Kickstarter and Deception: Undercover Allies

It’s an exciting time for me as a board gamer as I see a lot of my favorite games getting support, expansions, attention, price drops, and resurgences, and, fortunately or not, Kickstarter seems to be the central hub for many of these changes. You’ve likely seen my coverage of the Roll Player expansion, Monsters and Minions, both in regards to how it plays and how it utilizes Kickstarter in both positive and negative ways. I also backed the Champions of Midgard expansions a few months back, which, to my surprise, will be arriving on my doorstep sometime at the start of July. With that being said, it makes me sad, confused, and frustrated to hate the Deception: Murder in Hong Kong expansion Kickstarter campaign as much as I do.

That sounds like an outrageous, backward, and unfair statement, so let me clarify a few things.

Firstly, Deception is one of my favorite board games to date, hands down. It takes the best parts of Mysterium, Clue, and Resistance: Avalon and creates one of the most unique and consistently enjoyable party games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

Second, I do not hate that Deception is getting an expansion; I’m not some purist getting on his pedestal to denounce the idea of adding more to an already great game. Rather, I speak out against how it’s being handled on Kickstarter.

You may have noticed a few paragraphs ago that the turnaround time for backers of the Champions of Midgard expansions is around three months, an absurd and somewhat unbelievable timeframe considering how Kickstarter is supposed to be used. Little did I know that Grey Fox Games, a company I generally have a deep respect for, was using their Kickstarter campaign not to fund a potentially uncertain project, but instead to gather pre-orders for a product that had already been completed and at least partially pre-printed.

It’s unlikely that you know how much I abhor the pre-order culture and how it works tirelessly to devalue the quality of product I strive to find in every purchase I make. It’s a negative practice that has been perpetuated by the video game industry, driving me away from the hobby as a whole in favor of, you guessed it, board games. So, having realized my misunderstanding only after the fact, I was somewhat frustrated to say the least.

Then in walks Deception: Undercover Allies, initially announced to me through a message from that same Champions of Midgard Kickstarter, a practice that’s a little annoying but at least somewhat understandable. The announcement came with no details, no clue as to what it would add or why it was being created, simply that it was to exist. So, much like a detective at his wit’s end, I waited impatiently for new clues to make themselves clear, wondering all the while whether it would be worth a pledge.

With its recent release, I can say confidently that it is neither worth the time or money to invest in this project via Kickstarter, at least not in the state that we currently find it.

And I don’t make that statement lightly. Hell, it’s one of the most frustrating statements I’ve had to make about the industry in some time; watching one of my favorite games have its name dragged through the mud is nothing if not disheartening. But I can’t stand by pretending like this project isn’t manipulative and looking to get your money at the expense of the quality and creative aspects of the game.

For those of you unfamiliar, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong pits a secret murderer against a team of detectives, with their only resource being a mute forensic scientist, only able to communicate to them through tiles that provide vague clues as to what was found at the crime scene. With each player having a set of four means cards and four clue cards face-up in front of them, a player can make one guess over the course of a round as to what combo of one red and one blue card was chosen by the murderer, keeping in mind that each of these cards must be in front of the murderer in question. While I could talk about how smart this game is, how it’s a hidden role game that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily on the typical guesswork and bluffing,  I’d encourage you to simply try it out for yourself if you haven’t.

Deception: Undercover Allies initially started to concern me due to its focus on the inclusion of a few more role cards. Much like Resistance: Avalon, the base game came with a few optional roles beyond the required Murderer and Forensic Scientist roles, namely the Witness and the Accomplice, working like the Merlin and Assassin roles from that game. While each is functional, I find myself and my gaming groups using them rather infrequently, as they don’t add nearly as much in the format Deception presents.

