Automata NOIR is, at its core, a game of competitive deduction for two to four players, where each player gets a specific identity from the deck of 25 cards and then tries to use the variable board of 25 tiles to figure out the secret identities of one or more of the other players. It’s not enough to deduce someone’s identity, however; you have to get the tile with your identity on it close enough to your target to either unmask or kill them, but doing so means your opponent can do unto you first.
Based on a 2012 game by the same designer simply called NOIR (with characters based on those in the titular comic by Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins), Automata NOIR comes with four different game options that define slightly different rules, one that’s just for two players, one for three players, and two that play three or four. They all have the same basic framework: Each player gets a card at random to gain a secret identity, and then, on a turn, may do something to narrow possibilities for opponents’ identities, like directly accuse or attempt to kill an opponent, or move a row or column on the board.
The two-player mode is probably the easiest to grasp: One player is the killer, one the detective. The killer wins by killing the detective, or by killing a certain number of other characters on the board. The detective wins by identifying the killer, who has two identities and can swap between them (they’re called Disguises in this module) for his one action on any turn. The detective can accuse the killer of being any character on the board as long as that character’s tile is adjacent to the detective’s own tile, so the accusation also gives the killer some information on the detective’s identity. The detective also has a hand of three cards at all times, and may play one to the board to Exonerate that character, while also Canvassing, which means the opposing player must say if his character is adjacent to the newly exonerated one (but not which one).
The game adds a cat and mouse element with the Shift and Collapse actions. Shifting means moving any row or column in either direction by one tile; the tile that would thus be pushed off the board then wraps around to the other side (however, the board itself is not contiguous across its edges – a tile on the left border is not adjacent to one on the right). Some modules include a Fast Shift option for certain roles, which is a Shift of two spaces rather than one. The two-player module has the Collapse action, where, later in a game, a player may remove one Deceased character from each row/column on the board and then condense what remains into a smaller rectangle, which thus brings the two players closer together for one to kill or accuse his opponent.
The three-player module of the game pits two cops against one killer, but the cops can’t directly communicate; one is ‘undercover’ and can draw new cards, switch identities, and then hand the discarded card to the Profiler cop, who gets to use an Exonerate action as in the two-player module and can Canvass the board. The Killer has three identities to start the game and can switch at will; she wins by killing two cops (one of each, or the same player twice), or by killing 13 of the 25 characters on the board. The cops win by identifying the killer’s current identity in an Accuse action, meaning the cop player must be adjacent to the tile of the killer. If the cop accuses the killer of being a character who is one of the killer’s inactive disguises, the killer player must discard that card, so it’s possible – and good strategy – to try to pick off the killer’s disguises so they can’t switch so easily.
The third module, Spy Tag, either has three players all chasing each other around the board, with the first to unmask any two opponents winning, or two teams of two fighting to capture three opposing spies. The fourth module, Dragnet, is the only one of the four that changes the victory condition. Each player has a Secret Suspicion card, obtained at random, which can be changed on a player’s turn later in the game. To win the game, a player (or team of two) must shift the board around to form a complete row, column, or diagonal of five character tiles, where all five are either already exonerated (an evidence card matching that character is already on the board) or are active Secret Suspicion cards of any players, including the would-be winner.
Games run five to 15 minutes, and they tend to be surprisingly tense because any move that sets you up to win the game by taking out a competitor also sets up that competitor to steal the victory by taking you out first. Once a player is on the run, so to speak, then the game picks up speed; it seems to start a little slow, and the first move is often just something done in the middle of the board to get the game underway, but eventually one player will spot a path to victory and try to execute it before anyone catches on. I’ve played this now with adults and with two kids, aged 11 and 12, and everyone caught on within a few minutes of playing. It’s also very portable. Most of the games I review here (and like) are longer and more involved, but this was an instant hit, giving some of the deduction fun of One Night Ultimate Werewolf and related titles, but playable with just two or three players.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.