My family and I are huge fans of tabletop games. We spend hours every week playing everything from kids card games to intense strategy games that take as long to set up as they do to play, and we regularly host games nights with friends that stretch into the small hours of the morning. I'm sure you can imagine my excitement when IDW Games announced that they would release an X-Files themed tabletop game and, later on, an expansion that added even more cases to the game. Two of my favorite things in the world were combining!
I have now spent lots of time playing the game, so read after the jump for my in-depth look at The X-Files board game.
The X-Files Game from IDW Games pits Mulder, Scully, and their friends against the machinations of the Syndicate as they race to solve cases before the Cigarette Smoking Man can conceal all the evidence.
The game is recommended for 2-5 players ages 13 and up, and takes around an hour to play. It was created by Kevin Wilson who is best known as the creator of Arkham Horror and who also designed Elder Sign, Descent, and the board game based on A Game of Thrones.
What’s in the box?
The X-Files base game contains:
- A gigantic board featuring a map of the United States
- 4 Character tokens and stands (Scully, Mulder, Skinner, Krycek)
- 4 FBI ID badges (one per character)
- 40 Evidence Tokens
- 20 Cigarette Tokens
- 40 Influence Tokens
- 20 Wound Tokens
- 40 Progress Tokens
- 65 X-Files Cards
- 50 Agent Cards
- 50 Syndicate Cards
- Syndicate Screen
- 9 Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces
The Trust No One expansion contains:
- One mini board (attaches to the base game board)
- 5 Character tokens and stands (Mulder, Scully, Byers, Langly, and Frohike)
- 5 FBI ID badges (one per character)
- 6 Trail Tokens
- 6 Blockade Tokens
- 58 X-Files Cards
- 25 Agent Cards
- 25 Syndicate Cards
How to play:
Let’s take a look at the base game first.
In The X-Files, players take on the role of X-Files Agents attempting to solve cases. One player always plays as the Smoking Man/Syndicate and works to scupper the other players’ investigations. In a two-player game, the Agent player must control two different Agents, so this is a game that works better with three or more players.
During each turn, Agents perform three actions:
- Move around the board OR consult another agent (trade cards)
- Collect three influence tokens OR play a card from their hand
- Draw an agent card and add it to their hand
Agents move around the board to the location of the case they want to investigate and play cards from their hand to add progress tokens to the case. In order to play cards, Agents must spend influence tokens which work as a form of currency. Each Agent has unique skills and weaknesses which affect how much influence it costs them to play specific cards. Scully’s strength naturally lies in science while Skinner’s lies in politics and Mulder's in the paranormal. Certain cases are also keyed to these skill sets and can help or impede specific types of investigation - it might work out better to send Scully to a case with a science benefit and to avoid sending Mulder to one which penalises paranormal investigations. Each case requires a number of progress tokens to solve depending on its difficulty level. Let’s take a look at a typical example:
The “Squeeze” X-File is located in the South region and requires nine progress tokens to solve. It is keyed to politics which is Skinner’s strength, so let’s send him to investigate. Skinner moves to the South and plays the “Exhume Body” card from his hand which is keyed to politics; this costs no influence tokens for Skinner because of his strength in politics. The card allows him to investigate for three progress tokens, plus one extra for the case’s political bonus, bringing him to a total of four. If he has accumulated enough influence tokens prior to this round, this card also allows him to choose to spend it for extra progress. Let’s pretend Skinner has a lot of tokens (he’s a fairly influential guy at the FBI after all) so he chooses to spend five of his influence tokens, bringing his total investigation to nine. Skinner solves the case. If he didn’t have enough influence to spend this turn, the four progress tokens he gained before would stay on the card ready for the next round.
Of course, the Syndicate doesn’t like it when the X-Files team start poking their noses into cases, and so their player might decide to strike back. Each case has a number of spaces attached to it on the board which can hold Syndicate cards. The Syndicate player (we’ll call him Jeff) can choose to flip over any of these attached cards during the Agent’s investigation - assuming they can pay the influence cost. As it happens, Jeff had the “Men in Black” card attached to the “Squeeze” case. After paying three influence tokens (the cost noted on the card), he flips the card and cancels Skinner’s political investigation. No progress is added to the case and Skinner loses all that influence he just spent. Syndicate cards can have all sorts of effects, from cancelling investigations to injuring Agents (wounded agents add fewer progress tokens to their cases) to disgracing them and causing them to lose influence. Some Syndicate cards do nothing at all and can be attached to cases just to make the Agents worry about what they are!
Once all the Agents have taken their turns, it’s time for the Syndicate to act. For every unsolved case still on the map, Jeff is allowed to remove one evidence token from the bag before adding one of his cigarette tokens. He then places new cases onto the board if necessary (there should always be the same number of open cases at the start of a round as there are Agents playing) refills his hand up to five cards, collects influence tokens, and decides whether to attach cards from his hand to active cases, ready to foil the Agents all over again.
