Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Message: Emissary Crisis

Plays: 8Px5?.

I received The Message: Emissary Crisis as a gift from Yoyo of Swan Panasia / Witch House (Taiwan), who is a distributor of the game. I have heard of this game before. It was originally published as a Chinese language game in China, and was based on a spy movie The Message (风声). The English version seems to differ a little, e.g. some characters available are different, but the core game is the same. I normally don't pay much attention to secret identity team games, since I rarely play in big groups, which is usually the best way to play such games. I brought the game to Old Town Kopitiam Cheras to try it out, since the open gaming sessions there organised by Jeff usually have more players. To my surprise, we had so much fun that I lost track of how many games we played, and I lost track of time. It was way beyond my curfew time when I left for home. Thankfully my wife didn't have durian husks waiting for me (to kneel on) by the time I reached home.

Box cover.

The Game

At the start of a game, everyone gets dealt a character card and an identity card. The character card tells you what special powers you have. The identity card is kept secret. It tells you whether you're in a team (red or blue) or you're a lone ranger. The teams win by having one of their team members collect three messages in the colour of their team. The loners win as individuals by completing the missions stated on their character cards (which can be secret or public, depending on the character being played). The core premise of the game is, of course, that you don't know who your enemies and your friends are. You need to work that out, because it will help you stop your opponents and it will likely be necessary to help you (or your team) win.

Some of the character cards. Those with an "S" in the top right corner are special characters, which are initially face-down, i.e. secret.

Identity cards. KDR is the red team, FRS the blue team, and MOF are the loners.

At the start of your turn, you draw two cards. Then you can play cards (and others can too). Before you end your turn, you must transmit one message. A card can be used in one of two ways. If used for its special effect, only the card text matters. If used as a message, only the colour and transmission method matter. When transmitting a message, you must follow the transmission method stated on the card. There are three methods. (1) Pass the message face-down and anti-clockwise, until someone accepts it and places it in front of him. If noone wants the message and it comes back to you, you must accept it and place it in front of you. (2) Ditto, except the message is transmitted face-up. (3) Pass the message face-down and directly to any other player. If he rejects it, it comes back to you and you must accept it.

So every turn there will be at least one new message introduced. It may let one of the teams get closer to victory if it is red or blue. It may make a player get closer to elimination, because once you get three black messages, you are eliminated. Both of these possibilities gradually build up the tension. Also, as the game progresses, players will gradually have better ideas of who is friend and who is foe. It becomes a race to reach the victory condition, sometimes relying on people you only half trust. Are you being deceived? Should you go with your gut feel?

The many cards in the game are different combinations of the 3 colours, the 3 transmission methods, and only 9 card effects. Many card effects are related to messages, e.g. Decode lets you see the message before you decide whether to accept it, Lock On lets you force another player to accept messages, Intercept lets you snatch an in-flight message, Transfer lets you redirect a message to another player. There's a Prove card that you can play on another player to force him to take certain actions depending on his identity. There's a Counteract card that can cancel any other card effect. All these cards are tools to help you achieve victory. Just be careful who you use them on.

Some of the game cards. The icons in the top right corner dictate the transmission method if they are used as messages.

The Play

We did quite a number of 8-player games - Jeff, Wai Yan, Dennis, Ang, Caleb, Ken, Joshua and I. Here are some specific moments I remember.

  • Somehow Dennis was wearing a big red target most of the time. For a number of games he was the first to get eliminated. In one of the games, his mission (which would apply only if he was MOF, i.e. a loner) was to have two other players die. He announced that, and everyone thought the safest way to stop him from winning (just in case he was MOF) was to kill him. I don't remember whether he was MOF.
  • Dennis transmitted a face-down message. Ang was the first player sitting on his right and thus received the message first. He used a Decode card to peek at the message. Ang was obviously shocked, and hurriedly declined the message and passed it on. The whole table started laughing, and of course noone wanted the message, which went full circle back to Dennis. Dennis must accept the message, which was of course a black message, i.e. strike one towards getting eliminated. Dennis declared that this game was not recommended for people with no poker face.

    Ang and Dennis.

