Monday, April 27, 2009

Board Game Review - Android

It was a cold, rainy night in New Angeles. I took another long pull off the flask and settled back in the front seat, eyes trained on Vinnie's front door. It was gonna be a long night, another lonely night, but I could afford to sleep. I had to know if Vinnie had evidence in the Randolph case, and I meant to ask him about it one way or another. And then that damned robot showed up, and went right in Vinnie's apartment, and then Vinnie's car went shooting right through the roof, and all the while my car kept telling me that my girlfriend wanted to see me on the moon.

Android isn't a noir detective novel - but it sure seems like it ought to be. It's also not exactly a science fiction game, despite having a self-aware robot investigating a murder that might have been committed by a clone who got tired of being a slave at the mines on the moon. It's more like a game about figuring out about fifty complicated rules and then somehow making them all work so you can decide who did the murder.

Now right off the bat it might seem like I don't like Android, and I don't want to give that impression. I really enjoyed playing it a lot. It's got tons of depth and strategy and tricky plays. You have to read your opponents, hit them when they get too far ahead, and protect yourself so that you don't leave yourself open. You have to plan two hours out, make plays that won't come to fruition until the game ends, and come up with brilliant card plays that let you gain whatever slight advantage you can find - because you'll need it. It's also about exploring the lives of five different, flawed investigators as they attempt to solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy, and it's a ton of fun.

But it's incredibly complicated - far more than was needed. There are so many small, complex rules that you have to explain, you could spend thirty minutes just teaching someone else the game, and they'll still be asking you whether they can go to the moon from there. There are redundant, unnecessary rules all over the place. It's like when your dog knocks over a box of carpet tacks in the shag rug, and you know sooner or later you'll be cussing and pulling one out of your foot.

The basic theory here is that it's the future. We've settled the moon and had a civil war on Mars. We've got a space elevator that can take us from the Earth to the moon in less than a day, and we've developed two kinds of artificial life - androids and clones. And most importantly, we finally have our flying cars. I'm still bitter that we haven't got flying cars yet, but at least in this game, we do.

The players each assume the role of an investigator trying to solve a murder. Raymond is a deeply troubled, alcoholic private eye. Caprice is a psychic clone, property of Jinteki and only slightly prone to complete insanity. Floyd is an android, a robot owned by Haas-Bioroid, who has a bit of a tendency to fall apart and require maintenance. Rounding out our happy band are Louis, a cop deep in the mob's pocket, and Rachel, a bounty hunter with more debt than good sense. They each have their own reasons for solving the murder and uncovering the conspiracy, and as the game progresses, you'll explore different plots in their lives. Like you might have to keep Louis from getting a divorce, or keep Raymond from crawling into a bottle and staying there, or maybe just get Caprice laid (I'm not making that up. Caprice really does need to get laid).

So you've got to solve a murder - but kids, this ain't Clue. You're not going to wander around, asking players to see their cards and then checking to see if you guessed right. You're going to wander around, putting evidence on suspects and then, when the game ends, you'll see who is the most guilty, and the most innocent, and the most dead (there's not really levels of dead, but it did finish off the thought pretty well).

You can also investigate a massive conspiracy involving various organizations, from the big robot manufacturers to the mining corporations to the ever-so-corruptible great big church. Investigating the conspiracy lets you put puzzle pieces into this big grid, and if you can get five across, you get BINGO and get four points! I'm not sure how that plays into the theme - kind of seems like it doesn't at all - but it's how I won the last game I played, so I'm not complaining.

While you do all this driving around and questioning suspects, you'll also have to pay attention to your plots. These are backstories that have little or nothing to do with the case, but they're critical in deciding whether you wind up happy (and get lots of points) or sad (and lose lots of points). If you're Caprice, you might also go crazy, especially if you weren't able to have sex. I don't know why, but it seems psychic clones need sex fairly regularly.

With all this cool stuff going on, Android seems like it should be a stone riot - and to a certain degree, it is. Like I said, Android is a lot of fun - but it has so much wrong with it, I'm not even sure where to start. Oddly complex evidence placement? Tiny print on your opponents' cards that you absolutely, critically have to track? Thirty minutes of setup time? Fourteen decks of cards?

No, I'll get to those, but I guess I'll start off with the time. Sweet Mary, does this take a long time to play, and you're going to feel every minute. Some games blow a whole afternoon and then you say, 'man, is it that time already?' Android blows three hours, and then you're halfway through the game, and you go, 'holy crap, I need a break.' I love long games, but only if I'm doing something the whole time. There's so much downtime in Android, I seriously took a ten minute break and came back before it was my turn again. You could take up another whole hobby and pursue between your turns. Sure, you can play cards on your opponents during their turns, but this isn't as prevalant as it seems it should be, and you barely have to pay attention to what the other players are doing. You have to see where they place evidence, and you have to wait for Raymond to walk into a bar so you can make him drink himself half to death, but otherwise you just sit there - unless you're the guy that knows the rules, and then you get to spend the whole time saying, 'no, you can't do that. No, you can't do that either. No, you can't pick that up. Yes, you can draw that, but you can't use it like that, and you can't put it there. Yes, I would like some Vicodin and some hard liquor.'

Part of the reason this is going to take a long time, at least for your first few games, is that the game is 40 pages of rules that should have been streamlined to about 20. You'll spend five minutes trying to explain why testimony evidence goes at the bottom of Vinnie's sheet and the middle of Eve's. What's especially frustrating is that, aside from a slight amount of misdirection (and I mean small enough to be negligible), there's virtually no benefit derived by having three kinds of evidence. And whatever benefit there is, it's totally offset by how ludicrously complicated the whole thing is.

