The Initiative is the board game equivalent of a Russian doll if that Russian doll was also peeling an onion layer by layer.
What started as a fun game with my children became a compulsive obsession for my wife and me as we got stuck into the puzzles and unlocking secrets.
Before I talk about The Initiative, I am going to make a promise that I will do my very best to make this review spoiler free because if I tell you anything about the story then I will be taking something from you.
It could be a moment when you work backwards through an old puzzle or secret that meant nothing the first time you saw it but now makes perfect sense.
There was a moment when we realised the key to solving our riddle was in the rule book. We looked around the table at each other in the realisation that this game is built differently, I think that was the moment when we all thought “This game is cool”.
The Initiative is not like any other game I have played and so I am obviously going to recommend this game. I want to say that now because there is very little to write that is negative about The Initiative.
It’s a 1-4 player game that was sent to me to review by Corey Konieczka but please remember, whilst I will gush about The Initiative these are my own thoughts and if I didn’t like it, I would certainly tell you.
The problem with this is that there is nothing to dislike about The Initiative because it does what it does extremely well. It’s not the perfect game, there are other games that I would rather play with certain people but this is the perfect execution of the game called The Initiative.
I hope my point is coming across, I try to be specific when I talk about a product but I cannot tell you anything negative about our experience while playing. We had an enormous amount of fun, my kids loved planning who would do what and how we could complete each objective and my wife and I loved the puzzle aspect, working out how to solve them became reasonably tricky and the moments of resolution were many and fabulous.
Whilst I do not want to talk about specifics, I will tell you a little about how the game plays.
Whilst setup is simple it is quite time-consuming.
First, you check the mission you are on at the back of the comic book and take the appropriate mission card being very careful to only look at the mission side.
You then shuffle and place the specific number of clue tokens in each room on whichever side of the double-sided board you are playing on. Next, you place other markers like your starting location, additional walls or perhaps other standees (mmm Clue) where indicated.
By the side of the board, you place the action cards. These are, Gather, Run, Reveal and Regroup.
Then you place the discard pile with the four time cards on top and finally, you shuffle the resource pile and deal four cards to each player.
Each player chooses a character, these characters each have a specific talent that helps the team during the mission.
Prothna Saini: (Green) Leadership, she is able to move herself or another player up to 5 rooms and ignores effects that restrict the Run Action.
Fil Johnson: (Red) Tech Savvy, he gets to choose 3 nearby rooms and can reveal a room token in each room and ignores traps.
Brock Sanders: (Blue) Brute Force, he gets to discard the top card of any action card. This is the most vital role in clearing cards from the Regroup Action.
Jenni Bradley: Deduction, she gets to collect a clue token from her room and/or an adjacent room even if it hasn’t been revealed yet.
Whilst you can freely talk about your hand in general terms you are not permitted to specifically state what number is on your resource card. When you have assessed each players starting hand you then decide who will go first.
Turn order and actions will play a huge part in your organisation of the game because you may only play a resource card to an action if its value is higher than the previously played card on that action.
Before you start to play you read the page you have been instructed to read in the comic. That’s right, Comic, this game has a comic.
The Comic book is an ingenious element of The Initiative that will not only guide you through the game and reveal a story but will also teach you to play. As the game becomes more complex and you are introduced to new elements the comic has hints and points to which secrets should be revealed and moves the narrative along.
The story is interesting and compelling, but the secrets are so exciting to reveal. My 9-year-old was literally bouncing when we got to read a secret card. They may contain clues, additional puzzles or for example teach you about a Substitution Cypher. Sometimes they contain a new rule for the game itself.
The best part about the secrets, the comic the rule book and every part of The Initiative is that everything has layers.
I refer to my previous statement about The Initiative being a Russian Doll peeling an onion. One part of the comic seems normal but when combined with a secret card you see a secret message. This is not a spoiler because you won’t spot it straight away. If you do spot it straight away, I did not spoil that for you. This is not a spoiler.
