Review – Infiltration

Infiltration is a press your luck game where the players take on the roles of data thieves breaking into a corporate building. Whoever makes it out alive with the most data wins. Infiltration retails for about $35.

The Quick Take: Infiltration is fun, but flawed. The core part of the game – sneaking into the corporate offices while jostling with other players to collect data files – is a very fun part of a tactical game. The second part of the game (trying to get out of the offices) is not particularly fun, but the game is light enough and the first phase fun enough to make up for it.

The Basics

Infiltration is set in Fantasy Flight Games’ Android universe, a Cyberpunk-flavored dystopian future. Each player controls an operative who is breaking into corporate offices in order to abscond with the all-important Data Files (DFs). The operatives will go deeper into the offices, with security becoming more aware as time passes.

The corporate offices are represented by a series of large room cards – six randomly-selected, sequentially placed first-floor rooms, followed by six randomly-selected sequentially placed second floor rooms (plus a secret room, which may or may not be accessible in any given game). Each type of room comes from its own stack, with second floor rooms having higher rewards. All rooms start face down.

Each room starts with some number of DF tokens lying around (DF tokens are face-down and worth from 1-3 VPs). Rooms will usually have an interface token and either a tech lock token or a lab worker token (all rooms that have a tech lock or lab worker also specify a number of DFs that are added to the room if the lock is broken or the worker killed). Rooms may have several functions – Enter Functions (text happens whenever an operative enters the room), Reveal Functions (text happens when the room is flipped face up), Interface Function (happens when you Interface with the room; may be repeat-use or once-per-game), and Tech Lock Function (happens when you break the tech lock).

Everyone starts on the first room of the first floor, with four random item cards and four fixed cards representing the four basic actions. There are six different operatives, but they are functionally identical unless you are playing with an optional rule, in which case the identity of your operative fixes two of your starting item cards.

Everyone participates fully on each turn, with a rotating first player. On each turn, each player can execute one action    or use one item. Everyone selects which card to use and plays it face-down on the table.

Starting with the first player, each player reveals and resolves his or her selected card. The four basic actions are:

–          Advance: Move forward one room. If this would move the operative onto a face-down room, the room is turned face-up.

–          Retreat: Move backwards one room.

–          Interface: If there is an interface token in the room, activate the room’s Interface Function.

–          Download/Extract: This is how you pick up DFs. Each game uses one of these cards, or the other, but not both. Download lets you grab 2 DFs if you’re the first player to use it this turn, or 1 DF otherwise. Extract waits until everyone’s cards are revealed, and then hands out DFs based on how many players Extracted – the biggest difference being that if you’re Extracting alone you get 4 DFs from the room (the first player still gets his/her DFs first, so the room can run out before some players get any).

Items are generally superior to actions, but are also generally lost after use. Some let you combine effects, like moving and then playing your Interface card, or breaking a tech lock (releasing DFs) and then Downloading. Items also might let you move multiple squares, activate other rooms, or all sorts of things. If you want to break tech locks or kill lab workers, items are how you do it.

Once everyone’s selections have resolved, it’s time for the corporation to check in on the thieves! If any NPC cards have been placed in the offices by a room, then they do their thing now (generally moving towards the entrance and having some sort of effect on the room, like hoovering up DFs or killing things). More importantly, there’s the security phase.

The first player marker is actually the Security Tracker, which has two dials – an Alarm Dial and a Proximity Dial. The Proximity Dial goes from 0 to 99. It starts at 0, and during each Security Phase the first player rolls a d6 and increases the dial by that amount. When the Proximity Dial hits 99, the game is over. The Alarm Dial starts at 0, and goes from -1 to +8. The value on the Alarm Dial is added to each d6 roll – so once the Alarm Dial goes up a little, the game will end much more quickly. The Alarm Dial is moved by various cards (effects on various cards may also change the Proximity Dial). If a longer or shorter game is desired, the Alarm Dial can be set to -1 or +1 at the start of the game.

Components

Components include 32 room cards, a card for each of the six operatives, 6 sets of the five basic action cards, 35 items, 11 special cards that are placed by specific rooms, a mess of DF tokens, and interface/tech lock/lab worker tokens for the
rooms that require them. There’s also a nifty security tracker.

Components are of reasonable quality. The cards aren’t too sturdy, but everything only gets shuffled once per game so it isn’t a big deal. The item/action cards are tiny (think an inch by half an inch)! They don’t need to be huge, but unless you’re gaming with some very clever toddlers, there’s no reason for cards to be this small. If I had my way there would never be game cards this small, but here it’s not even like there are all that many of them such that they’d take up too much space in the box.

Artwork is sufficient, if not terribly exciting (and, again, a lot of it is on those teeny-tiny cards, so who can really see it anyway?).

Opinions

The box says the game takes 30-45 minutes. This is pretty accurate, although maybe not if you go all the way up to 5-6 players.

