Which of your friends is Homeland’s tabletop terrorist?

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“Tom’s the terrorist,” Tony declares loudly, slapping the table and leaning back in his chair as if he’s just issued a legally binding decree and there’s nothing more to be said. “He’s totally the fucking terrorist,” he says anyway.

“Why would you say that? I’m suggesting something that’s perfectly reasonable because you can’t possibly know the intel cards that have been played. Maybe you’re the terrorist.”

I mean, he’s right. I am the terrorist. But there’s no way he could know that, is there?

After the jump, a royal playboy and an affluent politico can’t get me out of this mess.

Homeland is one of Gale Force Nine’s TV-themed boardgames that’s far better than a TV tie-in should be. Their Firefly and Sons of Anarchy boardgames, both of which I’ve played, also fit into this category. I’ve heard good things about their Spartacus boardgame. For whatever reason, they’re doing actual good game design where they could just print a familiar logo, use a couple of actors’ likenesses, and call it a day. They’re actually making good games instead of just crass tie-ins. And Homeland is their best game.

I’m pretty sure I’m a better terrorist than Tony is giving me credit for. What’s more, you don’t necessarily want to out the terrorist in Homeland. This isn’t Battlestar Galactica, where you try to build a consensus about who’s the cylon. Terrorist moles in the CIA are like assets. They need to be handled discreetly. Because when the game is over, if the terrorists haven’t destroyed the world by filling up a terrorism track, everyone can cast a simultaneous vote for who they think is a terrorist mole. Whoever votes for the actual mole gets another six victory points. Whoever votes for an innocent loses three victory points. It’s in your best interest to be the only player to get those six victory points, and to furthermore sow suspicion about anyone who isn’t the terrorist so the others will vote incorrectly. If you’ve really identified the terrorist, there’s a potential nine-point swing in keeping it to yourself.

Of course, Tony will later explain that he was warning away the other players from listening to me. There’s that element as well. Homeland plays like a cooperative game. But this CIA is only partly about stopping terrorism. It is primarily about players trying to each get the most victory points. That even goes for the terrorist mole. But if he’s outed in the final vote, he can’t win no matter how many victory points he has. This is what I’m up against now. Homeland is a hidden identity game where the player with the traitor role is punished for revealing himself. Punished by not being allowed to win. When you’re a terrorist mole in Homeland, winning isn’t the hard part. The hard part is not giving yourself away so that winning is even an option.

The other player identities have no such compunction about giving themselves away. Most of them will be loyal agents, but there might be a political opportunist among them. Or two, if you’re playing with enough players (Homeland, which plays with up to six, doesn’t bog down or even get longer with higher player counts). The political opportunist wants political gain, represented by little chits handed out to everyone when terrorist plots succeed. Nothing helps the CIA’s annual budget quite like a successful terrorist plot. While the political opportunist doesn’t want the terrorists to win, he does want them to make progress. Strange bedfellows indeed.

I’m pretty sure there are no political opportunists in this game. It looks like me against three loyal agents: Tony, loudly proclaiming me a terrorist; Christien, following along mostly quietly; and Alexandra, a first-time player with the capacity to wrap her head around any game even faster than I can explain it. I think she trusts me. Does she trust me? I’m pretty sure Christien trusts me. It doesn’t really matter, because even if Tony is the only one to vote for me, I’m sunk.

If they’re loyal agents, they get victory points from chits for agency reputation. You earn these chits by successfully neutralizing a terrorist plot. But here’s one of Homeland’s clever design choices. When a plot succeeds, when the terrorists pull off a sniper attack in Amsterdam, an embassy bombing in Beirut, or a kidnapping in Karachi, everyone gets political clout chits. But when a plot is neutralized, only the agent in charge gets the case reputation chits. Sure, we want to cooperate to stop terrorism. But each time we do it, we’re only helping one player win. Since this is a game with only one winner, loyal agents are competing to see who can neutralize the most and the most powerful plots.

However, the political clout chits we all earn when a plot succeeds can still be used as money, just like the agency reputation chits. They’re both the same value of currency. So you can tell a player’s identity by how he spends his chits. The political opportunists hoard their clout chits, which are useless to loyal agents. Not that an opportunist cares about outing himself. A political opportunist isn’t a traitor. He’s just a questionable team player. He doesn’t have to hide, but he does have to endure the inevitable recriminations from the loyal agents. You have to hope he doesn’t help the terrorists too much. Or, if you’re the terrorist, you have to hope he does help you.

