A Review of The Initiative (plus Alvin’s Secret Code!)

The Initiative is a cooperative board game for 1-4 players that came out this year (2021). It’s a campaign game about code-breaking and adventure: each player takes the role of a kid from a group of friends. The group of friends have “discovered” a board game (that makes this a meta-board game, as it is a board game about board games) that leads them on a crazy adventure of discovery!

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This is a campaign game with legacy elements: some things will change permanently as you play through the game, but it’s generally a campaign. The main campaign lasts about 14 game plays (or at least, that’s how long it did for us). After you are done with the main story, there are still scenarios to extend the life of the game.

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Most games we played lasted about 20 minutes, even though the box says 30-40 minutes.

Unboxing and Components

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The main book is called a “guidebook” more than a rulebook. Like a lot of legacy/campaign games, you are instructed to only look at the first few pages: the book above notes to read only pages 2-5!

Like I sad, this game is very meta is a lot of ways: you are playing a game called The Key inside this game of The Initiative. So, the guide book will be the guide for The Initiative, but the rule sheet (above) describes many of the key concepts for The Key.

The cardboard punch outs aren’t anything to write home about: they are pretty ordinary (see above).  They are readable, which is the most important feature, but they don’t really “stand out” as phenomenal pieces.

The main board is a double-sided affair (see one side above). This board defines the rooms IN THE INTERNAL GAME The Key, but, it is the main game board overall.

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There are a bunch of cards inside the box (see above), with the larger cards (on the right) being the scenarios, some SECRET cards (top) that you unlock as you play, and the main cards (brownish, left) being the main player cards.

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The centerpiece of the game is the little plastic stand with little plastic flip-up windows: it almost works like an Advent Calendar! You put the scenario cards in there and it presents the puzzle to solve!

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Each player plays a “kid” character with special abilities in the game. The “kid” is highlighted on the right of the card, and the special character that “kid” plays in the The Key is on the left of the card. It’s more confusing to talk about than to play: it really is simple once you are in the game.

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This game isn’t going to win any awards for prettiest components, or best color palette, or best pictures. The components are very readable and functional. The game DOES do a good job of differentiating between the kids (rendered in a comic booky art style) and The Key (rendered in a corporate art style). Overall, I liked the game components, and they worked just fine in the game, but they just weren’t particularly pretty.

The Guidebook

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One of the more interesting parts of the game is the Guidebook (see above) that sets-up and guides the kids’ story. As you play, you are told to read certain pages of the Guidebook … which are rendered in a comic-booky style! This is the kids’ story (the main characters) and the Guidebook reveals their story! At certain points, the Guidebook tells you to play The Key and solve the next code.

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The kids narrative is the main story of this campaign game, but The Key is the (meta) game the kids are playing in The Initiative!  Honestly, that sounds a lot more confusing than it is.  You track what the kids are doing “in real life” and then play the game (The Key) to advance the story.  It really does flow pretty easily.

Alvin’s Secret Code

I recently reconnected with a friend of mine, and we both discovered our love of the old book Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks. Alvin’s Secret Code is a book about a bunch of kids who discover the world of code-breaking and cryptography (sound familiar?) Without too much hyperbole, it’s one of the most influential books in my life: it awakened a love of cryptography (solving codes). It also demonstrated IN A KID’S BOOK how to do cryptanalysis!

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Near the end of the book are many more techniques to encode/encipher things!

You can even see my little scribbles in my old book.

This book was a “textbook” for me (as a second grader) on how to break codes! It was and still is one of my favorite books of all time.

The Initiative

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If Alvin’s Secret Code is a book about kids solving codes, then The Initiative is the equivalent board game about kids solving codes! I felt like I was reliving the adventures of Alvin and his friends as I played The Initiative. Without burying the lede, I loved this game! All the lessons I learned from Alvin’s Secret Code entered into this game and I couldn’t wait to play every week! For a few months, me and my friends would play two games a session, about 30 minutes each. Some sessions would be a little longer if the codes were harder or we were unlucky that week.

Gameplay

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The gameplay itself is about moving around an environment and gathering pieces of information. Pieces of information are usually a letter from the puzzle (strictly speaking, a “map” of one letter to another, so one piece might reveal multiple parts of the cipher).

