (called the Datastream), then rolls 3 standard six-sided dice to determine which precincts (board spaces) they can potentially be placed on.

The wooden discs represent one of three things:

  • criminals (there are 6 in the bag – numbered 1-6 – which are then assigned to face-down cards while a corresponding piece is placed on the board)
  • assassins (there are 4 in the bag)
  • bombs (there are 4 in the bag)

The Operations Manager chooses where each of the “bad guys” end up… and then rolls a six-sided die for each bomb, setting (roughly) the number of rounds before it explodes.

Player turns are relatively straightforward:

  • cruise around Rain City looking for someone to beat up (aka “arrest”)
  • use evidence resources to figure out how dangerous particular criminals are
  • undertake 2 “Justice” actions
    • attack (subdue) a criminal or assassin
    • arrest a subdued criminal
    • intercept a criminal arrested by another agent
    • turn in a criminal at HQ
    • search a location for resources & upgrades
    • purchase resources & upgrades
    • defuse a bomb
    • scan another agent (to see if he/she is an android)
    • attack a (revealed) android

After the second Justice action, movement is over and you have only two options:

  • recruit an informant in that location
  • stand brooding darkly in the never-ending polluted rain, thinking cynical thoughts that could possibly be used as voiceover narration

Androids, once revealed, have a different set of actions:

  • cruise around Rain City looking for someone to beat up (aka “intimidate with their freakish powers”)
  • undertake 2 “Underground” actions:
    • search a location for resources & upgrades
    • purchase resources & upgrades
    • attack an agent
    • attack a location (city tile)

After the second Underground action, the android stops moving and waits in deathly stillness while his/her onboard computers update & upgrade. In other words, the player turn is over.

A round is concluded with a City Phase, in which the criminals move about (on a pre-established pattern), the assassins seek victims (also on a pre-established pattern), bombs count down (and can explode) and the Police Squad (a single non-player figure) moves to guard a new precinct.

The objective is to acquire the most Influence – which can be obtained by:

  • subduing a criminal (1 Influence)
  • delivering an arrested Criminal to HQ (end game scoring with bonuses for having arrested multiple criminals in the same)
  • killing an Assassin (1 Influence)
  • defusing a bomb (1 Influence)
  • turning in evidence at HQ (1 Influence for 6 evidence resources)
  • revealing an android (1 Influence)
  • sending an agent to the hospital (the android gains 1 Influence while the agent loses 1 Influence)
  • destroying a location (androids only – 1 Influence)

Mechanics

The majority of actions are driven by dice: attacking, searching, defusing bombs, fighting with androids, etc. The game includes 9 custom dice in 3 types/colors – healing & spy skills (red), gas & cruiser upgrades (green), and bullets, money & guns (black). All of the dice have a blast and a boost symbol as well, used in resolving attacks and bomb defusing.

At the same time, there are ways to mitigate the impact of all that dice-rolling. Both agents & androids can purchase or search for upgrades that can add dice to rolls or lessen any negative blowback from those rolls. By spending evidence to investigate criminals, agents can make informed plans about which criminals to arrest and which to simply avoid.

Cruising (movement) is based on the gas resource – players have one “free” move of 1 or 2 spaces per turn, with the option to spend gas resources to take additional 1 or 2 space moves.

Six of the fourteen city sections (spaces) on the board are precincts, which have one or two thugs in them, waiting to attack whoever is stupid enough to travel into their territory. Agents can avoid injury by using the ammo resource to get them to back off.

The rest of the board is made up of locations: Police HQ is always at the “center” of the map, while the other locations (the gas station, the gun shop, the hospital, etc.) are placed randomly into a preset grid.

As well, the Police Squad keeps gang activity down in one precinct per round, making it a safe place to cruise or hunker down, as no Justice actions can occur where the Police Squad is currently located.

There is even a sub-game in Rogue Agent – a push-your-luck dice rolling & placement game is used when you attempt to defuse a bomb. (This is probably the most difficult part of the rules to understand – the explanation provided by the designer on BGG was extremely helpful in clearing it up.)

rogue agentConflicted

I find myself in a difficult place when it comes to writing a review of Rogue Agent. I think it’s an intriguing game system with great variability… and that variability may be both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the game. Two of my plays in preparing for this review were edge-of-your-seat fun, with close finishes and opportunities for smart plays. Two other times the game reached the table, however, were less enjoyable – the decisions seemed obvious and the system overwhelmed the ability of players to influence the outcome.

There’s much to like about Rogue Agent – it’s an interesting hybrid of dice-heavy combat/adventure resolution mechanics (sometimes unwisely referred to as “Ameritrash”) set in a more Euro-gamer friendly structure of limited actions and set costs. Planning ahead is important – but so is taking advantage of the mistakes of others. The inclusion of the agent/android battle (and how those loyalties are revealed) is a fresh take on the “traitor” mechanics first seen in Shadows Over Camelot & Battlestar: Galactica.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that all of the variable elements in the game system:

  • the modular board
  • the large deck of criminal cards
  • the Datastream bag process of seeding Rain City with adversaries (and the accompanying dice rolls for their placement)
  • the die rolls for the initial timer length for the bombs
  • the tokens used to reveal androids

…add some intriguing twists to the game. You cannot predict exactly what you’ll be facing or plan some sort of “perfect” strategy to deal with all possible situations. In the short time it’s been hitting the table here, we’ve had Rain City flooded with criminals… and other games with nothing but bombs & assassins causing havoc.