I’m pretty sure no one at this table is a political opportunist, because no one seems to be scuttling the agency attempts to neutralize plots. I can’t do it myself, because Tony has everyone watching me. So I figure I’ll just assume the role of a political opportunist. I’ll let my political clout chits build up. Then whatever misgivings were raised about my attempts to neutralize terrorist plots — I’m still not sure what I did wrong — will hopefully be deflected when I appear to be helping out. It should be a sound strategy. After all, I’ve played Homeland probably about twenty times. I know what I’m doing whichever side I’m on.

Homeland isn’t very flashy as far as boardgames go. The board is just a grid. Stacks of cards representing developing plots march their way from low level threats to imminent threats. We put little plastic figures of agents and soldiers onto the cards to reveal hidden information. The soldiers can also call in drone strikes, a hugely useful tool in a number of ways. A lot of the tabletalk in any given Homeland game is about drone strikes. Do we want to drone strike the sectarian insurgents or the religious extremists? Do we want to drone strike the terrorist threat that’s harder to neutralize or the one that has more impact? Do we want to drone strike the case I’m working on or the case Tony’s working on?

The central gameplay is your hand of intel cards, which you play into terrorist plot stacks on your turn. Each card is a numerical value and a color. Red helps the plot succeed, blue helps neutralize the plot. The value has a snippet of flavor text to let you know what it represents. “Anonymous tip” is a blue 1. “Misleading subterfuge” is a red 1. A blue 3 can be “harsh interrogation” or “rendition flight”. A red 3 might be “cooked intel” or a “suicide bombing”. There’s a single red 9 in the deck. That’s “jihad”. Terrorists love jihad. In some games, a terrorist publicly discards the single jihad card to convince everyone else he’s not a terrorist. Staying hidden can be more important than using the jihad card to guarantee a plot will succeed. I wish I had the jihad card.

You have just enough cards to play two to plots every turn, with one left over to discard for free tokens. Sometimes you’re a loyal agent with nothing but red cards and you have no choice but to help plots succeed. Sometimes you’re a terrorist mole with nothing but blue cards and you have no choice but to help neutralize plots. Ideally, you’re paying attention to what people are discarding to get a sense for how they’re playing over the long run. I keep discarding perfectly helpful (to me!) red cards, but I can’t be sure if it’s counterbalancing Tony’s accusations, which have started to trail off.

Homeland doesn’t have a very visual presentation. The plots themselves don’t do much to inspire any sense of enormity. The most lavish bits of production value are the asset cards, each of which tweaks the rules and each of which earns you victory points at the end of the game. Asset cards feature a picture of a character actor who played some part on the show. Look, it’s F. Murray Abraham, Mandy Patinkin, a guy who was in The Ice Storm, and some woman I’m pretty sure I’ve seen in some TV show about police.

“Richard Crenna,” I note, showing them an asset card from the discard pile that has Richard Crenna’s picture on it.

Homeland_Crenna

“That’s not Richard Crenna,” Christien says.

“Yes is it.”

“Do you mean Rambo’s boss? That’s not him.”

“It’s him.” I Google a picture of Richard Crenna on my iPad. I hold the card next to it. “Richard Crenna.”

Homeland_the_real_Crenna

Alexandra agrees with me, but that’s not much help. She’s terrible at recognizing actors and there’s no way she’s ever seen a Rambo movie.

“That’s not Richard Crenna,” Christien maintains.

I check the IMDB page and find out Richard Crenna has been dead for over ten years. Still, it’s an uncanny likeness. Whoever this guy is, he could do Colonel Trautman at kids’ birthday parties.

The best asset cards are Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Claire Danes is just an all-around useful asset for peeking at the secret information in a plot. But Damian Lewis is worth more victory points than any other asset card. A game of Homeland is timed so that you’ll go through the asset deck once, which means someone is going to draw Damian Lewis. However, he’s the final link in a chain of three cards that let you steal cards from other players. If you get Damian Lewis, you want to hide him until he’s safe from his wife. If you get his wife, you want to hide her until she’s safe from some character actor in a Marine uniform. And if you get the character actor in the Marine uniform, you want to find the wife to find Damian Lewis. I’m not sure what the backstory is with all this, since I gave up on Homeland somewhere around season one. I’m guessing it’s a lurid love triangle. This is, after all, television.

