I was first introduced to Rogue Agent several years ago, when Rogue Agent’s designer, David Ausloos, had asked me to look at the rules and see if it sounded fun. I still have that file, and I can immediately tell how much the game has changed and developed over the years. Well, fast forward to a little while ago when I saw that Michael Barnes reviewed it, and that it was out, thanks to Stronghold Games. I didn’t read the review, and I don’t much keep up on the hype wagon, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me that it had released so shortly after Dark, Darker, Darkest, another game designed by David. I was genuinely excited, and since I had been asked to review it by several readers, I wrote Stronghold to get a review copy. Generally, they are not keen on giving review copies to us “C-Tier” guys, and they offer a discount instead of a free copy. Well, this time, I must have caught Stephen Buonocore, owner of Stronghold, on a great day because he immediately agreed and sent me off a copy. I love it when things go my way unexpectedly, so thanks Stephen, if you happen to read this.
Fast forward three weeks, and here I am, writing about it, after 10 plays with 3 groups, using 3 different rule sets and an expansion mission. Really, though, it’s more that there’s a core set of rules, and the second stock set of rules is more of an extension of those rules, sort of like the “Basic” Heroscape rules teaches you the basics, and then the “Master” rules unlock the game as it was really meant to be. With Rogue Agent, I can’t really even envision wanting to play it anymore using the basic rules, because the full rule set really takes the game from merely OK to really quite bad ass. I was actually surprised how viscerally different the game feels when transitioning from one set to another, and that’s not even including the expansion.
Rogue Agent is essentially an homage to Blade Runner, imbued with a dose of Deus Ex and System Shock II, since you’ve got a bunch of super-secret, sort-of-cops who can be upgraded with special abilities and who go around this cyberpunk-style city kicking criminal ass and uncovering evil androids. Now, this particular city makes Detroit look like Candyland, because you’ve got all kinds of shit to deal with: Assassins that kill your network of informants, bombs all over the place that can blow characters away, and finally, super-duper master criminals working for a bunch of criminal syndicates that basically run around the city and cause untold drama for its inhabitants. Oh, and did I mention that those androids are actually some of the characters, and who are only revealed mid-game, and who once revealed literally wipe entire city blocks off of the map? Yeah, if you think you’re going to save the city, you’re sadly mistaken. It’s not going to happen. Your best hope is to be the best pseudo-cop you can, or at least better than the others, and that’s actually the object of the game.
Before I go any further, let’s talk about the game’s components. First, there’s twelve city boards that represent the various districts of Rain City, and they are double-sided so that you can flip a destroyed block to the “flaming” side to indicate that its been blown apart. The criminals are represented by a large deck of cards as well as two sets of matching tokens, as well as four wooden bomb tokens and four wooden assassin tokens, all of which are tossed into a nice nylon bag to allow you to randomly pull them during the game. Then there’s four plastic agents in four colors, along with meeples in the same colors to represent your informants. Additionally, there’s a plastic police model in a fifth color. Sadly, I don’t really dig the color choices: The black and purple player’s stuff is too close in color, so in a dark room, you have to squint to tell them apart, and especially so with the meeples. I actually think I’m going to paint the black parts a different color for this very reason.
There’s also four multi-trackers which allow you to track your resources and upgrades, and I love how he did this because it’s a hell of a lot better than using markers or cards. There’s also a scoring/timing board which keeps track of the round and the score, and also bears a reminder on the bottom which tells you which order events take place. There’s some tokens for various usage, all nicely illustrated and durable, with smaller ones for individual use and bigger ones that represent your character’s loyalty, so to speak. Finally, there’s a bunch of plastic winks which act as money as well as a bomb deactivation board which is probably the single most brilliant part of the game, as it is a sort of mini-game that you use when you defuse bombs. Now, the one thing I really want to reinforce is that the art is brilliant; Messr. Ausloos is a graphic designer and illustrator by trade and training, and he’s incredibly good at it. I love the look and “feel” that is created by the artwork, and to be honest, I’m not sure that this game would’ve been able to hold the theme and setting of the game without such a perfect art style.
The one thing I’d like to caution you about immediately is that this is one of those games that simply cannot be learned by simply reading the rules. When I tried to play the first time after reading them, it was a hot mess of mistakes and misunderstanding. In fact, this has become a trademark of David’s games, sadly, and I’ve actually coined a term, “The Ausloos Syndrome”, to describe the inability of a publisher’s editors to write and organize rules in such a way that they are easily read and understood. In fact, the first three times we played this game, we played it very, very wrong. Now, this wasn’t the designer’s fault, to be fair, because the rules were in there and we just missed them, realizing only after the fact. It’s really a matter of being easy to understand the rules as written in an abstract way, but it’s not as easy to translate that into a smooth gaming experience when you’re actually playing it. There’s not even a lot of rules, really, but with no quick reference guide at the back of the book, it was a bit of a challenge. I ended up having to snip the corners of the pages to different lengths in order to make referencing specific sections of the rules easier.
