Agents of SMERSH by Jason Maxwell
8th Summit, 2012
The Facts of the Case:
If you’ve ever watched a James Bond movie, chances are you’ve no doubt been struck with at least one of these three thoughts:
- For a secret agent, he’s awfully bad at remaining secret.
- British Intelligence’s Q division probably has a neutron bomb hidden in a corkscrew somewhere in the basement.
- Dammit, James Bond is cool.
Luckily, 8th Summit took that third bullet point to heart, and the result is Agents of SMERSH, a board game that puts you and up to 3 or 4 of your friends in the role of erstwhile secret agents attempting to locate the nefarious Dr. Lobo before he conquers the world.
(Side Note: For all I know, 8th Summit also took the second bullet point to heart, so maybe best not to go rooting around in their basement. Just saying.)
Apparently a close cousin to Tales of the Arabian Nights (which I’ve not played), SMERSH is a storytelling game set in an alternate version of the Cold War, circa 1970s-ish. So, more afros and fewer genies.
You’ll all pick one of the 4 or 5 predefined agents–say, the athletic Agent Stealthfire (!) or the lovely Agent Heartbreak, each of whom has stats for things like Spycraft, Persuasion, Athletics, and so on. Each agent also comes with a special ability, starting item(s), and your choice of two spy-appropriate skills, such as Disguise, Driving, Electronics, and Promiscuity.
(Side Note: OK, I made that last one up. Also, I wish the game had the materials to make your own custom agents and skills. Agent Verbose reporting for duty! Special talent: Run-On Sentences, Eating Tacos.)
From there, it’s a trip around the globe to track down Dr. Lobo (!), while also searching for the necessary Intel to win once you finally do find him. Intel is gained by traveling to locations with Intel tokens; completing an adventure will usually net you another reward (or penalty, if you fail). You’ll also occasionally run into one of the mad doctor’s four HenchPeople, and defeating said HenchPeople is your ticket to finding the evil mastermind.
So there: pretty decent setup for a globetrotting game of Save the World, yes?
You Only Move Twice
The way any given turn plays out is that you’ll move a couple of spaces to a location (cities can be connected by road, air, or, in the case of most of Russia, railroad), preferably one that has an all-important Intel token.
Anyhoo: move, have an encounter, then draw a Villain card, which will usually do something like add Intel to more locations on the map, close an airport for the game (effectively cutting off a fast travel option to that location), and/or advance the Dr. Lobo-o-meter.
(Side Note: Bonus points for the flavor text on the Villain cards, which describe worldwide events such as assassinations, explosions, or other nefarious evidence of Dr. Lobo’s ill deeds.)
It’s a pretty simple turn sequence that’s easy to internalize, and the number of locations on the board means you’ll likely find yourself all over the world in the course of a single game. As if “saving the world” wasn’t a decent enough incentive to keep moving, you also get a “secret mission” card, which basically lets you choose a reward for visiting a particular location and having an encounter there. These “secret missions” are essentially a way to gain equipment without relying on the randomness of individual encounters.
(Side Note: I’m still scratching my head over why these missions are “secret” and played face down; it’s a cooperative game, so there’s no reason to hide it from anyone else, and the encounters themselves are the same encounters you’d have anyway from playing normally.)
The Intel tokens are kept face down until the end of the game, at which point you turn all your collected tokens face-up and hope you have enough of each type to match the symbols of whatever spot Dr. Lobo’s “doom track” is up to when you finally find him. If your collected Intel matches the number and kind of Intel on his track when you finally track him down, you win.
This is an unexpectedly great mechanic because it means the longer the game goes on, the more Intel you need to win, and you’re never quite sure if you have the right kind of Intel to win even if you do manage to force the final confrontation.
Live and Let Dice Determine the Outcome
From there, you compile a sequence of numbers from A) a card draw, B) the player’s choice of “reaction posture,” and C) another random card draw. Then, using this 3-digit combination lock, you (or another player) look up the appropriate paragraph from the—-
What’s that? I’m sorry, no, that wasn’t a typo, I said ‘look up the appropriate paragraph.’ And let me finish the—
Yes, I’m sure. Alright, fine. Let’s back up a bit.
There are two ways of playing the encounters in Agents of SMERSH. The first involves a deck of cards with encounters specific to the continent you’re on. And that’s fine, for what it is. The second, exponentially more replayable way, is to get the edition with the *ahem* Big Book of Encounters, which is literally a gigantic book of paragraphs detailing the adventures of the agents. Words cannot express how thrilled I was to get the “Big Book” edition of the game, as it truly is a massive set of paragraphs. More about these later, but for now the important thing to remember is that paragraph books aren’t dead! Yet. Although this one could definitely kill if you dropped it on someone’s head, which I’m pretty sure is actually in one the gazillionty-five billion entries in said book.
So: you look up your encounter, then read–or, better, have someone else read–your paragraphs, all of variable lengths and quality, most with some kind of test that awards you either Intel, new traits or gear, or skill increases, should you pass. The penalty for failure is usually a wound or two, and is always accompanied by accelerating the Lobo-pocalypse timer.
You can also, instead of having a paragraph, have a fight with one of the four Villainous HenchPersons, which are four mini-bosses whom you’ll have to fight at least a few times in order to track down Dr. Lobo’s location.
(Side Note: Unfortunately, the HenchMinions are basically just tests in disguise, with art and biographical information. Also, they have terrifying names like “Pierre” and “Mr. Big.” No, really. Jaws and Oddjob these ain’t.)
So, those tests. Essentially, you’re drawing one or more custom dice out of a bag; each die has varying levels of good results and bad, and drawing more dice usually gives you a better chance of passing the test. But basically, the tests in the game–with the exception of one, which we’ll talk about a bit further down–all revolve around you trying to pull as many dice as possible, then hoping to roll as many successes as possible.
