Sunday, October 21, 2012

Infiltration: the game that almost got away

Feel the hype, sigh
Infiltration: are you
up for a caper?
The social media advertising for Infiltration passed before my eyes registered but ignored, a disinterest no doubt prompted by its being set in FFG’s Android universe: Android — “a board game of murder and conspiracy set in a dystopian future” about which the consensus is that its attempt to marry narrative to a competitive boardgame failed because of the clunky complexities of Kevin Wilson’s design methods (as seen in, eg. Arkham Horror or Descent, whose heavy status-tracking and bean-counting mechanics are exactly what would suck all the fun out of playing a co-op against a pseudo-narrative solitaire engine) — was one of a handful of later FFG releases enjoying certain novel features sparking an initial interest which quickly waned when I realised what I’d be buying. That is to say: a big box of toys and other shiny stuff thrown together into the interminable clunk of too, too many cards and counters presided over by a rulebook both poorly organised and frustratingly vague.

Dominion: another landmark
of design innovation
Of course, the name of Donald X. Vaccarino — who shot to fame and fortune (fortune?- you have to assume that, genre-buster that it is, Dominion is one of those rare games: a real earner for its inventor) by inventing the deck-building genre with Dominion; this name really should’ve held my attention, but my weariness with the big-box expansion-driven extravaganzas FFG was churning out was past breaking point. As has happened before then, Infiltration was finally brought to my attention by the enthusiasm of a fellow gamer via the internet- a capsule session report @F:AT IIRC. The rest will be history to regular readers (get the story here if you’re not).

Infiltration: inside the box (via)
My first pleasant surprise with Infiltration’s components was the box: it’s small, less than half the size of FFG’s big square boxes. One thing was for sure: this game wasn’t going deliver all the gubbins which was starting so to bore me.

The cards

Infiltration: all in the cards…
Looking first at the essential components of Infiltration- the cards. FFG packs 114 cards into the box, all beautifully illustrated in glorious technicolour. Infiltration is such a simple game that there is frankly little graphic design can do to make it any easier to play, but decoration can always obstruct function. Fortunately FFG are experienced enough to avoid that pitfall, giving us cards that are both evocative and functional. The cards are made of appropriate quality cardstock with a luxury satin finish: any thinner would definitely be poor quality; much thicker and shuffling would probably get awkward with the smaller cards. All told, you’d expect cards of this quality to survive, unsleeved, the amount of use they’re likely to get if the game proves popular with your gaming circle.

Operative (or not?)
Lovely as they are, the cards aren’t exactly numerous, an apparent lack of generosity in terms of key components which can seem all the greater because two thirds of them are the half-size cards which the company likes to use (I like these small cards too because they remind me of the half-size patience cards with which I used to play games of solitaire at my grandpa’s house as a kid). Just compare Infiltration- 114 cards for £27, with Dominion- 500 cards for £35; that’s more than 4 times as many cards for only 1.3 times as much money. I know there are many qualifications to this comparison treated in strictly financial terms: Infiltration’s cards are better produced in every respect and the game includes 2 sheets of punchboard too; but my point here isn’t strictly financial in any case. I’m talking about the question which confronts you when you sit down to play your first game of Infiltration: will this restrained production deliver?

Room cards
The cards that aren’t half size are one-and-a-half size. Six of these are the Operative cards, all very pretty, but: Operatives are functionally identical and simultaneously represented by their markers; and the cards’ sole mechanical function- tracking wounded status, is one equally easily represented by markers; mostly decorative then, these cards’ essential superfluity is irksome because they could so easily have been used as extra rooms, thus actually increasing the game’s play value. The remaining 32 of the 38 one-and-a-half-size cards are room cards: 1st and 2nd floor and secret rooms, with which you build the map of the CyberSolutions, Inc. New Angeles Corporate HQ whose Data Files you’re going in to extract. These are excellent: their understated decoration foregrounds the well-designed functional features making for smooth gameplay as the Operatives make their way through the building. It’s just a pity that there aren't more of them, all the more so because there are only 3 of the most interesting rooms of all- the secret rooms. Since secret rooms are each linked to 2 other rooms- an identical entry-room on the 1st (ground) floor, and a unique room on the 2nd (1st) floor, those 6 Operative cards translate into 3 secret room complexes which could’ve been added to the game: truly a triumph of style over substance.

Specials & NPCs
Of the 76 half-size cards, 11 are NPCs or specials which are encountered in their own rooms in the building. These help bring CyberSolutions’ New Angeles office to life, creating situations offering opportunites and posing obstacles, forcing players to adapt; this helps keep the game fresh- a plus for replay value. What remains are the action and item cards with which players get in and out, get up to sneaky shit and grab those precious Data Files. These too are excellent. I seem to remember one or two possibly genuine ambiguities, otherwise all the cards’ functional text is marked by the ingenuity and clarity you’d expect from the inventor of Dominion. This perception is with the hindsight of 8 games played. When you first start playing Infiltration what you’ll find is an interesting variety of gorgeous cards, well designed so that they’re easy to organise and setup for your first game, and which play with a pleasing minimum of first-game clunks and fumbles because they’re cleverly conceived and well written. Fun won’t be difficult to find in other words.

The cardboard

“Swag” and other tokens
In Infiltration, most of the 2 sheets of heavy cardstock comfortingly familiar to FFG fans is accounted for by tokens and the Operatives: functional, attractive, durable, plentiful- everything you’d expect of an FFG production, and nothing to write home about if it wasn’t for the Security Tracker- the latest example of FFG’s use of dials in boardgames, eg. Battlestar Galactica and Chaos in the Old World. The security tracker is a satisfying chunk of card with neat twiddly bits which turns out to be a fiendish instrument which torments the players with its whims.
The security tracker (via)
OK, so you’re all in the building; you make your moves to get past security, start extracting DF, attacking staff, busting locks- the balloon goes up, naturally enough. There’s a team of Corporate mercs racing to the scene (to end the game); you don’t know how quickly they’ll arrive (the security tracker tracks this random game-length): now it’s everyone for themselves and no one wants to share the payoff anymore (anyone left in the building when the game ends is captured by the mercs, automatically losing the game). The security tracker starts at 00 and counting- up to 99 and game end; at the end of each turn the First Player rolls 1d6 (+drm?) to find out by how much they must dial up the tracker.

The security tracker is an example of FFG’s luxurious production values being used right. I mean to say, its functions could easily be handled by a track and markers but those would be a clumsy addition to the game’s table footprint, not to mention prone to accidental ‘resets’ when 2 clumsinesses interacted- as they inevitably would! There is much more that could be said about the security tracker; sufficeth here to note that it’s very satisfying that the petard on which FFG sometimes hoists itself- ie. lavish production, is- with Infiltration’s security tracker, functionally and thematically the most apt of solutions to tracking the game’s most singular mechanic: random game length.

Those little details

The necessary dice and plastic stands aside, the box also contains ziplocks sufficient to store all the parts and spare parts to boot- another stand plus a plastic plug for a dial on the security tracker. You really can’t complain about attention to detail like this, even if you might sometimes wish that same attention had also been paid elsewhere.

Infiltration set up for play (via)
I’ve already noted that Infiltration is quick to set up. You could also easily fit it on a 4x4 foot table if you had to. Refreshing as this is in its own terms after the lengthy set-up times and sprawling table footprints I’ve experienced with other FFG games, the compact table layout also means that you could get a quick game on a side table while waiting for a bigger game to get rolling if you were at, eg. an in-store gaming session. This is another plus point for a filler game.

Cardplay and rooms: the basics

Action cards
Infiltration has a 4-phase turn sequence that is simplicity itself and is thus quickly mastered:
  • Selection: each player secretly selects 1 action/item card to play.
  • Resolution: starting with the First Player, players take turns to reveal and resolve their chosen cards.
  • NPCs: any NPCs in play follow the instructions on their cards.
  • Security: roll that dice and increment the damn security tracker!
This essential simplicity is enhanced by the already noted clarity of the cards from which the players have to make their plays. There are 4 basic actions (cards which are always available to the players):
  • Advance: move deeper into the building.
  • Download: grab yourself DF if there are any available in the room.
  • Interface: use the room’s interface option if available (some are one-use only, which is what the tokens are for- a room’s interface token is removed if a player activates its one-use interface option).
  • Retreat: move out of the building, towards the exit.
(There is also the optional 'Extract' action, which replaces 'Download', changing how DF-extraction works when more than 1 Operative works on the same room.)
    Sample item cards
    The item cards are limited in supply: players start with just 4 each and they are typically discarded after use (some have lingering effects). Many items are souped-up actions, allowing players to do several actions exactly as they please; others allow all sorts of interesting tricks which will either directly aid a player or hamper opponents. Unsurprisingly for a Donald X. Vaccarino cardgame, the item cards can come together into powerful combos which can be used to make dramatic advances if players can both identify the combos and time their play carefully.