Moving back to game play, Rogue Agent is played over six rounds when using the basic rules or eight rounds when using the full rules, and the one thing that stands out about Rogue Agent immediately is that it is surprisingly short. In fact, the box says a game will take 90 minutes to play, but in reality, that number includes setup time, which is maybe two minutes, and putting it away when you’re done. Even from our first game, we wished the game was about two rounds longer, because it always feels like you’re on the cusp of completing your overall strategy but then time runs out. Playing using the expansion lengthens the game, because the arbitrary timer is removed, and in its place is a limit on how many criminals can be jailed or removed from play by the police token. We actually like the expansion’s end-game conditions far better, and unanimously so, which is an oddity here at Circus HQ.
While there are some rules that are hard to wrap your head around, the game is phenomenally challenging and fun. Every single game has been wildly different in practice, and you can’t have a real “scripted strategy”; it’s more like you have to roll with the punches and be a pure opportunist, while figuring out how to make the best of the ever-changing situation. The criminals, bombs, and assassins deploy to the board randomly, but are on a scripted track so you have some predictability in what you can accomplish on your turn, which helps avoid the specter of “Analysis Paralysis”. There’s so many different ways to score points, including capturing and jailing criminals, killing assassins, developing an informant network, being an army-of-one bomb squad, and upgrading your character fully in any of three categories. The game moves along quite briskly, too, so players have to pay attention since there’s really very minimal downtime. I can see a Euro aficionado hand-wringing because of the randomness of many of the elements of the game, but I still think that same kind of person might equally enjoy thedeep and rewarding strategy options available. I guess all I can say is that this is a really odd bird of a game that keeps you on your toes the whole time, and where bad luck can really, truly slide a dirk in between your ribs.
Of all of the things to do in Rogue Agent, I think my hands-down favorite is defusing a bomb. It is, in a word, brilliant. It reminds me, again, so very much of Deus Ex or System Shock II, where you have a mini-game that allows you to pick digital locks to access computer terminals, but in this case, you pick the bomb, so to speak. The simplest way to explain it is that you roll 9 dice and try to get tic-tac-toe with the “X” icons while hoping not to roll “explosion” icons. You must place these icons when they come up, and you can only place them in a certain way; it has a very “puzzley” feel to it, which I like a lot, and there’s a tremendous amount of tension that is built up during this. Worse, every time you add a column of dice, the timer ticks down, and if you manage to defuse the bomb, but have an “explosion” icon at the bottom of any column, the bomb might destabilize and explode anyhow, damaging you and killing any of the criminals you have in tow on the way to the police station. This alone is worth the price of the game because of how truly novel and interesting it makes this singular aspect of the game’s totality. I found myself going to defuse bombs not for the single point I’d earn by defusing it successfully, but because it’s just really fun and exciting to do. Now, some people will have a hard time with understanding how it works, but I didn’t. I found it really quite instinctive and simple. The rules do a great job of explaining it, but as I said at the outset of this article, you really need to grab the bits and play it out yourself to get the hang of it.
In short, you spend almost all of your turns running around and trying to capture criminals, unmasking android players, defusing bombs, searching for items and upgrades, and trying not to get killed along the way. The actions you can take are easy to understand, and the only real sticking point is getting your head around the “AI movement” of the various criminals, which is the weak part of the rules that I keep going back to. Even that’s simple, once you get the hang of it, and I would really have to say that if you buy this, solo it once or twice to understand how it all works, and then take it to your game group. Trying to learn it on the fly from the first play or a simple perusing of the rules will likely leave you a little disappointed because it just seems counter-intuitive and/or poorly worded, but if you play it twice or three times, you’ll start to see the brilliance of the game shining through, and you’ll get hooked.
If you like dice, well, then this might very well be “your game” because almost everything a character does in the game requires dice. To search, you simply roll the number and color of dice that is indicated on your current space, and you keep any useful icons which rolled. You can even re-roll the dice, once, if you don’t like the outcome. This is not without risk, though, because if you rolled “explosion” icons, it means you got jumped by a bum when you were digging in the dumpster, so you can use resources or a die that would normally give you a resource to neutralize it. If you want to fight, you roll three red dice, and see how many hits you can roll; if you rolled “X” icons, they act as multipliers. Criminals can be especially tough because they more than a couple hit points, generally, and there’s no “half-pregnant” in this game – either you knocked them out or you didn’t. It’s the same with assassins, although they’re weaker. Losing a battle against an assassin isn’t too bad, but losing a battle against a criminal is rough; each has his or her own way of screwing you over, although some repercussions have two options to choose from. The one upside to this very luck-driven combat is that you can tilt the odds in your favor by spending your precious ammo resources to add extra dice, and in addition to that, your gun can be upgraded to add two more dice to your pool.
