A Review of Agents of Smersh: Epic Edition (and a Comparison to the Original 2012 First Edition)

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This week we take a look at the Epic Edition of the Storybook game: Agents of SMERSH!

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The original Agents of SMERSH was on Kickstarter back in 2012 from 8th Summit Games: I backed it. The original first Edition (see above on the left) became one of our favorite games here at Co-op Gestalt!! The original made our Top 10 Cooperative Games Off The Beaten Path as well as our Top 10 Cooperative Storytelling/Story Book Games! Agents of SMERSH is cooperative storytelling game where each players take the role of a wacky “James Bond like” spy from the era of the 70s: players work together try to stop Dr. Lobo from conquering the earth! Yes, Dr. Lobo is the “James Bond” Bad Guy! Massively Evil!

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Unfortunately, 8th Summit went out of business a few years ago, and it appears Dr. Lobo has beaten our spies!! Luckily Everything Epic Games resurrected the Agents of SMERSH title and put it on Kickstarter in May 2021 and was able to reprint it! Not only was Everything Epic able to reprint the game, they also streamlined the gameplay, upgraded the art, cleaned-up the graphic design, and revamped the playing pieces! I received my copy of the “Epic Edition” (see above and below) in early October 2022.

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Was it worth upgrading a game I already love? After all, I still prefer the original 2nd Edition of Sentinels of the Multiverse over the newest Definitive Edition (see our review of the Definitive Edition here). Sometimes just because someone tells you “they’ve made the game better”, they haven’t. We’ll take a look at the newest Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH below and make the judgment!

Unboxing

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The Coke Can is there for perspective: this is a big box!

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The newer version is also significantly taller than the original printing.

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Upon opening the box, you are greeted with a paper with the some errata. This is great! You immediately know what problems to be on the lookout for.

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One of my favorite parts of the little sheet is that it tells you the difference between the different versions. The Collector’s Edition (which we have) has more standees and other stuff. This is great! So many times, a Kickstarter edition has “new stuff” but it’s never noted. Now we know the differences between the base game and the Kickstarter version.

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The gold version comes with Neoprene mat. It looks real nice! (It also comes with a board with the same map). Typically Neoprene mats are nicer because it’s easier to grab components off the mat. But, they are harder to store.

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Next comes some art prints:

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They are cool and all (see above), but I usually don’t get the art prints… what do you do with them??? They just happened to come with the version I got.

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There are a number of boards with punchout tokens … (see above). These are nice thick cardboard.

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And a corresponding board (in case you didn’t get the neoprene mat).

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Under all that are the player boards and player sheets. The player sheets are cool because you can slot them into the dual layered boards! See below:

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But the most important components in the game are the Storybook (Encounter Book)… see below …

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.. and the Epic Showdown book … (see below).

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This is a storybook game where you roll dice to overcome challenges presented to you by the Encounter book (during normal gameplay) and the Epic Showdown (during the finale). The dice are super nice if you get the metal ones, but the normal plastic dice are great too.

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You roll against your abilities on your character sheet:

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Successes give you upgrades and all sorts of good stuff. Failures smack you down.

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The insert is pretty good: notice that mine has already been crushed a little bit above (from shipping). But everything does fit back in the box pretty well.

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As you explore the map, you get encounters in different regions: see the regions above. Note that they color does a good job of distinguishing the region. Each region card looks “something” like below:

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Above is an encounter card that tells you what you are going to look up in the encounter book, depending on what you do. All of the region encounter cards look like the above.

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Frequently when you succeed at a region encounter, you get a status card.  If you fail, you ca get a bad status card: Watch above is  good status which helps you tamp down Dr. Lobo’s progress.

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The tokens are all pretty nice.  The game even comes with plastic bags for storing some of them.

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Overall, the components for this version of Agents of SMERSH are quite nice. They are solid and awesome components.

Comparison To The First Edition

Ignore this section if you don’t care about the original edition.

