A Dark Future
Welcome to Arcturus. A dark and grimy solar system ruled by the tyrannical Sovereign regime. All that awaits you here is poverty, pain, and misery. People quickly turn to drugs or other vices to make life more livable, but the end result is the same. The Sovereign takes what they want and leaves the scraps for the people. There is not much to gain here if you play by the rules. Seems like you may have to make a new rulebook entirely if you want to get ahead. It’s time to make a name for yourself and make enough cash to last you a lifetime. Only first, you will need to dispose of some of the competition.
You’re Not Bad, You’re Misunderstood
In Syndicate, 2-5 players take on the role of various crime groups vying to break out from under the thumb of the Sovereign and make some Credits (cash). Each player works to build up their criminal empire before the Sovereign catches wind of these schemes and shuts things down. Players build Bases, advance their tech, and complete Missions to become the most powerful criminal operation. There are various methods and approaches to doing so, but at the end of the day, the player with the highest Syndicate score (Credits and victory points from Bases or achievements) will come out on top. So let’s dive in and explore what nefarious options are at your disposal.
The Makings of Greatness
In Syndicate, players act as 1 of 10 asymmetric factions varying for control of the solar system. You and your fellow criminals play 6-8 rounds working to collect the most Credits and rack up any achievements you can to prevail. You do not know how long the game will last exactly, as in each round a Sovereign card will be revealed and the government will punish you for your wrongdoing. Somewhere within the last 5-7 cards of the Sovereign deck is a card labeled, “The Beginning of the End” that signals one final round before the game is over. This variability means you will have to move fast but also prepare for the long haul in case things take longer than you hoped.
Each faction in Syndicate diverges greatly from the others in striking ways. Your starting setup, resources, and specific strengths are all laid out on your faction’s player board. Strengths range from having a very high resource generation system to having higher starting assault levels. Each of these bonuses will become tools in your arsenal that will make you a formidable threat to your opponents. While you may have differences, each player seeks to collect the same three resources – Credits, Influence, and Crew – to power their operations and come out on top. Players may establish Bases, complete Missions, and even rob the opposition to get ahead.
It’s All About the Actions
Syndicate is very much a 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) style of game where players take turns building up their criminal empire over a series of rounds. Each player possesses two Action Dice that will be used on their most powerful actions. On their turn, a player may perform various actions that may or may not utilize Action Dice. We will talk about each of these actions below in detail below.
Let’s discuss the “support” actions a player can take on their turn. These actions do not require an Action Die but are not to be overlooked.
Establish a Base
The system of Arcturus (read: the game board) is broken into three various segments: Exo, Middle, and Inner. Each has its various perks and difficulties, but you will be seeking to overcome those and set up your Influence in these various regions by establishing Bases. Bases are a key feature of Syndicate’s gameplay as they are essential to getting your criminal empire off the ground. Bases grant substantial income in the form of Credits, Political Influence, and sometimes, Crew. All of these will be necessary to keep your infrastructure afloat as you seek to grow. Bases also grant you locations to complete Missions more easily (more about this soon). Bases provide increasing rewards the closer you move to the Inner zone. Be warned though, these Bases will require an “upkeep cost” of Crew to keep them afloat. You will need to plan ahead to make sure you have enough Crew at the end of the turn to staff your Bases and keep your income flowing. Certain Bases contain various bonuses that can help you up your research if you hold them, grant additional income, or even have military connections that can help you stave off attacks. Bases can also be fortified for an additional cost. This helps protect you and your assets from both opponents and the Sovereign who may also try to drive you out of the area.
Activate a Sleeper Card
In Syndicate, most player cards are under the umbrella of the Operations Deck. Within this Deck, players will find Missions as well as Sleeper cards they can use. Sleeper cards are powerful “traps” that, once activated, can be used at any time in response to a pesky opponent acting out. Players can only have one active Sleeper at a time but do not underestimate the value of these cards. There is nothing more satisfying than giving your best Yu-Gi-Oh! impressions and shouting “You’ve activated my Trap card!”
Purchase Tech or Assault Levels
Players each have tech and assault levels on their home faction board. These levels indicate how strong their assaults can be as well as grant them certain powerful tech bonuses that add beneficial asymmetric boons to that player. Players can purchase these levels simply by paying the Credits indicated in the Market area. As players purchase multiple levels, however, the cost starts to climb. Players will place cubes in the Market indicating how many levels of tech or assault they wish to purchase in a given round. At the end of the round, players may remove only one of these cubes. It is easy to see how prices will start to skyrocket if players do not pace themselves or rotate their purchases from tech to assault.