But if these are cards I’d use on rare occasion, the Inside Man and Lab Technician appears to be roles I’d throw in my drawer of extra and unnecessary components. Each of these looks to add some mid-game alterations, forcing players to stop what they’re doing after the first round of play in order for players to be narrated through these new additions. The Lab Technician is able to confirm clearly if one card was or wasn’t used in the crime at hand, and the Inside Man steals someone’s badge, preventing them from making a guess. While the Inside Man sounds like it could result in some fun and unique bluffing, it comes at the cost of slowing the already fantastic and loose flow of the game. The Lab Technician, while an interesting idea, takes away from some of the mystery the game presents. Moreover, both roles feel forced, as if the expansion felt unwarranted without the inclusion of more roles. With the focus on these roles in the Kickstarter video and the promise of more on the way, Undercover Allies starts its sales pitch with material that is not only unnecessary but takes away some of what made the game as special as it is.

Next, four scene tiles and an event tile are included. The scenes, Ambient Noise, Murder Inspired By, Victim’s Personality, and Victim’s Hobbies, work like what we’ve already experienced, and simply adds some slight variety to what’s included in the base game. The event tile, however, is rather concerning in terms of how it might affect a game. The Perfect Crime potentially sways the forensic scientist mid-game to trying to help the murderer, causing confusion and strife within the group. And while the idea is very cool, the fact that the only resource players have to work with might suddenly intentionally sabotage the mission makes it sound one-sided and unfair. Yes, events can only activate after the first round, but I struggle to fathom a scenario where the murderer doesn’t win if this happens.

Two more badges are added, allowing for a game to be played with up to 14 players, which is absurd and completely unnecessary. I think the game is at a nice cap around eight or ten honestly, with too many people making it feel like a chore to sort through all the cards and possibilities.

Lastly, 50 means cards and 80 clue cards are included in the retail expansion, allowing for a bit more variety to the possible murderous combinations. This is by far the best part of what Undercover Allies offers, with players seeing all the cards from the base game on the table after four games if playing with a big enough group. Therefore, more of these cards are definitely a welcome addition.

Now, if this was all there was to Undercover Allies, I could easily write it off as an expansion that adds more of the same but not enough substance, maybe picking it up on sale after it’s released. But this is Kickstarter, and with the crowdfunding format comes a lot of temptations and problematic practices, with a good number of them found here.

First, and by far the worst, Kickstarter exclusives. If I felt comfortable writing it, the rest of this paragraph would be a cacophony of obscenities, but instead I’ll say this; making any content exclusive in a market that already struggles to keep many of their products in print is just as damaging, if not more so, as pre-order culture today. I’m all for promos and additional content, as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to get them, but making stuff to specifically lock behind a timed pay-wall doesn’t just speak to negative business practices, but devalues every other copy of the expansion that is released. Yes, they’re just means and clue cards, that’s not a big deal, there are already a ton more. But it IS a big deal; regardless of how little it adds, exclusivity is always important in an industry that struggles to include newcomers to the hobby.

Of the exclusive clue and means cards, while a very small handful is being unlocked by reaching stretch goals, a majority can be bought via add-on content through theme packs. Each pack is based around a collection of nationalities, including cards specific to different regions and cultures of the world. At first glance, this is a neat idea, with a lot of interesting cards being added to the mix that provides a certain diversity to what’s included. But putting them behind a secondary pay-wall is a little on the ridiculous side, with each pack containing 20 cards for $5, or are included in one of the tiers with a $2 discount on the overall $15. In other words, if 130 more cards aren’t enough for you, there’s a bunch more if you’re willing to pay. But if you don’t, they’re Kickstarter exclusive, meaning you can’t get them again down the road. Manipulative to say the least.

Additionally, an extra pack of cards will be added to the theme packs shortly, with people voting on the pack in particular. This pack will be themed around a certain geek culture property, such as Harry Potter or Alien. Looking at the poll, it will likely end up being Game of Thrones. If you followed my coverage of the Roll Player expansion, you know I’m a fan of getting the patrons involved by having them vote for stuff to be added, and I stand by that, but this is something entirely different and a lot more skeezy.

