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(P)Review: Rogue Angels – A Sci-fi co-op campaign adventure

Disclaimer: this is an early review of a work-in-progress game. Reviews always represent the personal opinion of the writer of course, but in this case you need to add another bucket of salt to your critical-reading meal: it is possible that some of the elements of the game that didn’t work for me, will have evolved by the time the game reaches its production phase.

Rogue Angels is an upcoming Sci-fi Adventure board Game, with a 70-mission cooperative campaign and story, by designer Emil Larsen. The game will be (re)-launching on Kickstarter sometimes this year, and in the meantime, people are invited to playtest the game on Tabletop simulator, where the first 12 missions are available to try, which is exactly what I did.

TL, DR: Rogue Angels plays like a Legacy dungeon crawler (but it has a lot of differences from typical Dungeon Crawler mechanics) in a sci-fi world, with emphasis on the story, lore, and character evolution. Gameplay-wise, beyond the fairly typical move/attack tropes, the game has some pretty original, elegant and thematic mechanics to interact with objects (opening locked doors, hacking consoles, etc…) and with how damage and action cooldown work. As far as complexity/difficulty is concerned, its designer ranks it as “medium” and below the likes of Gloomhaven, and I tend to agree. From my play sessions, the missions I played felt generally a bit too easy for me (and occasionally boring), but I really like the cooldown mechanism, the hacking mechanism, as well as the lore and the characters. I’m hoping the game will be funded, and am wondering if some tweaks could make it a bit more balanced/challenging.

Rogue Angels – Story and general idea

A Galaxy at war

In Rogue Angels, you play as a group of adventurers/mercenaries in a galaxy at war. The war between the multiple groups and/or species is a background to the campaign, but not necessarily where the campaign happens, at least in the first few chapters. The campaign begins as our “heroes” decide to annoy the wrong group of people, and get saved by another group, that we decide to work with for the time being.

Sci-fi legacy campaign

The game alternates between story events, in which we often get to choose between multiple paths (that can have minor impact such as altering the layout of the next mission a bit, or higher impact such as acquiring companions in our group, getting permanent “scars” on our characters, or building allegiance or animosity toward species in the galaxy), and “missions”, which look and feel like your typical dungeon crawler, but include some originality such as infiltration missions.

Your characters (chosen among a group of 12 with very distinct personalities and abilities) also have “personal” missions and goals, which significantly add to the world building.

The story promises to be more than 500 pages of impactful decisions

Rogue Angels – Gameplay

As mentioned above, the game alternates between story events and missions, with missions being the “meat” of the gameplay.

The “demo” of Rogue Angels comes with 12 missions, 12 characters to choose from (I dual handed 2 characters, which is the minimum required to play the campaign) and already multiple story paths to choose from, for a total of 100 pages in the campaign book, about 15% of the final product.

If anything, you’re getting a lot of content for free from this TTS Demo, so I strongly encourage anyone who’s remotely interested in this game to give it a try.

Typical mission (right) and its setup instructions (left)

General turn structure

A typical mission will have one or two objectives (such as “reach this point of interest”, “kill all enemies”, or “hack the two consoles on the floor”) that need to be achieved within a specific number of turns.

Initiative of the characters is decided collectively by the players, while the enemy AI plays each turn, after each character. Each turn, one of your heroes plays two actions selected from their hand of cards, moves the turn counter one step closer to the end, then the enemy AI plays.

The Cooldown track

Action cards that your characters can play include move, attacks, and “interactions with objects”. Before I move to what these different actions do and how the act on the game, I need to explain the clever mechanism used for playing cards, and their cooldown.

Each player has a cooldown track, numbered from 0 to 4, and each card has a “cooldown” number (also numbered from 0 to 4). Playing a card doesn’t cost anything, but it will be placed on the cooldown track, in the position that matches its cooldown value ( or, if that position is already taken, a higher one). At the end of your turn, all cards on your cooldown track move one step to the left, until a card reaches “0” at which point it gets back to your hand.

This mechanism ensures powerful cards (which generally have a higher cooldown) can’t be played too often.

Card Actions

Card actions include move, attack, and interact. The latter is used to open closed door, hack consoles, open crates, etc…

Most cards have a default action value (e.g. “move 1”) that can oftentimes be modified with a dice roll and/or additional bonuses that the characters get as traits. Dice rolls themselves can be mitigated through the use of the focus resource (which, of course, is in limited quantity).

