Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Breaking In, Breaking Out (A Review of Infiltration)

The day is finally here.  You've been planning this for weeks.  Well, you and your team.  Technically they're not YOUR team. You don't really trust them anyways.  But you needed them to get into the building. It's not easy breaking into the highly secure headquarters of CyberSolutions, Inc, to steal valuable data.

But now you're inside.  You just realized you don't need the other guys anymore.  You're in and you're off to do your own thing.  You have your reasons for being here, and you don't really care why anyone else is here.  Time to set off on your own, steal what you can, and get out.

Welcome to Donald X's Infiltration, a game of corporate larceny for 2-6 players, published by Fantasy Flight Games.

How It Plays
In Infiltration, each player takes control of 1 of 6 "operatives" hired to break into a building to steal corporate data.  While you technically all work for the same person, each character has their own reasons for participating, and the game is not cooperative.  The goal is to get as much data as you can and escape the building before the guards arrive.

The "board" represents the building, with 6 rooms on the first floor, 6 rooms on the second floor, and a secret room somewhere in the middle.  Each room is represented by an oversized card, and the building deck has more cards than rooms so you're going to get a vastly different setup each time you play.

The V formation seems weird but it actually makes sense once you start setting it up.

The core structure of the game is pretty straightforward; each player selects 1 of 4 Action cards simultaneously.  The actions are Advance (move forward 1 room), Retreat (move backward 1 room or leave the building if you're in the first room), Interface (perform your current room's special action), or Download (receive DF [or "data file"] tokens from your current room).  The catch is that these actions are resolved in player order, and sometimes the actions taken by other players can affect how your action plays out.  For example, if a room runs out of DF tokens, a player who chose "download" in that room gets nothing.

There are also Item cards - each player starts with 4, and it is possible to gain more (generally through the "Interface" function of certain rooms).  These interface cards usually provide ways to move through the building faster, perform multiple actions in the same turn, or perform an action that isn't normally available, such as killing an NPC or Lab Worker.

Each room is different, but they all have the same structure.  When revealed, they have a certain number of DF tokens added.  Many rooms have events that occur when they are first revealed, or when an operative enters.  Every room has a special "Interface" function which could involve drawing more item cards, accessing the secret room, recovering from a wound, or even escaping the building early.  Some rooms also have Lab Workers, which can be killed to add more DF tokens to that room, or Tech Locks, which can be destroyed to add more DF tokens but also have a special function that resolves when destroyed as well.

Without variants, characters are different in name and backstory only.  No special rules to learn for each person.

NPCs can pop up (usually when a particular room is revealed) that perform various functions - from raising the alarm, to attacking Operatives, to destroying all Lab Workers, Tech Locks, and Items in its path.

Finally, at the end of each turn, the first player rolls a die.  This roll, in addition to an alarm level, is added to a proximity dial which counts from 00 to 99 (which goes much faster than you'd think based on rolling a d6), and as soon as the dial reaches the 99 the game ends.

If the game doens't end, the first player passes forward, and the next round starts.  If the game does end, whoever collected the most data AND escaped the building wins!

Is This Heist Worth Pulling Off?

This game is rather reminiscent of the popular and highly-rated family game, Incan Gold, with a few added layers to make the experience a bit more satisfying for gamers.

That's kind of a dry way to say it.  Let me rephrase: I love this game!  Let me count the ways.

This is the data you want to steal.  Mmmmmm Data Chips. (Okay they're actually called DF Tokens.)

To start off, this is an Fantasy Flight Games product, and while I do not choose to love games simply because they come out of the FFG house, they have a reputation for stellar production quality. From high quality cardboard tokens to excellent cardstock, in addition to stellar art and graphic design, this game is no exception.  And while I'm not a huge fan of mini cards, the choice here makes sense (many cards are placed permanently on rooms, and standard cards would create significantly more clutter).  The room layouts are consistently laid out and make a lot of sense, and the large card size works for the rooms works great.  It would be nice to have a set of icons to make cards easier to interpret or recognize from a distance, but at least the descriptions are clear enough.

FFG is commonly criticized for poor rulebooks.  While this criticism is often deserved - some of the worst rulebooks I've seen (as far as explaining how to play a game) have come out of FFG, from the over-worded mess of a tome for Wiz-War to the reads-like-a-textbook-and-is-nearly-impossible-to-find-the-rule-you're-looking-up-while-playing brick that is the Arkham Horror rulebook.  However, not ALL of their rulebooks are awful, and I think some of them are derided unfairly because of their reputation.  In this case, the Infiltration rulebook may not be the most impressive rulebook of all time (see: Smash-Up), but it is certainly more than adequate.  It explains the game, it doesn't over-explain, and it is clearly labelled and easy to reference.  In addition it has a few optional variants including pre-set starting items for each character and an alternative to the "Download" card called "Extract" which adds a new layer of risk/reward.  These additions are not necessary to the game, but they certainly offer up new ways to play which is a standard feature of FFG games.

There is never enough room...

The setup of the game isn't too difficult at all, despite the dynamic "board."  This board does an excellent job of forcing players to think on their feet and attempt different strategies each time they play.  While there are more than enough rooms (more than double for each floor) to create a different experience each game, the simple changing of the order of rooms can radically alter the actions needed to collect data and escape the facility.  It makes each game a rather different experience than the last; it creates its own story as players vie to score and escape.  It certainly does a lot more to vary each game than, say, the "dynamic board" in Settlers of Catan.

