X-Files: Conspiracy Theory Board Game Review
"Welcome to whose conspiracy is it, anyway? Where everything is made up and the points don't matter"
I love games that are about moments. Like playing King of Tokyo and having someone sitting outside of Tokyo roll six paw/attack icons to crush a player on the brink of winning. Or aceing that sniper shot in Seal Team Flix, earning high fives from everyone around the table. And X-Files: Conspiracy Theory, played with the right group, can provide those moments, despite having flaws in almost every aspect of the game.
The gameplay is simple: Players take turns as Agent Mulder. You draw a conspiracy card that sets the stage, such as "12 Tigers go missing from 12 Different Zoos." The other players then each add one evidence card to the mix, such as "The Republican Party" "12 empty body bags" or "Alien Abduction." The Player who is Mulder then has 30 seconds to think up a story that will use all the pieces of evidence to create a theory that explains the conspiracy. Once Mulder is finished relaying the story, the other players then judge the tale with a simultaneous reveal of thumbs up or thumbs down.
The "game" is really more of an improv session. The evidence cards read like a keyword search of every episode of the X-Files. The problem is some of these pieces of evidence go deep into X-files lore. It's been years since I have watched X-files and I had plenty of "I have no idea what/who that is" moments. Having a cell phone out on the game table is verboten enough, much less NEEDING one out to google obscure references while the game stalls. It is especially biting because the people improvising this tale will inevitably feel ridiculous repeatedly requesting clarification of what the hell they are supposed to be talking about. That is to say nothing of the people listening to the tale and voting. Because they completely lack any inclination to actually bother halting the game for a clarification. When the game isn't delving deep into X-File lore, it also throws in some strange evidence cards, like including "Alex Jones." It's a odd mixture of X-Files canon related cards and non-related cards. Maybe they were just trying to really go with the Everything is Connected theme but, come on, if you are going to put Alex Jones in at least throw in a "Gay Frogs" card.
The voting mechanism is also suspect. You don't vote on if you think the created story was believable or good or fascinating. You vote on how you think everyone else will vote. What is this, High School Clique: Mean Girls edition? "I don't want to vote what I think; I just want to go along with the crowd." More importantly, this scoring system leads to the worst sort of...well...not exactly kingmaking but king-preventing. The Mulder player scores a point if he receives more thumbs up than thumbs down. The other players receive a point if they vote with the majority of other players. If the player currently in the points lead is playing Mulder, just how many thumbs up votes do you think he's going to get? When the action you have just taken can literally have zero impact on if you score a point or not, that is a disconnect of the worst kind. They even suggest that players who don't want to have to weave a story skip their Mulder turn and still vote...but they can't win. Wow, now the points REALLY don't matter.
Also, the "30 seconds" to free-form a conspiracy theory in your mind might work if you are Ryan Styles or the ghost of Robin Williams, but normal humans are going to need a bit more time. Sure, putting "The player has a few minutes to compose a theory" in the rulebook might tip off everyone off that they are going to have to wait a bit for the fun to begin, but it would certainly be more realistic.
Instructions for a variant mode called "Jose Chung's Conspiracy Theory" are included. This calls for all the players to recount a story linking two evidence cards, telling what they witnessed. After everyone has gone, it is up to the Jose Chung character to weave all of these wild stories into a single narrative to explain a Conspiracy. The Witnesses then vote on if they feel they were properly represented in the story. While this doesn't circumvent the issues with the evidence cards, it does at least focus the voting on the actual story instead of simple trying to score points.
It may be called X-files but no one is playing Scully here. There is no voice of reason or alternative narrative provided by another player. In the end, improvising a story with random words would accomplish the same thing as this title does. Only then you wouldn't have to deal with the social dysfunction of the scoring system and googling obscure character references. This game has a laundry list of flaws but it also has provided some laugh-so-hard-you-cry moments and it gets its fair share of "Let's play that conspiracy game" requests on game night. It provides some fun, to be sure, and to that end it is a success despite its supremely questionable quality as a design.
A review copy of this release was provided by the publisher. Therewillbe.games would like to thank them for their support.