Note: All images are taken of a work-in-progress prototype of Rogue Angels.
Doing Some Calibrations
Sometimes an email lands in my inbox that uses just the right combination of words to immediately draw my attention and interest. One such combination is “What if Mass Effect was a board game?”.
It was like Sun Tzu Games had heard about my disdain of doing prototype previews and said “Hold my Krogan”. Like a siren’s song to a ship’s captain, I immediately changed course and beached myself amid the Rogue Angels universe.
You can find a video version of this preview on YouTube!
It’s not just a marketing line either. Even using an unfinished prototype, Rogue Angels legitimately feels like the closest thing to a Mass Effect board game without actually being a Mass Effect board game. It doesn’t just wear its inspiration on its sleeve. It shows up in full Commander Shepard cosplay, and every time it bends over, you can glimpse a tramp stamp of Seth Green.
Rogue Angels does a lot more to impress me than simply dressing up as one of my favorite video game franchises. Its mechanisms further capture the spirit I was hoping for, while feeling equally novel. It also takes the concept of a story-based campaign game and cleans up a ton of the junk that folks commonly trip over.
Here are some key points to consider about whether or not Rogue Angels is worth backing.
Any game inspired by Mass Effect is going to have a lot of writing, and this is true of Rogue Angels. The writing itself is very well done and it captures that Mass Effect magic in multiple ways. For one, the world of Rogue Angels is full of different alien races, and factions. Each character you can play has its own backstory, and you also track your relationship with important people or those factions.
You get to make choices during, before, or after missions. These decisions greatly impact the direction that a mission can go or the path of the campaign. Not only that, your character has a personality diagram that mirrors the Paragon and Renegade system found in Mass Effect but splits it four ways. Your character might be dominating, inspiring, cautious, or supportive.
Your personality isn’t just for flavor. You get a number of charges for each pip of your personality biases at the start of a mission, and you can spend those charges to modify your abilities during the mission. It’s an interesting bit of character development that’s impactful from both a narrative sense and gameplay standpoint.
However, when it comes to the narrative I do have an issue. The narrative elements are written in the same way a book or video game dialogue would be written. What this means is, the various characters speak in character to both the players and each other.
That narrative method works in those mediums because you are simply consuming it. Likewise, if you were to play Rogue Angels solo, it would also work that way.
However, at a table with four players, this method of writing isn’t ideal. Most of the time, a single player will be reading the narrative to the table. This means that the player has to characterize each speaking NPC so that the rest of the table understands who is talking, and also must talk to themselves characterizing various speakers differently.
Even in roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, dungeon masters try to avoid situations where NPCs talk to each other because it becomes awkward. You really don’t want a board game to force someone at the table to be a performer.
In a board game, it’s usually much better to write the dialogue from the narrator’s perspective, rather than the NPC’s perspective. I’ve seen a few games successfully use the novelization method that Rogue Angels opted for by supplying an optional audio app that narrates it for you. This will certainly be a non-issue for many, but given the game’s focus on story it’s worth pointing out.
There are plenty of finished games where the rulebook is so abysmal that I’m left scouring the internet for answers to questions I shouldn’t have to ask.
Normally, the very act of learning a game becomes much more difficult when you’re using an unfinished prototype with stand-in components.
Both of those facts make me all the more impressed at how easy it was to learn Rogue Angels. Even in prototype form, the game is a shining example of clarity. The rulebook is excellent, written very well, and divided up appropriately. More importantly, it provides visual examples of nearly all of its rules. Any question I had after reading a rule was instantly cleared up by looking over the examples.
The mission book is just as clear and clarifies itself on most points that had a reasonable chance of being misunderstood. Setting up a mission is also incredibly quick and easy, faster than pretty much any other campaign game. Rogue Angels doesn’t use tiles for its missions. It opts for a book of maps in the vein of Jaws of the Lion. You place a few standees and objects on the map, and you’re good to go.
When it comes to simplicity, the star of the show is the game’s AI cards. Different missions will call out specific AI cards and these designate how the enemies act. Essentially enemies are placed in red and yellow numbered bases. Then on the enemies turn, the two lowest-numbered enemies of one color act, the next turn the AI card flips, and the two lowest-numbered of the other color act.
The actions themselves are simple. An enemy may attack the closest enemy, and then move toward the last activated player. Or they may move toward the farthest player, and then attack the closest. It all varies based on the specific AI card. Most conflicting decision points an enemy might have, are handled in the simplest manner possible. This makes running the enemies’ turn quick easy, and simple to understand.
There is a trade-off. It means the enemies never act in a tactical manner. They have no regard for what a smart move would be. While this is generally fine, I do worry about how it will impact the game’s challenge as the campaign progresses and once you have a handle on how to play your own character.
The nifty standees contain all of the enemies’ statistics right on them, so relevant information is visible at all times to the entire table. It’s a graceful feature that goes a long way toward making the game easy to get into.
Cards and Cooldowns
Rogue Angels is played with a hand of cards similar to Gloomhaven, but uses them in an entirely different way. You get two actions a turn, one of the actions you can perform is play a card.
Cards have a cooldown cost and right below your character is a cooldown track. Cards with a cost of zero go right back to your hand. Others are placed on your cooldown track matching the cost number, or in a slot higher than the cost.
