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Top Of The Table: Agents Of SMERSH

by Matt Miller on Feb 28, 2013 at 11:56 AM

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?]

Gameplay

Agents of SMERSH is always played cooperatively, with all the players working together to thwart Dr. Lobo and his henchmen in the SMERSH organization. Players win the game by using their U.N. Secret Service agents to hunt down these henchmen around the world, gradually uncovering details about Dr. Lobo’s plans and location. As they travel the world, our good guys gather intel tokens that remain facedown and hidden until the end of the game. When Dr. Lobo is finally confronted, the players flip over all the intel tokens, and see if they have enough of the requisite intel types (weapons, atomic symbols, double agents) to win. If the players don’t have enough tokens, or if they take too long to find Dr. Lobo, they lose!

The choices this mechanic presents into the game add a sense of tension and secrecy into the mix, and also offer an important choice. Do you work to gain more intel on the evil plan, or do you hunt your nemesis’ henchmen? Players must work together to decide how to split their resources and time, with the full knowledge that each failure brings Lobo one step closer to success.

Gameplay unfolds in turns. Each character moves around the board, either in small steps between adjacent cities, or by train or plane for more distant locations. From time to time, you might even call in a favor from the United Nations, and a shuttle picks you up and lands you anywhere you want. 

After moving, players have an encounter – the meat of the gameplay and where most of the fun happens. Different encounter card decks exist for each part of the world, so you’ll have different situations arise out on the ocean than when you’re deep undercover in South America, and each encounter includes a fantastic little narrative snippet. Whether you get attacked in your hotel room, must sneak through an enemy base, or bring down a murderous dictator with your sniper rifle, each encounter challenges players to complete a skill test through a roll of the dice, supplemented by any extra abilities your character can bring to bear. Win and you get one narrative response, and potentially a boost to one of your skills – lose and you get a different response and penalty. The whole experiences plays out not unlike a more complex version of a choose-your-own adventure. 

The enormous replay value comes from an included book of encounters, which offers hundreds of additional scenarios that may be used in addition to or instead of the included decks of cards. This bonus assures that nearly every encounter you’ll ever have  playing the game should be different than previous experiences – all told, the book adds over 1600 additional encounters on top of the 100+ encounters shown on the included cards. 

Finally, at the end of each player’s turn, he or she resolves a villain phase, in which various events occur to make life harder on the heroes, such as moving intel around the board, or closing airports. 

The game excels at providing a quick turn structure, and the narrative elements and encounters help to keep everyone involved in the action, even when it’s not their turn. While there’s little direct interaction between the heroic spies on the board, cooperative goal-setting is a must as players spread out across the world, and players play cards and tokens to help each other out of tight spots. 

[Next up: How complicated is the game, and how much is it going to cost me?]

Complexity

Many of the best cooperative board games on the market involve numerous interlocking systems for combat, investigation, testing skills, gaining currency, final encounters against the villains, or gaining new items. 

Agents of SMERSH eschews that tradition. Other than keeping track of each players’ turn and a few other minor systems (like gambling), all the skills and encounters utilize the same skill test mechanic; it’s easy to learn and teach, and keeps the game from becoming unnecessarily complicated. For this reason, Agents of SMERSH is a strong choice for introducing cooperative gaming to new players, or even as an excellent family game, if the kids have an enthusiasm for storytelling or reading, and you don't mind some violent scenarios in the game text. 

While that simplicity is mostly welcome, some more experienced players may balk at not having more strategic options during play. If your goal is highly thematic content and ease of play, and you don't mind some randomness, Agents fits the bill. 

I love the included encounter book, which assures a long life for the game, keeping the experience fresh for dozens of gameplay sessions. The only downside of the book is that it takes a little longer to find the correct page than just drawing a card – I recommend playing your early games with just the cards, and saving the book for later games after you’ve seen most of the card encounters.

What Else Do I Need To Know?

Agents of SMERSH is an independently produced board game, so don’t expect to find a copy waiting for you at every hobby store – at least not yet. I recommend online ordering for your best shot at tracking down a copy.

Price varies widely – a recent perusal online saw copies of the game from $52 up to around $70, but full MSRP is $85. I recommend either CoolStuffInc or Amazon for your purchase, both of which currently have the game in stock as of this writing.  

The game should be a hit among gaming groups that enjoy the secret agent milieu, but it’s also a good choice for mixed gaming groups that include both experienced and newer players, thanks to its straightforward systems and implicit focus on story. 

For more on Agents of SMERSH, you can check out the game’s official site. For more recommendations on tabletop games from Game Informer, you may want to check out some of our  previous write-ups for games like Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Ascension, Tannhauser, Castle Ravenloft, and Yomi