Looking at the game as a whole, I think it does a whole lot right. It’s engaging, fast paced, and has a ton of player interaction, but you have to really understand that if the players try to play nice, it ends up feeling a little bit like a randomized Euro. The interaction isn’t forced, it’s encouraged by a risk-reward mechanic. If players act like the theme and setting would like you to, then it’s a cut-throat, evil, opportunistic race until the very last minute. Our experience with the game is that the basic rules are all well and good, but the advanced rules, or “Android Mode” really makes the game what it was meant to be. I think the game might have been better as a product had it only included those rules, since I can’t see us ever going back to playing the basic game. Once you add Shadow Watch in, the game changes to an even more interesting version of itself.
Shadow Watch changes the rules to my preferred mode: instead of a timer that indicates how long the game lasts, you instead play until three criminals have been apprehended and jailed (or four, for a longer game) or if four criminals have either been arrested by the police without players’ aid or blown off the map by a bomb. This makes the game much more sinister, as people will jump you and steal your criminal cargo far more often as this is the end-game trigger, not to mention the fact that there’s more criminals, generally. It also lengthens the game considerably, because people will be less inclined to take risks early in the game and will go around hoarding resources until they can be relatively sure that they can take the tougher criminals down with greater ease. It also adds in the “sniper” mechanic, where your informants are no longer just cannon fodder; they actively participate in fights by granting you extra fight dice, not to mention the fact that they now protect you from other players who might poach your captive criminals. My favorite part of this is that it’s a completely free download, and to integrate the new rules, you don’t need to change much.
The one, and only, thing that I think I don’t particularly like about the entire design is how much of an advantage the first player each round gets. For instance, each round that player, dubbed “Operations Chief”, pulls either tokens from the bag, and these can be bombs, assassins, or criminals. You roll a D6 for each to determine where these will go, but the Operations Chief is the one who chooses which token to place on those locations. This can have a devastating effect if they want to screw a player over by placing a bomb near that player, or they can place it near their own character if they’re in an advantageous position. The real bitch I have is that in a four player game, two players only get that opportunity twice where the other two get it once, because there’s only six rounds. If the advanced rules are used, with eight rounds, then a four player game is balanced but a three player game has the same problem. I don’t think it’s super unbalanced or anything, but we’ve seen a player gain some advantage by sheer luck in this regard, being able to really screw over some other players. But, this is luck, and you can’t foretell what’s about to transpire. Shadow Watch fixes this, though, since there’s no arbitrary timer anymore, so then everyone has an equal chance to choose locations. Another workaround would be to pull the tokens one at a time, then roll a die for each one, placing it immediately.
Again, I can’t really see us wanting to play the game any other way than with Android Mode and the expansion, at least at this point. While the basic rules are a nice baby step to acclimate you to things, Android Mode makes the game so much better that you should just assume that it is the right way to play. On top of that, just skip ahead and use Shadow Watch as your “core rules” and you will not be disappointed. The “really long and short” of things is that I think this would’ve been the “best version” of this game had the Android Mode rules, with Shadow Watch, been the entire rule set.
Why Being A Rogue Is En Vogue:
- The components are good, and the art is outstanding
- Fast turns and little downtime keep you paying attention and engaged
- There’s a lot to do, especially with predictable movement paths for bad guys
- I’ve never had so much fun defusing high-explosive devices
Why I’d Rather Give A Skin Job Than Be A Rogue:
- After Panic Station, you’d expect that someone would say, “Let’s hire an Flemish-English fluent editor”
- There’s definitely an opportunity to be analysis paralyzed because there’s a lot going on at any given moment
- There should have been one rule set, because Android Mode with Shadow Watch is so superior
The best news that I have for you is that the game is now in it’s perfect form, thanks to the addition of Shadow Watch. I’m sure there’s lots of people who liked Rogue Agent before, and that’s fine, but it’s so much better now. Ideally, Messr. Ausloos would go back and have a rules rewrite to clarify things, like he did with Panic Station, because the current rules are a bit harder to understand than they needed to be. That said, I’m a bit of a dolt and I got through it, so you can too. Most of the Circus folks really dug the game, but my 13 year old actually despised it, calling it “too complex and harder to understand than it needs to be.” Well, she still played it 4 times with me, without complaint, so I do believe the lady doth protest too much. The fact is that the game is fairly rules-light, but has many ways to achieve victory and many different viable strategies.
Learn more about Rogue Agent here:
And download the free expansion pack here: