Radio Review #74 – The X-Files

 

x_files

(IDW Games, Pandasaurus Games)

 

“Please forgive our hometown….in our insignificance….”

 

The X-Files premiered in the Fall of 1993 and spanned 9 seasons, including 2 motion pictures. A new Netflix Originals mini-series is also scheduled to hit the popular streaming service in 2016. The series was unique for its time, capturing the increasing interest in paranormal activity and science fiction in the early to late 90’s. For those unfamiliar with the show, FBI Agent Fox Mulder was a once highly respected agent who has increasingly become obsessed with looking into paranormal cases, specifically in search of clues about his sister’s abduction, that he declares he witnessed as a child. Slowly he has become distracted with his work at the Bureau. The Bureau therefore, has assigned FBI Agent Dana Scully (a skeptic to all things supernatural) to “help” him with his X-File cases, meaning she has been sent as a partner, with the intention of debunking his theories, hopefully resulting in Mulder getting back to his real work.

As they uncover the cases behind these so called “X-Files”, Scully becomes more convinced that Mulder may be onto something, and begins to help him. As Mulder and Scully uncover each case, it becomes evident that there are others out there that wish to corrupt evidence and keep them from revealing the truth, no matter what. Specifically, a shady chain-smoking man they come to call the Cigarette Smoking Man. I’ll let you delve into the series itself to find out more about him and his intentions (the complete original series can be found on Netflix), but for now let’s focus on the game designed by Kevin Wilson, whom is well known for his work on many Fantasy Flight games such as Descent, Arkham Horror, Cosmic Encounter, and Fury of Dracula, just to name a few.

X-Files is a semi-cooperative game in which one player takes the role of the Cigarette Smoking Man, while the other players act as a team of FBI Agents, attempting to reveal the truth before our antagonist has the chance to cover it up. Players will move around regions of the United States, investigating open X-Files, placing progress tokens on them until they can be fully solved. The Cigarette Smoking Man will work to thwart their progress, and needs only to conceal enough evidence over time to win the game. The Agents goal is to reveal enough evidence to the public that the there can no longer be any denial of truth, thus the cover-up has failed.

 

 

 

Components:

– X-Files game board

 

– Syndicate player screen

 

– Agent credential cards

 

– Syndicate cards

 

– Agent cards

 

– X-Files Case cards

 

– Syndicate & Cigarette Man tokens

 

– Evidence tokens

 

– Progress & Agent tokens

 

– Influence tokens

 

– Wound tokens

 

– Agent markers

 

– Puzzle sections

 

– Cloth bag

 

 

 

 

Setup:

In X-Files, one player takes the role of the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man who will attempt to destroy extraterrestrial evidence and shut down the X-Files division, while all other players will work together as a team of FBI special agents in a race against time to reveal enough evidence to reveal that in fact, “the truth is out there”.

At the beginning of the game, the Cigarette Smoking Man (referred to as the syndicate player) will receive the syndicate player screen along with the Cigarette Man tokens. He will also receive a number of Influence tokens equal to the number of agent players in the game.
The main game board represents a map of the United States where X-File cases are present. Agent players will move around these sections of the U.S. acquiring the evidence they need to solve the cases. The syndicate player will use his syndicate cards and tokens to make these cases harder to solve, hopefully delaying the agents long enough to win the game, before enough cases can be solved. At the beginning of the game, the Agent cards, Syndicate cards, and X-File cards are shuffled into separate decks and placed on their corresponding spaces on the game board.
An Agent token and Syndicate token are placed on the top space of their respective scoring tracks. Each time agents spend enough collected evidence to unlock a new puzzle piece (which will reveal sections of the “I Want to Believe” poster), their token is increased by one space on their side of the track. If players turn in enough evidence to reveal all 9 sections of the map, the Agents win the game. At the beginning of each of his turns, the Syndicate player will draw an Evidence token for each case on the board that is currently unsolved. This will increase his token on his side of the scoring track. If this track ever reaches 25, the Syndicate player wins the game.

 

The U.S. map is divided into four main regions: Northeast, Midwest, West, and South. Each X-File Case card shows which region of the map it belongs in. At the beginning of the game, a number of X-File Case cards are drawn matching the number of Agent players in the game. Each card is placed in its corresponding region (the South region can contain two cases, while all others contain only one at a time).

The Syndicate player will now draw 5 Syndicate cards. There are spaces attached to each X-File Case space where the Syndicate player can place his cards during the game. When an Agent attempts to investigate a particular case, the Syndicate player can choose to reveal one of his attached cards. I’ll discuss what these Syndicate cards can contain a bit later on. At the beginning of the game, after the X-File case cards have been placed on the map, the Syndicate player can choose to place his Syndicate cards on spaces attached to these X-File cards if he wishes to.
The Agents players will each choose a credential card, which contains the name of an agent and that agent’s special ability, as well as take the matching agent marker. Each Agent player will also draw 5 Agent cards and receive 3 Influence tokens. All Agent markers begin the game in the Northeast region.

 

 

All Evidence tokens are then placed into the cloth bag. All other tokens (Influence, Progress, and Wound) as well as the “I Want to Believe” puzzle pieces are placed near the game board. After setup is complete, the play area should look something like this:

 

 

 

 

Gameplay:

The player seated to the left of the Syndicate player will begin the game. Each Agent will individually resolve the steps of their turn until play passes to the Syndicate player. After the Syndicate player resolves his steps, play resumes then to the Agents. This continues until either the Agents have compiled enough evidence to reveal Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster, or the Syndicate player has increased his scoring track to 25. Let’s first take a look at the various steps of an Agent’s turn, then we’ll cover the Syndicate player’s.

 

 

The Agent:

There are three main phases to an Agent’s turn; the Movement Phase, the Action Phase, and the Cleanup Phase. These phases are resolved in order, beginning with Movement.

 

 

The Movement Phase

At the beginning of each turn, the Agent will have the choice of either moving to an adjacent section of the map, or staying in their current region and trading an Agent card of their own with a card from another Agent located in the same region.

At the beginning of the game, the player controlling Agent Mulder decides to use his movement to move from the Northeast region to the Midwest. This region currently contains an X-File along with a Syndicate card.

 

 

 

The Action Phase

After moving, the Agent now has the choice of either playing an Agent card from their hand and resolving it, or they can instead choose to collect 3 Influence tokens. Some Agent cards may cost these Influence tokens to play, depending on the skill of each individual Agent. An Agent’s credential card will reveal which skills an Agent is strong and weak in. All Agents are strong in the “General” skill, represented by the flying saucer icon.

Taking a look at Assistant Director Walter Skinner, we can see that he is strong in the General and Political skills, but is weak with the Paranormal skill.

 

 

When an Agent decides to play an Agent card from his hand, the cost of the card depends on his strong and weak skills. Normally, an Agent card will cost 1 Influence token to play. However, if an Agent is strong in the skill referenced on the card, he can play that Agent card for free. If he is weak with the referenced skill, it will cost him 2 Influence to play.

If Skinner decided to play the “Follow Hunch” Agent card, he would need to spend 2 Influence tokens, since the paranormal icon is listed on the card, and Assistant Director Walter Skinner is weak in the paranormal skill.

 

 

Each X-File card lists the amount of Progress tokens (located on the bottom of the card) needed to complete that particular investigation. The number towards the top of each X-File card refers to the amount of Evidence tokens awarded by completing it. When a player plays an Agent card from their hand, many of these cards have an Investigate ability. This refers to how many Progress tokens can be placed on the current X-File. For instance, take a look below at X-File “731”.

If Skinner had played his “Follow Hunch” Agent card (seen above) while investigating this X-File in the Midwest region, he would be allowed to place 3 Progress tokens on X-File “731”. The Agent card would also allow him to immediately draw 2 more Agent cards and add them to his hand. Upon further examination, we can see that X-File “731” also contains a special bonus of any Agent playing an Agent card that contains a political icon. Any investigations performed with a political icon will add an additional Progress token than it usually would, to this particular X-File.

 

 

It is also possible for an Agent to become wounded during the course of the game, via some of the Syndicate cards. For every wound an Agent has on them, they will add one less Progress token when investigating. An Agent player can never have more than 5 Wound tokens on them at any one time.

When there is enough Progress tokens on an X-File to solve the investigation, the Agent player will then immediately draw a number of tokens from the cloth bag equal to the number shown on the X-File card (in the case of X-File “731”, this would have been 3). Each Evidence token drawn out of the bag are placed together for Agents to spend on the 9 puzzle pieces of Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” map. The values of these Evidence tokens range from 1 – 2 points. It is possible than when drawing these tokens from the bag, the Agent may instead draw a Cigarette Man token. If so, these tokens are given to the Syndicate player to be placed behind his screen. The cost of each puzzle piece directly coincides with the number of Agent players in the game. Therefore, in a 4-player game, each puzzle piece will cost 4 Evidence points (in a 3-player game, 3 Evidence points, and so on…).

 

 

 

The Cleanup Phase

After an Agent has performed their movement and action steps, they will simply draw 1 new Agent card from the Agent card draw pile. Before we move on to the steps involved with the Syndicate player’s turn, let’s take a look at a couple of examples of X-File and Agent cards found in the game:

 

– The Piper Maru is an X-File case located in the Western U.S. and requires 5 Progress tokens to solve. However, for every previously solved X-File in the Western U.S. before this one, it will cost +1 additional Progress token to complete. When X-Files are solved, they are flipped over face down, and stay in that region for the sole purpose of card effects such as this one. So if there were two previously solved face-down X-Files on this region space when Piper Maru was placed out, it would require 7 Progress tokens to solve instead of 5. When solved it will allow Agents to pull 2 Evidence tokens from the bag.

 

– The Ghost in the Machine is an X-File located in the Southern U.S. and requires 4 Progress tokens to solve. When solved, it will allow Agents to pull 1 Evidence token from the bag, however each Agent that helped to investigate this X-File will suffer 1 Wound token. Remember that for every Wound token on an Agent, that Agent will add one less Progress token than normal when investigating.

Lazarus is an X-File located in the Northeastern U.S. and requires 7 Progress tokens to solve, though an science investigations will add 1 less Progress token to the case than normal. When solved it will allow Agents to pull 2 Evidence tokens from the bag.

 

 

Question Witness is a politics-based Agent card, that when played will allow the Agent to investigate, placing 2 Progress tokens on the current X-File. However, for every other Agent located in that region, he will get to add +1 Progress tokens to that X-File as well.

 

The Lone Gunman is a science-based Agent card that when played, provides an ongoing effect, placed on the game board entitled an Ally. There is a space on the top left corner of the game board where these Ally cards are placed when played.

Only one Ally card is active on the board at any one time. Agents and the Syndicate player both have Ally cards in their decks. If an Ally card is played, it will replace the previously played Ally card, thus negating the previous ongoing ability. This particular Lone Gunman ally card provides an ongoing ability to all Agents in which at the end of their turns, they will be allowed to draw two Agent cards during the Cleanup Phase (instead of the normal one card), and then choose to keep one of them, discarding the other.

 

Recuperate is a conflict-based Agent card that when played will allow that Agent to heal all wounds from either himself or any other Agent.

 

 

 

 

The Syndicate (Cigarette Man):

After all Agent’s have completed their turns, it is now the Syndicate player’s turn. There are five main phases to the Syndicate player’s turn; the Conceal Phase, the X-Files Phase, the Draw Phase, the Influence Phase, and the Action Phase.

 

 

The Conceal Phase

As the Cigarette Man, the Syndicate player will attempt to make it as hard as possible for the Agents to collect Evidence when solving an X-File. To do this, he will attempt to muddle the cloth bag with as much Cigarette Man tokens as possible. If you remember, when Agents solve a case, they are allowed to draw a number of tokens from the bag, as noted on the X-File card. Evidence tokens drawn will go towards the purchase of a puzzle piece, however any Cigarette Man tokens will go back to the Syndicate player and are essentially a wasted draw.

During this phase, the Syndicate player will draw a number of tokens from the bag equal to the number of unsolved X-Files still on the game board. Any Evidence tokens drawn will be kept behind his screen. The values of these tokens are considered “concealed evidence” and count as the Syndicate players Victory Points. Remember, that if the Syndicate player reaches 25 of these points, he automatically wins the game. Therefore, the more unsolved cases present at the start of the Syndicate players turn, the more evidence he can conceal, thus increasing this number. Any Cigarette Man tokens drawn are set to the side and not counted as a token drawn during this phase. After the player has drawn his Evidence tokens, he will return any drawn Cigarette Man tokens to the bag, as well as 1 additional Cigarette Man token from behind his screen to the bag.

At the beginning of the Cigarette Man’s turn, we can see that there are three unsolved X-Files still present on the map. Therefore he will draw 3 Evidence tokens from the bag.

 

The first two tokens drawn were Evidence tokens with a value of 1 and 2. The third token drawn was a Cigarette Man token. This token is set to the side and ignored for now. He then draws another Evidence token with a value of 1.

 

He places his Evidence tokens behind the screen. He previously had a total of 4 concealed evidence behind his screen, but with these newly concealed evidence values included, this increases his total to 8.

 

Because of this, he will increase his progress on his Concealed Evidence track from the 0-5 space to the 6-10 space. Agent players now know that he has concealed somewhere between 6-10 points of evidence.

 

 

The Cigarette Man will then return the drawn Cigarette Man token to the cloth bag, along with an additional Cigarette Man token from behind his screen to the bag. The more of these tokens present in the bag, the harder it will be for the Agent players to gain Evidence when solving cases.

 

 

The X-Files Phase

The Syndicate player will now add new X-File cases to the game board, but only if there are less unsolved X-Files than there are Agent players in the game. If this is the case, then the Syndicate player will draw a new X-File card from the draw pile and place it in it’s corresponding space on the board. He will continue to do this until the number of unsolved X-File cases equals the number of Agents in the game.

 

 

The Draw Phase

Before the Syndicate player performs an action (during the Action phase), he will always have at least 5 Syndicate cards in his hand to choose from. Because of this, he will draw up to 5 Syndicate cards during the Draw Phase.