I think my assets are getting me in trouble. I have Prince Farid bin Abbud, a royal playboy who gives me a +1 card hand size and lets me cash in an additional card for tokens. I’m trying to use this to demonstrate that I’m a good guy by cashing in the red cards I should probably be playing to help terrorist plots succeed. Are Christien and Alexandra noticing? I can only call attention to it so much.

“Look,” I announce, putting the cards on the discard pile, “a red 1 and a red 4.” They seem unimpressed. I just played two blue cards into plot stacks and I’m not getting any credibility for it. Am I terrible at this game? Are they terrible at this game? Did I push it too far discarding a blue 4 earlier in the game, hoping no one would notice?

Another one of my assets is Elizabeth Gaines, affluent politico. Whenever I draw a new hand at the end of my turn, I can discard it and draw a new hand. I draw three reds and one blue. What a great hand for a terrorist mole! I feign disgust.

“Look,” I announce, putting the cards on the discard pile, “three reds and one blue, which would have been a great hand for a terrorist mole”. They seem unimpressed. I draw four new cards. Three blues and one red. Great. Next turn, I have to play two blues, and then discard the leftover red and the blue. Now they’re noticing, because I get guff for discarding the blue. Am I terrible at this game?

At this point, the accusations of “terrorist!” have stopped either because I’ve decisively outed myself — Am I terrible at this game? — or because no one wants the other players to take advantage of their deductions. At a certain point in Homeland, it’s all about bringing it home with as many hidden victory points as you can muster, and this includes keeping assets hidden as well as not voicing your crystallizing suspicions about a terrorist mole.

Furthermore, it’s become clear that Christien is the political opportunist. He’s not spending from his pile of political clout chits, so now we’re both sitting behind an embarrassingly large pile of political clout chits. At this point, should I remind them of the identity cards handed out at the beginning of the game? Five cards were dealt randomly to four players. Among those five cards were three loyal agents, one political opportunist, and one terrorist mole. Yet here are two of us, me and Christien, with unspent political clout in front of us, pretending we’re political opportunists. Here’s me: Worst. Terrorist mole. Ever.

Thanks to some last minute sabotage, I do manage to get a few more terrorist plots through. My only hope is to either fill up the terrorist track and end the world — I’m not sure that’s the actual fiction represented in Homeland, but a little drama never hurts to keep a game lively — or hope they don’t remember there’s only one political opportunist. Normally, I’d remind players of the card distribution, but Christien and Tony have played enough times, and Alexandra, well, she’s sharp enough that I’m pretty sure she’s well aware of the situation.

I am so busted.

Unfortunately for me, we neutralize a plot to incite riots in Aleppo, ending the game. During the voting phase, both Tony and Alexandra vote for me as the terrorist mole. Christien has enough points that he would have won if he’d also voted for me. Instead, Tony barely wins, with 23 points to Alexandra’s 21 points. He got his grubby little hands on Damian Lewis near the end of the game and managed to protect him from the inevitable chain of card thefts. Tony won by doing other things as well, of course, but the Damian Lewis card was decisive. Damn you, Damian Lewis. Along with your role as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, yet another reason to hate you!

I’ve got a fair number of hidden identity games and many of them are in regular rotation here at my house. Dead of Winter, Battlestar Galactica and all its add-ons, Resistance, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Archipelago, the Alien-themed Legendary Encounters, Shadow Hunters, A Study in Emerald. Hidden identity is one of my favorite genres for how it incorporates into gameplay psychology, bluffing, and real world personality traits: Tony and his loud declarative observations, Alexandra and her capacity for being unfairly smart, Christien being far too helpful to the other players early in the game. And as a hidden identity game, Homeland is my favorite for how it strikes the perfect balance between gameplay and hidden identities.

At one end of the spectrum, you have Battlestar Galactica with its heap of accumulated Fantasy Flight gameplay cruft. At the other end of the spectrum, you have One Night Ultimate Werewolf with a handful of people sitting around a table working out a five-minute logic puzzle. But right at the sweet spot, you have Homeland, where every gameplay mechanic is in service of the hidden identity concept, with just the right touch of cooperative gameplay and a light dusting of counter-terrorism theming. It’s almost as if someone said, “Hey, let’s design the perfectly balanced and ideally tuned hidden identity game.” And then they did.

  • Homeland: The Game

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • Homeland: The Game is a semi-cooperative game of intrigue, deception and hidden agendas. Players assume the roles of CIA analysts, directing agency resources to combat the rising tide of global terrorism. Be warned, not everyone is what they seem. Also, Tom is probably the terrorist.
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