You stare at the grid of faces. Some are human. Others–robots. It doesn’t matter. All that matters are the faces, and the names. Is the killer next to you? You’ve been investigating hard, and you’ve narrowed down the killer’s identity to only a couple of possibilities. Should you accuse someone? You could catch them right here and now and prevent any more murders. If you’re wrong you could give away your own position, and that will be your death. Do you take the risk? Or hold back and hope your conservative play pays out in the end?
At its best, Automata NOIR creates these tense, harrowing situations–some of the best cat and mouse gameplay I’ve ever experienced in a board game. Unfortunately, just as frequently I’m found the deduction to be rote and uninteresting, with the investigator easily having the upper hand.
In the end I need to play the game more to see which experience comes out on top. Either way, the process of learning and understanding each role in Automata NOIR is interesting enough that I had to write about it.
This is a reproduction of an earlier game from Level99, though this time they’ve acquired the wonderful art from the Automata world by Penny Arcade–a sci-fi noir universe where robots and humans coexist–barely. I’m a big fan of the comic strip and this is one of the best diversions from their normal routine they’ve ever done. I highly recommend it.
And it ends up being a perfect backdrop for this game of hide and seek and spatial deduction. In the basic 2-player game (out of four included in the box) you set up 25 character tiles in a 5×5 grid. The killer is assigned a secret identity and a disguise (two of the characters in the grid). The investigator also takes an identity and a hand of 3 cards they know are innocent. The killer chooses the first victim and the hunt begins.
The players go back and forth doing one of a couple of actions. The killer can kill anyone adjacent to them, and the investigator can accuse anyone adjacent to them. If the investigator dies, they lose, and if the killer is accused, they lose. Finding yourself potentially next to your enemy is very dangerous.
The investigator can also exonerate a character in the field by playing their card from hand. Upon that action the killer must say if they’re adjacent to the exonerated character. However, if they kill someone who has been exonerated, the investigator must reveal if they’re adjacent to the murder. Using these abilities is key as they can immediately eliminate large portions of the board from consideration. At times I feel like it’s too powerful, as it speeds everything towards the endgame so quickly through simple deduction. On the other hand one of the best qualities of Automata NOIR is how quickly it plays.
The investigator also has a trump card they can pull out to end the game at any time–they can guess the killer’s current identity and their disguise. If they’re right, they win, if not, they lose. So far nearly all of my games have ended with a successful guess simply because it’s so easy to quickly deduce identities through exoneration and watching who gets killed. In fact, all but one game I’ve played has been won by the investigator. This concerned me at first, but I think that role is simply easier to understand. There’s a steeper learning curve for the killer. In a 15 minute game I don’t think that’s a problem, as people will be able to play both sides easily. Plus there’s simply something intriguing about a challenge like this that seems very difficult to overcome, and the investigator side of the game still requires careful play and concentration.
I think the key to playing the killer is not necessarily to try to keep yourself hidden forever–that’s just not going to happen. I think the key is to manipulate the board in such a way as to delay the game until you know who the investigator is, and then trick them into moving adjacent to you. Both sides have the ability to slide a row or column one space as their action, moving the end tile to the opposite side. If there are murdered people in each row or column, each side can also eliminate them entirely, shrinking the board down to 4×5 or even smaller.
Creeping about and playing mindgames with how you manipulate the board is without a doubt the best part of this game. Because the killer can’t stay hidden forever, and can’t give away both of their identities, they need to utilize one known identity to get as many kills off as possible, before switching to their disguise to try to pick off the investigator. The investigator needs to anticipate this and manipulate the board so that when the identity switch does happen, they’re able to quickly deduce the second identity and go for the win.
That’s an ideal game, and in my experience it goes something like that or it ends up with a quick and definitive victory for the investigator. While the good experiences have been good, the fact that half of the games have felt like duds as I and my playing partners have tried to figure out how to effectively play the killer gives me pause. I worry that once the killer’s strategy is figured out, it too may become somewhat rote and follow the same beats each time. Interesting beats, but the same ones.
For variety there are three other game modes included in the box that can accompany up to 4 players. Honestly, I haven’t even read them yet because I’m finding the basic puzzle intriguing enough to continue pursuing. As a small box game, the basic two player mode feels like it’s worth the money as it is, so entertainment from the other game modes is gravy to me.
While I’m not sure how long Automata NOIR will continue to be a fresh and interesting puzzle for me, I know that I can try out the other modes and keep this game as an interesting, if not stellar small box game to intrigue others. Frankly I simply enjoy deduction games and hide and seek mechanisms, and the fact that this one not only has a fairly interesting deduction phase, but also a clever endgame, makes it a solid purchase for other fans of the style.
Review copy provided by publisher.
+Art is solid and sufficiently moody
+Multiple games in the box
-Killer has a much steeper learning curve
-Some decisions and much of the deduction seem rote
Length: 15-20 Minutes
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 2/5