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The original version of the game (left) had two major expansions: Swagman’s Hope (a well-known expansion) and the Showdown book (a lesser-known expansion).  Both of those elements have been incorporated into the the Epic Edition, either directly or indirectly.  In fact, it says that in the Epic Edition rulebook on the first few pages.

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Let’s take a look at some differences between the original and Epic Edition!

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The Epic Edition box (right) is much bigger that the original printing (left).

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The map is significantly bigger in the Epic Edition and perhaps a more readable and easier to look at? The Epic edition’s board is a giant 6-fold board vs the original 4-fold board. See above.

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The Epic Edition also comes with a neoprene map: it’s essentially the same size as the board (see above as it covers the 6-fold board almost perfectly): see above.

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The old board (above) looks more like an old style map, notating the different regions with colors at the cities.

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The new map (above) is much more “tech-cool” looking, and notates the different regions with more “emphasizing” color. Note that each regions has some “special” things that apply to it … above, in Asia, you can spend two info to gain an Advanced Skill.

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Which map you like better may be personal choice, but I like the cool tech look of the new one.

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The manuals/rulebooks are … about the same size. Inside, the newer manually is substantially easier to read: see below. We’ll look closer at the rulebooks below.

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Remember that dice are rolled to overcome challenges in the game: the Epic edition dice (left) look cooler. The older dice (left) had different distributions of successes and failure, depending on the color of the die. The newer dice (right) are more uniform: gone are the days of counting “how many successes” are on which dice. The new dice rolling is simpler.

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Oh ya, the newer edition DOES NOT have a dice bag. Sure, a dice bag was cool, but I don’t think it was necessary.

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The graphic design has definitely changed: the older game has a well-labelled, but perhaps slightly dated graphic design. The newer edition has a slicker (but arguably not quite as well-labelled) modern look-and-feel. I like the newer cards better, but I wish the labels were more pronounced.

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An interesting curiosity from the original edition (left) is that you could play WITHOUT the storybook! If you used the top row of cards, all the encounters were on the cards instead othe book!!! In the newer edition, I think they wisely got rid of that mode and just made people use the storybooks.

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See above for a closer look at the status cards: original edition (left), Epic edition (right).

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At the start of the game, each player gets two Top Secret cards which give the characters a mission (and a direction to go).

The newer edition mission cards looks a little more modern.

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The villain cards from the original edition are … pretty complicated: see above. They had a Pandemic like element, as well as some other things. These are completely gone from the Epic version of the game.

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The older edition has player summary cards. The new edition doesn’t …I wish it did.

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The newer edition cards (right) look more modern overall.

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Another major change: all the player choices for encounters are ON THE ENCOUNTER CARDS in the Epic Edition (see above right), whereas the original edition had a piece of cardboard listing them (above left). I understand why the original edition had this: it was a mirror of the game Tales of Arabian Knights. I think getting rid of that sheet made the game easier to deal with: everything you need is on the card itself! See above and below.

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At the end of the day, the most important component is the storybook (Book of Encounters). There is a ton of content in both, but the newer edition has slightly more content. See below.

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Note that both kept the ring binding: I think that’s a good thing. This is a huge book and the spiral binding makes it easier the page through the book and still keep the book in good shape.

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The newer book (right) is slightly better organized. Note the color (right) helps remind you which region you are in, as well as better notated SUCCESS and FAILURE sections (+ and X above right). See some more pictures below.

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You still use little cubes to notate your abilities: The Epic edition uses clear plastic cubes, the original uses wood cubes. See above.

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Tokens have special spaces in the Epic Edition insert (right) but I had to use bags (left) for the original edition.

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The newer Advanced Skill tokens are larger and easier to read.

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The info tokens (right) are more identifiable as square folders than plain circles (left). The newer UN Tokens are larger to see and easier to hold (right) than the original edition (left).

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No need for injury tokens (left) in the Epic edition: it’s just one of the markers on the character mat as Health (see below).

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I think I like the standees from the original edition better (left). They are more distinguishable than the Epic Edition, where the characters only have white outlines (right).

