Weekly Spotlight: Infamy

 

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Going to take a break from spotlighting Lovecraft games this week. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on another genre near and dear to my heart: Cyberpunk. For those of you unfamiliar with the theme, it’s a near future setting in which power is held by massive corporations, organized crime, and police-state militias. Caught in the middle of that is everyone else, trapped in a perpetual rat race to get ahead beneath a glass ceiling as thick and strong as vault steel.

Infamy takes place in such a setting, where the players start with a hand full of cash for bribes to finally end on top of one of the powerful organizations or to reach the ultimate level of infamy. The game’s scope is ambitious, to say the least. Instead of zooming in on microcosms within the setting, like Netrunner with corporation growth pitted against hacker saboteurs, or Murder City and Android with a noir-esque murder mystery, Infamy attempts to condense the entire genre into a 90-120 minute experience. Does it succeed? Ehhhhhh… sort of. It makes a valiant attempt. But the real question is: is it fun anyway?

The most striking thing about Infamy — which is apparent the moment you even open the box for the first time and start punching out the cardboard bits — is the game’s art is gorgeous. The board itself exquisitely depicts the different environs you’ll be exploring. There is a stack of characters you’ll be bribing to do your bidding, each lovingly crafted with theme and personality. Even the 1st Player marker is a large near-future pistol, detailed to the level of showcasing the many customizations and the peeling tape around the handle. As you begin playing, it feels as though you’re stepping into a lush comic book setting of corporate intrigue and street violence.

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The gameplay is just as ambitious as the scope of the theme. The game has two core mechanics to drive the conflict: bidding and worker placement. Each of these actions are used to gather resources that are then used to complete missions. If this already feels like a lot, also know there are cases where players may gather special cards to play, gaining them a leg up or sabotaging someone else’s efforts. Individually, each of these mechanics works well. Even the combination of any two of these mechanics feels fluid. All together, the game suffers from feeling a little disjointed, jarring the players from mechanic to mechanic for what seems like its own sake.

If you can get past that, the game works well enough. During the bidding stage, there are characters that all players clearly recognize as granting more beneficial abilities than the rest, and therefore gather a larger number of bribes. You can jump into the bid war on these characters, or you can save your limited number of bribes to enlist the help of greater numbers of the less-contested characters. Posing the enduring question: quality or quantity? Either is a viable approach in this game, but it can alter your strategy, assuming you’ve figured one out.

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The worker placement portion can get a little tricky, as you all chose which locations to visit in secret, reveal simultaneously, then place the meeple in turn order. Like bidding, it’s more of a game trying to anticipate your opponent’s decisions, because if too many people want to go to the same place, the player last in line could be out of luck to perform any actions that turn. In both the bidding and worker placement, a rich and unique economy is formed between the competing strategies at the table. It all becomes how to best position yourself to be first in line, be most diversified, or be most desperate– and never be afraid to admit that the 2nd or even 3rd option might be the most optimal.

Of all the mechanics, the special power cards, or Scheme cards, feel the most out of place. It’s entirely possible to play and win the game without ever picking one up, which is the first hint, but it’s also the only mechanic that is left up to chance. Every other decision in the game requires carefully weighing the opportunity cost against the high demand resources, whereas opting to grab a Scheme card feels like resigning to the Mystery Box located between the car, boat, and dinette set. I’m not saying that going after the Scheme cards isn’t a viable plan– there are plenty of powerful advantages these cards grant. But it feels tacked on, unessential, and takes several games for players to work up the bravery to even explore.

There is a sense of escalation in the game, in that as players gain rank in each faction, they unlock more and more special abilities. But the downside is the escalation pacing is not well balanced. There is a slow ramp up period, and by the time you start feeling the strategy is hitting its stride, the game is just about over. For some players, it can feel like an anticlimactic ending. This could be because, despite the theme, there is very little emergent narrative, and unlike games like Blood Rage, rarely do the players feel like they are doing something standout, noteworthy, or awesome. The steps of each round just continue to repeat themselves until someone gets enough points to end the game.

In the end, however, if you can get beyond the context switching between mechanics, Infamy does turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a game with flaws, many resulting from ambitiously trying to take on too much at once. But despite the flaws, the game is far from broken. Infamy asks its players to make tough decisions, while allowing them to scheme for the long con. And with depth of strategy and different paths to victory, the replayability value of the game is high. If that sort of thing is your bag, be sure to give this one a shot. 

Game Specs

  • Setup time: ~15 minutes
  • Play time: ~30 minutes per player
  • Cleanup time: ~20 minutes
  • Number of players: 3-4
  • Table Footprint: 8 sq ft. ( 2 ft. min. each side)
  • Core Mechanics:
    • Bidding
    • Worker Placement
    • Resource Gathering
    • “Take That”

You may like if you also like:

  • Cyberpunk Theme
  • Strategic Euro games
  • Multiple viable paths to victory

You may not like if you prefer:

  • Cooperative or team games
  • Tactical or Fighty games
  • Games that can be completed in under 1 hour

All images from Mercury Games

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