Review: The Agents

The-AgentsThe Agents is a card game where players represent a group of operatives that have gone rogue once their respective espionage agencies have disbanded. The game plays 2-5 players in about 30 minutes, with the game ending when a player earns 50 points. Players earn victory points (IP) by playing agent cards in specific directions that award points to either themselves, or their opponents. Additionally, players earn points by achieving specific layouts in their play area by assigning mission cards.

What’s rather clever about the game is that the orientation of agent cards either can award you points, or provide an action. Choose to gain points and your opponent now has access to that agent’s ability (or vice versa). To gain points you need to have a pair of agents lined up to link two halves of an IP icon shaped as an arrow. Additionally these half arrow icons are either black or white. If the colors match you gain 2 points, and if they are mixed the player earns 1 point.

A player has only two options when playing agent cards in their area. They either form up in one group (faction) to the player on their left, or the player on their right. Additionally each faction can be comprised of only 5 agent cards (7 in a two player game). You can only play cards on factions you share with other players. The agent actions allow cards to be rotated, shifted to other factions, pulled out of a faction (either into your hand or discarded) and manipulating these commands on the agent cards becomes a key part of the gameplay.

Players can also assign up to 2 mission cards per faction. These provide additional points if certain conditions are met in a faction. Once a player has done all their actions victory points (IP) are awarded based on the number and type of arrow icons facing them, and any additional points from assigned missions are also earned.

Playing agent cards becomes a tricky process though. Not only do other players score points on their turn for any pairs of IP icons that are facing them, they also have the option of using an agent command on their turn. If you get a nice layout of IP icons awarding you points each turn, expect your opponents to start activating agents that you set out to muck up the orientation of your shared agents.
Agents Cards 2
Now a while back I gave a shout out for the original kickstarter campaign. After repeated plays I found there were some rough edges to it. So while the Agents was pretty fun, it just wasn’t something that I found to be a homerun at my gaming table. Since then the rules got a revamp and another kickstarter campaign was rolled out. The ‘Mark 2’ rules really make the Agents a much more enjoyable game.

The game now ends when a player reaches 50 points. No longer does it continue until all players get the same number of turns after a player reaches 40 points and this removes a finicky end game condition. In practice I found you actually had to plan on having more than 40 points, as inevitability other players would be able to maximize their layout in that last mad dash during their final turn. You also have much more flexible options for removing agents and missions from your factions, and picking up missions are cheaper. I appreciate the relaxed options for altering your agents and missions and it’s a welcome change from the more rigid turn actions of the first edition.

Likely the biggest change however is that players are no longer required to use an agent’s command action when it’s first played. Now players have the option of not activating the card powers when an agent is added to a faction. It does remove some bite to the game, as before you could really force a player to restructure their faction when you first placed an agent. However I also found this would inadvertently drag out the game as your opponents would sometime agonize how they would apply the command of an agent. With the new rules they have the option to just utilize it as an action later.

This change also bleeds over into special agents. Special agents are the only cards that can be played on other players that are not aligned with your 2 factions. Before it was a chore sometimes figuring out how to apply a command when they were played. Now, the IP points are still awarded immediately the turn they’re played. However the card is not discarded until the command on the agent is activated. This means that other players can keep those command actions for play in a future turn. This small change really adds to the value and decision process of special agents. Do you score the points now and risk an opponent trashing your built up factions on a later turn? Likewise having those special agent powers available may allow you to set up a nice mission condition, allowing you to work towards a specific strategy.

The Good – It’s an enjoyable strategy card game with an interesting mechanism for play based on the orientation of your cards. It has a good flow and offers interesting choices of spending victory points to try and get resources in order to score more points on future turns. There are a fair number of expansions out to provide alternate missions, free agents, and other small twists to the game. However even right out of the box there seems to be enough variation in the cards to offer plenty of replay.

The design of the cards is well done. The artwork captures an almost sci-fi feel, and some sweeping action poses that look more out of a comic book rather than what you’d expect for a game revolving around espionage. I like it and the art and design seems to capture that tone of a tug-of-war game where agents are flipping allegiances back and forth.

The Bad – There are a lot of improvements with the second edition rules, however the new rulebook will still have you getting some head scratching questions regarding agent abilities. The game can also depend on a fair bit of luck. If a player gets a good scoring combination set up, they only have to worry about their immediate neighbors mucking it up. If your opponents get a few poor draws with agents that can’t shake up your layout, well you can run away with the victory points making it very hard to catch up. It can be a little frustrating not being able to get a setup that will earn you points, especially as your opponent can trash your layout using agent abilities (or the alternate, not being able to break up an opponent’s efficient faction). While there is certainly an element of strategy to create these layouts, it can also rely on lucky card draws.

The Verdict – The Agents is an enjoyable game. It’s heavy enough to offer challenging choices, with some variety in the cards and play to provide replayability. But not so much that it gets mired down in lengthy turns with lots of intricate working parts that you might see in other board games. The game seems to run just long enough and teeters over that edge of being just a filler game. With fast play and some enjoyable bits of strategy, you’ll certainly want to play a few hands filling up an evening of gaming.

There are rough spots to the game. Some of the actions on the agents and how they resolve can be clunky at times. You can get stuck with poor draws for a few turns which can make catching up all the more difficult. But the faction layouts are very fragile and can be rapidly altered, making that ideal faction placement difficult to set up (and harder to maintain). This facet of play really captures the give and take of agent loyalties which allows for some interesting play.

I don’t feel the Agents is an absolute must have for a collection. However the point-or-action choice of card placement is different and makes it stand out compared to other games. The new version of the rules allow for a more flexible turn options and is a significant improvement over the original version. Additionally the point of entry for the game is low with enough card options that you don’t need to pick up expansions, but they are available if wanted. The player count and play length is just right too. So I would certainly recommend it if looking for a light, strategy card game.