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The original Dr. Lobo was hard to get to: you had to get different types of intel and mark them on the Dr. Lobo chart (see left). This mechanic is completely gone in the new one. They’ve replaced it with the Epic Showdown book!

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A lot of ideas from the Epic Showndown came from the the Showdown expansion from the original expansion:

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The Henchman idea is still in the game, but again, the idea of how to fight them has changed. You used to have to find them and fight them before you could ever bring out Dr. Lobo. Now, the henchmen are very different: to fight them, you simply discard an appropriate number of intel and then consult the Epic Showdown book! It’s much simpler than before!! If you defeat them, it’s easier to defeat Dr. Lobo in HIS final showdown!!! If you don’t, the final showdown with Dr. Lobo gets complicated with appearances by the Henchmen!

The Henchmen mechanic has changed significantly: it’s become an Epic Showndown rather than some baroque rules.

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There are SIGNIFICANTLY more characters in the EPIC edition vs. the original edition: 23 vs. 8!

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Essentially the same info is on both cards, but the newer cards are larger and more readable. See above.

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Finally, the Epic edition has the cool neoprene map, art clips, and dual-layer boards for the character sheets.

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Overall, the Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH is more modern looking, easier to use, and simpler.

Rulebook

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The rulebook is pretty good.  The font is big and legible: see above.

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There’s a nice little table of contents and a great annotated components page with pictures. Very helpful and useful for correlating components.

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The set-up page is great: a picture with labels and corresponding directions on the facing page. This is how set-up should be.

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In general, the rest of the rulebook is “pretty good”. You can find all the rules, but sometimes the organization felt a little of and I had to do more hunting. For example, the Henchmen and Dr. Lobo showdown are both handled similarly, but they way they were described felt disjoint, despite the similarities.

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And a few places, some rules should have been notated differently (For example: using intel for the Showdowns needed to be emphasized).

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I shouldn’t nitpick too much. I learned the rules, the rulebook was readable, and it was pretty easy to look stuff up. I generally liked the rulebook.

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And, most importantly, the rulebook ends with an Icon summary. Thank you for using that last page for something useful!

Streamlined Play

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I usually blanche when someone says “This game is better because it has streamlined play!” Streamlining, although it can mean simplifying, it can also mean dumbing-down. I will admit, for what it was, the original Agents of SMERSH had too many rules. At the end of the day, the fun part of Agents of AMERSH is reading silly dumb encounters from the encounter book and rolling dice! The core fun of Agents of SMERSH is the reading and dice-rolling. All the other weird rules of the original edition seemed to be a distraction: So, I am okay with some streamlining here. I admit that I want some game in there because Tales of Arabian Nights (another storybook game) was always a little too random for me. There is some strategy and some choice in Agents of SMERSH, but it’s still a storybook game where the storybook dictates some randomness (but excitement) in your play. Agents of SMERSH should be a fun game not hampered by too many baroque rules.

The original edition had quite a number of extra and mechanisms that are now gone.

  1. The dice are now uniform.  The original edition had different distributions of successes and failures on dice, and you rolled different dice depending on different rules.  That was complex and added too many rules: it’s gone.
  2. The Henchmen rules are simpler.  There were some strange set of rules for bringing out the henchmen, and you had to measure the success to bring them out.  Nope: all that’s gone, and the henchmen are handled in Epic Showdown book just like Dr. Lobo.  In other words, the Henchmen rules are not a weird bunch of rules tacked on.
  3. Dr. Lobo and different types of Intel are gone.  Dr. Lobo used to have to find a certain number of type of different intel tokens.  Nope: all that’s gone.  Intel is a generic resource that helps you roll better.
  4. Dr Lobo final encounters are in the storybook!  Now, Dr. Lobo final encounters feel more “epic” as you read from the Epic Showdown book.  It feels like the Storybook parts of the game we like, not a different set of rules.

