Gather close, my friends, and allow me to let you in on a secret. A secret, a warning, and some advice. I realise that sounds like the sort of combination someone might use before handing you a leaflet for the STD clinic, but hear me out. I want to talk to you about a board game which won’t be with us for much longer, and like the clinic, I want to help you avoid ending up feeling sad, emotional and a little raw.
Infiltration shares a universe with Fantasy Flight’s hugely popular cyberpunk card game Netrunner – a genuinely outstanding design which mixes strategy and smart deckbuilding with poker-style bluffing, all in a near-future world of sinister mega-corporations and tech-savvy, criminal or just plain anarchist hackers. In Infiltration, rather than hacking a corp solo with just your ZX spectrum and a can of Mountain Dew, up to six of you get to burst into a corp facility as a team, working together hoovering up data and then legging it before the sinister-sounding security mercenaries arrive.
Except that’s not what happens. Because as soon as you’re in the alarm goes off and teamwork goes out the window – it’s every man, woman and android for themselves now, which makes Infiltration a game of sweet, sweet chaos. Right from the off everyone is clambering over one another as they tumble through the facility’s randomised rooms, tussling to download as much data as they think they can get away with before scrambling back to the entrance or, if they’re super lucky, stumbling across the plush exit option of the executive elevator. Push forward too quickly without backup, though, or without stopping to grab potentially useful items, and you run the risk of being pinned down by the building’s security measures and trapped as the alarm reaches its zenith.
That alarm! I’m looking at the cardboard security tracker right now, feeling a mixture of adrenaline and intense rage. Look at it!
This could easily have been a small card with a couple of counters on, but Fantasy Flight want you to know how important this thing is. One of the first things you’ll do after unboxing the game is slot together this oversized lump of cardboard and plastic, which gets handed around in game like a cyber hot potato to remind everyone who gets to go first – and also who’s responsible for nervously rolling a dice to randomly crank it higher at the end of each turn.
The elegance of the system is its simplicity. Everyone wants the alarm to stay low, but bumping up against security measures and falling into certain rooms invariably sees it edge higher. A die roll at the end of each turn bumps it again by a random factor, and as the pressure rises, everyone begins to ask themselves – is it time to hot foot it out of there? And if it is, what’s stopping you from purposefully doing things to raise the alarm further, or to slow down and trap your former colleagues? Absolutely nothing is what, and this subtle balancing of knowing when to press forwards, when to turn tail, and how best to screw your mates is the beating heart of Infiltration.
You’ll all be getting in each other’s way long before that, though. Fantasy Flight’s classic trope of an overly-wordy rulebook initially belies the fact that Infiltration is an incredibly straightforward game. Each turn players secretly choose one of just four actions: move forwards a space, back a space, interact with the room they’re in or download data from it, which all get revealed together and resolved in turn order. That’s it. But there’s frequently an advantage to doing an action first. Moving forwards to reveal a new room might net you some free data, for example, while being the second to enter gets you nothing. Downloading data in a room lets you bag two tokens from however many are present. Anyone downloading after that in the turn only bags one, though, and if there are only a couple of tokens to start with, a poorly-played download card might leave you empty handed.
That system makes every order phase a neat little mini-game of its own, with everyone straining to predict what everyone else is likely to do. The pile of item cards you start with – and can pick up mid-game – just add to this conundrum. Maybe one will let you move forwards again AND download some data? Perhaps another might leave all your opponents stuck in their room for the turn. Firing these off at the most opportune times can be the difference between zooming out of the complex with a bag of stolen files, or moaning plaintively as a security merc grabs your bag and goes to work on your kneecaps.
That’s not to say Infiltration doesn’t have its problems. The main fun-killer is that a fairly successful winning strategy can be to get in, grab the first couple of tokens you can and leave straight away. You can’t come back in, but much of the time everyone else screws up and the alarm hit its peak before they can leave, meaning the player who bagged just two data tokens and has been sitting staring at their phone for the past 20 minutes has won the game. This, combined with the random nature of the starter items everyone receives, can leave some players feeling their best chance of winning is to not really play.
That’s clearly an unacceptable situation for a board game, but actually it’s one that’s largely solved within the unnecessarily text-heavy rulebook. Right at the back, in the very last column on the very last page, quietly sits a block of text headed ‘Variants’. One suggests making the game longer by setting the alarm to -1 before the game begins, and another suggests you begin with specific items depending on the character you choose. The former ensures everyone has a bit more time to escape the facility, while the latter means most people are starting with much stronger items then a random dip in the bag would net them. These aren’t variants. These are how you need to be playing the game after a couple of outings, moving the game slightly further from a madcap luck fest and shifting the emphasis onto outthinking and outmaneuvering your opponents. Delicious.
So what was all that chat about secrets at the start? Well, if you want a copy, you’ll need to move fast. Designer Donald Vaccarino’s five-year contract with Fantasy Flight ended in 2014, meaning the final copies to be printed trundled out of the factory last year. Vaccarino told the Boarding Kennel last week that he’s yet to put any work into finding a new publisher, and that no one’s approached him to retheme the game, so once they’re gone, they’re gone. In the UK you might be able to dig out a copy from a specialist board game store, but as I type there are only two on Amazon from private sellers, both for upwards of £50.
God bless America, though. If you can’t find a copy in a physical store, the US Amazon site still has them for the moment at $30 a piece. If you live in the US that’s a steal, and even importing to the UK will only set you back £30 a pop including tax and shipping.
You’ve had your warning – the game’s there for the taking, but time’s running out before they get hoovered up by others and the door slams shut. And someone blows your kneecaps off. No wait, not that last bit.
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