Speaking of complicated, how about having nearly 20 different decks of cards? Each detective has a light deck, a dark deck and a plot deck. Then there are innocent hunches and guilty hunches, and event cards (split into two decks), and each character also has his own special cards. It's bewildering at first, and after you play it a few times, it's still a mess. Much of the same end result could have been achieved by putting two effects on each card and letting everyone draw from the same pile.

To make matters worse with these cards, there's ridiculously tiny print that you absolutely have to know if you're going to try to make your opponents crash and burn. You have to know how to make them sad, and how to slow them down, and what cards they're using to their advantage. And that means every time a new card is played, you need to read it, unless you've played so often that you've memorized all the cards (with more than 300 cards in the game, you had better get started now. Yes, you can wait until you finish memorizing the dictionary - this will probably take a little longer than that).

As if having more than 300 cards to sort isn't enough trouble, you've also got the patented Kevin Wilson Giant Pile of Pieces. There are favor tokens (in four colors), evidence tokens, conspiracy tokens, player tokens, and Chuck E Cheese tokens (those may not be in your game - I have kids). The first time we set up, it took thirty minutes. The second time, it took thirty minutes, but that's because I was stupid and didn't bag everything up separately after the first game. If you invest a good amount of time shoveling all these little bits into their separate baggies, (thus adding a good ten minutes to the time it takes to put them away), you should be able to set up in about twenty minutes. And yes, if you're good at math, you may notice that you don't actually come out ahead, time-wise.

This isn't the end of the stuff that bothers me about Android, but honestly, it's gone on long enough. It's really important that you understand why I would play Android again, and hope to do it pretty soon. It's fun, and there are lots of great things about this game. In fact, it's kind of like a huge bag of gold bricks stuck inside a pile of elephant poop - there's a real treasure in there, but it can stink a little getting to it.

I really love that this is not a typical guess-the-bad-guy crime game. Some people might complain that it feels like you're framing a suspect, but that's not the feel I get. It's more like you're telling a story, and your detectives have these hunches, and maybe they're right and maybe they're wrong. Yes, you manipulate the game to prove people innocent or guilty, but really it's more like you're hunting for clues, and at the same time, you're above the whole thing unwrapping the story. This part feels absolutely brilliant, and combines the best of story-telling and strategy to create a really fun experience.

Another great thing about Android is the conspiracy (aside from that BINGO thing - that feels silly. In fact, to emphasize how silly it is, we actually call it scoring a BINGO). The conspiracy is another part of the story that you're telling, and you're linking corporations, politicians and even religious organizations to build an evolving story of corruption, greed, and murder.

But my favorite thing about Android has virtually nothing to do with the murder. The plots that each character plays out over the course of the game are engaging, and you'll find yourself sacrificing potential advantages in the game to make sure your character winds up happy. Not just because you're trying to win, either - I got so invested in my characters that I wanted Raymond to turn down a drink, find his missing sarge, and finally put his nightmares to rest. I wanted Floyd to find the humanity in his robotic shell. I wanted Caprice to be sane. I wanted Rachel to pay off her debts, and I wanted Louis to get blackmailed by the mob and have his wife leave him (but that last one is just because it makes me laugh to see my friend Rockford get totally hosed). Of all the parts of the game that I liked, the plots were the best at making me feel like I was in a story. The actual murder felt like an academic exercise, but seeing Raymond get tossed out of bars while Caprice struggled with her basic human rights was very satisfying.

At the end of the game, Android is a lot of fun. It's not without considerable pitfalls, and there are enough unneeded rules to choke a paper shredder, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. Don't try this one if you're short on time or afraid of thick rulebooks, but if you've got the stamina and imagination to take Android for a spin, you'll probably enjoy the heck out of it. Especially if you take up crochet, because then you could make sweaters between your turns.


Lots of great theme elements
Tough decisions and deep strategic gameplay
Plots are one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a board game

Takes way, way too long with far too much downtime
Enormous piles of rules that should be been streamlined or eliminated completely
Too many pieces and too many cards - less would have been more

If you've got the time and the dedication, and you dig some cool futuristic theme, you should get Android. And you should get it from Dogstar Games, because you'll save some green and get free shipping. And in case you're not following along at home, they also send me games so that I can review stuff that the big boys don't like to send me, because they're worried I'll compare them to piles of elephant poop.


Jason Smith said...


That was a hell of a review. That makes me really want to try it, while at the same time NOT. Maybe there will be a version 2.0 some day that streamlines the game, but that sounded awesome. Thanks!


Pete Miller said...

Matt -
That review is down-right normal. You are more detailed about the game than usual and the longer format is great - especially since this is a game that I am thinking about. Based on your review I will have to read the rules online and try to play someone else's copy before I buy.

I do want to try it now, though. It sounds much less like a Bladerunner knockoff than I thought.

Great review...

Anonymous said...

There may seem like a lot of downtime but if you gain more experience you will find the right opportunities to screw another player over. It may be necessary to write up a separate chart (I mean a big easel chart) of the up to 6 suspects and who placed what face-down piece of evidence on a suspect. Some cards let you peek at a suspect's card and then you realize which players want to edge this suspect to appear more guilty or more innocent. There is a kind of competitiveness between police agents that was only alluded to in BLADE RUNNER.

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