There were also some rules that made the game “Pandemic-like” as cards shutdown airports and removed intel from the map.  That’s been simplified in the intel rules: the Epic Edition doesn’t have many rules for removing intel, it simply must be found.  I admit I liked the old rules for intel, but I understand the new way Intel is handled does make it simpler.

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The Epic Edition has streamlined the rules appropriately. The game is simpler and easier to teach without taking away from the fun.

Solo Play

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So, congratulations to Agents of SMERSH for following Saunders’ Law and having viable solo rules! Interestingly, there is no discussion of solo rules in the rulebook. The game “simply scales” to the number of players. I wish there had been at least a sentence discussing it, because solo rules almost always have exceptions or modifications. Not seeing a sentence abut the solo play makes me think it was an afterthought: BUT, it was not.

Basically, the solo play is fairly balanced because the one character gets all the good stuff happening to him, so all the bonuses and stats upgrades all get applied to exactly one character, which turns that solo character into a bit of a Superman. With more characters, those bonuses are divvied up over multiple characters. Now, multiple players have more Health collectively (Four players have 4 Health each for 16 hit points total, one player has 4 Health for 4 Health total), but since all the specials, re-rolls, status upgrades, bonuses and the like are applied to one character, that character usually has a better shot of surviving. That said, the solo game can be more swingy since there are dice and the superman solo can die if there are some bad turns.

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I really enjoyed my first solo play of Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH. I lost because I missed a major rule: during the Henchmen encounter with Darling, I forgot I could use info tokens for extra dice!!! (Which is why I wished the rulebook had emphasized that more: my fault though).

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If I had defeated the Darling Henchman, I might have survived my final battle with Dr. Lobo!

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It’s good to lose your first play: it usually means you want to play again.

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One other thought: I usually prefer Storybook games with multiple people-maybe it’s because the theme comes through more with multiple people reading aloud.  This is one case where I think the game works just as well solo: I think it’s because there are enough decisions for the solo player since this is not “just” a storybook game.  The theme is everywhere, there are many decisions.  I think I like this as much as a solo game as a multiplayer game.

Cooperative Game

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As a cooperative game, the game moved around, with us reading out loud to each other. We got into a groove where the book would be passed, the “region” pages would be opened as we waited for the player to read the card and make a choice about “how will I respond to this encounter”.  This worked pretty well, as everyone got to read to everyone else: it was a shared responsibility. See above as Sara picks a choice and Andrew reads what happens from the choice!!

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The cooperation, in terms of gameplay, wasn’t as pronounced as other cooperative games we have played.  People generally did what they wanted on their turn to improve their characters to get ready for the final battle. There was some discussion, but in general, people just moved forward and did their own thing: the major pieces of collaboration were “When should we all rest for a showdown?” and “When should we start the showdown?”.

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It isn’t a bad thing, as lots of people like cooperative games but prefer to just cooperate when needed.  Just be aware the cooperation isn’t as pronounced here as it is in other games.

But Is This A Good Game?

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If you know nothing about the original game, then you are probably wondering: “Is This A Good Game?” I absolutely think this is a GREAT game, but it really depends on what you are looking for.

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In Agents of SMERSH, each player takes the role of a wacky 70s spy! This game has a sense of humor—so, you gotta enjoy some goofiness (see above with silly portraits: is that Sean Connery? Is that from Kill Bill?). But each of the characters is different and has different powers: a lot of people like asymmetric powers, and this game has that in spades.

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Players are working together cooperatively to vanquish the evil Dr. Lobo and the SMERSH organization. The spies roam the world (below) looking for intel on Dr. Lobo, his Henchmen, and the SMERSH organization: there is exploration!!

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At its core, Agents of SMERSH is a storybook game. Every turn other players will be reading from a giant book of Encounters (storybook) describing some situation for the current player.

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If your idea of fun is reading from a storybook to other players and then making die rolls, then you will love this game! Since the game embraces the cheesiness of the Bond era spies, you can read with crazy accents, yell, make sound effects, and be as dramatic as you want! If you hate reading aloud, you will hate this game. This game is all about reading to each other and being silly with the text.