The first and most innocent thing that grabs my attention is that these cards will likely not gel with the rest, a concern I already share with the other theme packs. The cards made for the base game of Deception focus of items and ideas that come from a more modern setting, allowing for there to be interesting combos without a specific theming clash or odd card to make a murderer too obvious. With the addition of cards that don’t fall under that banner, there’s a risk of these additions unbalancing certain experiences due to a longsword being a little too obvious of a potential clue to be chosen by a murderer. Just look at the Death Ray and Laser Shark cards from the third stretch goal to find examples of this.

But on top of this, patrons are not voting on a stretch goal that they are guaranteed to get; rather, they are voting on what they must then PAY EXTRA to receive. The update in question (#2) states that the pack will be added to their themed packs, and if you look at the backer tier that includes those, it specifically says it includes the “three” packs, a fact that is unlikely to change as the tier cost would need to be readjusted.

[EDIT: After someone pointing it out in the comments, it’s been clarified that the aforementioned “pack” was actually referring to another 2-card stretch goal, with the awkward verbiage resulting in my confusion. Backers do not have to pay extra for this stretch goal, so the above paragraph does not apply. Thanks to WarpedLord for pointing this inaccuracy out.]

Upgrades to the badges and bullet tokens are provided in the forms of metal badges and plastic microscope tokens, which, again, you can get as an add-on or through another tier level, but costs $20 in the add-on format, with the $2 discount via the backer tier. Ignoring that the same price could get you a cavalcade of metal coins for other games, this is almost the same cost as the expansion costs by itself. The only reason why this one doesn’t bother me in particular is because it isn’t cited as being Kickstarter exclusive, and I respect those that want to pimp out their board games further, as I certainly have before.

The last and perhaps worst thing I have to note is the social stretch goals. While not outright excluding people from getting content like Kickstarter exclusives do, social stretch goals ask patrons to advertise a project for the creators in order to get more stuff. While at first these doesn’t seem so bad, the damage is done through the fact that these solicitations are not genuine. Patrons aren’t going around parading Deception: Undercover Allies because it’s the next best thing that’s come to Kickstarter, but rather because they want more free content. And who doesn’t? Really, I can’t blame them for doing it, so instead I blame those on the Kickstarter team who decided to employ such an awful tactic. Through this method, false buzz will be generated for a game that doesn’t necessarily deserve it for the wrong reasons, but will likely result in a boost in sales, and thus more content, creating a vicious and wholly immoral loop. And for what, another role card? The last exclusive role card that was released, the Consulting Detective, was met with confusion, with users asking each other online the point of such a situational card, and I struggle to see how this role card will be any better.

As I come to the conclusion of my rant, I’d like to address the easiest and laziest of responses I can imagine for this article; “You don’t have to get it, you know.” And yes, that’s absolutely true, and for some of my critiques a reasonable response. Some of my thoughts on the functions of certain cards are my own, and others might find enjoyment out of the more random clues or diverse roles. But from a sales perspective, from the mindset of Kickstarter being used appropriately and responsibly, this campaign is a master class in how to do it wrong. Tons of extra content falling under the dreaded Kickstarter exclusive banner, a patron-voted addition requiring that backers pay extra for the results, and a generally manipulative vibe to the whole thing makes this project feel like I’m not being sold a good product but that I’m being conned into buying a bunch of extra stuff I don’t really need but will buy so I’m not excluded. Sure, I don’t have to get it, but people will buy it due to that compulsion, simply because they feel like they need to to not be excluded, perpetuating the issue all the more.

Deception: Undercover Allies is a tempting offer; with tons of extras, promises of better inserts, and more content on the horizon. But I can’t bring myself to put money towards such a hurtful and negative Kickstarter campaign. It represents everything wrong with the resource’s use to date, and it saddens me that a company I hold in such high esteem is behind such damaging practices. All I can hope is that, by writing all this, someone might listen and see the inherent issues projects like these create not only for the indie developers hoping to break into an already cluttered and unforgiving market, but for board gaming as a whole.

Thank you for taking the time to read; let me know what you thought in the comments below, as well as whether this is the kind of article you’d like to read in the future.

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