How do you win?
The game can either be won by the Agents or the Syndicate player. Each side progresses by drawing evidence tokens from a bag (which may also contain any number of cigarette tokens). For the Syndicate player to win, they need to draw 25 evidence tokens. The amount needed for the Agents to win depends on the number of players.
Throughout the game, the Agents work to piece together Mulder’s I Want to Believe poster which is made up of nine puzzle pieces. Each piece can be bought by trading in evidence tokens equivalent to the number of Agents. For example, if two Agents are playing then each piece costs two pieces of evidence and the Agents must collect 18 pieces of evidence to win the game. If four Agents are playing, they must collect 36 pieces of evidence! Of course, the more cigarette tokens the Syndicate player adds to the bag, the more likely it is that the Agents will pull one of those out instead of the evidence they need.
The first side to reach their target of evidence tokens is the winner.
What does the expansion add?
The first expansion to the game, Trust No One, adds a new region to the map, new Agent characters to play, and a new game mechanic. Players are now able to investigate cases Abroad and to play as the three Lone Gunmen. For some reason, the expansion also adds second Mulder and Scully characters with slightly different special abilities. The new cases added in the expansion create a second deck, Seasons 4-6. This means you can choose to play with either season 1-3 or 4-6 for some variety.
The new game mechanic added in the expansion is split cases. These cases require a preliminary investigation to take place elsewhere before they can be solved. Let’s take a look at another example:
The Syndicate player - Jeff - draws the “Biogenesis” case and places it in the West region of the board. This case is marked TRAIL: ABROAD. Jeff then places a Blockade Token onto the “Biogenesis” card. The “Triangle” card is already in play in the Abroad space, so Jeff adds the Trail Token (in a matching color) to the “Triangle” card as a reminder. No Agents can move to the “Biogenesis” card and start adding progress to it until the “Triangle” has been solved. If there is no case already in the trail region - in this example, Abroad - the trail token is placed in that region without a case and waits there until an Abroad case is revealed.
I found that the expansion cases felt slightly more linked to their source material than the cases in the base deck. The “Paper Hearts” case instructs that Mulder “cannot investigate any other X-Files while this X-File is in play” while “Emily” has the same effect on Scully. The “Monday” case must be investigated during one round - if it’s not then all current progress is removed resetting it back to the beginning for the next round - while “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” must be investigated by two Agents together. It doesn’t all make sense, though. “Bad Blood” is keyed as a political case for no obvious reason, and don’t even get me started on the three Lone Gunmen having FBI credentials. It’s just wrong. Hopefully, a future expansion will add seasons 7-9 and give us Doggett and Reyes characters to play with.
As someone who plays tabletop games a lot, I admit that I was disappointed by The X-Files. I had hoped for something dark, complex, and mysterious, and was instead presented with a surprisingly simple game that lacked the tension you feel when watching Mulder and Scully face up against their enemies on TV. The game is actually quite dull in parts too, especially for the poor sap assigned to play as the Syndicate. This player spends huge swathes of game time sat around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the Agents to decide on their next move, only to occasionally turn over a card. Whenever I have played that role, the only thing I’ve found to do is constantly lift up the Syndicate cards I have placed on the board to try and remember what is placed where. The rest of the time I’m usually on my phone.
There has been an attempt to link the game to its source, but strip away the names and quotes and there’s just not much there to encourage me to get it out of the cupboard. Despite being a die-hard Phile and a gamer, this game has never been played when hosting my regular games nights, nor has it ever been requested, and I can't imagine doing so unless I had a number of hardcore Philes over. In fact, despite playing tabletop games several times a week, I could count the number of times this has been played in over a year on one hand. If I want to play something with an X-Files vibe, I pick up Pandemic or Elder Sign.
Over on BoardGameGeek, a cooperative variant has been posted which automates the Syndicate. I have yet to play that version of the game, but will definitely be giving it a try soon. I would have loved for the X-Files game to have been a cooperative game as I feel that style of play would have been better thematically for the franchise as you team up with a group of friends/Agents to defeat the shadowy Syndicate whose next move you can never quite be sure of.
I admit my feelings toward The X-Files are probably biased by how much time I spend playing tabletop games. Many non-gamer Philes have looked at the game and been put off by its apparent complexity whereas I find there isn’t as much to do as I’d hoped. Sadly the game seems to fall into the no man’s land between being too simplistic for regular tabletop gamers, but too scary looking for non-gamers.
For non-gamer Philes, I do suggest you pick this up. It’s not nearly as scary as you think it is and will make a good step up from classic board games. For regular tabletop players, this one may be best avoided unless you’re a Phile.
The X-Files is available on Amazon for $34.99.
The Trust No One expansion is available for $26.76.
Review copies were provided by IDW Games.