Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Mechanic is the Message: The Agents

I've played a lot of games while I've been off from school for a couple weeks. Thanks to Christmas gifts and Kickstarter, I've been able to play a lot of new games with new ideas. One thing that's particularly stood out to me about the games I played over the holidays is how game mechanics can communicate meaning. This is especially true in two games I played this past week: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and the tabletop game The Agents. I'll cover The Agents in this post, and Brothers in the next.

These Cards are People
Let's start with The Agents. The Agents is a "double-edged cards game," a name they apparently trademarked for themselves. The core mechanic of the game, which is explained in their Kickstarter video below, is placing cards either facing you or facing your opponent to get either points or abilities. Abilities help you control the game, but points help you win, so you have to balance the two to succeed.


The Agents is smart in a lot of ways, but specifically it connects its mechanics to its themes better than any other tabletop game I've ever played. The premise is that all these agents have been disavowed by their home governments and are now working rogue, using their skills to whatever ends they see fit. As such, the individual agents' relationships to the player are different than you'd expect in a traditional card game. In most card games, each player has their own cards that serve them faithfully and always give benefit to the player who lays them down. Thanks to the mechanics of this game, though, cards can literally turn on you at a minute, and suddenly these cards aren't slaves to a game, but people--agents with their own agendas.

This is accomplished in two ways. First of all, the Agents breaks the sense of ownership between player and card. Yes, you have cards in your hand, and yes, you play them how you want, but any card you play gives two separate benefits, one to you and the other to someone else. Additionally, you play agent cards on a faction, but no one owns any one faction. Instead, factions are shared between two players, and both players try to influence the faction in such a way that the most advantage goes to them. With cards being "double-edged" and faction control being decentralized, suddenly the agents themselves are players in the game as well.

I've played this game several times now and taught it to 5 or 6 different people. Invariably, there comes a moment in each person's first game where they're holding a card they want to play, just looking from one faction to the next, considering all the implications of each possible placement and direction of the card, and then they'll just stop and blurt out, "Oh, crap." The Agents makes it very difficult to figure out exactly which play is most advantageous to you, and it's also very good at making other players present you with unexpected opportunities as they put points or commands in your direction that you didn't see coming.

Gameplay considerations aside (for now, though seriously that's great game design in itself), I realized in a rush in one game just how well these mechanics combine to represent the game's themes. "These cards are people," I suddenly thought. Rather than serving me like my slaves, the cards in the Agents are characters--skilled agents who have their own agendas and will serve whom they will serve, how they wish to serve them. This effect is enhanced by the extremely careful balance of the cards. It's nearly impossible to get a "mega turn" in The Agents, because each agent only has one ability, and those abilities most often only affect one other card at a time. In this way, the Agents becomes a true tactical game, where you constantly have to look at what's in front of you and consider all the possibilities. All combined, this makes the Agents feel extremely like a tense game of politics and juggling loyalties with real people and real consequences to each decision.

At this point, all the game's subtle puns start coming out. "Double-edged cards" doesn't just mean the mechanic of points and commands, but the duplicitous nature of the agents themselves. "Turn," one of the commands in the game, literally means turn the card around, but it also represents turning loyalties from one player to the other. These and other commands and verbiage in the game serve both gameplay and theme, at times ingeniously.

Games are a language in themselves, and like any language, there are multiple layers of expression going on at once. Functional games present you with mechanics that are understandable and work together well. Good games make those understandable and functional mechanics more robust and complex, and give clever nods to the framing theme of the game to splash in more fun for the players. Great games, though, are like great language: functionally elegant, but exploiting the functions of the language itself to communicate higher-level associations and observations. Great language can be consumed on a functional level without the audience recognizing its subtle greater accomplishments along the way. With a little training and thought and a keen eye, however, great language unpackages its greater meaning as the proper eyes study each bit of functional elegance. The careful study of such language can reveal meanings applicable far beyond the moment of the language itself. Truly great games are also great language--they function properly, but they also make themselves available to extended critical thought that goes beyond the game itself to discussing bigger and broader things.

It is in this sense that the Agents is a great game to me. Functionally, it's genius already, but careful study of the game lends easily and profitably to broader thought and discussion on human nature, ambition, and loyalty, a fact attested to by many a game table dispute as the game heats up,  agents start spinning like tops and the final points come rushing in.

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