Clever storytelling and great opportunities for cooperative play make this spy-themed board game one of our recent favorites.

We know plenty of our readers don’t just get their gaming fix on TVs and computer screens, so from time to time we like to point you towards some of the best games coming out in the tabletop gaming world. This month, I highlight 8th Summit’s spectacular new spy game, designed by Jason Maxwell. Drawing inspiration from classic spy and espionage movies (especially James Bond), Agents of SMERSH puts players in the role of a spies working together to thwart the plans of the villainous Dr. Lobo and his agents from their insidious plans for world domination. 

Well-balanced and easy to understand rules get you into the game quickly, and the title features enormous replayability through hundreds of unique encounters for your spies. Distinct (and always amusing) characters perfectly tap the Cold War era fiction, and make this board game an ideal pick for players who like a heavy dose of narrative in their tabletop gaming.  

Getting Started

Agents of SMERSH supports one to four players, but the game mechanics can easily handle a fifth character if you don’t mind a slightly longer wait between turns. The solo player option is also a cool treat, making it easy for you to play the game a few times yourself before teaching it to others, or for those evenings when no one in your gaming group is available to play. 

Agents of SMERSH plays out on a large map of the world filled with exotic locales for your spies to investigate. You also keep track of your character on dedicated player mats for each spy, on which you adjust their skills and health, and also track their individual secret missions. 

As you lay out the game, the high quality of the components is apparent. Character cards are glossy and sturdy, and the art and layout follow through on the spy theme, appearing like clipboards and top secret portfolios. The game also includes six high-quality custom dice and a beautiful felt dice bag to hold them – it looks like a cache of stolen gemstones when filled.

Setup time varies by number of players, but other than shuffling some card decks and laying out a few piles of tokens, you can be up and running quickly. After my first game, which took longer, subsequent setups took about 10 minutes. Full game sessions with four or five players took me an average of two to two and a half hours apiece, but if everyone knows the game, you can easily cut it down to an hour and a half.

Theme and Story

8th Summit’s game is built from the ground up to enmesh players in its Bond-style spy storytelling, and the designer nails this aspect of the experience. 

Believe it or not, SMERSH is a real-life Russian acronym that translates to “death to spies.” The name applied to several counter-intelligence agencies in Soviet Russia during World War II and the early days of the Cold War. Agents of SMERSH uses this historical bogeyman as a springboard into a pulpy and cinematic adventure filled with secret missions, disguises, deception, and desperate combat. The game even includes a simple system for resolving poker gambling scenarios.

Main characters run the gamut of familiar stereotypes, from sexy but deadly Agent Calli Dagger to the afro-wearing Dante Wright. Players can even take on the role of the nerdy Dexter Kane, who bears more than a passing similarity to Get Smart’s secret agent, Maxwell Smart. Evil henchmen like Mr. Big and Fedor Maximov extend the homage further.

Rather than take itself too seriously, Agents of SMERSH embraces the zany character tropes and ridiculous scenarios inherent to the genre. Encounter text virtually begs to be read out loud in over-the-top accents, and players inevitably begin layering their own backstories and goals on top of the adventure as each character makes his or her way around the world. Encounter cards often induce laughter as they call to mind particular moments from favorite movies, or absurd situations that would only appear in this highly stylized setting. 

[Next up: How is the game played?]