There is in general no “critical failure” in the Rogue Angels actions, with all dice rolls adding potential bonuses to your action, never removing from it. The basic move, for example, guarantees you’ll move at least by 1 tile at the minimum, and you’ll often be able to add 1 move to that. This can feel less punishing than other games.

Attack cards represent the weapon that is used to perform the attack, including its damage and range. So for example one card will represent a sniper rifle, have a very high cooldown, but be able to do a lot of damage at a long distance. Another card can represent a faster weapon that allows to shoot at two targets, for a low cooldown but also at a shorter distance and lower damage amount. Each card has a different amount of dice you can roll as modifiers, which means some weapons have more variance than others in the final damage.

So, you play cards to move, you play cards to attack, put them into your cooldown track to represent, well, their cooldown (as in a videogame), but one of the pretty innovative concepts in Rogue angels is the “interact” actions.

A specific case: Interact action

Interact actions let you interact with locked doors, consoles you want to hack, crates you want to open, etc…

Each interact action will let you draw a number of tokens from a bag (that number can often be increased with dice rolls, like all other actions). The goal is to accumulate 3 tokens of the same color to “unlock” the object. This can be achieved through multiple turns, but there is a nice “push-your-luck” and “statistics” element to this mechanism. Tokens used to unlock a specific object are not put back in the bag, meaning tokens of that specific color have fewer chances to show up for the next door you’ll want to open. This works pretty well and I’ve found myself in situations where two of my characters where trying to open doors that already had tokens on them, only to draw the color that the other character wanted. It’s a mini logic/luck puzzle within the game that works well in the context of “hacking”.

I managed to get two red tokens while hacking that console. I need a third one in another attempt, to be successful.

AI’s turn

during the AI’s turn, in general the enemies will try to get to range to one of your characters, and damage them. Damage in Rogue Angels is another original aspect of the game: your characters don’t have a “health” number, instead, “damage cards” come inside your cooldown track to “asphyxiate” your gameplay. The more damage cards you have on your cooldown, the less options you have to play other cards. Furthermore, if at some point you need to place a damage card in a slot already occupied by a damage card, your character becomes “unconscious”, and can’t play until someone comes and heals them (which basically removes a certain number of damage cards from their cooldown track).

Infiltration missions

I’ve mentioned above that some missions involve stealth. They typically consist in reaching a specific point, or successfully interacting with a specific object, without ever ending one’s turn within range of one of the enemies. These bring a welcome refreshment to dungeon crawling’s typical “kill all enemies” but can be frustrating in practice (more on that in the review part).

In this stealth mission, one of my characters (left of screen) stays in the back, ready for action in case the enemies come to close, while the other is attempting to hack a console.

Rogue Angels – Opinion

Rough angles (the bad)

I’ll start with the things I had problems with, when playing Rogue Angels. There are a lot of them, but I’m hoping some of them could be tweaked before the game goes into production. On the other hand, none of them “breaks” the game, and maybe it simply means the game is not for me, and if that’s the case, so be it… but I’d be sad because I really think this game is close to brilliance.

In one of the missions, I had to “run for my life” after multiple guards appeared in the room to try and kill/capture us. This consisted in running away from the console I had successfully hacked, to another side of the map where our ship was waiting for us. I think this is a vivid example of multiple things that did not work for me in Rogue angels.

Too Easy?

One of my characters had a permanent shield which basically meant he was immune to all the low-level enemies in the room. He also happened to be the slowest of my two heroes, meaning he was in general the target of most enemies attacks, being the closest one to the enemies.

This meant the other character only had to walk or run to the ship, while the AI where obtusely attacking the one hero they could not damage.

This example did highlight a few flaws in the game, which ultimately meant a good chunks of mission were not “tense”, and therefore not fun, for me.

Character Balance

First, I feel that this specific character is unbalanced, as for most of the enemies I encountered in the early scenario, he did not take any damage, simply because of his permanent shield. Some enemies have damage that breaks shields, others do enough damage to at least do damage that goes through his protection, and to counterbalance this extra shield, the character has an additional cost to get rid of damage, but in the grand scheme of things, this was so minor it was barely an inconvenience.

AI a bit too basic/dumb

This also highlights that the enemy AI is unfortunately basic at best. It pains me to write that because I really like the simplicity of “All AI has the same behavior, explained on one card”.

