Rogue Ausloos

I like to think that grumpy dude in the bottom corner is none other than David Ausloos himself, glaring at me for being so negative of Panic Station and fairly critical of Dark Darker Darkest.

Just for the sake of being a grump, I’m not convinced “Rogue Agent” is a very good title for Rogue Agent. Maybe it’s because it conjures up images of the worst of the schlocky spy movies from my dad’s generation or because there aren’t any actual rogue agents in the game, just normal agents going about their normal day jobs, but hey — in either case, I think it’s fair to say my expectations were far removed from what Rogue Agent is actually trying to be.

And since this is the third game I’ve played from designer David Ausloos, the first two being Panic Station, which was so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to review it, and Dark Darker Darkest, which I thought was pretty good but sort of uneven, it’s also safe to say that my expectations were quite low. Bad schlocky spy movie low.

How they glistened. With the rain-slick stench of rainwater.

The rain-soaked streets of Rain City.

I’ll say this right up front: some of my concerns were completely and utterly well-founded.

Rogue Agent is about the absurdly dangerous Rain City and the special agents tasked with cleaning it up, since the invincible police squad can only be arsed to patrol a single of the city’s districts at any given time. But here’s the rub: your agents are kind of scummy, more interested in growing their own reputations than really saving Rain City. It’s fine and dandy to make a name for yourself by hauling in criminals, taking out assassins, and defusing the bombs that are scattered around the city, but the instant one of those bombs is primed to send an opposing agent to the hospital and kill one of his informants — well, excellent! Sorry, I just don’t have the time to defuse that one!

Unfortunately, learning Rogue Agent is a pain. The rulebook is a mess. There are multiple ways to gain influence (Rogue Agent’s codeword for “victory points”) and rather than display them all in one place for easy reading, they’re laid out haphazardly in every possible corner of the manual. Sure, there’s the straightforward stuff, like removing the threat tokens that appear across the city, but you can also arrest sets of criminals, have a bunch of informants, have a really cool car, turn in evidence back at HQ, or take out android traitors. It’s a great thing that there are so many options, since it lets you chart your own course to being baddest badass in the agency, but don’t expect the rulebook to click until you’ve played a couple times. This is one of those games that will benefit immensely from player-made reference cards, because Rogue Agent is more interested in leveling up its sunglasses than it is in telling you why you’d want better sunglasses in the first place.

And some of these problems bleed into the game itself. For instance, as you journey through Rain City, you can search for resources like ammunition, fuel, evidence, or upgrades. This is one of the best ways to stock up on equipment, but it’s dangerous, since you might get jumped by thugs in the process. Unless you search at the HQ, that is, where you’re not only safe from thugs, but you can also choose which dice to roll. Which sort of undermines searching everywhere else, where you’re limited in your picks of dice, have a good chance of being attacked by thugs, and never get to roll more dice than you could at HQ anyway. So why bother, other than those few times you don’t have enough fuel to drive back to base? It feels a bit like post-release playtesting at times, which isn’t very cool at all.

But Rogue Agent has a Shyamalan-esque twist coming. Bruce Willis is dead, the trees are making people kill themselves, the live-action version of The Last Airbender ends abruptly when you walk out of the theater — and Rogue Agent is good. As in, shockingly kickass for a game that doesn’t seem to want you to learn how to play it.

"Our bad," said Agent Yellow to Agent Purple. "We'll save the next precinct."

The police are doing a better job than we are.

I’ve already mentioned how your goal is to gain more influence than your fellow agents, but where Rogue Agent shines is in how it lets you go about doing that.

The rulebook calls it the “living city,” which is a fancy PR-speak way of saying that threats appear at random at the start of the round and then move clockwise through the city at the end of it. But the thing is, simple as this system is, it works like a charm, and without any irritating AI routines. All at once, there are bombs ticking down, cops taking down threats and robbing you of the prestige but also making areas safe to travel through, and criminals and assassins running amok and killing your informants or ambushing you in back alleys. The constant motion of these threats, paired with the natural hazards of the randomized map, makes it feel tangibly dangerous just to move from one end of Rain City to the other, let alone gauge whether you have enough spare bullets to take down that criminal or if you should use up some gas to take a trip to the hospital first.

At any given time, there are plenty of things to do. In addition to searching for evidence or spending your hard-earned credits on better sunglasses, just hunting down the game’s three varieties of threats is a joy. The assassins are the most straightforward, but they’re also most liable to fight back. The bombs, with their random timers, present a match-three minigame that isn’t at all tedious. In fact, disarming a bomb is tense and fun because its minigame presents you with these agonizing little tradeoffs, where extra options equal fewer seconds on the timer and sloppy work might make the bomb detonate even if you successfully crossed all the right wires.