    Moving through and otherwise interacting with the building is a key feature of Infiltration’s gameplay, and the room rules are equally clear. Each room will have at least one of several types of text on it:
    • Reveal: what happens when a room is revealed (typically when an Operative enters it for the first time).
    • Enter: what happens when an Operative enters the room.
    • Advance/Retreat: the secret rooms have special entry and exit conditions.
    • Interface: every room has an interface; ie. there’s something to be done wherever you go in the building.
    • Tech lock: some rooms have special rules pertaining to the destruction of tech locks.

      The twists and the turns

      Yet more of the
      usual suspects… (via)
      As a game of a ‘heist gone wrong’, Infiltration is tapping into an archetypal movie genre well known for its fast-moving stories of action and betrayal in which- no matter how brave and clever the protagonists, ‘good’ must still somehow be seen to prevail. The chance to subvert that tedious cinematic convention is part of the game’s immediate appeal. Delivering on that promise is its greatest challenge, a challenge which Vaccarino meets with several key mechanics:
      “’On whose clearance?’,
      you ask?” (via)
      • The security tracker: the random game-length (which players might manipulate- either way) does more than just introduce uncertainty and the key ‘push-your-luck’ tactical dilemma of the game; it also breaks Infiltrate out of the ‘flat’ time of the simple turn count, so bringing a qualitatively different tempo to the drama inherent in the action as the turns unfold.
      • The ‘virtual space’ of the rooms: ‘concrete space’- ie. a traditional map and counters, would’ve produced a skirmish game of the sort that FFG can do in their sleep (Android, ‘nuff said); the altogether slicker system of virtual space dovetails perfectly with the unique tempo of the random game length.
      • Action/resource-management instead of hand-building/management cardplay: hand building and/or management would be distractions which would simply lengthen the game with little apparent payoff for the added complexity; the actions- your ‘running about and doing things’, give you your sense of being an actual Operative in a concrete environment; items (your ‘gear’) likewise, although items’ limited supply also serves to heighten tension in the face of the security tracker’s implacable advance- suckers and losers use theirs too lightly or too late!
      • Rotating First Player: this is an essential element of fairness- otherwise the same player would always have the advantage when looting rooms. It also forces you to think ahead so that you can figure who’ll be where doing what and in what order when you want to get up to tricks yourself- this is more demanding than the simplicities of virtual space and limited actions would have you imagine.
      • Functionally identical Operatives: an oddity here, because you’d expect the opposite, wouldn’t you? Leaving aside the fact that items are what differentiate Operatives, special abilities for each Operative (after, eg. Battlestar Galactica) would have to be limited use (eg. once only) if they were going to be as effective as items (and what else would they be?)- ‘owned’ items in other words; or of limited utility if of unlimited use- which hardly sounds appealing. Cute but worse than pointless then, an encumberance Vaccarino wisely ignored. (There is an optional rule which gives each named Operative 2 specific items to start; a novel exercise but hardly the most interesting way to play.)
      Broadcast Square:
      the gleaming setting for
      an equally slick game (via)
      I won’t be surprising readers by saying that I really like Infiltration, enough to rank it with Battlestar Galactica as a favourite in-house FFG game, a keeper to be brought out as often as possible. How often exactly? Well, I can imagine the occasional serious bash at Infiltration- to ring as many changes as possible with the game’s effectively limitlessly rich variation (just start to imagine the stats of selection without replacement, then ask yourself exactly how many of that number of possible games you’re ever going to play- a tiny fraction!); but I think that the game is at its beer-and-pretzel filler best at 2 plays- a good hour of surprises, hi-jinks, finkage, time enough to form grudges and time again to exercise them: welcome at all good gaming tables everywhere!

      “I’ll give you bloody
      unprepossessing…!” (via)
      Infiltration is a game of unprepossessing appearance whose attractive parts are nonetheless just so abstract in design that you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to play a game whose bland procedures just won’t have the bite to deliver the buzz of cyberpunk character capers. Vaccarino’s design bites because of his method- very much abstract Design For Effect, and because of his conception- a DFE beer and pretzel quickie: the abstraction strips the game right down to the bare bones of an unknown quantity of strictly rationed decision points simultaneously challenging and rich enough to make the gameplay interesting and fresh. And that, ultimately, is the secret of Vaccarino’s success with Infiltration’s abstractions in their remarkable expression of theme: beer and pretzel is a caper in gaming terms; what better gaming genre then to play out a staple climax of the caper movie, that kick-ass moment when thieves inevitably fall out? ;)

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