US Playing Card Co
Designed by NXT Games
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
about 30 minutes per game
You may have come across a low key little American show called The X Files. I understand it has some merit and may well have a following among the loonies who feel there are government issues about which we are not being told, that crop circles determine your career prospects and that supermarket prices are controlled by grey aliens. At the last count there were about 300 million such people, me included, so perhaps there is something to be learned here after all. The relentless CCG machine has, thus far, not been slow to spot even a vaguely attractive market, so the X Files manifestation was as inevitable as Scully and Mulder entering heavy petting mode. But is it any good? Well, I quite liked it. It has some small problems, as we shall see, but it also has some clever elements. However, it is largely crippled for gamers as a long term bet by its core system - essentially Cluedo/Clue - and the usual drawbacks of the CCG genre. Ultimately then it is not a brilliant game, and when the great CCG reckoning is done in years to come I doubt it will be one of the top ten. But it works, it has its moments and it could have been an awful lot worse.
The basic mechanism is essentially one of simple deduction with lots of chrome and opponent driven hindrances to make it feel rather more like the real thing. Each player chooses an X File card (from forty possibilities - assuming you have collected them of course, though you get a good spread in the starters) which has a unique combination of four characteristics, each of which has five possibilities. This is kept secret, face down on the table. Through asking Yes/No questions it is possible to eventually work out and identify what the other guy's X File is, and thus win the game. A customised note pad is provided to assist you. That's it really. The X Files themselves are all based on the early series of the TV programme and include such classics as Eve, Mrs Paddock (she still scares me) and Tooms along with all the other cards you would expect - agents, weapons, equipment, bluffs, witnesses, adversaries, and a large range of events to add spice.
Each player starts with a team of agents which provide a wide range of talents (criminal investigation, medical, alien knowledge etc) and also some character specific skills - Mulder's ex-girlfriend, for instance, can call him to her aid at any time. These are sent into the field to glean information. The basic move is to visit a location where, as long as the team can provide the necessary combined skills check - eg medical 3 - a question of a specified type can be asked. So, you might go to Gibsonton in Florida to determine your opponent's X File's Method. Get it right, and you tick it off, eliminating other possibilities immediately. Get it wrong and you need to go somewhere else to ask another searching question. However, it would be a dull game indeed if it was as simple as that. Your opponent gets the chance to hinder your agents in any number of ways. He can play bluff cards which might dissuade you from even going to the site, events are a constant pain, he can change the nature of the location (upping the skills check, changing the skill check, or even the category of question) and, best of all, he can lay adversaries which will not only hinder but also sometimes wound your agents.
All this is driven off quite a nice little action point system, not dissimilar in feel to Netrunner. Point chips are always in short supply, and everything from moving to locations to deploying weapons costs Federal Dollars. Your team provides a fixed income each turn which can also be used to buy cards. The twist, and one of the better elements in the game, is the option to exchange Federal cards (without using their benefits) for the equivalent number of Conspiracy points - different coloured chips with a very different application. These can be saved up and used to deploy adversaries. These vary from weak, but cheap, distractions such as Cecil Lively (the pyromaniac) to really deadly foes like the Crew Cut Man or the cannibals that may take you several turns to afford. Once deployed, the opposing agents come under attack, initially from ranged and then close combat, and the results can be grim. It pays at such a time to have good combat skills and hopefully some combat cards as well. Certainly running into someone like The Mechanic will ensure you have a very bad day. And once in hospital, while no agents ever actually die (I think), what you are losing is valuable skills in the field and, importantly, time. As Napoleon said, terrain can be recovered, time never.
Assuming you can live with the Cluedoesque core, and your brain is up to the elementary deduction required, we are almost there. However, there are two flies left in the X Files ointment. Both relate to luck and can result in a prematurely fast win, or an unrealistically long game. Problem one is that simply by asking the right questions (pure luck initially since you have no clues), you can quickly get down to two possibilities and it is then simply a matter of homing in on the answer while, often, the other chap flounders because he hasn't been so lucky. Conversely, you can consistently ask the wrong questions and end up not only losing (though frankly this is not the sort of game where this will matter to you greatly) but also run out of the necessary locations from which to ask the right questions. There are cards that obviate this, but you need to stack your deck properly to avoid the problem. Certainly rather better than the starter decks provided which, while playable, do need tuning - and you know my feelings on this particular requirement. As an aside, one of the UK review magazines indicated that there may be X Files that are easier to solve than others, rather than all being equally difficult. I have not yet worked out how, but they may be right.
