Greetings, agents. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to join a plucky bunch of teenagers as they are drawn into the shadowy and puzzling world of The Initiative. You will need to cooperate with your fellow agents as you play your way through the mysterious game within a game ‘The Key’. This message will self-destruct in 10, 9, 8, 7…
Play The Game
The Initiative is a fairly unique game experience. Part campaign, part puzzle, part codebreaker. It mixes a comic book story with a game within a game meta-narrative that hides a few surprises and secrets within its slickly designed box. When I first looked through the rules, I admit I feared there might be a disconnect between its disparate elements. Would this be a case of trying too much and not achieving any of it well?
In a word, no. The Initiative is as engaging as it is quirky. Without giving spoilers, the meta-narrative revolves around a group of teenagers who find a game called ‘The Key’ in a yard sale. You and your fellow players take on the role of one of these characters as they play through the game solving codes and uncovering secrets both within the game within a game and the story wrapped around it.
If that sounds confusing and complicated, rest assured gameplay is simple and accessible for groups of older players and also families with older children (8+ on the box). The double-sided board is set up with hidden clue tokens and traps according to the mission card. These then slides into a holder to disguise a secret code that players must solve.
On their turn, players take one or two actions by playing cards to the four action spots available. Actions are used to reveal and collect clue tokens from the board. The tokens will provide letters and numbers to help solve the code for that mission. The problem is players must always play a higher value card on top of the pile on each action. The cards also act as a timer mechanism. Once the resource deck has cycled once, timer cards are shuffled in, which can swiftly bring about failure.
Solve the code and the team wins. Guess the code incorrectly or run out of time and they record a loss.
Secrets and Lies
The Initiative is a campaign game with some legacy elements, meaning how you perform in one mission may impact the story and adjust the difficulty of later missions. A bonus for me was that each mission is short 20-30 minutes. Meaning you can work through the campaign in a reasonable amount of time time. One problem with campaign games is that they can clog up your group’s play sessions as you grind through a game to its bitter end. Sometimes you don’t finish them at all.
This wasn’t the case with The Initiative. My friend and I breezed through in three play sessions. And, while it would be difficult to fully reset the campaign due to some of those legacy elements. The game does come with twenty-four extra missions that also promise another meta-puzzle within them. Though I haven’t tried these yet.
The way the surprises are sprung by the game, via secrets, and through solving side puzzles and codes worked well with our two-player group. And I loved how the revelations tied into the overarching narrative. I would be concerned that it might get boring watching someone solve a puzzle on a card with larger groups. The text is quite small and some puzzles are fiddly. I would have liked to have seen some envelopes with larger components inside them to allow group solving like in an escape room game, though appreciate the impact this may have had on the cost of the game.
Whatever, this is a minor quibble with a game that we had great fun with. The codes are not too difficult to be unfriendly to family play, but complex enough to provide an interesting challenge. This challenge is often increased as you run out of time and have to solve the key phrases with imperfect information, as only half the clues have been collected.
Seize The Initiative
It is hard to review The Initiative without ruining it. Part of its charm is how it modestly disguises its true nature and slowly reveals itself through play. The combination of comic, puzzle, and codes was something I haven’t experienced in a game before and felt fresh.
The game gets brownie points with me for its unconventional design that makes it easy to ignore the couple of minor flaws I found: the components not always lending themselves to communal play and some of the codes being perhaps a little too simple. Despite this, The Initiative is distinct from its peers and well worth giving a try.
Overall, I found The Initiative to have a perfect pace that forced us to push our luck; either to retrieve more clues and risk running out of time or to solve the code without having all the information in front of us. This led to some tense moments and friendly disagreements over the best course of action, which all means…
!pu sbmuht elbuod gib a evitaitinI ehT evig I
…3, 2, 1 – KABOOM!