Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Agency - The Puerto Rican Resistance Meets On The Forbidden Island

I was contacted a month or so ago by the owner of Joe Magic Games, a small upstart company out of Idaho, who asked me to review a copy of their latest game, The Agency. I know many of my readers will not know who the hell these guys are, but I knew a little about them due to their gothic themed game, which is actually a very clever little euro-y style game about finding the body parts of the Frankenstein Monster without pissing off too many villagers, lest you be burned at the stake. So, I took him up on the opportunity to try it out since I loves me some small press guys, and I was hoping not to have to shit all over Joe Magic because I like their concepts, for the most part, and they've made some clever stuff.

Well, the good news is that I don't have to leave a steamer sitting on their doorstep, but I'm not leaving a trophy, either. The Agency is a moderately fun puzzle-type game in the vein of Forbidden Island, but with a twist: one or more of the players are trying to screw over the other players. The concept is that the players all reside in the rather vague "Agency", a super-secret counter-terrorist unit in the Capitol of what I can only guess is the United States. The entire game is about playing unique action cards that are usable only once per round, a bit like Puerto Rico, to stop the terrorists from destroying three of the nine locations in the game. The trick is that some cards are not good for the Agency, and playing them causes bad stuff to happen. It's not a super-tense game, but it's still decent fun with the right crowd.

First, let's talk about the components, because there's some neat stuff here. These guys actually hand assemble every game, and unlike VPG's shitty stuff, they really do a pretty good job, at least on the quality. Most of the artwork, especially on most of the cards and the board, is completely terrible. It's enough to cause blindness in small children and the elderly. There's also some misspellings that I pointed out to Joe Magic, so hopefully I'll be the last guy to see them.

But, that being said, the board is a laminated chipboard board that folds easily and I have to commend them for the physical design because it's really very slick. Regarding the rules, they're pretty well written, and they have several explanations and illustrations that really get you playing quickly.

There's also a bunch of cards in the game, and the cards come in three varieties: action, specialist, and event. While the specialist cards are actually pretty good as far as artwork goes, the event and action cards are pretty bad. The card backs are pretty decent, but some of the faces are, again, miserably bad to look at. The registration is WAY off as well, and while it doesn't affect gameplay, I have to mention that they clearly haven't figured out the pin-in-target trick to register cards front to back, and it looks pretty ate up.

The good news is they're really well laminated and I can honestly say they're very similar to Flying Frog's thick plastic cards that could probably survive Armageddon. Included in the box is also a great little bag for the faction bits, which are great little wooden disks, and there's some Rolco-quality pawns inside which serve the game well. When it's all said and done, the quality of the game's bits is actually very good, and the overall game itself is hurt a lot by the terrible art. If the art wasn't so absolutely bland I really would've given this a far higher rating, I think, because they get everything right in this game except that little piece of the puzzle.

But some of you aren't bit whores and just want a really good, fun game, so let's talk about the most important part of any game, the entertainment value, because there's going to be a lot of you that will really like this game. The setup is simple, and varies depending on the players in the game. I would not recommend this for three players and think four or five players is the sweet spot here, with five being best, so I'm going to review this on that basis since that's really where the game can be the most fun. I've played with three and it took all of two minutes to figure out who the bad guy was, but with five, one of the bad guys actually remained hidden the whole game, which never happens at my place since I'm very good at sniffing out charlatans.

To set up for the five player game, you place the board down and then pull cards to determine the starting positions of all of your pawns on the nine possible locations in the game. Then you place the nine action cards face up, which are used to drive the game along. Then you'll place one Agency faction chip in the bag for each player in the game except for one player, and for that player you'll put in a Terrorist faction chip. So, in a five player game, there's going to be four players who will start as loyal Agents, and one is the Cyclon, so to speak.

Finally, you'll deal out three event cards to each player to form a starting hand, although these don't act as events, but as the coin of the realm, so to speak. The remaining event and specialist cards are shuffled individually and placed face down, and you must then draw three event cards with location names, in red text, on the locations listed to indicate that bad shit is happening there, right now. Finally, flip one event card up into the discard pile so that the numbered icon on the lower right is visible, and once that's all done, you're ready to begin your own personal War on Terror.

Turns revolve around playing action cards, which can only be used once until they reset, and performing the listed action. Some cards allow you to move your pawn or other pawns a number of spaces based upon the number of cards you discard. Others allow you to spend cards to defuse situations. Other cards allow you to defuse the event cards that are on locations by discarding cards in your hand, which are considered "assets" for this purpose, and you have to discard the amount of assets shown on the numbered icon on top of the event discard deck. Another card allows you to kill an agent you're co-located with based on your attack value, which is the combined strength of all of the numbered icons on the asset cards in your hand. You simply compare strengths, and the higher value wins.

Regarding the discarding of cards, since many of the good action cards require players to discard cards from their own hand, and since the topmost discarded event controls the cost of other good actions, the astute loyalist player will be sure to have the lowest value showing where the evildoers will be sure to put the highest card up that they think they can get away with, noting that "it was the lowest card I had!" While I don't believe it to be in the rules, after reading the rules I made a blanket statement that no matter what, you cannot arbitrarily go through the discard pile to see what was discarded, because this mechanic alone helps obscure the identities of the terrorist or terrorists.

