|Components & Design
It’s safe to say that The X-Files was one of the most popular TV series created to date. (Or maybe still is, with the 2016 revival mini series ending on a huge cliffhanger.) So finding a new The X-Files boardgame published 13 years after the last episode of the original series was aired wasn’t a big surprise. There are millions of people out there with nostalgia for agents Mulder and Scully digging up alien conspiracies, and nostalgia sells. If you know me, then you know that’s why I’m skeptical towards licensed games in general. Nostalgia sells irrespective of quality. But there are good games made on a license, so lets see what side of that spectrum Kevin Wilson’s The X-Files falls on.
(If you really don’t know anything about TV series, which I find hard to believe: an X-File is an unsolved FBI case file that has something supernatural going on. Psychics, werewolves, aliens, the mystery of why every single pen stops working when it enters the Meeple Cave, all those are X-Files.)
The X-Files is a one-against-all game. The one player is in control of the Syndicate, the sinister, hidden group conspiring with the extraterrestrials. Probably. Conspiring, certainly. Up to four other players control the heroes of the series: Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Walter Skinner and … Alex Krycek. I don’t know how he made it in there, doesn’t everyone hate his traitorous ass? But he was one of the good guys occasionally… well, not one of the bad guys all the time. So okay.
The agents, who always go before the Syndicate player, must solve X-Files in four parts of the US. Their turn is pretty simple. First, they either move to an adjacent region – which, really, means anywhere except straight from the West to the Northeast, or they trade one hand card with another agent in the same region. Next, they decide if they plan or act this round. Planning means taking three influence tokens, the currency needed to be able to act. When you act, you get to play one card from your hand for which you have to pay influence tokens. The card itself costs one influence – going down to zero or up to two if the card goes with a skill your agent is especially strong or weak in – but many cards let you spent extra tokens to boost their effect.
Most cards further your investigations, they let you add a number of Progress Tokens to an X-File in your region. Many of the X-Files have their own peculiarities. They may be easier or harder to investigate with one of the five skills, for instance. Coupled with the agents’ advantages and disadvantages in the skills, that tells you why trading cards and coordinating your efforts is important. You’ll just waste a lot of resources if you don’t. Each X-File has a target number of progress tokens needed to solve it, and mostly that number is too high for a single agent to solve it in one round, for some tough cases ridiculously so. But the tougher the case the more evidence tokens it’s worth when solved, and those are what you’re after. Helping the general population is all nice and well, but you really want that evidence to uncover the Syndicate’s conspiracy, that’s why you solve X-Files.
After all agents took their actions, the Syndicate player has his turn. His turn is, unfortunately more mechanical than the agents’ turns, he generally has fewer decisions to make. First, if any unsolved X-Files remain on the board – which is pretty much always – he may remove evidence from the evidence bag and replace them with cigarette butts. (They’re cigarette butts because the Cigarette Smoking Man is the Syndicate’s face all through the TV series). If the agents draw cigarette butts instead of evidence from the bag after solving a file, the Syndicate has successfully hidden evidence from them and slowed down their progress. Next he draws new X-Files and places them on the board to keep the agents busy next round. He then draws cards and collects influence tokens. Not a single decision was made so far, those only happen in the last phase. The player may place as many of his cards as he wants on the X-Files currently on the board, face down and thus hidden from the agents. That’s all he does on his turn.
It’s not as bad as it sounds, though, because the Syndicate player has to make decisions on the agents’ turns. Whenever an agent investigates an X-File, the Syndicate may turn over some or all cards attached to that File to hinder their work. His cards may cancel the investigation that was just happening – nasty if you spent a lot of extra influence on it – wound the agents and slow down their future investigation or do other, unfriendly things. Or they may simply do nothing, bluff and subterfuge is what the Syndicate does, after all. But for all those cards he has to pay influence when he activates it, so he wants to be economic with that stuff. The Syndicate wins when they hid enough evidence from the agents.
Now, you may be thinking at this point that The X-Files is on the light side of boardgames, and you would be right. The agents have to coordinate their moves and manage their resources, especially give the right cards to the right people to use them effectively, but the planning required is light compared to games like Pandemic. I strongly recommend playing with three or four agents, by the way, less than that and you miss out on the planning aspect that is probably the best part of the game. The Syndicate player doesn’t even have that, he manages his influence and decided when to reveal his cards. From a designer involved in games like Descent, a prime example of a one bad guy against a bunch of heroes game, I expected a few more options for the bad guy.
Actually, I expected more options, period. More options for things to happen. There is so much in the TV series that could be used here. Let the agents ask for help from the Lone Gunmen. Have an agent be abducted by aliens until the others rescue him. Let the Syndicate send in the alien assassin to drive agents from a region. So many things that could be done, but they are all reduced to flavor text on the different types of cards. The card flavor is pretty good, though. All the X-Files come straight from the series, and playing with a bunch of X-philes – as I just learned X-Files fans call themselves – does bring out yells of “I remember that episode, that was awesome”. The X-Files works well on the nostalgia angle, and it is a much better game than many games made on a license, but it seems to be made for general fans of the TV series, not so much for experienced gamers. Those may still enjoy it, but it does lack tension and complexity compared to other games out there. That’s especially sad because I know Kevin Wilson could have created a deeper, tighter game with more of a narrative arc from the rich material of the series.