The Rest Action slides all cards on your cooldown track to the left, when a card leaves the track, it’s returned to your hand. At the end of your turn you also, always get a free rest. This method of card management is simple to understand and very cleanly emulates the concept of skill cooldowns from video games, without feeling overly “gamey”
There’s a lot of strategy involved with how you use your cards and manage your cooldowns, as nearly every action, from attacking to moving is done via these cards. Additionally, you have an overshield that depletes when you take damage. If you take damage while your shield is down, you draw an injury card and these take up slots of your track when drawn, in addition to other effects. If your track is filled with injuries, and you get another, you get knocked out.
It’s a very clean implementation of a damage system that ties in well with the game’s core card management mechanism. But it’s not just cards that matter, dice are also involved and Rogue Angels is one of few games where I’ve ever felt that dice amplify your choices rather than restrict them.
That’s because dice are mostly used as an addition to an ability, rather than a core focus of a card. I’ll use the Scoped M160 Rifle as an example. It’s straightforward, it deals 3 damage to an enemy within 4 squares. However, you also roll two dice. You can spend focus to reroll a die, and focus can be regained by taking the concentrate action.
The dice have a variety of faces such as +1 or +2, shield, or movement. Let’s say I rolled the face that has +1/Movement and the other dice rolled a shield. The shield instantly recharges my shield rating by one. If your shield is low, it can be beneficial to play cards with dice rolls, simply to recharge it.
The other dice gave me a choice. I could add +1 damage to my attack. Or I could move 1 square even though I did not play a movement card. This gives my turn a lot more flexibility, because I can choose to move before, or after I attack.
I’ll harken back to playing Star Wars Imperial Assault. Rolling dice was a core function of your attack in that game. Often times you would make a smart move, only to find that courtesy of a crappy roll, you whiffed the attack anyway.
In Rogue Angels, I already know my rifle is letting me do three damage. What I roll is going to be an additional bonus, be it more damage, recharging my shield, or some movement. That allows me to make more tactical plays. If I really want a different die result, that’s what my focus points are for.
It’s one of the best blends of card play and dice rolling I’ve seen in a tactical combat game, and it all meshes incredibly well with the card cooldown system.
The full game will have 16 characters, while the prototype only had four. Each of the four characters had very different playstyles via their cards and abilities. The full version will include more ways to improve them as the campaign progresses and I’m definitely excited for it.
Many missions in Rogue Angels include doors that need to be opened or consoles that need to be hacked. Rogue Angels uses a brilliant but simple bag-pulling puzzle for hacking that follows the same logical card play as combat and moving.
Some cards are interaction cards, let’s take Grid Slicer, for example. It allows you to interact two with an object within a range of two, and roll a dice. In the bag are different colored tokens. You would pull two tokens (more if you roll a +1 or +2 with the dice), then choose what colors to keep. The unchosen colors go back to the bag, and white is wild, it counts as any of them. Once you have three tokens of a given color, you hack the device.
You don’t need all three colors from a single action, or even turn. The chosen color tokens remain, and you can add on to them with future actions, or your teammates can add to them with their own interact cards.
It’s a simple and fun puzzle to split your focus during missions, and it works really well. Missions with multiple hacks can throw a curveball at you too. When you successfully hack something. The winning color tokens don’t go back to the bag for the rest of the mission. So the color distribution shifts as the mission progresses.
I wasn’t initially sold on the idea at first. I thought it was odd and gimmicky. But as I played, I realized how well it fell in line with the rest of the game’s actions. It made doors and certain objectives obstacles to overcome, in addition to the enemies. It certainly helped that my character was much better at hacking than my partners, and further helped cement how different my character’s role was compared to hers.
Go Rogue or Go Home?
Rogue Angels is an excellent game, that is easy to play and set up, even in prototype form. I was given a list of changes coming to the full game, and I can confidently say that they streamline the process even further, making Rogue Angels one of the easiest campaign games to get invested in.
The way missions play out with the unique blend of card play, cooldowns, and dice as an amplifier, alongside the hacking system make Rogue Angels one of the most fun “dungeon crawlers” I’ve ever played. It helps that running the enemies is painless thanks to the nifty AI cards.
Another feature I want to call out is how the game lets you scale up the difficulty. It’s all centered on the wound cards. At the base level, only the first part is active. If you choose to play hard mode, the top two sections are active. If you play insane mode, all three are active. It’s a clever and effective way to increase the challenge that is player-dependent, not group-dependent. Meaning, that one player can play on hard mode, while another plays on normal mode. I like it a lot.
When it comes to backing Rogue Angels, they have my seal of confidence. While the prototype I was sent is very much a prototype, it is a working game that has seen a ton of design work. The quality of the rulebook alone is a testament to the level of effort put into it. This isn’t a game I’d worry about never shipping. It seems like Sun Tzu Games has a handle on it and a solid plan for the rest of the design.
It’s not a miniature heavy collector’s item. It’s a game meant to be played, and everything I’ve seen with the prototype and what I’ve been told is being added in the full version confirms that much.
Rogue Angels oozes with the very spirit of the Mass Effect series while capitalizing on an excellent card cooldown system that feels equal parts elegant and novel. I’m super excited to get my hands on the full version with the full suite of characters and their progression.
If you’re looking for a great Sci-Fi campaign game without the painful inelegant mess that usually accompanies any attempt to play them. You definitely want to look toward Rogue Angels.
The cardholders I use in my reviews are courtesy of InfinitionsTabletop on Etsy
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