When you come to take your turn you have a choice of actions before you. Gather, Run, Reveal and Regroup.
To take an action you play a card from your hand to the action card. To move you play to Run or to turn over 2 secret files from your room you would play a card to reveal.
To collect a secret file, you need to play a card to the Gather action but here is the thing, you cannot move, reveal and gather in a single turn as you only have two actions. You can use any number of your cards in a turn as your special moves will require you to pay two cards. At the end of your turn, you draw back up to four cards.
Once you have gathered intel if the symbol matches the one on the mission card you can reveal that symbol.
It looks like something from Wheel of Fortune but it’s such a fabulous little inclusion that we all fought over who would reveal a clue.
Whilst this game can be played solo I think it is optimised for two players but is the best fun when there are four of us.
We had a great time outside of each game organising who would do what, risking losing everything to get a couple more clues or solving the puzzle immediately and potentially getting it wrong.
The Initiative Secrets
I have struggled to write this review. I have found myself taking a lot longer than normal to put it together. My family and I had such a great time playing through it I would hate to spoil anything for you.
Worse still, if I don’t sell this game to you well enough by telling you about it, you might miss the opportunity of playing it.
It’s a quandary that has had me choosing my words, questioning not only what I am saying but how I am saying it and also writing, and re-writing far more than any other review I have ever written.
I feel the effort is worth it because The Initiative is such a fantastic, well-designed and different game that you simply have to play it once in your life.
It’s Not Perfect
Of course, The Initiative has flaws. Replaying the campaign would be difficult, especially with the same group.
Sometimes you feel completely lost and could do with more guidance. The guidance is sometimes too generic and may give you more information than you need to move on but it’s a minor gripe.
I don’t like standees and would prefer miniatures. This is a personal preference, but standees don’t have the same table presence. It’s why I have practically 3d printed the entire monster set for Gloomhaven.
New rules that hinder movement are frustrating and whilst they add to the tension, burning through the draw deck at an increased rate would not have been my first choice.
Moving back to the game and I want to address the tension you will be under. When you have burned through the draw deck the first time you add four time cards. Three have a single watch but one has two watches.
You flip the discard card over to the in peril side, when in peril you can choose to draw cards but you will have to draw cards at some point so if, during your turn, you draw from the deck and you draw three watches, that’s it, game over, you lose the mission. You don’t even get a chance at cracking the code.
The second time through the deck is a very tense affair, especially if you draw a time card immediately, worse if it’s the double time card.
Looking at our faces as we played I could see real tension, the planning of every move was discussed and decisions about what we would do if we drew one time card were made.
Could we guess the answer now, how far would we push our luck?
The end of each mission in The Initiative is so much fun. When the mission ends after you have been in peril I found myself physically having to relax my legs and butt.
It wasn’t just me, we all did it and it was so much fun that we were sad when we came to the end of the campaign.
Playing again isn’t the same even with the additional missions found here but I hope upon hope that there will be an expansion with a full campaign in the near future as I would have loved to keep playing. Failing that there may be a way to damage my brain so that I can forget what I did and have the experience again.
The Initiative in Summary
The Initiative is akin to an escape room or an Exit-type game. It’s so cool when you play it, the art style, the revelations and the puzzle-solving come together to form an intoxicating tension-building mixture of joy and fear.
It is one of the most well-designed puzzle games I have ever played. It is accessible, easy to learn, fun, frustrating, tension inducing and complicated in ways that only those who have played it can appreciate.
I am so glad I experienced this game and I have a queue of family members who want to play through it because my wife and kids have spoken so highly of it too.
I don’t usually lend my games out because, well you know why, drinks on the table, bending cards, sticky hands and losing bits. No one takes care of your games like you do but The Initiative will be different.
I want my family to experience this game, I want them to have those moments of resolution that are delicious and fulfilling.
Do yourself a favour, grab a copy of The Initiative, a few family members or friends, and have a great time being spies who’re spending time together.