"Terrorists, you say? I thought there was only one?" Initially, this is true, but when an agent is killed, either by another player or by bad shit happening via events, chips are placed in the bag, but this time there's an additional terrorist chip, so the odds go up that a bad guy will re-emerge. There's a maximum of two bad guy players in the game at any given time, hence the reason I noted that playing with five is the best as when three or four players are in the game, it really becomes very difficult for the good guys to have a hope in hell of winning.

Back to the card play, the bad action cards are generally saved for last, and the prudent Terrorist will try to waste the good cards as subtly as possible to make sure that they get played before the action cards recycle. These bad cards cause events to be drawn and resolved, and most of these cards are such that you either kill off an agent if he's in the wrong place at the time, or that terror strikes occur.

These terror strikes are listed in red text, and you place them on the location that is listed. If there's already a card on the location you're asked to strike, that location has been utterly destroyed by a truck bomb or some such thing, and that space is no longer playable when an event comes up. Note that the bad guys automatically win if three locations of the nine are wiped out, so it's critical to do your best to stop that from happening as a loyal agent.

Not all the event cards are bad, though. In some cases a card comes up that will protect a location, allowing it to take one free hit before beginning to stack event cards on it. Now going back to the action cards, one of them allows you to take a specialist card for free, and these cards allow you to do special things, and another allows you to take a "tip", which amounts to drawing an event card and using the lower "tip" text on that card which is beneficial in one way or another, such as allowing free moves for pawns and the like.

Once the eight normal action cards are played, two of which causes bad events to occur, the final card is the trigger that allows all the action cards to recycle. It's not always mandatory to play this last, and as a terrorist player it's a good thing to play if both the "draw event" cards have been played but some of the beneficial cards haven't in order to deny the loyal agents some good cards. This can be accomplished very subtly if the move cards have been played because you can always claim that you need to move pawns after the movement cards have been played.

As noted, the game ends in the loyalists' defeat if three disasters have occurred, but there's more ways for the game to end. If the players run out of faction chips and a player needs to draw one because he died, the game ends and the terrorists win if one disaster has taken place, and the loyalists win if none have taken place. Alternatively, if the agents manage to defuse all of the bad event cards from the board, the loyal agents immediately win.

This is a really neat little game that could've been a whole lot better if a few things had been done differently, and I don't think much effort would be required to make that happen. The registration on the cards is a very simple fix and there's a ton of public information on how to register cards properly and easily without much additional effort. Further, most of the artwork is such that it appears that it was done by an "Utah School Of Graphic Arts For The Blind", and with a dull crayon at that.

I'd also have liked to see more event cards, and maybe a couple of different types of events, both good and bad, and there should only be maybe one "agent killed" card in the deck because death is just so random due to this that it can be frustrating. Other than those items, though, this game is a really clever little design, and it's actually a decent amount of fun. Everyone I played with looked at the game with total horror due to the look, but once the game was going all of that peeled away and the game was well received.

For a price point of $24.99, I'd be tempted to say that this is a pretty good value, but with its peers from larger companies, such as Red November or Drakon from Fantasy Flight, or for that matter Forbidden Island from Gamewright, I think the production values lead me to the conclusion that this game should've been closer to maybe $17.50 or so. Because these are made on-demand by Joe Magic, I'd really like to see them go back to the drawing board regarding the artwork and get something really nice out. Based on the nature of the game, the board could easily just be a Google Earth full color map of the US Capitol with areas highlighted in a red, card-shaped rectangle and some bright, large text over the top. That alone would do wonders for the look of the game.

If you're looking for a decent bluffing, hidden-traitor game that involves some really slick mechanics, and one that can play with a larger group, this may be the game for you. Just based on the play and design itself, it's a neat game. I liked it quite a bit, as did my friends, and I'd recommend buying this if you can look past the look of the game's board and cards. The playtime of under an hour also makes this a good candidate for a warm-up game while waiting for others to arrive at your game night. Either way, it's worth checking out and making up your own mind on.

Why Counterstrike Was Never So Good:
- Clever bluffing, deduction, and game play makes this a fun little romp in Terrortown
- With many good ideas borrowed from other games and blended well, it's pretty slick
- A surprising amount of strategy is available on both sides

Why The Agency Might Actually Be An Abortion Clinic:
- The art on the board and some cards is painfully bad
- The card registration is distracting and could've been avoided
- The small number of event cards can cause repetition

I'd have to say that this is as close to the definition of a mixed review as I can possibly write. It's the opposite of my Witch Of Salem review where the art was spectacularly gorgeous and the game itself underwhelming. The game is really clever and pretty fun, but good God does the bad art take away from the experience. As I noted in a recent article, theme and art are incredibly important in games these days, and while I get that a small publisher can't always put forward Boris Vallejo art, Small Box Games' recent Omen product proves that small publishers can certainly put forward good art without hiking the price point up drastically. I hope that Joe Magic can get their house in order in this respect, because I think they have talented folks there and make some really clever games.

3/5 Stars

You can learn more about Joe Magic and The Agency at their website:

And since I've partnered up with them, you can rent this game TODAY at, as all of the games I review will be acquired by them and available for immediate rental! That's right, every one. This is just another way that I'm looking out for my readers to save you money!

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