Last year I posted about a whole bunch of new Gale Force Nine releases that we’d be seeing over here in the UK thanks to 247 Toys. Since then a number of these titles have already hit the shelves and are doing really well. Today, thanks to Brendan at 247 Toys, I’m going to be taking a look at one of those titles – Homeland: The Game.
Homeland: The Game describes itself as “a game of espionage, deception and paranoia” which throws its players into a world of politics, terror and counter-terrorism. When I first heard about it I speculated that it would be similar to Battlestar Galactica. However after playing it, I have to say that I wasn’t totally spot on, but I wasn’t totally wrong either.
During a game of Homeland – numerous terrorist organisations attempt to enact evil schemes to destroy all that you hold dear. As you play each round, you can’t help but feel that the whole world’s working against you and, to be honest, you’re really not far off the mark! The game mechanics that drive Homeland are definitely working hard against you – throwing a plethora of terrorist organisations into play, assigning plots to those organisation and adding elements of surprise in the form of a random Intel card assigned to the organisation.
However, it’s not just the game that’s working against you, there’s a hidden role element to the game that introduces a world of suspicion to a session. The very agents, or players, with whom you work could be working against the greater good, they could be a terrorist mole!
If you’ve ever seen Homeland on TV then you’ll be pleased to know that many of the characters used within the game – for example Saul Berenson, Carrie Mathison, Nicholas and Jessica Brody and Peter Quinn – make an appearance as exploitable assets cards. The game itself isn’t thematic in the sense that it follows any particular story arc from the show, however it definitely brings to life the paranoia and backstabbery we’ve come to expect during a season. You might even go as far as to say that across a single game of Homeland, you’re playing out your very own mini-season!
Well I think I’ve introduced you to the main concepts that drive the game, so now it’s time to actually dive down and take a look at how it plays.
Homeland – The Board
When you open the Homeland board, you’ll instantly notice the five, clearly defined, rows that spread across the board. Each row has six defined areas on which you place new cases. Each row represents a different threat level that a case is currently at. Starting from the bottom of the board and working our way to the top, we have the following threat levels:
The closer to the top of the board a case is, the closer to activating it is. For example, if a case is imminent – in the next terrorist phase that case will resolve. Likewise, if there are four cases in the imminent row, then they are each going activate.
The other notable elements of the board are the columns on either side of the board which track how successful the terrorists and agents are. By overcoming a case the agents place success markers on their score track, and when a case fails the equivalent number of success markers are added to the terrorist column.
The first column to completely fill brings the game to a close and end game scoring takes place. More on this later!
Homeland – The Roles
Homeland is a game for three to six players. Each player takes on the role of a lead agent represented by a set of player-specific coloured cards. My favourite colour is green so I always take the green stack. These cards are all identical and you use them to indicate which of the different cases you’re investigating. There’s only ever be one lead investigator on a case so choose your cases wisely because, if you fail to resolve one, there’s often a penalty for the lead investigator!
Once you’ve selected a colour you’re dealt a secret role card, these cards are known as agendas in Homeland and determine whether you’re a loyal agent, a political opportunist or a terrorist mole. Each agenda has a different method for scoring points.
Loyal Agents: Score 1 victory point (VP) for each Agency Rep token they have at the end of the game plus any points for assets that they control.
Political Opportunists: Score 1VP for each Political Clout token they have at the end of the game plus any points for assets that they control.
Terrorist Mole: Score 2VP per success token they have on the board at the end of the game plus any points for assets that they control.
Before you’re dealt an agenda, the agenda deck is built based on the number of players. The number of cards in an agenda deck is equal to the number of players plus one. The key thing to note here is that there’s always at least one of each role in the deck and due to the additional card, there might not be a terrorist in the game at all. This alone adds an interesting angle to the game which adds to the fact that you’re never sure whether your fellow agents are working for or against the greater good.
The Terrorist Turn
Because the roles are hidden, the terrorists turn isn’t taken by any one player, instead it’s carried out by the whole team. A terrorist turns consists of four steps:
- Move the Terrorist Marker
- Analyse Imminent Threats
- Advance Threats
- Reveal New Threats
Moving the Terrorist Marker
At the start of the game each player takes one of their lead investigator cards and places it into a pile. The pile is shuffled and placed at the side of the board. During this step of the terrorist turn, you draw the first card and give the Terrorist, or first player, marker to the owner of the card.