Which is fine, because the heart of the game is in the paragraph texts, which can be action sequences, dialogue exchanges, or even full-on vignettes. This isn’t a game where you can expect to read a couple of sentences and then roll; these paragraphs warrant funny voices, movie-trailer narration, and dramatic music. Some of them are shockingly long and describe what might be 20 minutes of footage in an actual movie.
And that’s Agents of SMERSH’s raison d’être: putting you in the thick of scenes from kickass spy movies and letting you live the story of a James or Jane Bond with a few buddies.
On Her Travesty’s Secret Service
So those with a knack for reading between lines will have noticed that of the three parts I mentioned in determining what paragraph to look up, only one is determined by the players. Unfortunately that’s where AoS begins ordering one too many shaken martinis. Theoretically, you pick a “reaction” for dealing with the encounter; perhaps “Be Nosy,” or “Stay Calm,” or “I’m Your Biggest Fan.”
Now, a reasonable person would expect the posture to in some way influence the encounter that then occurs–and sometimes, it does. Choosing a reaction of “Charm,” for instance, will sometimes have you playing an enemy agent like a fiddle, then attempting to dash off before they realize you’ve planted a tracer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that–sometimes, the encounter will only slightly bear any resemblance to the approach you wanted to take, and other times, you’ll be baffled as to how you wound up in a speedboat chase when you chose “Keep It Quiet” as a reaction. While frequently exciting and hilarious, it means that more often than not, the games tend to play out like a series of disconnected bits, as if each turn was fifteen seconds from a different trailer for a different spy movie.
Which is really only an issue if you want a little more cohesiveness to your spy gameplay; I’ve played with people who couldn’t have cared less that it’s like this, and I’ve played with some for whom it was a deal-breaker. Me, I’ve gotta say I lean more towards the latter, but I can live with it.
But the biggest problem by far with the game is the sheer amount by which the gameplay revolves around random elements; there are virtually no interesting decisions to be made, no strategy to follow–it’s just a matter of picking spots on the board and dealing with the next random paragraph, then rolling dice to see what happens. It’s Talisman in spy garb, with more writing, less characterization, the illusion of choice, and no player-versus-player. (In AoS’ defense, at least you get to decide where you want to move each turn.)
(Side Note: Put down the pitchforks and torches! I like Talisman! A lot! Really! Someday, I’ll explain why, and it has mostly to do with beer.)
The best times for me playing AoS are when I happen upon an encounter that calls for the Gambling skill, because if your character has it, then you get to play a round of five-card draw using the game cards; it works brilliantly, and I realize that the reason I like those sequences so much is because I finally get to have a say in my agent’s fate by deciding which cards to throw away.
(Side Note: That great mechanic I praised earlier, the one where you have to balance extending the game versus going after Lobo earlier to win with less Intel? Even that’s really just deciding when to gamble that you’ve picked up the right pieces to win.)
Because even in the skills you pick at the beginning of the game, there’s no assurance that they’ll ever be called upon in the course of the game, or that your agent who has high marks in Spycraft will ever be asked to do anything but engage in fisticuffs. And the end result of all that is a game that more often than not feels like it happens to you rather than gets played by you.
That’s why Agents of SMERSH fails spectacularly for me on the immersion front, at making me feel like I’m hunting down an evil mastermind or ferreting out clues before the bad guys wreak havoc. I’m not investigating and gathering Intel and making deductions; I’m jumping from scene to scene with little rhyme or reason or identification with my agent, as if my consciousness were leaping back and forth between random episodes of The Avengers and Mission: Impossible.
There are other issues I have, too, mainly mechanical ones–for instance, while the mechanics and turns are very simple rules-wise, the act of taking a turn is really clunky because you’re passing this gigantic paragraph to the next player, putting the dice back in the bag (except for one special one that always gets rolled), looking up the reaction group on another chart, drawing a card to find the paragraph component, assembling the paragraph number, looking it up in the aforementioned gigantic tome, etc., etc. It’s just really… I dunno, not “fiddly,” exactly, but it definitely feels like you’re getting a good workout in, you know?
No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Lie
Look, at its heart, this is an art form I love–paragraph books!–with a milieu I enjoy–spies!–in a genre that… well, frankly, a genre–storytelling games!–that I’m probably not really the demographic for. You’ll find no bigger fan of narratives in boardgaming than me, but I also need interesting gameplay, decisions, or mechanics that invest me in what I’m doing.
So I’d be lying if I said that this was a game that I typically look forward to playing when someone suggests it. It’s more of a “eh, OK, I guess…if there’s nothing else anyone wants to play…we can give it a go” reaction. I usually offer to just read the paragraphs for everyone else.
And that’s OK! AoS is one of those games that can be an absolute blast when played in the right frame of mind (and here, “right frame of mind” is usually “semi-impaired with beer”) and the right group of friends; as an end-of-a-too-late-game-night game, when everyone’s still coherent but feeling punchy and a bit silly, it works pretty well for what it is. Assuming everyone likes to read aloud and look up paragraphs. Lots.
So, 2 of 5 diplomatic pouches for Agents of SMERSH, then; while the effort and intentions are admirable–and this may be exactly the sort of light storytelling game that some folks are looking for–the execution doesn’t really put me in the shoes of an international spy like I wanted it to; on the whole, I have more fun just reading random sections of the paragraph book than I do actually playing the game.
Where to Get It: First editions are still reasonably priced and available on the BGG Marketplace, but 8th Summit is also taking pre-orders now for a revised 2nd edition. There’s also an expansion called Swagman’s Hope, which takes place in, um, Australia, but I’ve had no desire to try it out, as it looks to be more of the same.