The Initiative is a cooperative puzzle board game that follows the story of four kids from 1994 who start playing a board game, but get involved in something much bigger. We were very reluctant to pick it up in the first place, as it’s very up-front that you can’t replay the game’s story, which is a massive downside. Unexpected Games surprisingly also have no other releases that we’re familiar with, and puzzle games can be extremely difficult to get right… and yet, we bought it, we played it,… and we have zero regrets. Let me explain.
Before I continue, you must know that is this 100% spoiler free review. We did play the first chapter of the game online on live stream, and that has spoilers, but I will not put a link to it here. If you want to watch it, feel free to go to our Twitch or YouTube and find it, but this is one of those games where you should do your best to go in completely spoiler-free, or you’ll know the puzzle solutions.
The Game and What is Inside the Box
Inside there is a comic book that has strong Archie Comic vibes. The story is nothing over-complicated and shocking, but that is not a bad thing. It gets its job done perfectly. I would have liked a little more introduction on the kids characters, maybe like one line of what their hobbies are, or how they became friends. But it is far from disappointing and we enjoyed every moment of playing it.
The game comes with a bunch of tokens, but they do a wonderful job of reusing them. You don’t end up with a big massive box, with 100 envelopes that has one or two pieces that you use only once and they never look at them again. What you get in that box when you open it, you use everything in it, and reuse most of it multiple times, which is just really efficient game design.
Each chapter in the campaign is you solving a puzzle in a board game called The Key. That’s right – the game you play is in fact the game the kids are playing throughout the story. It’s incredibly meta. Each mission is a card on a standing board that covers the answers. While playing the game you reveal the solution of each glyph and at any point you can stop and solve the puzzle. If you’re wrong – you lose, and the story continues, with choose-your-own-adventure style consequences (which honestly aren’t the most meaningful, but they do punish you for losing).
The backbone of the gameplay is brilliant in its simplicity. You have two sides of a game board that have a similar floor plan. You have two actions that you can use each turn to move through rooms, collect files that may reveal a glyph on your puzzle board to make it easier to solve, or look at other rooms to see if they hold glyphs you need. The decision making comes in a simple, easy-to-pick-up card system which we absolutely love.
There is a deck of cards with 2 suits with number from 2 to 12. To perform and action you put the card on top of the action pile, and it has to have a higher number than the previous one. You have only 4 cards in hand each turn, and each card you use takes you one step closer to losing, so you need to be very careful and think turns ahead, so your friends can perform actions too. Since characters have individual abilities that also use these cards to either affect the decks or the board, you get a lot of “feeling clever” moments, when you start moving numbers around.
Each game is nice and quick, and can take from 15 to 30 minutes, with most of that time being spent trying to solve the puzzle. Since the setup is quick. and the gameplay is simple and straight forward, you can easily knock down a few chapters in a sitting.
The Secrets, Puzzles, and Ciphers
We are puzzle lovers. We have evenings where we just solve crosswords or puzzles for fun, so it’s safe to say we’re a bit nerdy when it comes to solving riddles and ciphers. This means when games decide to use them as a core mechanic, I am usually very reserved. It’s really easy to come up with a puzzle or cipher that can be so hard that you may never solve it. At the same time, you can make one that may sound hard, but for people who spend Mondays on the GCHQ Twitter (which we absolutely recommend), it can be so easy that it robs the game of all its fun.
I didn’t need to be concerned though, as the designers have clearly done their research and tested this game a lot. The difficulty is just right, and how easy the puzzle is to solve rests on how quickly and easily you can recover the glyphs. Not only that, for the real puzzle-heads, there are literally puzzles written in obscure places that you don’t even have to solve. Like the rulebook. We’re not going to say any more than that, because discovering them is part of the fun, but rest assured, this game has what you’re looking for if you love puzzles.
That’s not to say it’s too difficult for the average gamer or family, though. The first chapter eases you in the game. It feels like a tutorial, and it does it just right. You have a simple cipher, you run through the room, get the glyphs and in no time you solve it. We finished the campaign recently, and from chapter to chapter, it feels like it escalates and rewards you for paying attention. Exactly how puzzle games, and games in general, should be. Every time a new type of puzzle or cipher is introduced, it teaches you exactly how to solve it, and despite that it throws just enough curve-balls to keep you on your toes.
The campaign is suitable for both teenagers and adults who haven’t done puzzles before, and it is still rewarding and enjoyable for puzzle-junkies. It’s the perfect mix.
Luck to Logic Ratio
Yes, the game does have a luck component alongside the puzzles. Will you hit the right glyph, what cards numbers you get, will you reveal the correct part of the sequence, and mostly when you run out of cards, will you instantly lose the game. Yes, instantly losing the game by drawing the wrong cards is a possibility, but that is part of the fun, and what helps balance out the difficulty of the puzzles for those less inclined to solve ciphers. The Initiative gives you the freedom and knowledge to weight your odds, and the better you play the Key section of the game, the easier the puzzle is to solve. That is part of the strategy.
You get one cycle through the deck safely. You can use some strategies to delay the depletion of the deck like not using your special ability too much. And you can also stop at any time to solve the cipher and win or lose, the game. You can also make sure you have a lot more cards in the deck right before you reshuffle by regrouping. We were amazed at how perfectly balanced the luck is against the puzzle challenge, and it’s clearly a labour of love that’s gotten it to this point.
Sometimes we needed just one more glyphs to find the right sequence, or we got very unlucky with the traps and enemies, but it never felt impossible, simply because even when the odds are stacked against you, it’s the puzzle that matters most.
Is The Initiative Replayable?
As mentioned before, once you finish a mission you cannot replay it again. The game campaign has about 14 missions, and the gameplay of each one will take you an average of 30 minutes, which means it will take you about 7 hours to complete it. The reason that you can’t replay it is because each mission has only one solution, and not because you destroy or deface pieces of the game. It even tells you explicitly not to do that!
That’s because once you are done with the campaign there is more! There are a whopping 24 post-campaign missions that will put your knowledge to the test. The campaign teaches you of the basics of cryptology, and the new missions build on that foundation. They are harder so it may take you more time solve them, but if we say that on average it will take you 30 minutes, that is extra 12 hours of gameplay.
With an average playtime of 20 hours of gameplay, without considering that other people can create their own puzzles and share them with the community, we believe that The Initiative is more than worth the money.
Overall, I’m in love with The Initiative. The box art and the game itself are amazing, but I hate games that are played only once. Despite that, I am glad I got tempted by this game because now it is one of our favourite games to play in the evenings, and I’m going to be sad once we run out of puzzles! It is quick to set up and fast to play, while it brings a wonderful balance of luck and strategy. We will definite keep an eye on Unexpected Games for new games.
- Beautiful art
- Friendly puzzles
- Fun and interesting story
- Online resources
- Can play a mission only once
- Can't replay with friends
- Should play the campaign with the same people