Theme: It actually has it! I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Dominion, when I saw that “a game by Donald X. Vaccarino” my first thought was that there was going to be no flavor/theme to the game. Luckily, I was mistaken. I’m not going to say that it was dripping with flavor or anything (for example, I imagine that the items were more of a “we have an effect, now what’s the sci-fi flavor of that,” rather than “we want a mono-knife card, what would that do?”), but it feels like there is something there on a macro level (and, this is a case of “perception is reality” – if it feels like it has some theme, it does).

There is light strategy in Infiltration, but the game is primarily tactical – you may overall have a strategy of “press on” or “hang back,” but decisions beyond that in the game will primarily focus on what action am I taking right now and what actions do I think my opponents will be taking. This is most clear in assessing whether to Extract/Download (note: we did not play with Download at all, just the “advanced” Extract cards). But it adds additional layers with the rooms and items – basic things like assessing whether you should interface and risk the player before you interfacing in the same room and making you waste an action, and more complicated things like assessing whether the player before you will move or not and therefore put himself in a position to be hit by an item that affects adjacent rooms to yours.

This isn’t to say that the overall strategy doesn’t matter, especially if there are a crowd of operatives in the offices – if one player gets off by him or herself, while everyone else is crowded together and fighting for the same DFs, it’s going to go pretty badly for the crowd.

The first half of the game is more fun than the second, because once you decide to Retreat you’re usually doing very little on the way out. Well, maybe “half” isn’t the right phrasing, as you spend more turns (and much more time) on the way in than the way out. But, still, you’ve replaced the more interactive tactical exploration phase almost entirely with whatever tension there may be from whether you’re going to make it out. But that tension doesn’t work out quite like you might think.

The “push your luck” nature of this game is a bit “off” for a couple of reasons. The basic push your luck notion of the game is that you have to decide whether/when to break off and return to the entrance. But, to me at least, the phrase push your luck would tend to indicate a continuum of choices – exactly when do you call it off and return home, knowing that the further you push it the greater your chances of flopping. But that kind of continuum only exists in Infiltration up to a point. There can dip your toe into the second floor and still get back out alive – this can be the more standard sort of continuum, with people who never left the second floor trying to increase the proximity on the way out to catch you before you escape. But if you really want to go into the second floor, there’s really no way you’re just going to Retreat your way back out. Instead, you’re wagering that one of the rooms on the second floor is one of the two “auto-escape” rooms that let you leave the building or return to the entry room in one jump. So you aren’t so much pushing your luck as you are making a one-off decision, and then waiting to see if it pays off.

And that’s where the second reason comes into play. It’s less fun to me when the game already “knows” whether you’re going to succeed or fail. And apparently I’m not the only one, as discussed by Geoff Engelstein on a recent Dice Tower episode (#259, IIRC) – people prefer to wager on a result that has not yet happened, rather than wager on an unknown result that has already occurred, even where the expectation value of the two wagers is the same.  You could sit down at a game of infiltration, choose going deep into the offices as your strategy, and lose the game right there because neither of the auto-exit rooms is even in the game (a better than 20% chance, if my back-of-the-envelope number crunching is right). Except you won’t know it until you get to the end, look back, and realize you had been doomed before you started (science also tells us that, in general, a person’s final impression is far more important than other points in the time – a fun first 25 minutes can be easily wiped out by an unfun final 5). It may even be that the “right” play from an expectation point of view is to go deep (a 22% chance of auto-failing may be easily outbalanced by the higher rewards of the second floor you’ll get the other 78% of the time) – but even if so, this still doesn’t change the predestination sort of feel to it.

Now, here’s the thing though – I just spent a couple of paragraphs talking about things that are, in some sense, “wrong” about the game. But having said all that, what’s presumably more important is that we had enough fun with the rest of the game that it more than outweighed those factors. We really enjoyed slipping through the facility, trying to work around the other players to Extract DFs unmolested, blitzing ahead, hanging around to mess with each other, and generally trying to be sneaky gits. Playing your item cards was always a blast, as they added a lot more cool maneuvers you could pull off.

Variability of the rooms and items was an important part of the replayability of the game. It’s fun, but IMHO wouldn’t hold up nearly as long if you had the same setup each time. Because of this, I didn’t like the “Specialist” variant where each operative starts with two specific items (in place of two of the random ones), based on their flavor (e.g., the Driver gets “Slider” and the motorcycle “Qianju PT”). Although the overall game does have some flavor feel, it doesn’t really carry down well to the micro level with individual cards, so I don’t feel like the Specialist variant adds much, but it does take away from that important variability – I want to see different sorts of item cards every time; and different interactions with different room combinations.

I’m not sure how much of a longer-term shelf-life Infiltration would have in a collection, given the importance of seeing different things all the time to keep things interesting, but it had enough replayability that once we were done with our review session games, we would all have been happy to play it some more.

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