Best of all are the criminals. These guys enter the city as face-down cards, so you have no idea what you’re getting into if you choose to run in and start a fight without laying some groundwork first. You can do that by spending your hard-earned evidence and well-placed informants, which might be a good idea since facing down a criminal blind might result in all sorts of bad things happening. Like Ghost Jockey, who kills one of your informants, or Brenner, who runs away and wastes your turn. And if you don’t successfully take them down, they might retaliate with a firefight, or a car chase, or instantly detonated nearby bombs, or — my favorite — April Dark, who places a bomb in your otherwise-impregnable HQ. Each criminal is different, and since there are over 40 of them and you’ll only see a handful in any given game, you’ll always have to stay on your toes.

Since these criminals are often the toughest to take down, providing influence for both beating them and at the end of the game for having arrested matching sets, they tend to be hotly contested. So, even if a rival agent manages to beat the high-value Abryn Lacrosse and arrest her, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just jack his cruiser and take the prisoner for yourself. Hey, Rain City is mean like that. Anything’s fair out on those streets.

"I'd like to chase April Dark!" Oh yeah, SEXIST? What's wrong with Sergeant Nuke?

Just some of the many criminals you might chase.

There’s also an additional “Android Mode,” which sees one or more of your fellow agents playing as hidden traitors. One of my criticisms of Dark Darker Darkest was that a traitor mode seemed like a good fit given the horror theme but nothing like that had made it into the game, and I hope David Ausloos didn’t take that criticism too much to heart, because as cool as it sounds, this mode is slightly underwhelming. It’s bogged down by some weird rules, special conditions, additional actions, and spurious balancing. It’s madcap fun once you’re revealed as an android traitor, since you can just run around the city blowing up every district you come across and killing agents left and right, but the implementation left my group cold. Largely in part because you’re only an android once you’re revealed — there’s no benefit to being an android and remaining hidden, or working to undermine Rain City while pretending to be its savior; rather, one moment you’re human and the next you’re an android, with very little coherency to the whole thing.

And anyway, we were having so much fun just being badass special agents and arresting guys and trying to undermine each other’s reputations in non-direct ways (for instance, by overlooking that assassin who’s about to kill off a player’s informant — nice), so why should we bother with a mode that doesn’t add much to the experience? Android Mode is optional, and leaving it out doesn’t subtract a single bit of fun from the main game.

You caught me. I house-rule the game so that bombs make precincts explode. Otherwise you only use the exploded side of the tiles when playing with the androids, and they're too cool to waste on that mode.

Rain City from above. How’s the smoke?

And make no mistake, the main game is a load of fun. It’s a game of resource management at heart, where your primary goal is to carefully weigh the risks against your dwindling stockpiles of ammo, gas, evidence, and credits. Should you bother installing an informant in that hot intersection, or is he too likely to be killed off by an assassin? Should you use one ammunition on this criminal and save the rest to fight that other girl over there, or is that stretching it too far? Can you use up a bunch of your gas to get around the city and defuse two bombs this turn, or are there too many street thugs out tonight? Should you buy better sunglasses or a bigger gun? Choices, choices. And boy do I love choices.

It’s safe to say I’m pleasantly surprised by Rogue Agent. It isn’t perfect, tarnished somewhat by the obtuseness of the rulebook and a couple eccentricities, not to mention the fact that it still feels a bit like it hasn’t been playtested enough, but overall it’s a solid experience that I expect I’ll be holding onto. Which I did not see coming.

Posted on April 23, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I listened to Dan and friends play this game while I watched BabyCate and heard lots of swearing, raised voices, and “Well that’s Stupid!” But even though the rulebook leaves much to be desired, the game is a lot of fun and quick enough to not get tiresome. It’s like a fast-paced sci-fi tv show with lots of action minus getting bogged down by drama. Okay Starbuck, we get it, you’re a badass.

  2. Wait wait wait… so it’s a David Ausloos game that, despite the requisite and disappointing attitude that post-consumer play-testing is somehow acceptable, his usual trademark crap rules, and an entire game mode that’s half-baked, it’s GOOD?

    On the other hand, I did find some enjoyment from Panic Station once he changed the rules. And the one time I played DDD, I found it overall enjoyable, just mired by some unfortunate gaminess and some really weird sub-rules.

    Come to think of it, I guess I’m sort of a David Ausloos fan who also really doesn’t like David Ausloos very much.

  3. I’ll admit to being a little surprised as well! Very fair review- sounds like it’s got some problems, but overall maybe Mr. Ausloos is learning how to be a good game designer.

  4. Hey, did you see David Ausloos’s ultra defensive response over on BGG? What a tool.

    • I did. And while I disagree with pretty much everything he had to say, I don’t intend to engage with him. The commotion that is two defensive dudes getting defensive at each other is never attractive.

    • Scandal! Now you have my attention! What did he say?

      • I’ll just paste the whole thing:

        ——————————————————————–

        Thanks for this excellent review.
        A nice read, and full of informative details.

        Regarding the HQ undermining the value of searching elsewhere:
        The HQ effectively offers you a free choice of dice, but is restricted to pairs, so if you choose the dice-driven path to acquire resources, it is statistically much more interesting to scout for a specific resource at a location that offers 3 dice with this specific resource rather than the two offered by HQ. This can make a significant difference at times.

        Furthermore, locations offer a second option/value: each location allows you to buy a specific resources or upgrade, offering you 100% certainty (unlike the dice) to get what you urgently need.
        At key points in the game, when you gathered credits for arresting criminals, it is crucial to get hold of that valuable upgrade or fuel unit in order to set yourself up for scoring the next turn.
        So moving to a specific location is worth the travel.

        As you are forced to constantly move around in the game to deal with events with a limited supply of fuel, you have to optimize were to get things. It becomes your goal early on to do as much as possible in the area you are positioned in to save on fuel. This often means planning to combine confronting an “event” with stacking up resources. Having to go back and fort to HQ to make use of the free dice choice would mean more fuel spending, which is not always the best approach. As you end your turn in the location were you performed you last action, setting up your agent to take advantage of what will happen the next turn would be greatly limited.

        Regarding the “Android mode”: this mode is not devised as a traitor mode. It mainly forces you to deal with the uncertainty (not unlike Deckard in Blade Runner) that you might well be a rogue agent amongst the team, forcing you to consider preparing yourself for a possible reveal were you will be offered an alternative path to victory.
        When the Android(s) is revealed the game receives a different dynamic, as it is no longer an Agent VS the city but also Agent VS Android.
        Depending on the amount of androids revealed, this could offer a session a different feel. As Androids will sabotage the plans of human agents by removing specific valuable resource location from the board, Android mode can become quite challenging. I have seen sessions with half the city destroyed, forcing agents to find a balance between their personal gains (getting at the top of the agent ranks) and stopping the Android from destroying the locations or safe routes they so desperatly need.

        Just my two cents.

        ——————————————————————–

        As you can see, VERY defensive. He did the same thing for both Panic Station and Dark Darker Darkest, where he insists the early players are playing the game wrong or didn’t understand this or that mechanic, and then a few months later he changes the rules because, surprise, they turn out broken and he was wrong all along. The guy can’t take criticism or feedback until the weight of everybody telling him he’s wrong forces his hand. It makes me wonder if that’s why his games are always such a mess, because he keeps giving his playtesters his “two cents” rather than listening when they tell him his game has some problems.

      • That does come across as rather defensive. Are any of his points valid?

      • Are any of his points valid?

        I like to think this one is:

        Thanks for this excellent review.
        A nice read, and full of informative details.

      • Not really. It breaks down to two points.

        #1: The HQ’s search has a disproportionately higher value.

        Well, Ausloos didn’t really counter this, except to say that in certain conditions (exceptions, really), you wouldn’t want to return to HQ for its BETTER and SAFER search because: (1) You have to spend fuel to get there, (2) You can take the unrelated “Buy” action elsewhere, and (3) It’s “statistically more interesting” (but not necessarily beneficial) to search elsewhere.

        Problem is, (1) Fuel is probably the least limited of all the resources, including money, so it’s almost never a problem to spend it to get back to HQ, which is centrally located so it’s never too far away. (2) So what? Money is extremely hard to come by, so the “Buy” action isn’t likely to be used all that often. (3) Sure, if you desperately need a resource you have a higher chance of getting it, but only marginally, and you’re also increasing your chances of being ATTACKED during the search, which cannot happen at HQ.

        #2: Android mode isn’t very good.

        Nothing Ausloos says really counters anything Dan wrote in his review. So it isn’t a traitor mode? Then you shouldn’t write on the back of the box that the androids are PLANNING A REVOLT, because that sounds a ton like a traitor mode where you’re conniving and hoping not to get caught, not like the paranoia of Blade Runner and not knowing whether you’re a human or a robot.

        This is typical David Ausloos. When a designer has to resort to explaining to people that they’re “playing wrong” or that they don’t understand the intent of your game (despite the intent being spelled out on the box and in the manual, and matching the player’s interpretation), then you’re being a tool.

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