Agents of SMERSH - Review

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Agents of SMERSH

Game Information

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Spies fighting evil geniuses in the cold war.......

I am a sucker for Bond movies, Man from UNCLE, Joe 90 etc so this was something that looked really interesting for me. In addition, it could be played solo which means, for someone out in the sticks, like me, that’s a pretty important consideration. I have to admit, I was a bit worried as it was a Kickstarted game and you never really know how extensive the play testing actually was. Still, it came with a recommendation from Richard Launius (Arkham Horror, Call of Cthulu, Defenders of the Realm) so it can’t be all bad.

The board and bits are sturdy and the artwork is good for campy spy adventures. Not too many fiddly bits to deal with although one or two could have been replaced with pen and paper without any loss in playability and with less chance of a die roll catastrophe.
The game comes with a hefty ‘encounter book’ which adds replayability to the game as there are another 283 pages of encounters to go with the encounters on the cards provided. You can use either the book alone, cards alone or both together.

The mechanics of the game is you trolling around the world looking for intel on the location of the evil Dr Lobotomy and/or his evil henchmen. Every time you stop, you have an encounter (like Arkham Horror ). These encounters can level you up, gain you equipment or extra intel or increase your skills as well as give you injuries and advance Dr Lobo’s evil plans. You don’t chop and change your skills as in AH. They can go up or down as a result of encounters but that’s it.

The rule book is awful. It is really difficult to get a cohesive idea as to how the game runs from the rulebook. Why don’t people playtest with someone other than their mates and let them read the rulebook cold, like I had to?  I eventually found some guy from BGG had streamlined the rules and uploaded them so I could read it and start playing.

It is very atmospheric and you do feel you are playing Bond or Bourne. Plenty of cliffhanger moments so I do like it as a story teller. There is strategy involved in terms of when you should stop collecting intel and go beat up the henchmen. You need specific types of intel but the intel is acquired blind until you turn the chit over, when confronting the Evil Genius. Then you will know if you collected enough intel to win. I can’t quite fit this idea into the theme of the game but it does mean you have this balance between intel and taking down the bad guys (I suppose a bit like AH with clues and the terror track).

The main problem is there is very little input from you involved in the encounters apart from pass/fail skill checks. You do feel that you are rolling dice to determine how many dice to roll and then rolling those to determine what matrix to use in the encounters. There is some input in the book encounters but the decisions are largely meaningless because you only know the title of the encounter and then you are given six or seven options which are basically tactics to take.

As an example of this, I draw a card saying “Doppelganger” my options are Impress, On your Guard, Rely on Instinct, Persuade, Admire, Detain or Intimidate. Trouble is, that’s all the info you get. Depending on what you choose, you are sent to a different paragraph to hear the story unfold. Essentially, you have to choose randomly because you have no idea what these responses or the title actually means. So, it’s really another die roll. In this case you have drawn a card (to get Doppelganger), rolled a die because decisions are meaningless and then drawn a card to provide a random third number. All this directs you to a pass/fail paragraph which details the actual situation for you and tells you how many dice to roll to see if you pass. On the plus side, the writing is good and it is quite immersive but still a bit too much like Fighting Fantasy to generate a meaningful, player driven story.

My other gripe is the actual story. You are not an agent of MI6, CIA, Mossad, KGB you are an agent of the UN which is apparently a worldwide spy organization. This is lame. Much more immersive to assume you are Bond working for MI6. Easy to correct though, replace all references to the UN with references to MI6. SMERSH can stay where it is. I have no idea why the designer thought using the UN as the good guys would be cool…it really isn’t.

There is a timer to collect all this intel so you need to get your arse in gear if you want to defeat Dr Lobo in time. Game takes about an hour (solo)

Why I like it
No constant reference to rulebook
Big encounters book doesn’t really slow it down
Replayability and great for solo play.

Why I might think again
Quite expensive
The UN???
Decisions not really meaningful
Heavy, heavy game (cards and 283 page wire bound book)
Rulebook needs a lot of work

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