Waking up to a nice review is always a good booster. It’s especially nice when the reviewer seems to ‘grok’ what you were trying for and to appreciate the way you’ve gone about it.
Everyone says my reviews are too long and nobody reads them. So here’s my two paragraph summary first:
Want to see an amazing game that nails down a very slippery and specific genre and consistently and effectively pursues it? Buy this game.
Want a game that is mechanically well-balanced and won’t lead you into crazy problems? Give it a pass.
Now for the lengthy/verbose/nonsensical analysis.
It seems hard to imagine at this late date, when if you wanted to watch every James Bond movie it would take two uninterrupted days, when the deliberate but tense 1970s Bourne novels have been made into a visceral action series, and when Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can sucker us in with the professionalism of lying, but there was a time in history when espionage and counter-espionage was just coming into pop culture. Of course The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad was a 19th century venture into the popular spy novel (and modern readers will appreciate terrorism as its central conflict instead of the Cold War), but in the 1950s and 60s, the spy-as-hero jumped into prominence, and a good deal of it was an almost countercultural espionage – the spy not as defender of the stodgy status quo, but the swinger, the con artist, Mr. Suave, the femme fatale, and of course, the only person who could tell that the whole Cold War was a sham, a big crazy lie, man.
To some extent this was because the other arm of visible authority, the police officer, was engaged, quite publicly, in a heart-wrenching shift from primarily being concerned with order to primarily being concerned with law. Cops knew as much as everyone else that when they saw fire hoses turned on voting rights activists in Selma that being a police officer had to change. So in addition to the cop who was in touch with the kids, we gained the spy who didn’t play by any rules. And sometimes these spy stories were lighthearted action romps – fantasies about what we’d do if we were trained to the top of our abilities and turned loose in the world with a gun, a quip and some cool gadget nobody else had.
It’s hard to remember this now when we can count James Bond’s genuine smiles since 1992 on one hand, but Austin Powers is a parody not of Bond but of the goofy/sexy spies that blossomed at the same time, but did not necessarily survive. (I have no idea why people chose to parody swingin’ 60s spies in 1997. Why not parody balloonist adventure tales or picaresques about travelling to the Mysterious East? Those would be just as relevant. But that’s far afield even for my normal rambling review style.)
It’s this fantasy that Agents of SWING targets, and hits, dead on. Not the parody (though I guess you could use it for that) – this is not a satire game, this is a game about that lighthearted fantasy.
Your characters are in an implausible agency, given implausible covers, and must battle against implausible villains, while bedding their unbelievably attractive and somewhat reluctant lieutenants and sorting out ridiculous gadgets. All of these things are given a thorough once-over. The quick-moving FATE 3.0 system (with some changes, see below) is a great setup for this.
It’s always a matter of walking a tightrope when replicating social attitudes of past times that might interfere with people’s enjoyments – Agents of SWING, I feel, does a pretty decent job of emphasizing that players who are women will have opportunities for fun along with those that aren’t. Because the agents are beyond the straitjacketed moralities of the (crumbling, it’s 1967) square world they protect, they are able to forge their own way. You can even play up the tension by selecting Aspects that will emphasize this conflict – and you gain fate points when they cause problems for you, so you’re actually encouraged to think about the issue and bring it to the table with your own spin on it. This game convinced me that FATE’s Aspects (perhaps along with The Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys) are an excellent mechanic for putting those issues into the hands of the players rather than having them feel imposed-upon by a GM or a group. There are a few examples of women characters who are not well-turned, but even if it’s not a bullseye, this game gets a lot of credit from me for aiming at a difficult target and hitting at least within the first ring (to extend the metaphor.)
The game also replaces the normal FATE 3.0 “Spin” with a third “Swing Die” which you can earn, and then spend in future rolls. (It uses the d6-d6 FATE setup rather than Fate dice.) This is a pretty cool way of putting the application of Spin into the hands of the player and prevents something I’ve seen in other FATE games, which is people scratching their heads trying to figure out how to Spin something that doesn’t really fit so that people don’t feel like it’s wasted. This is a really good solution to that – it shifts the probabilities significantly but doesn’t necessarily make it a slam dunk. (You can put your Swing Die on top of your pile of Fate chips too – a nice stack of your player resources that you have available whenever you’re planning for a roll.)
There are a number of ways this product could be improved:
For example, the stunt list doesn’t hyperlink to the description of each stunt, so the list itself is pretty worthless.
There’s no real explanation of what the NPCs are for or how you decide what NPC stats should be. The advice is just “try to keep it balanced with the player characters”, which is sort of bad advice given that there’s likely to be 3-4 player characters for each villain, and player characters may have a HUGE swing in their abilities to face off against the villain, since they can buy their skills all the way up to +8 from character creation. This is fine for the somewhat lighthearted/cartoony source material, but can easily lead to one or two characters walking off with the game and leaving others feeling useless without some clear guidance on how to create opposition (or tighter instructions at character creation).
I’m not super thrilled with the handouts. While it’s nice to see them divided up, the monospace font makes it hard to work out/remember where things are. (I guess they’re a good starting point and I’m glad they’re there because all games should have handouts in their PDFs, what are you gonna do, make me go to your website? My mouse only clicks so many times per game, pal.) Also, the stunt section of the character sheet doesn’t really give enough space to explain some of the more complicated stunts.
I actually rated this one a bit lower at first because of the difficulty in getting from the player characters to a workable scenario, but I have to reviewer tilt up one because it chases after something very specific, something rarely seen these days, and comes a lot closer than I thought it might when I first began reading the introduction. All in all, this is a pretty special game and it’s one that I’ve returned to many times.