Analyse Imminent Threats
This is the part where the terrorists unleash all of the threats that are currently on the imminent row of the board. For now I’ll skip explaining this part because at the start of a game there are no threats on the board.
This step is particularly simple, every threat on the board moves up one row, effectively becoming more imminent!
Reveal New Threats
This is the part that I wanted to explain before I covered the Analyse Imminent Threats step, mainly because it makes it easier to analyse the threat if you know what it actually consists of.
During this step you create a number of new threats equal to the number of players.
A threat consists of three cards which I alluded to earlier, first you draw an Organisation card and place it face up in a space on the row that matches the organisations initial threat level. So an organisation with an initial threat level of Severe is placed on the severe row on the board. An organisation card details which organisation is behind the threat for example Abu Nazir or Majod Javadi. The card also lists a sophistication level for the organisation which ranges from zero to four. This value represents part of the overall threat strength. When you first look at the organisation cards you’ll notice that the top right corner is cut off, this is relevant during the Analyse Imminent Threats step.
The second card in a threat is a Plot card. You draw this card and place it face down under the organisation card. This represents the hidden plot to which the terrorist organisation is working.
In the top right corner of the back side of the Plot card there’s a yellow area that represents Impact. Impact is the number of success markers the card is worth for both sides. This number often drives you towards targeting a particular threat but beware, there are special cards called Diversionary Tactics that have an impact on the rear but have zero impact when you finally resolve the threat.
The third and final card that gets added to the threat is a random Intel card. This card can do one of three things which we will look at in a moment. This card is kept hidden and placed face0down on top of the other two threat cards.
The Players Take Their Turns
Once the terrorist turn is over, each player takes it in turns to take a mixture of mandatory and optional actions in any order.
Claim Case Lead: This is a very simple step, you take one of your coloured case lead cards and place it on top of a threat. You are now the lead investigator on this case and no other player can claim it.
Play an Intel card to two cases: The first Intel card you place must be on to another player’s case. After that you can play cards to any other case, but never play a second card to the same case. Its also worth noting that playing Intel cards must been done as a single action, there’s no playing a card, doing something else, and then playing the second card.
Now is as good a time as any to describe how the Intel cards work. There are three different types, each indicated by the card colour – reds contribute towards the success of the terrorists, blues contribute to the Agents success, and yellows represent special events the fire when revealed.
Now that you know what Intel cards do, you can probably see that the threats created during the Terrorist turn have an entirely unknown element to them on top of the concealed plot.
This is where the guts of the game are, using these optional action you must investigate and prevent the numerous threats that populate the board.
Turn in an Intel card for tokens: One thing I didn’t mention about Intel cards was that they may also display one or two icons. These icons represent Agency Rep and/or Political Clout. On your turn you can discard one of your Intel cards to take tokens from the supply equal to the tokens on the card.
Recruit an Asset OR take a Soldier/Agent: There are three main resources at your disposal – Assets card, Soldier minis and Agent minis. You can take a soldier or agent for free, however to obtain an asset you must discard any three tokens (Rep or Clout in any combination) to draw two Asset cards from which you must select one to keep.
Asset cards provide special abilities such as permanent Agency strength bonuses, or an increase in the number of Intel cards you can discard for tokens. Suffice to say the assets are very useful, in fact they can even provide VP at the end of the game if they’re still alive.
Deploy Soldiers: Soldiers are useful little units that you deploy to a threat. These units provide two benefits. Firstly, when you deploy a soldier you have the option to view all of the Intel cards that are associated with the threat. However, after you choose to look at the Intel you have to add a new secret random Intel card to the threat.
Secondly, if as a team you deploy two or more soldier to a threat, you make that threat elligable for a Drone strike. In order to carry out the strike you need to have an active asset with the Drone Strike ability.
For completions sake, a Drone Strike removes the target threat from the game and no success tokens are placed on the board. This can be beneficial if a particularly nasty threat looks as though it’ll trigger.
Insert Agents: Like soldiers, the agents serve two purposes. Firstly they let you look at the face-down plot card to determine what plot the organisation are working towards. A plot card shows a red area that represents complexity – or rather the amount the plot contributes towards the terrorist success, the impact – the number of success points the card provides to either side and a Fallout effect – either individual or global. These fallouts work in one of two ways – either targeting the case lead, or the team as a whole.
Once you’ve looked at a plot, the agent remains on the threat and provide an additional +1 to Agents when analysing the threat.