On each player’s turn, they can only do one of 4 things (see above):

  1. Intel (flip a token to see what a letter is)
  2. Gather (use the token to decode one letter of the puzzle)
  3. Run (move to a room to Gather)
  4. Regroup (clear an action).

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Each player has 4 cards from a bunch of different “suits” (see above). The idea is that a player can activate an action ONLY IF they can play a card that’s higher than one already played! So, to do an action, you have to carefully plan your use of cards as an individual and a group. This is a hidden information cooperative game: players can’t share what cards have, but players can say “I have some high cards and midling cards” and phrases like that. I am normally not a fan of hidden information in co-ops, but it didn’t seem like a problem for us.

The gameplay itself isn’t particularly engaging: but it’s the act of choosing what clues to go after that’s important! Cryptanalysis is all about playing the odds! Usually, players can’t reveal all the tiles, so it’s the tiles that they reveal and don’t reveal that are the interesting decisions of the game! The card play just gives you a way to explore that state space.

For some people, this card play is the weakest part of the game. The 4 Squares Review of The Initiative gave this game 6-6.5, but I think they are missing the point. Discovering which letters/clues are important are the critical and fun decisions in the game: the mechanism is just a means to an ends. Honestly, it’s a easy mechanism to understand, it’s easy to get into, and doesn’t detract from the main idea … which is to codebreak!!!

As me and friends played the campaign, I looked forward to every gameplay. I had an amazing time playing this game.

Secrets and Surprise

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I have to be very careful here: this game has lots of secrets and surprises scattered EVERYWHERE throughout the game!! Some of what made this game so much fun (and something I looked forward to every week) were all the little “surprises” we found as we we were playing. This game wasn’t just a linear “play this game to conclusion”: as we played, we had to think about outside the box (sometimes literally) and pay attention to EVERYTHING we saw! As much as the game was about code-breaking, it was also about PAYING ATTENTION. Sometimes, the important things we glean in cryptography are little tiny patterns or clues we notice because we PAID ATTENTION TO EVERY LITTLE THING. Again, this game really captures that spirit of cryptography. In many ways, there was an element of Escape Room games here as well.

There are some really fun and fantastic things that happen as this game progresses.

Some Criticisms

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Although we played this game non-stop for months, I have been sitting on this review for some time. Why? Because we lost in the endgame, and I wasn’t sure if it was just us or the game. After some deep thought, I think the final end game felt a little unbalanced. Me and my group did really well as we played though the campaign, winning 13 out of 14 games! The final endgame, unfortunately, was horrible!! We got trounced, and it wasn’t even close! It was heartbreaking after investing in these characters for months! I mean, that’s the sign of a good game: we invested so much that we felt depressed after losing. But, I still think the final game was perhaps a little too hard or too lucky. Maybe luck went against us: the final game(s) did introduce “more luck-based” mechanisms, and that luck really backfired on us. Honestly, we’ve talked about replaying the final game, but we were so depressed, we haven’t been able to muster the spirit! If this game had a second edition, I would want slight rebalancing of the final game.

Another criticism is that the game is pretty bland looking. I think it’s thematic: there are two art styles (one for the kids and one for the Key meta-game) and they have to co-exist well, so I think scaling back the art style and graphic design is GOOD: we don’t want them to mismatch too much. Besides, the game and all its components are very readable. But ya, maybe they could have looked nicer.

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Finally, I think the card play mechanism may be viewed as too simple for some hard-core gamers, but I think that they would missing the point. This game is about cryptanalysis: this is about playing the odds, making informed decisions, paying attention, noticing little things: that simple card play mechanism does not detract from those activities. Better said, the card play doesn’t get in the way of the funnest parts of the game!

Conclusion

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If you love code-breaking, I think you will really love The Initiative. The story that unfolds over the campaign is interesting, the code-breaking was fun, and the little surprises that showed up along the way really made this a fantastic experience! As me and my group played this over few months, I looked forward to every play of the game. Despite the endgame, this is probably one of my favorite games of 2021: I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

I think maybe some of the reason I loved this game so much was because it reminded me of Alvin’s Secret Code: a book about kids solving codes! If you want to introduce your kid to the world of cryptography: get them Alvin’s Secret Code to learn about it, and then get The Initiative to experience it!

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