Players can swap resources for any other with the given ratio on their player board. This flexibility can be helpful in getting what you need at the moment. Also, if your resource engine is a bit “lopsided” this can help balance things out.
Players may sell Operation cards from their hand to collect any one resource. If there is a Mission that just does not look feasible, at least you can gain something.
Use a Bonus Chip
If you were the first to place a Base on any world on the map, you receive a Bonus Chip. These one-time use Chips are powerful abilities that you can use on your turn to get a big boost over the competition. You can stockpile these Chips to use in one big turn or start spreading them out — just be sure not to forget to use them since you won’t get anything for them at the end of the game.
Action Die Actions
The heavy-hitter actions a player can use with Action Dice are attempting Missions and Assaults. These two actions hold great potential for reward but you will need to prepare to have the highest odds of success.
Attempt a Mission
Mission Cards are varied but will involve an Action Die roll to succeed. This can be more difficult or easy depending on whether the area in which you attempt the Mission has a base owned by you or an opponent (and if you choose to split the reward), and if you hired extra help. All of these factors will increase your odds of success but it just comes down to an Action Die roll to see if you scored the loot. This level of dice luck mitigation is really enjoyable as it forces the player to calculate the stakes and how much to risk and invest for the payout. Missions usually just “take” rewards from the bank, however, there are robberies where players are able to steal Credits directly from opposing players. These Missions are so fun. The heist feel is palpable and creates a great balancing mechanic for players who may be getting passed up by their opponents.
Assault a Base
The second action that requires a Die is a Base Assault. Did an opponent happen to just buy the Base you were coveting? Thank them for their investment and try to relieve them of ownership. Assaults allow you to attempt to take over a Base controlled by an opponent. While risky (and somewhat take that), Assaults are necessary to get ahead in the underworld and will help you be victorious. When you choose to Assault a Base, you declare the Base you want to attack, spend 5 Crew and then decide if you wish to send reinforcements. Here is where your assault level comes into play. A player’s assault level can range from 0-4 based on their starting level and how many they have purchased from the market. Assault levels allow you to spend an extra 5 Crew to add any amount of unused reinforcements and increase your chances of success. Assaulting a Base is difficult, especially if it is fortified; with ample reinforcement and a good die roll, what was theirs can be yours. Regardless of the outcome, when an Assault happens, the Crew spent in the Assault are discarded to the bank and the Sovereign raises the Alert Level by 1. The power of Sovereign cards at the end of rounds increases in conjunction with the Alert Level.
Whew. That was a lot of actions a player can do. If you play longer, more complex games, you may be worried about player downtime. Don’t be! In Syndicate, I love it when it is not my turn. That is when the real fun happens. Players can perform open table negotiations and trade ANYTHING when it is not their turn. Future commitments are not binding (we are criminals after all) but any immediate exchanges must be honored. This trading and negotiation aspect in Syndicate takes it from the category of “game I enjoy” to the top tier list of games I am passionate about playing. Successful negotiations and key trades are essential to victory in Syndicate.
The last aspect of Syndicate that we have yet to discuss is the Sovereign itself. How does the oppressive regime show its ugly mug and mess with your schemes? At the end of each round, a Sovereign card will be revealed. There are several cards that can come into play, but in general, the Sovereign is a bully and wants to take your stuff away. They will enforce taxes, attempt to crack down on your Bases and revoke your ownership, or even round up your Crew and reduce your numbers. These actions can be avoided if you seek a Pardon by paying a large sum of Political Influence based on the number of Bases you control. Since Pardons are all or nothing, you cannot skip out on part of the punishment. If you hope to survive the Sovereign, you had better prepare to deal with them head-on or stock up on Influence to get them to look the other way.
The Sovereign can also send its destroyer to blockade a player’s base, cutting off its income and any bonuses associated with it. This only happens when the Alert Level is maxed and a Mission is failed at that location. This can be a really dirty play if you strategize well as failing a Mission at an opponent’s base will get THEM blockaded, not you!
And that is Syndicate. Play continues until the round after the beginning of the end Sovereign card comes out. Players will tally up their Credits and any achievements they accomplished and see who came out on top.
The objective in Syndicate is very simple — earn the most Credits — but it’s so beautifully varied in the approaches it offers players to achieve this. You can specialize in so many ways all in the name of seeking that almighty dollar. I have seen players lean into Influence because they just wanted to avoid the Sovereign altogether, while some just ran Crew heavy and Assaulted other players to leech of their hard work. All of these approaches are valid and offer a great deal of replayability and depth.