Enough about the parts, though.  This game is definitely more than the sum of its parts.  Risk and reward lie at the center of this game.  How far will you go.  How far CAN you go?  Everything in this game plays into that question, and the dynamic set up keeps you guessing every time.   Because there always MIGHT be a way out.  And everything in the game builds on this hope, this chance, this possibility that there might actually be a real reward for your risk.

The dial goes from 0 to 99 a lot faster than you might think

You never know what room might show up next.  You never know when you might score a couple of 3-pt DF tokens.  You never know for sure, until you try, how deep into the building you can get and still get out.  And it's not just the front door that gets you out either.  There's a room on the first floor that gets you out early - and if it happens to show up in one of the last first floor rooms, that means you can push farther into the building and still have time to escape.  In the second floor, there is yet another room that allows immediate escape (albeit with some sacrifice of DF tokens), but if you push all the way into the building, you might just reach that room.  Of course, the Secret Room might provide a short cut through the building, but that's assuming that the entrance/exit is available on both sides.  And you never know when you might snag an item card that lets you shoot back through the building for a wild escape.  And you might get a series of low rolls that give you the time you need to escape the building.  There are so many possibilities.

Different items can help you or mess with the other players.

And so while the lever of this game is the hope of scoring it big, the fulcrum on which it turns is that there is just not enough time to do everything you want.  You can take that risk but if you fail, you're stuck in the building.  You may score it huge and never make it out; you may not even manage to rack up the points at all.  That's why it's a risk.  This creates excitement and tension.  Your choices are extremely meaningful even though very simple.  The question you ask every turn: is it time to make an escape, or do I go further, deeper, bigger, riskier.  You might get that item card; that room; that Blackmail file; but you might not.  You won't get an abundance of chances.

A small caveat here, and an important one, as I have seen many mediocre reviews of this game but noticed a surprisingly consistent detail among them.  Among those mediocre reviews, the reviewers generally professed to have only played the game with at most 4 players, and more commonly 3 or even 2 players.  Let me make something very clear: this is a 6 player game.  The experience only starts to become fun with 4 players. I would say that with 4, the game is "good."  Any less, and you remove the fulcrum - suddenly there is very little competition.  You can get plenty of data and you don't need to stress out about it.  There's not a strong pull to go as deep as you can; there's no feeling like you don't have enough and you're going to have to try, at all costs, to break away from the group and score even if it means you might get stuck on the top floor when the guards arrive.  With 3 players the tension is mostly gone; with 2, each player plays as 2 characters and the tension (and thus the real fun of the game) is essentially gone.  It is not surprising that these reviewers found the game to be mediocre.  It is surprising and saddening that these people felt like they could fairly review a game without trying it at full player count.

Because with 5 and 6, everyone is competing fiercely over the same data.  There's a lot less to go around which means pushing a lot farther before getting anything at all.  It means an added layer of trying to guess what the other players are going to do, and trying to set yourself up so that when it's finally YOUR turn to go first, you're in the right place to drastically damage the other players with a well-placed item or to score big by snagging a sweet download or an ever-so-valuable Prototype card.  There's a lot more reason to push into the second floor; a lot more reward behind the risk.  A lot more chance that the game will come down to the last few exciting turns as players start to escape the building and hope the others will become stuck; while the high risk-takers will hope beyond hope for SOME way to escape, something to slow the guards down or a new exit.  Even if you lose at that point, you've already won because it's been an exciting and wild ride and you went farther than you hoped to dare and you almost escaped.

The second floor rooms can get pretty stacked up with DF tokens. And other valuable ways to score points.

Okay, if you're looking for a deep Euro, or something the lines of Dominion which has a deeply layered element of strategy, you're going to be disappointed.  Infiltration is not that kind of game.  It's not trying to be.  It's not a studied worker placement game.  It's purely a game of push-your-luck.  The mechanisms are not intricately tied together; at least, not in an economical sense.  They are tied together in the sense that everything points back to the system of risk and reward.  There is no "fluff."  No series of complex rules that allow you to do things because it's "thematic" even if it doesn't add to the game.  It's just a building you move through and interact with.  It's a choice between 4 actions which matters because of what everyone else will choose to do, and the limited resources available that can be affected by those choices.  The colors, the designs, the art, the theme, it's all just tasty frosting on the delicious chocolate cake underneath.  Because sometimes you don't need the fancy layers and fruit fillings; you just want the chocolate.

I've gone on a little long; but I love this little game.  It is little; it comes in a little box.  It takes 30 minutes or so to play (especially with experienced players).  It only allows you to do so many things.  But within that little box is a huge experience, a fun, enjoyable, and tense one.  It's thematic without being cluttered; it avoids the woes of certain FFG rules; it's family friendly, easy to teach, dynamic, and most of all fun. Just make sure to get a decent number of people; 4 is the minimum, 5 is better, 6 is the best.  Don't cheat yourself out of a great game by ignoring the conditions it was designed to be played with.

Easy to learn and family friendly
Plays very quickly and creates exciting tension
Excellent production quality
Dynamic board setup forces new strategies
Very thematic without becoming overcomplicated
Consistent and clear terminology
Includes variants for new ways to play
I really enjoy the Android universe

Mediocre with 2-3 players
Could use some iconography

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