Activate/Utilise Assets: When you first obtain an asset card you take it and place it face-down in front of you. You can activate an asset on your turn, including the turn that you acquire it and then use its abilities. Some abilities are one hit, whereas others are persistent.
End Your Turn: Once you have carried out all of your actions, you end your turn, to do this you simply draw back up to three Intel cards and pass play to the next player.
Analysing the Threat – Continued
Once all players have taken their turn, you return to the Terrorists turn. I’m not going to go through it all again, but I am going to explain how the Analyse Imminent Threats step works.
Starting with the left-most threat, you take the pile of cards that make the threat and move them to the Threat Analysis board. First you reveal the plot card and place it in the correct place on the board. Then you overlap the organisation card so that the missing corner causes the sophistication and complexity parts of both cards to form a square. Now, taking the Intel cards from the threat, give them a shuffle and reveal them one at a time placing red on the left and blue on the right. If any yellow, event, cards appear, resolve their effect immediately before revealing more.
Finally, once all of the cards are revealed – you total all of the blue Intel values plus one point per agent. Then you total the red sophistication, complexity and Intel cards before finally comparing the two values.
If the red total is greater than, or equal to, the blue total – the terrorists complete the threat and success tokens equal to the threats impact are added to the terrorist success track. All players then receive political clout equal to the plot and the fallout or global fallout effects trigger.
The thing you might want to take note of here is not the obvious success tokens, or the fallout effects, the thing that makes this interesting is the idea that if the terrorists succeed everyone gets clout. Because a Political Opportunist scores a victory point per clout – it may therefore, on occasion, be in their interest to sabotage an attempt to prevent a threat!
If the blue total is greater than the red total then the agents have successfully neutralised the threat. Success tokens are placed on the Agents success track, the case lead for that threat receives a number of Agency Rep tokens equal to the impact of the plot and the case lead gains an advantage from the organisation card.
Bringing the Terrorist Threat to an End
The game continues until either the agents or terrorist complete their success track.
If the Terrorist track completes first, then the game ends and the terrorist win.
If the Agents track completes first, then the game moves into a new phase. Let’s face it, no good spy show ends when the agency defeats the bad guys, there’s always a twist!
This new phase is called the accusation phase and gives the agents a chance to weed out the terrorist mole. Each player gives every other player one of their case lead cards. Then each player selects one of the cards to indicate who they think is the mole. Chosing your own colour indicates that you do not wish to accuse anyone. Simultaneously the players reveal their choices.
Once the choices are made, if there’s a terrorist in the game, they reveal their role. If they have been accused by any of the other players then they lose, if they have not been accused they’re still in with a chance of winning the game.
Finally, the winner is determined. Agents, Political Opportunists and undetected Terrorist Moles add up their scores and compare totals and the player with the highest score wins the game!
Homeland – Final Thoughts
At its heart Homeland is a good game, the suspicion level is just about right and the game length is pretty much spot on. The different game elements work nicely together and gameplay flows smoothly once you know the rules. However, it doesn’t quite grip me as much as the other games in the genre do. You see, I’m very much a theme man and I love to feel as though I’m being drawn into a story. With Homeland, as a case lead, I never felt any emotional attachment to the character I was supposed to play, I would have loved to have seen the case leads as specific characters such as Carrie or Saul with asymmetric skills that modify play. Something that would have drawn me into the game, and make me feel like anything but a faceless drone. It’s something I hope could be added at a later date, perhaps as an official or fan-based expansion?
Despite my emotional detachment, I have to admit that I did enjoy Homeland. It’s fast and it’s difficult enough that it kept my attention. We struggled to overcome the terrorist threat, but managed to defeat it in an “all or nothing” bid for victory that somehow paid off. The use of assets to manipulate play, accompanied by the Intel and plot insights provided by soldiers and agents add an interesting element to play. And the Political Opportunist constantly makes you wonder whether your opponents are bent on terror or simply greedy. Ultimately, Homeland boils down into a quick to play, entertaining game that I would happily play if asked. I’d also recommend it to anyone looking for a light alternative to Battlestar Galactica.
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Driven Instructional Designer by day, board game fanatic by night! Tom has a long background in eLearning design and is a strong believer that story and narrative are crucial to creating excellent learning and gaming experiences. A passionate blogger, game reviewer and play tester, he enjoys spending his time playing games of all genres.