A few months back, I received an unexpected email from someone I was, at the time, completely unfamiliar with. His name is Saar and he asked me if I could take a look at his new game, The Agents, that he was hoping to put on kickstarter.com soon. His email was flattering and the game he described sounded interesting. I responded as frankly as possible that I am not a reviewer, but I would gladly take a look at his game and give him my feedback. He seemed satisfied with that and promptly mailed me a prototype copy of the game.
I’ve had the game in my possession for a few weeks now and I’ve decided to break my “no review” policy for this one. I really like this game.
What grabbed my attention in Saar’s first email was the description of his “double-edged card” mechanic. Essentially, when you play an agent card, you must decide to play it either for the ability printed on the card or for points. The catch is, your opponent receives whichever option you don’t choose! I absolutely loved this idea from the moment he described it to me. Effectively, the “cost” of playing a card is helping my opponent achieve victory.
My immediate thought was, what do these points do? Is it simply a victory mechanic? It wasn’t until I had the game in my hands that I understood the true weight of this decision. The game is played until one player has 40 points… so, if I’m giving my opponent points, is it ever worth it for me to take actions?
The answer is yes, and that is one of the most interesting decisions I have encountered in a card game. There are two types of agents to play. One gives you points immediately (Free Agents) and the other (Faction Agents) scores points each round.
Free Agents (which give points immediately) have very strong abilities which you will most likely never give to your opponents unless you are about to win or are in serious need of points. You will very likely give your opponents the points on these cards most of the time and some of them are worth quite a bit! These agents award points immediately, and then are discarded.
Faction Agents (which give you points each) round have all sorts of board manipulation abilities and do not score on their own… that is, a single agent by itself does not award you any points. You must pair agents up, with their points side facing you in order to score points at the end of your turn. The board manipulation abilities allow you to turn, replace, kill, and remove agents from play which helps you score as many points as possible. You will often want to play Faction Agents for their abilities because they can help you tune the board in your favor which will earn you more points in the long run.
So, cool, you earn VP and VPs win you the game. Seems pretty straight forward so far… but this is where it gets interesting: victory points don’t just win you the game. You will need to spend them if you want to win!
I absolutely love this type of mechanic in every game that employs it. In The Agents, you do not draw cards each turn or refresh your hand in any way. If you want more cards, you must spend your precious points. At the cost of one point per card, you can draw as many as you like… and you will need to draw cards. Knowing when to stop spending can be very difficult. I’ve lost games by only a few points that I felt I could have won had I not drawn as many cards… but some of the agents are just so crucial to a particular situation that you feel a need to keep drawing until you get them. I had to know more about Saar’s choice to use this mechanic, so I asked him.
Q: I love games which require me to spend victory points. Was this always a part of The Agents or did this happen during development? Specifically, was it always necessary to spend VP to buy new cards or did you have some other mechanism for that?
Saar: Using victory points as currency came quite late in the development phase. The game worked very well without this, having players replenish their hand of agents at the end of each turn, however as the game started to take its final shape I felt that this resource-management element would benefit the overall mechanic and provide an additional depth. It bodes well that the gameplay anyway revolves around tough decisions where you might hurt yourself for potential future gain.
So, you earn points by playing agents but you need to spend those points to draw more agents. I promise you, this is super cool. It really makes every decision important. As an example, when you play the Tracker, he allows you to search through the deck and take an agent of your choice into your hand. If you chose that action, you are giving your opponent 3 points… which effectively means you are giving them the ability to draw 3 cards (or, you know… win)!
In addition to the awesome double-edged cards, Saar added Missions to the game. These things shake everything up. Some of them are worth huge bonus points, but are exceptionally difficult to achieve. Some are dead simple to achieve, or even just always work that you’ll want them from the start of the game. Missions are like achievements that you can unlock to gain a reward. Maybe you have to have 2 dead agents, or two of the same agent in play. Some of them reward you for not earning points on your turn, which means your opponent must decide to give you points to offset the Mission.
Like agent cards, you must spend points to acquire new missions. Some of these missions are so powerful, that your opponents will blow tons of points trying to draw cards that will steal your missions or make you discard them. The missions add a level of play that makes each game different, but I didn’t quite “get” them at first… so I again, I asked Saar about them.
Q: Mission cards were not immediately apparent to us as a crucial part of the game until after a few plays. I almost feel like the game could stand on it’s own without the Missions and still be great. Have they always been a part of the game or did you add them later on? Can you elaborate on what you like about the missions?
Saar: The addition of missions came quite naturally as we toyed with the theme and the early versions of the rules. While the game does play well without them but I’ve found they definitely add great flavor to the experience. At a certain time they were considered as an expansion, but our playtesters felt they are too integral to the sense of purpose that I decided to continue to design the base-set with them in it. What I love about Missions is that for the more strategic, hardcore gamers, it really adds a longer term story-arc to each game, encouraging players to think a few moves ahead, and rewarding them for their strategic foresight. In fact, we plan to introduce other Missions that are even harder to achieve but reward players with more bonus points if the conditions are fulfilled. What I find most exciting about the missions is that while they have a very simple premise – just fulfill the condition to receive bonus points – they add such variety to each play session, especially in different combinations that surprise even me.
I’ve barely touched on the gameplay in this discussion. It is not my intention to teach you how to play the game… ton’s of other reviewers have done that already and you can find them from the project’s Kickstarter page. I simply wanted to discuss why I like this game and give you some specific details about the mechanics that I find interesting.
The game, from start to finish is a wonderful experience. The art and graphic design is crisp and attractive. The decision points are intense, but not so overbearing that you take exceptionally long turns while analyzing every possible outcome. I’ve played it with 2 and 3 players and while there is a bit of a different level of strategy with more than 2, the game works functionally identical without the need for extra rules or dramatically different play styles.
I will definitely be backing this project and I can (and will) recommend it to anyone that asks. Saar has something special here and I can see my group playing this a great deal in the future. If you are still on the fence, I invite you to find me at GenCon and I’ll teach you the game. Saar has also made the game available as a FREE print and play if you would like to try it out… which is pretty awesome. You can get the files from the website: playtheagents.com
I’ve never intended to do reviews on cheveedodd.com. This game changed my mind as I played it more and thought about it. People are interested in what I think and that blows me away, so you can expect more reviews in the future… but they will come at my discretion and I am not interested in being solicited. Saar asked for my personal and professional opinion on his game and nothing more. The fact that I wrote this article and chose to promote his project was my decision and was in no way paid for or influenced by his gift.