But that many variables can lead to problems in the flow of the game. A plethora of assassins mean money spent on informants is (mostly) wasted, as they are quickly killed off unless defended. Too many non-criminal draws from the Datastream not only impact final scores (the biggest source of points is arresting multiple criminals from the same gang) but also mean less cash available to the agents to recruit informants and purchase upgrades. My plays indicate that problematic flow is less of a problem with 4 players than with 3… but it is still a possibility.

We tried one game with one less bomb token in the bag (3 rather than 4) and felt like that worked to put more criminals into play. We also used the variant rule (kindly published by the designer in his FAQ) of drawing one disc from the Datastream per player, which also increased the possible targets & mayhem.

The structure of the game is more complicated than complex – there are a number of specific actions that are undertaken at the beginning and end of each round of player turns that breathe life into Rain City – and though none of them are difficult to execute, remembering what happens when & how takes a few games to become second nature. Though Stronghold Games did not include a player aid in the box, they’ve made sure that a very helpful one in the same art style as the game is available on BGG.

The rulebook is complete but for some reason it was easy to miss key rules. I’m not sure if that’s a function of the two-part structure of the rulebook (divided into Agent Mode and Android Mode sections) or if some of the moody graphic design choices make it tougher to scan quickly, but at various times, our group missed:

  • how the health & upgrade displays worked (you must PASS the icon in order to receive the upgrade or be “knocked out”)
  • the only action allowed after the second Justice action is recruiting an informant
  • it takes 2 unblocked blasts to destroy a space
  • the destabilization roll at the end of defusing a bomb
  • the Police Squad preventing Justice actions
  • only one identity token per player can be revealed each round

One of the problems we had with the game is actually solved by playing the “whole” game (Android Mode) over the introductory/teaching version (Agent Mode). In Agent Mode, gasoline is only useful for taking an extra move, which is often unnecessary. In Android Mode, however, gasoline is used to evade attacks by androids (or, if you are an Android, attempts to “retire” you by agents). It feels a bit like the change in value for sheep from basic Settlers of Catan to Seafarers of Catan.

Android Mode has another positive effect on the game – the narrative of the game actually progresses. Since it takes at least two rounds (usually three) for the androids to be revealed, the agents have time to concentrate on recruiting informants and upgrading their equipment in preparation for the inevitable android onslaught. When the rampage of destruction begins, the tone of the game changes and Rain City begins to burst into flame. It’s a really sweet thematic shift – one that limits the choices of the agents as it becomes more & more dangerous to get around the city.

Our first instinct was that the reward for defusing a bomb (one Influence) was too low – it’s the exact same reward as killing an assassin or subduing a criminal, but with much more potential downside. We even discussed raising the Influence value ourselves with a house rule. So I posed the question to the designer & developer… and their answer revealed two things to me: first, that it’s easy to “fix” a game because of your play style without thinking through all the ramifications. Second, these guys have put a lot of thought into this game design.

David: Bombs are a complex element in the game, in the sense that their value can vary greatly from situation to situation.Often the reward is not only the victory point, but the effect that the bomb will render: save your precious informants that form part of your VP pool or eliminate VP of competing agents. As the operation chief can decide where to place the bomb, the device can work in either direction, depending on the position he chooses.

Actually, this goes for a lot of elements in the game. Assassins can sometimes be worth only 1 VP, but when they are putting your informants in danger they are definitely worth more to hunt down.The same goes for criminals: their 1 VP value is only temporary, as syndicate colors can render some substantial boosts in VP.

In short: nothing in Rain City can be taken at face value. There are underlying motivations and connections that need to be taken into consideration when you choose to tackle the events in the city.

I think the biggest issue I had with the game is misplaced expectations based on the large deck of criminal cards and the ability to score big points from delivering multiple criminals to HQ has to be balanced against the reality of the short number of Justice actions available per player (16 in Android Mode) and the number of actions required to fully arrest a perp:

  • optional: use evidence to scan the criminal card (as some criminals are easier to subdue if you know who they are… while others are more dangerous if you don’t)
  • required: Justice action to subdue them (reward: 1 Influence)
  • required: Justice action to arrest them
  • move them back to HQ
  • required: Justice action to drop them off and claim the financial reward on the card

That doesn’t make the game “bad” – it just means that agents are unlikely to arrest more than 1 or 2 criminals in a game.

One more note about the criminal card deck: the first edition of the game is a limited edition with 10 extra criminal cards. According to the publisher, those cards will not be included in later printings.

Conclusion

I used to call my oldest son a “gamer-in-training”… but those days are long gone. He’s a gamer – which is a wonderful gift to his old man. It’s great to have someone in the house who is always ready to do battle with dice & cards… or talk over strategy & tactics. He’s been a great sounding board for playtest feedback and review preparation. (I promise, I’m about to use all of this to make a point. Just hold on.)

He & I were talking last night about our plays of Rogue Agent – and I realized that the discussion, even as we struggled with our misplaced expectations and missed rules, made me want to play the game again. There’s a lot more to this game… and if I can gather the folks to learn and enjoy it, I’m very interested in exploring it.

Those with a fear of dice can just pass Rain City by… but just because there are dice in the game doesn’t mean you can check your brain at the city limits. This dice-heavy/Euro hybrid has more to offer than first meets the eye… or is readily observable on the first play.

Conclusion

  • I love it! –
  • I like it – Mark J.
  • Neutral –
  • Not for me –
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About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 44 as he did at age 14
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