Trust Only in Betrayal: The Agents

The art is pretty cool, even if it doesn't make any sense that Hatchet-Man was brought along for the heist.

With its focus on a pack of untrustworthy super-spies set adrift by the disappearance of their organization (which indicates to me that it was an exceptionally effective secret agency), it’s almost as though Saar Shai set out to create a game that appealed directly to me. I love secret agents. I love double-crossing. I love card games. Certainly that means I’ll love The Agents?

Or were my expectations… betrayed? (duh-duh-dummm!)

A minor one, but still. You only need to fill one bathtub to have yourself a blood bath.

A bloodbath indeed.

Before talking about The Agents in terms like good, bad, or I dunno I’m not a real reviewer, I should mention that I feel the teensiest bit betrayed by the cards themselves. After all, isn’t it true that board games are only as good as their components? (debate!) When it comes to The Agents, the cards are certainly durable, though this is largely because they’re constructed from plastic. This has the downside of making them slippery, uncomfortably textured, oddly smelly, with little snip-nubs that exist solely to abrade your fingers, and they make a weird sound when you rub them against each other that’s vaguely reminiscent of all twenty-four feet of Lee Redmond’s fingernails scraping against a blackboard.

Seriously, they make me shudder.

Then again, they are durable.

Leaving aside the component quality, The Agents is all about working with ludicrously untrustworthy super-spies, represented by cards that always confer competing benefits. No matter how carefully you employ them, chances are their betrayal will be inevitable and ongoing.

Let’s illustrate. The first type of agent is called a faction agent, and they deploy into one of the two factions you’re setting up. “Factions” are basically a conga line of subterfuge, with agents expanding outwards around a safe house. The problem is, each of these factions is shared with another player on the opposite side, so whenever you assign an agent, you’re also assigning that agent to somehow help your opposition. Since agents either confer a special action — stuff like the ability to move, turn, kill, or extract other agents — or the ability to gather intel points (read: victory points), you’re going to think long and hard about whether to give your opposing agency more intel or extra abilities to take advantage of.

There are also free agents. These are more traditional event card-esque options in the sense that you play them to gain a one-time action or bonus… except that they also feed a wad of intel points to your opposition when you play them. Unless you’re giving yourself the intel points, that is. Because in that case, then your opponent gets to interrupt your turn to take that free agent’s special action.

If it sounds deliciously tricky, it absolutely is. Gauging when and which of your friends won’t benefit from the action or intel points you’re about to feed them is a huge part of the game, especially since it’s entirely possible to screw up your enemies’ plans if you can play the right agents at devastatingly inopportune moments. Feeding your opponent a scrap of intel doesn’t hurt so bad when you’ve just assassinated the keystone operative in their entire intel-mining layout, and getting backed into a corner without any way out other than to start royally mucking with everyone else’s plans allows for a lot of fun.

Five space pennies if you can tell me both players' scores.

A hotly contested faction.

The Agents is so compact, quick to play, and deceptively simple that it reminds me more than anything of a title from Small Box Games. And that’s not praise I dole out lightly. Figuring out the best way to get your agents to bring in some solid intel — while also going to great lengths to cover your ass against the machinations of your jerk friends — is usually a whole lot of unscrupulous fun, reliant on deft plays and true outmaneuvers.

Still. If The Agents is reminiscent of a title from Small Box Games, then it’s like one of Small Box Games’ lesser-known, less-focused products.

For one thing, it relies a ton on the luck of the draw. Hiring new agents and accepting new missions requires you to spend your hard-earned intel, a fun idea that forces players to cash in their early victory points and try to make do with what they’ve got when they decide they might be approaching the win. It’s a clever system, making the purchasing of new agents a difficult choice. Unfortunately, not all agents were created equally useful, and the loss of intel makes the appearance of a useless agent that much more infuriating. Now you not only have a crap card in your hand, but you’re also that much further from victory.

And that’s just the operatives themselves. I mentioned missions above; these are special cards you can attach to your factions, producing intel points so long as certain conditions are met. So for example, the “Man Down” mission gives you an intel point for each dead agent in that faction (meaning, hilariously, that it can be a good idea to assassinate your own guys), while the “Stand United” mission will give you a whole bunch of points if you have two identical agents standing back-to-back in the same faction. Cool stuff for the most part, but a whole bunch of gamey weirdness applies to the missions, from the way it’s free to assign and move them at the end of your turn, to the way they just sit there gathering intel for your team turn after turn without ever completing. Often as not, once a player gets a solid mission or two in place (which is largely dependent on whether they’ve drawn the right ones), they’ve essentially won the game because it can be so difficult to dislodge their production of intel without feeding them a whole bunch of points courtesy of your double-edged agents.

Basically, it’s your classic infection of richgetricher-itis. And while The Agents sheds some of these problems when you play with more people, since more people means more people who can try and take down the leader, it never fully escapes them.

Even more compact than most SBG games, actually.

A small box game, not from Small Box Games.

Overall, The Agents is a pretty good filler game that makes good use of a couple devious mechanisms. It’s a delight to play a single agent to collapse a player’s entire plan like the house of cards it really is, and the few points of pity-intel they’ll pick up as a result are only that much more galling. Perhaps it doesn’t provide that moment as often or as fluidly as it could have, but hey, it is a filler game.

So that brings us back to the question that kicked this whole thing off:

Were my expectations betrayed?

Maybe a little. But in a mostly fun way.

Posted on December 23, 2013, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I love your writing very much. And have a Merry Christmas!

  2. I was annoyed by those nubs, too. I finally decided to use an exacto knife to cut and scuff up the edges: that helped. Like you, I am drawn to the theme which fits the game play nicely. If Small Box Games (of whom I’m also a big fan) is your “reference pear” then I’d say The Agents is still a ripe pick. It’s a solid design, and I really like the duality of the cards that simultaneously benefit oneself and one’s opponents. Hopefully, with more plays I’ll learn to mitigate some of the luck of the draw factors. Great review!

    • Agreed! I haven’t bothered to cut the nubs off yet, but my fingers are gradually wearing them down a bit (though they’re getting a little worn in return). Other than my one or two qualms, The Agents is definitely better than I was expecting.

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