The Behavior card (on the left in red) dictates the behavior of all opponents. It’s unfortunately a bit too easy to abuse in practice.

It’s thematic in many cases (like, when on a stealth mission, initially the AI just do nothing, or simply all patrol), but in practice there were too many cases where a given enemy would do something that just felt stupid (like attacking my guy with his permanent shield when they only had 1 attack, or trying to attack the furthest enemy when they only have limited movement and a melee weapon). Compared to other adventure games such as Middara and Gloomhaven, in practice this didn’t work as well as I hoped it would.

Original missions not exciting as I hoped them to be

All of this meant that missions that were not about “killing all enemies” had some significant amount of turns where not significant interaction really happened. In one mission, all I had to do was put my “meat shield” guy in a location that pretty much ensured enemies would always try to attack him, and never move since they were at range, letting my other guy go on with his business. In another mission, in which we had to “hold against an assault”, waiting for a ship to come rescue us, I only had to put the meat shield in front of the door and let the baddies waste their bullets on him.

AI rules weird thematically

Another weird aspect of the AI is that only the two enemies with the lowest initiative will act on a given turn. There are two groups of enemies (Yellow and Red), meaning that even with 10 enemies on the map, you’ll interact at most with 4 of them, until you kill one of those. I get the idea, but I feel it doesn’t work, thematically and from a gameplay perspective, to have bad guys waiting for their friend to die before they decide to come and get you. This is a sci-fi game, not a bad action movie.

Not enough tension

Back to damage, even for my weaker character, I rarely had a point in time where I was worried he would fall unconscious. It actually happened a couple times, but he was healed within the next turn by the other character. Falling unconscious did not feel like the “mission failure” it should have, and instead just meant basically losing a turn to heal instead of doing something else. I feel this was a missed opportunity at adding tension. I of course could “houserule” that any character being unconscious cannot be healed, but hopefully there will be something more official than that 🙂

Overall, there were many times, as I played Rogue Angels, where I felt “man, this could have been great, if only…”. I’m not sure I have good suggestions but I’ll try:

Can the issues in Rogue Angels be tweaked/fixed?

More difficulty modes, or tweak difficulty differently than rules suggest

The game offers some options for “difficulty”, which deal with how damage cards inflict more negative effects when you acquire them. I don’t think this solves the unbalance issue I experience with my character, since he did not receive any damage cards in the first place. I do not have a specific proposal on that aspect, and maybe only that character has the problem, but ideally this can be looked into.

Revamp AI

On the AI, I think the behavior card mechanism needs to be tweaked. I feel like having different behavior cards for different type of enemies could help here. This would of course multiply the number of behavior cards overall, and make the game slightly more complex, but could make the enemy AI feel a bit more appropriate for each enemy type. Maybe some behavior cards (like patrolling) are shared with all enemy types, while others could be specific to some enemies.

I also think also have the “two lowest initiative” enemies move each turn is not right, thematically and from a difficulty perspective, it becomes a bit too easy to game (mind you, I’m not even trying to “game” the AI, it’s just that some actions feel natural and desirable within the context of the game). Maybe a “difficult” mode would let all enemies move. Or maybe all enemies move, but not on every player’s turn? I’m not sure how much tweaking can be done here, and how much it would upset the balance of the game.

Add tension to stealth missions

Some randomness and tension could be added to the missions that are about stealth and/or holding a front, missions in which not much happens for many turns. I get that the game doesn’t want to randomly punish the players, but I also don’t want to spend 5 turns alternating between moving away from enemy range and hacking a door, with nothing else in between.

Rogue Angels – The good

Trying to attract attacks on the left, while my partner hacks the console on the right

I hope the long paragraphs of negatives above do not feel like I didn’t like the game, because I did.

Not your typical heroic fantasy dungeon crawler

It would be a mistake to dismiss Rogue Angels as “yet another dungeon crawler”. First of all, the theme is very clearly sci-fi/space opera, a field that is not overcrowded by dungeon crawlers, unlike the heroic fantasy genre.

There are other tropes and mechanics of the dungeon crawler genre that are not present in Rogue angels. For example, I found it refreshing that enemies do not drop loot. I’m sure I would appreciate the game if they did, but it’s clear that the designer is going for something else. There’s also no “life points” for the characters, health being represented instead by the cooldown track and damage cards present on it.