Just two more points on the Cluedo angle. I have reliably been informed that if the basic game is too easy, or indeed too luck based (as mentioned above), you can each have two or more X Files to be discovered to which you can give answers Mastermind style - "one yes, two nos", for instance. Now I am all for variants but this strikes me as a surefire way to fry your logic circuits. But it's your choice and with enough notepaper it should be workable, if prompting a greatly extended gamelength. Assuming though you use just one X File each, there seems to be nothing stopping you playing the game with more than two players. The problem here becomes the need to relay your answer secretly to the investigator - bits of paper or Yes/No chits are essential. Fiddly, but worth it, and it is also possible to glean some info by deduction this way from others' actions.
The key question for many will be whether the CCG captures any or all of the atmosphere of the series as, if it does, it may well be possible (as with Star Wars and STTNG) for fans to play it quite happily, warts and all, simply because they get to be Spooky Mulder. The answer, as with so many games, is not one of black or white, but a shade of grey. There are parts of the game where you think, mmm, this seems vaguely X Filey - such as when you deploy your team of agents, arm them, and get a sniff of an alien abduction in Montana. And there are others that are very good - as when you travel to a site using a car or helicopter, witnesses or the sinister characters (Deep Throat, Cigarette Man, Skinner) appear, you play bluffs, you get into combat and you use the gizmos like geiger counters or agents' special skills. Even better is when you finally get to deploy a nasty adversary and the opposing agents end up in bandages. All this helps to build the atmosphere. To a point.
But where it fell over for me was the underlying structure, which is just so wrong and, like it or not, omnipresent. Basically you are trying to find out what another FBI team is hiding, even if that X File is nothing at all to do with them. What results, for me, is a complete failure to generate a sense of conspiracy. All that has happened is that someone has chosen a problem and you have to solve it, and this is largely detached, flavour wise, from the game mechanics and events happening on the table. Rationally, there are obviously secrets within the FBI but surely the point of the X Files is that there is a lot of stuff unknown to everyone going on and this is what doesn't come across - the adversaries, for instance, become general, not specific.
While the system works well enough, it also doesn't feel quite right when your opponent changes hats from FBI colleague to controller of the nasties. Interestingly, Star Wars manages to convey a good sense of dark vs light (if that is indeed what we have here...) by the simple expedient of having one player play each side, and Middle Earth is actually very similar to X Files but works rather better - perhaps it is an atmosphere thing. It is understandable that most gamers would want to run the agents though, so perhaps there is no better way. I don't know, but it doesn't quite gel for me as it is. The other problem is that as there is very little in the way of an ongoing plot. Spiced up only by events and card variety, the game quickly becomes repetitive and there is certainly no sense of impending doom from the Big Conspiracy that we know is going on in the series.
Graphically, I think the cards are a little iffy. They have quite a nice layout, and the images are stills from the series, but the quality of cards and pictures is variable, some of the iconography is misleading and the text is way too small. For instance, each agent has a range of skill ratings which are almost too small to read, yet you use them almost every turn. Not a problem for me though, since I didn't even try to collect them, is the wacky card distribution which has caused some complaints and, unless you are very lucky like me, you aren't even guaranteed common Mulder or Scully cards. Mmm. Good move chaps. The rulebook, meanwhile, is a good one. Apart from the usual distraction of a basic game and an advanced game (the review refers to, and I commend, the latter) they have done a good job. It is long, but it is not set in titchy print and it makes sense, which is more than most manage.
So, even as a medium sized fan of the series, I am not completely sold on The X Files. There are some good elements and there are some odd ones, but the underpinning investigation system is a disappointment. I am reminded of Sim Workshop's Mad Monks & Relics which promised much and, too, fell somewhat short. But that is not to say the system doesn't work. It does, rather well, but I feel it will become quickly repetitive since it would appear to lack the tactical breadth of METW, let alone MTG (or at least it does in starter form...). Fortunately one of any CCG's benefits is that it will provide you with new cards and situations, simply by novel card combinations, and I foresee no shortage of expansions coming from this particular source. And of course the more cards you collect, the more variety. But in The X Files the task will still be the same, and still lacking that essential ingredient.
Hullo, this is your friendly neighborhood editor. I'm going to leap in here with a few comments of my own.
I did not enjoy this game at all. I played it once and I won't be playing it again.
That said, it has some very, very clever ideas in it. I particularly liked the use of two kinds of cards so that each player could trade off playing the good guys (well, the FBI, in any case) and the bad guys (abnormal is, perhaps, a more exact term).
And I liked the idea of having to buy your cards and being able to sell off one sort of card to buy more of another. One of the big problems with CCGs (card games in general, really, since it shows up in Knightmare Chess, too) is what to do when a player is stuck with cards which are fine cards and possibly even powerful but not applicable to the current game situation. Allowing a player to discard cards and be rewarded based on the power of the card thrown off is a great mechanism. I hope someone picks up that ball and runs with it.
Anyway, sorry Mike. Didn't mean to interrupt but just had to get that off my chest. Ahem. There it is.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell