Unexpected Games – The Initiative [Review]

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a board game.

Location:  at home

Date Played: October-November 2021

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 15-60 minutes per mission

Price: $59.95

REA Reaction

The Initiative is a unique campaign-based cooperative strategy game with delightful escape-at-home overtones. Unlike most board games, there’s an overarching narrative that ties in with the gameplay mechanics, as well as plenty of secrets—some of which I only found while writing up this review.

Unexpected Games’ description of The Initiative as a “cooperative game of strategy, story, and codebreaking” explains it succinctly. We enjoyed all three of these elements on their own, and they were especially impressive in combination. From story to gameplay to graphic design, it’s clear how much care and creativity went into the design of this game.

The Initiative game box, mission console with an unrevealed code, resource deck, and game pieces set up on the board.

The Initiative is meant to be played over 14 missions with one to four adults or puzzle-minded youngsters, who can drop in and out of the campaign as they please. The strategy board game element is fortified with story in the form of a comic book describing a group of kids playing a very similar board game. There are also secrets hidden throughout the game materials, and even more missions are available to play separately after the main campaign. After spending a dozen or more hours with The Initiative, we still hadn’t exhausted all of its mysteries.

It’s not exactly an escape game, but between the cooperative gameplay, ciphers, secrets, and aha moments, The Initiative seems especially appropriate for escape room enthusiasts. If you like the idea of playing an intricately designed, puzzle-filled board game over multiple sittings, it’s well worth the retail price.

Who is this for?

  • Fans of legacy/ campaign board games
  • Story seekers
  • Cipher aficionados

Why play?

  • Cooperative strategizing
  • Story-gameplay integration
  • Secrets aplenty

Story

Four teens find a spy-themed board game called The Key at a yard sale and decide to play it together. When mysterious events start occurring in real life, they resolve to uncover the truth behind the game’s origins.

The story unfolds through comic pages which are meant to be read at certain points throughout the campaign.

A series of comic panels depicting some kids at a yard sale, where one boy purchases a board game called The Key.

Setup

At its core, The Initiative is a standard board game, with various game pieces, multiple card decks, and several pages of rules to familiarize yourself with before playing. However, unlike typical board games, The Initiative has a companion booklet containing a story that unfolds over the campaign. Also unlike typical board games, The Initiative’s materials are peppered with secrets.

Setting up the board takes time, and there are so many rules it took us longer than the first mission to read and understand them all. (We did our best, but we still played most of the campaign on hard mode after having missed a detail that would have made the missions slightly easier.) As long as someone in your group enjoys making sense of board game rules, you should be fine.

The mission deck, the secret deck, and a pile of clue tokens from The Initiative.

Gameplay

The Initiative is a cooperative strategy board game arranged into a multi-episode campaign. Each mission starts with reading a page of the story, then arranging the game board in a particular setup. From there, players strategize together about how to collect clue tokens while avoiding traps and other perils. The object is to collect enough clues to reveal a secret phrase, Wheel of Fortune-style. These puzzles range from simple cryptograms to number sequences or more complex puzzle types.

Each player plays as one of the four characters in the story, each of whom has a special ability. The gameplay of The Initiative mirrors the board game in the story, and the overarching story also ties into the gameplay in interesting ways. 

A tableau of action cards and character cards from The Initiative.

Gameplay starts off with a simple tutorial-like round, then gets progressively more challenging over the course of 14 missions. There’s also a trove of extra content: 24 more missions are available after the main game is completed, without an accompanying story but arranged by category in a different sort of structure.

We spent roughly 30-60 minutes per episode, though a couple of them took only 15 minutes. A turn-based countdown starts at a certain point in each round, amping up the tension.

Close attention to the comics and other game materials revealed secret messages that sometimes changed the story or permanently affected gameplay.

Analysis

❓ The instructions are fairly complicated and there are a lot of details to keep track of. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on how much mental energy you like to spend while playing board games.

➕ The difficulty curve felt well balanced. The first mission eased us into the challenge and provided a foundation for the experience ahead. Then the complexity increased with the addition of harder levels and new game elements.

➕ The teens’ story was suspenseful and engaging, even for non-teens like us. It took issues like depression and cheating in school seriously without getting bogged down in them.

➖ We found a couple typos in the story booklet, but nothing too distracting. (At least they seemed to be typos, rather than part of a puzzle.)

➕ The strategy board game element felt enjoyably tense and challenging. Organizing our moves several steps in advance required careful planning, and the virtual countdown provided real pressure. Even when we lost a round, the overall campaign didn’t suffer and the result was still fun.

Player and enemy pieces and clue tokens set up on the Initiative game board.

➖ Occasionally the randomness felt needlessly unfair, in particular when it came to the virtual countdown at the end of each mission. We wished there had been slightly more wiggle room before we risked losing the round by random draw in the final stages.

➕/➖ Some of the early missions’ answers were on the easy side for experienced players, with many of the puzzles on the secret cards relying on common ciphers. But they were still satisfying to solve, and once the campaign got going, the complexity of the puzzle layer revealed itself. After a few missions, we could really appreciate the intricate design.

➖ One mission towards the end of the campaign was clued less elegantly, with a somewhat misleading presentation.

➕/➖ There were a lot of threads to keep track of. At times we were tracking multiple unused clues, including at the end of the campaign, and certain puzzles revealed a clear solution without anywhere to put it. Emotionally this felt slightly anticlimactic, but fortunately it tended to be clear where those pieces fit later on.

➕ The story, gameplay, and puzzles all felt satisfying on their own, but also intertwined in unique ways that felt novel for a board game.

The Initiative offered a few game-changing moments of surprise that evoked the same feeling of wonder as the best play-at-home escape games—or even real-life escape games.

➕ The story has multiple endings. Some are more triumphant than others, but all of them are interesting—and if the ending feels like a letdown, there’s always the bonus content to explore.

➕ Rather than serving as filler, the post-campaign missions turned out to be more complex than we initially realized, with new rules and features to learn. It felt almost like getting two games in one box. Between the main storyline and the extra content, we probably spent at least 20 hours with The Initiative—a great deal considering the $60 price tag.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pen and paper (or another way to take notes)

Throw on the soundtrack to your favorite spy movie or mysterious video game to set the mood.

Read the instructions thoroughly at the start, and refamiliarize yourself with the rules in between sessions. There are a lot of details to remember. 

There are designer journals linked on the Unexpected Games website, if you’re interested in a peek behind the scenes.

Buy your copy of Unexpected Games’ The Initiative, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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