  • In one game, Caleb had it all sorted out. He knew who was on his team, and confidently transmitted a blue message to his teammate who already had two blue messages. Noone could stop him, and the blue team won. Caleb cheered and flipped over his identity card. It was a red team card! What the.... ?!!! He had confused his identity with that in the previous game!

    Caleb and Jeff.

  • In another game, I more or less worked out that Wai Yan and Joshua were my enemies, and Ang was my teammate. I was on the blue team and already had two blue messages. On Ken's turn, he transmitted a face-down message directly to me, gave me a meaningful look, and said something to the effect of "you know what to do". My hunch was he was my teammate, and we were going to win! Suddenly Ang played Intercept to grab that message. He had thought it was a black message so he decided to "take a bullet" for me. It was a heroic act. When he flipped over the message and found it to be blue, that look on his face was priceless. He looked up at me. I was speechless. Ken was speechless. By then, everyone knew that the three of us were on the blue team. We struggled on for a few more turns, but eventually lost the game. I was eliminated. Joshua was MOF and he won, which was no easy feat.

    Half of Joshua, Ken, and Caleb.

We were quite a rowdy crowd, and if we were at some other venue we would probably be asked to leave or at least to tone down.

Only black cards in my hand. Should I try to get someone killed?

The Thoughts

The Message is a game where you play-the-players more than you play-the-game, if that makes sense. The rules are simple, once you get past the poor writing. This is one game that needs to be translated from English to English. Here's my translation. I'm not 100% sure it is accurate and complete, but it is playable and definitely much easier to understand. In this game, you need to pay attention and be fully involved, so that you don't miss any small gesture or any subtle hint. It works well in a big group despite having to wait a long time for your turn, because many cards can be played and many abilities can be used on others' turns, and you need to be paying attention to what others are doing all the time.

This is a game that is good for playing with new friends. You will get to know them better. The game has direct player interaction, not of the type where you kill your opponents' soldiers or where you rob them of their hard-earned money, but of the type where you have to make direct eye contact, you have to observe their every move, you have to read their minds, and you have to discuss, persuade and perhaps even lie. I like how simple the game is, which allows the play-the-players aspect to come to the forefront.

If teaching new players, I recommend playing the game at least 3 times. Games can go quite fast so new players may not grasp what's going on in the first game. Once the players become comfortable with the rules, and shift to the play-the-players mode, the game starts to shine.

I have not played Shadow Hunters, Bang, Coach Ride to Devil's Castle or The Resistance, which share many similarities with The Message and may have influenced its design, so I can't comment on them. I'm happy to have The Message in my collection. It's a good game to bring out when you have 6 to 9 players. Officially the game supports 3 to 9 players, but I think you need at least 6 for it to be good.

11 comments:

Chris said...

i can't find this game to buy anywhere in the states. or outside of the states, for that matter. :(

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

The copy I received is probably an advanced review copy. I'm not sure how well distributed the game is at the moment. I checked www.boardgamecafe.net and www.boardgamer.org (from/via which I received the game) and even they are not yet listing the game for sale. The official website for the game is bg.cncgcg.com, but they don't sell the game yet. I'll try to ask around. Will post here if I find any more information.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Chris,
www.boardgamecafe.net/store responded to me and said they already have the game in stock, just that they have not yet updated their online catalog. They will be offering a promo price of MYR66, which is about USD23. However they are based in Malaysia so shipping to USA may be expensive. You can contact them at their website if you are interested. Or you can also contact the publisher to see whether they have USA-based distributors.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Chris,
contact person of www.boardgamecafe.net is waiyan@boardgamecafe.net.

Lord of Midnight said...

Item now added to our store but I suspect there'll be a distributor in USA soon. :)
http://www.boardgamecafe.net/store/shopexd.asp?id=706&bc=no

junyetwong said...

Just gotten this game, very excited to give it a go! :D

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

junyet,
have fun! it's great fun with a bigger group.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for creating English instructions for this game. I played it today, and your instructions were such a life saver! It was the only way I was able to understand what was happening!

I hope you can do more "better english" translations of other games!

elhnad said...

have you heard of the sequel the blacklist? I hear it fixes some imbalance issues, but is only currently available in chinese
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1520475/blacklist-message-sequel

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks! I wasn't aware of the sequel!

elhnad said...

no problem, would love to hear your opinions if you get around to getting the game somehow! ur great!