If you hate reading aloud, but still like the idea of a story being read aloud to you, then there are number of games that use an APP to read to you: Forgotten Waters (see our review here) and The Grand Hotel Abaddon (see our review here) are two such games.

This is a great game IF you like reading aloud from a storybook and hamming it up. If you don’t like that, this is not the game for you.

Variety

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There are a few things to be aware of.

The Epic Showdowns are cool, but they are limited.  There’s only 4 Henchmen and only 4 Dr. Lobo Endings.   Each Henchmen and Dr. Lobo has an entire section, and there are a few branching points in the text: this gives each Henchman some variety.  And the final text with Dr. Lobo changes depending on whether the Henchmen is alive or not.  So, that also add some variety into the game.  But, be aware that you probably want to rotate through the Henchmen each time you play, to keep the story different.

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If you look at the limited Henchmen too closely, you might think “This games sucks!! I can only play it 4 times before it repeats???” And strictly speaking, you would be right. But, between the branching inside each Henchmen and some variety with the endings, your endings will be different.

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A better way to look at this situation is to compare it to many other adventure games with a Storybook. For example: Adventure Games The Grand Hotel Abaddon (which we reviewed here) has a limited life already! Once you’ve played that game, you know all its secrets and it really only has one ending!!! So, with the Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH, you don’t have just one ending but 4 major endings! And within each ending are a number of paths for more variety.

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I personally prefer games with a more directed story, so I am okay with this limitation. But you should be aware there might be less variety here that you expect.

Conclusion

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I was a supporter of the original Kickstarter for Agents of SMERSH back in 2012. My name is even on the book inside! (Kickstarters used to list all the supporters somewhere in the game: they don’t really do that anymore). My game groups loved this game: Charlie and Allison picked up their own copy! Joe picked up a copy to use in his English classes (he loves the reading)! And yet, I always felt a tinge in the back of my neck when I had to teach this game: it was just a little bit clunky and it had a few too many rules.

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Fast forward to 2021: Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition has gotten rid a lot of the weird rules, updated the components, simplified the gameplay, and added the Epic Showdowns! I can honestly say that I will only play the Epic Edition going forward! The new game is better looking, more fun, and easier to teach!

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Having said that, if you ever find the original edition used for a good price, it’s still worth picking up! The story is still all there in that giant Storybook! And all the silliness and zaniness that we loved is still there. It’s just that the newest Epic Edition really does streamline the game and make it easier to teach and funner to play.

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The original game used to be an 8/10 for me, but the newest Epic Edition is probably a 8.5/10 for me now: it should probably be higher on our Top 10 Cooperative Storytelling/Storybook games! I strongly recommend Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition!

  • Me: 8.5/10 might prefer it slightly better for solo play. 
  • Teresa: 7.5/10, would suggest it and would play it again
  • Sara: 6.5-7.0/10 would definitely play it again, but not reach for it or suggest it
  • Andrew: 6.5/10, enjoyed my play, would play again but wouldn’t probably suggest it

Appendix

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My friend CC texted me just today: he told me that he and some other friends will be playing through Sleeping Gods soon. Sleeping Gods is another Storybook game in the same genre as Agents of SMERSH: See our review here.  I am in the minority that I didn’t like Sleeping Gods  (most people do: I am the weirdo).  It strikes me that the main problem I had with the first Edition of Agents of SMERSH is the same problem I had with Sleeping Gods: There are too many rules for a game with significant randomness.   The other side of the coin is Tales of Arabian Nights.  See our Top 10 Cooperative Storybook/Storytelling Games for more discussion of Tales of Arabian Nights: it’s just random storybook with no other real rules.  Tales of Arabian Night is too random and feels more like an activity.  I think Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition strikes the right balance of “some randomness from storybook” coupled with “decisions that make some difference” coupled with “streamlined gameplay”.  Said another way, the gameplay of Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition is appropriate to the level of randomness. 

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