The beautiful art is what first caught my eye when doing some initial research and it really does capture this dark dystopian future. All of the engine building, territory control, defense, offense, and tech research gives you a lot of options and nothing felt under or overpowered. It genuinely felt like I could win using one of the many approaches in Syndicate and I like that a lot.
One of my most impactful impressions of Syndicate though, came when I was not taking my turn. The open talk negotiations up the fun and engagement for me and also help encourage fast turns; you do not want all of your enemies sitting out figuring out how to optimize all of their resources for their coming turns while you are totally out of negotiations. This trading system made the game feel alive and added to the enjoyment and engagement of the overall gaming experience. Robberies and Assaults also made sure no player ran away with a lead as opponents would punish them for stocking piling too many Credits. This was a great balancing system that put the onus back on players but did allow you to apply the brakes to your opponents.
I will note one thing I hope can be improved. The Sovereign, while having many duplicates, only really has four cards that will come into play. Effectively, three of these cards are bad and one is neutral at worst. This seemed to lend itself to luck swings where the Sovereign was either not a threat at all or was very focused on one particular action. My copy was a prototype and I hope to see additional card options that will reconcile this small issue in the final version.
We briefly interrupt these Final Thoughts…
I had the opportunity to talk with one of the game’s designers, Greg Dietz, and get an even deeper understanding behind the creation of Syndicate. Greg and his business partner, Josh, have an avid love of Sci-Fi and board games, which led to the creation of Syndicate with its unique take on a 30s teck-esque dystopian setting. They expressed their love of a setting like “The Expanse,” which posed so much mystery and challenging questions. One of the first things that told me Syndicate was going to be good and that it was a labor of love was the staggering amount of flavor text and lore on EVERYTHING. Greg and Josh have built a living and breathing world that is inviting. It is one they hope to continue to expand on but they already have so much content they are releasing a full BOOK to layout the lore and backstory that put you in the position you find yourself in as players. This is a huge boon to me as a gamer as it creates buy-in and ensures that a lot of thought has gone into just the “superficial” story of the game. It is one thing to create a great game with solid mechanics, it is another to do that on top of building a fully fleshed out world around that solely out of a passion to bring something to life.
It was clear to me that Greg and Josh have a passion for this game. From listening about the various iterations of the game and the deep balancing and playtesting that has happened thus far, I could tell that Syndicate had some real quality behind its creation. It is often easy to overlook the amount of work that it takes to bring a quality tabletop experience to life. I was reminded of that and I’m grateful for people like Greg and Josh who make that happen. It is worth restating that I believe that is what Syndicate is, a tabletop experience.
Greg stated that he wanted future backers or buyers to know that, “Syndicate has rich lore, beautiful artwork and is a well-balanced game to be close and tight each time you play it. It is a game that after you play for a round, you understand how to play but you will keep finding new and unique strategies for a long time after that.”
Greg and Josh’s passion at PDU Games is to continue to contribute to the effect that tabletop gaming has in our community of bringing people together from all walks of life. It was clear that inclusivity and building social bonds are huge to Greg and Josh. I believe that shows in the encouragement of table talk and trading in Syndicate.
Syndicate is just the first step for Greg and Josh at PDU Games. Once funded, they hope to continue to expand this title as well as look at creating other titles in this new universe they have crafted together. As a first step, I am impressed and cannot wait to see what this company brings to the table next. You can check on the Kickstarter of Syndicate and see all the goodness for yourself. You can expect extra surprises along the way, such as a solo mode and various alternate scenarios.
…And Back to Your Scheduled Programming
Syndicate has all the trappings of an A+ title. It has good bones, a unique world, engaging mechanics, and replayability. It has a small, dedicated team that has put in the work to merit its success and I can say it is a game I am looking forward to playing again soon. Syndicate is launching on Kickstarter and I would encourage you to take a look at this game for yourself. I do not believe you will be disappointed with this title if you love the idea of 4X in space with “anything goes” trades.
Pros: Beautiful Art, Varied Approaches to Victory, Asymmetry, Trading
Cons: Repetition of Sovereign Interactions
Rating: 8.5/10 This is a great title that is fun to play and a breeze to teach.
Disclosure: Meeple Mountain received a free copy of this product in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This review is not intended to be an endorsement.
Disclosure: Meeple Mountain was provided a pre-production copy of the game. It is this copy of the game that this review is based upon. As such, this review is not necessarily representative of the final product. All photographs, components, and rules described herein are subject to change.