Monday, March 28, 2005

Review - Alex Randolph & Leo Colovini's Inkognito the Card Game

Ah, the Venetian Masquerade. There’s something about the setting that inspires mystery, be it ill-advised romantic interludes or secret agent skullduggery. This is the scene of Inkognito, designed by the pairing of designers Alex Randolph and Leo Colovini.

Players take the roles of secret agents, spies, thieves or any number of mysterious appellations. These personages are in search of the combination to a safe, which supposedly unlocks the way to a mysterious personage. It could well be rubies and diamonds, or the recipe to a world-destroying weapon. It doesn’t really matter. All the agents know is that they need that code, and that they have a friend out in the darkness.

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This game, published by Fantasy Flight Games under their Silver Line, is based on the board game version of Inkognito. (I haven’t played the boardgame.) For your twenty bucks, you get 40 cards (it’s five sets of the same eight cards, with different colors) and 25 tiles (it’s five sets of the same five tiles, with different colors). You also get four small player screens in the players’ colors, and a pad of notation sheets. This is one of the sparsest packages in FFG’s Silver Line. The graphic design is excellent, and I like the portraits of the agents, but it’s just five drawings – four agents and one “safe dial” for the four combination numbers. The location tiles also seem to have nice art on them, but they’re too small to appreciate properly. The font they chose, while evocative of the game’s setting, is difficult to read. The rules to the game are on simple black and white leaf, and are easy to understand.

The Game

The object of Inkognito is to determine which player is your partner and to determine the correct code sequence. The first team to do so and meet up to enter the combination wins the game.

There are four agents in Inkognito, whose personas are assumed by the players – Lord Fiddlebottom (F), Colonel Button (B), Agent X (X) and Madame Zsa Zsa (Z). Each player takes one of the colors, and the set of eight cards of that color. Depicted on the cards are portraits of the four agents and four pictures of a safe dial each bearing a number (13, 28, 36, 47). F and B are always allied, and X and Z are the other team. (However, the players start out the game not knowing who is who.)

The fifth set of cards, colored black, are dealt out randomly to the players. Thus, each player is assigned a persona and one-fourth of the code. The correct code is expressed in a fixed order – F’s piece, then B’s, then X’s, then Z’s.

Each player also takes a set of five location tiles in his color. Again, black is left out, to be used by the non-player Ambassador (in a four-player game).

The start player begins the game by selecting one of the five locations to go to, followed by the other players. Lastly, the Ambassador’s location is determined by turning over one of the black tiles.

If exactly two agents meet at a location, and the Ambassador is not there, they may exchange information. This is done by showing each other two cards, one of which must be true. The agents must note down what they have show to who – the same pair of cards cannot be shown to an agent more than once.

If an agent meets the Ambassador alone at a location, he may question the Ambassador, who apparently knows everything. The game effect is that the agent may ask any one of the other three agents to show him one of his black cards. (Since it’s a black card, it must be true.)

Once all information has changed hands, the start player passes to the left, and each player chooses a new location tile from the four remaining, again ending with the Ambassador. Location tiles are played until all five are used, after which everyone gets all five tiles back. Play continues in this manner until one of the players feels that he has all the correct information.

When a player is ready for the reveal, he needs to meet up with his partner alone at a location. (Remember that F and B are partners, and X and Z are partners.) If more than one player wants to reveal, the agent first is turn order gets to go first if both are successful at the meet up. The revealing player names which player is his partner (fairly obvious, since they met up for the reveal), and the correct code sequence. This is verified by the players all revealing their identities, and their code pieces.

If the player is correct, his team wins the game. If he is wrong, the other team wins the game.

The five player variant has a fifth player taking the role of the Ambassador. He will need to piece together all the identities and code numbers on his own.

Strategy

This is a game where being first in turn order is not an advantage, since you can’t select a location where you’ll be able to exchange information. If you go late in the order, you can choose to meet up with an agent, or try to find the Ambassador. As the location tiles are spent, it gets easier to predict where the Ambassador is going to be. Other agents can block you, but in doing so they waste their turn as well.

When revealing cards to another agent, go for the person-person and number-number pairs first, before giving up a person-number pair. On the fourth meet-up, the correct pair will be obvious. If it’s taking you that long to figure it out, you’re not going to be the one doing the reveal.

Meeting the Ambassador is very useful, but it’s risky unless there are only one or two location tiles left. Even then, you need to have the correct locations remaining.

Reviewer’s Tilt

Inkognito isn’t a pure deduction game simply because luck plays a significant part in who gets information, and what kind of information. If you get unlucky and the Ambassador spoils one or two of your meet-ups, the other players will have a huge advantage. Receiving information from the Ambassador once or twice is also a huge advantage, making Inkognito a battle of luck as much as a battle of elimination and deduction.

This is the kind of game that you’d play with non-gamers. The theme is cool, the graphic design is very nice, and the luck factor will lighten the game up from being a true brain-burner. The game is also fairly simple – there are only four agents and four numbers, and you already start knowing your own information leaving just three to figure out. A game shouldn’t last more than half an hour unless people get really unlucky with their meet-ups.

If you’re looking for a deep deduction game, Inkognito isn’t it. It’s a fast-playing filler-type diversion with some deduction elements and some luck. Should that description appeal to you, look the game up.

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