Original and thematic mechanics (token bag + cooldown)

I also loved the original mechanics of the game:

the bag of tokens mechanism for hacking is really brilliant. It does feel like a great abstraction of “hacking” a computer in video games, with a mix of luck and statistics. I recall a particular mission in which two of my characters where trying to hack different devices at the same time, and trying to get tokens of different colors each (in order not to impact the other’s chances in a negative way) felt tense and somewhat thematic.

The cooldown track for actions and weapons is also a great way to represent cooldown of e.g. weapons, just like they would in a video game. I’m a bit on the fence regarding damage: I think I like the concept of using damage cards as a way to interfere with the cooldown track, instead of having a typical “health” is a great idea, but somehow I felt it underwhelming in practice. My characters were usually able to get rid of damage quick enough that it never became a problem, and I kind of wish I could feel a bit more “tension” in there. I have the feeling that things could be tweaked here for this mechanic to go from “nice” to “great”.

Promising story and lore

Last but not least, I think the lore and story of the game could turn out to be great. I’ve of course only scratched the surface of the story and the world, but it feels like the species and organizations are coherent for this world, the characters we meet have personality and could grow into very interesting stories. Our own characters are from very different species and with different backgrounds, reminding me a bit of Gloomhaven in that regard. The art on the maps lacks a bit of variation maybe but I’m thinking this is because I’ve only visited a handful of places.

Rogue angels has been called a few times “Mass Effect, the board game”. I was on the fence about even mentioning this, because I feel that comparing a one-man passion project with a massive video game built by one of the biggest videogames companies in the world, is doing a massive disservice to the game. I wouldn’t want people to be disappointed by this comparison. It is true that with some of its “videogame like” mechanisms (such as the cooldown), its galaxy-at-war background, the variety of characters and Alien species, there are common points between Mass Effect and Rogue Angels. But rogue angels remains a board game (albeit with a massive campaign) so I’d invite people to take this comparison with a bucket of salt.

Rogue Angels – conclusion

What I liked About Rogue Angels

  • Finally a dungeon crawler that’s not in a heroic-fantasy world!
  • Some very original gameplay mechanisms make the game feel very refreshing: the token bag and the cooldown track are both fun and thematic, representing hacking and item cooldown respectively. These two aspects in particular do feel like a good board-game representation of their video game equivalents.
  • The lore and story feel very interesting. Choices seem to matter, as we progressively build allegiances with some organizations and antagonize others. This could “make or break” the game as far as I’m concerned, and I’m hoping the writer(s) behind the game have a compelling story for the whole campaign.

What I didn’t like about Rogue Angels

  • Most missions felt too easy to me. The “difficulty” proposed by the game (making damage cards having more than one effect) didn’t help much because basically enemies where barely able to touch my guys to begin with. In general, missions were lost because of a tight number of turns and one bad draw of a door token (that delayed me) rather than because of the enemies killing us.
  • The AI mechanism feels thematic for the missions themselves (e.g. all enemies are idle and patrolling until one of them sees you, at which point they all change behavior), but can totally fall apart for some types of enemies. Ultimately this doesn’t work as elegantly as games where each type of enemy has its own deck, for example (e.g. Gloomhaven)
  • Compounding with the two issues above, I am concerned about the balance of some of the characters: one my characters was pretty much taking no damage, used as a human shield, and making all “escape before they kill you” scenes anticlimactic. Then again, I can see how some missions would have been barely impossible without him, hence the big concern about balance.
  • Some missions are nice thematically, but in practice they felt “boring” with no significant enemy interaction for many turns. I didn’t feel the “tension” I was expecting, only very easy turns to reach the end of the scenario.
  • I think I would have preferred hex tiles to squares, but honestly attack, movement, and interaction are reasonably straightforward in Rogue angels, so maybe not such a big deal.
  • Minor concerns about the art, for example I feel like the walls on the map are not visible enough, while being critical for line-of-sight, etc… Other games show them more clearly, e.g. with red lines.

The size of the “negative” list above should not be misleading: overall I really liked Rogue Angels. In its current state, I’m worried it’s not exactly for me, with the core gameplay feeling a bit too easy. But I’m hoping some tweaks could make it a bit more challenging, in particular regarding the AI behavior, and maybe character balance, at which point Rogue Angels could become a “dream come true” game for my gaming group of sci-fi fans.

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