 

 

 

The Influence Phase

As with the Agent players, the Syndicate player must pay for each Syndicate card he reveals on the board, using Influence tokens. Where an Agent player must choose between playing an Agent card or collecting more Influence tokens, the Syndicate player will be allowed to play Syndicate cards from his hand for free, only needing to pay Influence for them when revealing it. During this phase, he will collect a number of Influence tokens equal to the number of Agent players in the game.

 

 

 

The Action Phase

During the Action Phase, the Syndicate player can play any Syndicate cards for free from his hand onto the empty Syndicate card spaces on the game board, as long as the region it is connected to has an unsolved X-File present. Only one Syndicate card can be present in any one Syndicate card space. The player can choose to switch out a card already on a space with one from his hand at any time, by paying 1 Influence token. Otherwise the player will not have to pay any Influence until an Agent investigates an X-File and the Syndicate player decides to reveal an attached Syndicate card. Any unrevealed Syndicate cards are discarded when the X-File it is attached to is solved.

Continuing with the previous investigation example, Assistant Director Walter Skinner chose to investigate the “731” X-File case with the “Follow Hunch” Agent card. When he plays this card to investigate, the Syndicate player chooses to reveal one of his two Syndicate cards attached to this Midwest region. The revealed card entitled “Restrict Access” costs the Syndicate player 2 Influence tokens, and allows him to look at an opposing Agent’s hand of cards, discarding a card from it.

 

A portion of the Syndicate cards in the draw deck are entitled “Hiding the Truth”. These cards costs no Influence to reveal and are essentially used as a bluff. They have no effects, but can be used to keep Agent players on edge as to which regions have harmful Syndicate card effects and which ones are bluffs. Let’s take a look at some of the other cards that can be found in the Syndicate deck:
– The Men In Black syndicate card costs 3 Influence tokens to reveal. When revealed, it will cancel any progress tokens being added by a political-based Agent card. Even though it will cancel progress tokens from being added to the X-File in this way, it will not cancel any other effects on the Agent card.

 

– The Well-Manicured Man is an Ally card, costing 2 Influence to reveal. Remember that an Ally card is placed in the Ally space on the game board, replacing any previously placed Ally card. It contains an ongoing ability, until it is replaced by another Ally card. The Well-Manicured Man ally in particular has an ability that allows the Syndicate player to add an additional Cigarette Man token to the cloth bag during the Conceal Phase.

– The Black Organization syndicate card costs 4 Influence token to reveal. When revealed, it will require the current Agent to gain a number of wounds equal to the number of progress tokens he just placed on the X-File card.

 

 

 

End-Game Conditions:

As discussed before, the Agents players will collectively win if they are able to spend enough Evidence tokens to reveal all sections of Mulder’s poster. The Syndicate player will win if he is able to conceal 25 points of Evidence before the Agents are able to complete this.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts:

As enough of an X-Files fan to appreciate the designer’s ability to incorporate the series’ theme into the game, I’d be hard pressed to separate what level of enjoyment stems from the game’s intellectual property, and that from the design itself. Having said that, the Agent/Syndicate roles contain a pleasant, asymmetrical balance, and the mechanics are interesting, yet light enough to grasp onto, of which I attribute to the game’s streamlined rule-set. Instead of designing a game completely rooted in the ground for those solely dedicated to the tv series, X-Files seems to take a lighter approach, whether it be to introduce X-File fans to the casual board game hobby, or introduce board gamers to The X-Files series (especially with the new miniseries upcoming). It can probably been seen as a little of both.

The “race against time” element provides a interesting bit of tension for the opposing sides. The Agents want to close as many cases on their collective turns as possible, so as not to allow the Syndicate player multiple chances at concealing evidence and gaining the points he needs to win. At the same time, they must work efficiently enough to collect enough evidence of their own to complete Mulder’s poster, through use of their personal character abilities and Agent cards. The Syndicate player on the other hand must figure out the best balance of bluffing and revealing his attached Syndicate cards to impede the Agent’s progress. It’s important to note that when an X-File is completed, any attached face-down Syndicate cards are also discarded from that region face-down, never revealed. The Syndicate player can use this to his advantage, keeping the Agents in the dark on what he’s played and what he hasn’t, including his “Hiding the Truth“ (bluff) cards. The Syndicate player will almost always have more cards available on the board attached to X-File cases than he has Influence tokens to spend for them. Therefore it’s important to decided the best opportunities to pay for and reveal a card, and when to just let it go.

While not massive in strategy, X-Files contains a good balance of planning and streamlined mechanics to provide a fun, light-strategy driven title. Current fans of the series will most likely find a deeper love for the game than one unfamiliar with the source material, though X-Files should merit a try for its combination of asymmetrical gameplay and design mechanics alone.

 

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