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City of Spies:
(2016 - Stronghold Games)
In 1939, failed banker and stockbroker Ian Fleming joined the British Royal Navy Intelligence division at the beginning of World War II, and was soon promoted to commander. By 1941, Fleming had been sent to the neutral town of Estoril in Portugal, and during his time there stayed at the Palacio Hotel, a central hub of allied spies during the war, and frequented the Estoril Casino. The favorite drink at the casino's bar? A martini. Twelve years later, Fleming's first novel, 'Casino Royale' was published, introducing us to the legendary British Secret Service agent 007, James Bond. 39 novels (the first 14 of which were written by Fleming) and 26 films later, Bond has been one of the most influential characters in modern storytelling, forever changing the spy genre.
City of Spies: Estoril 1942 takes its theme from this short time period in Portugal, where Estoril would come be to known as the spying capital of the world. Designed by Antonio Sousa Lara and Gil d'Orey (Panamax), City of Spies combines elements of hand management, deck-building, and area control, and encourages players to build their own spy ring, attempting to recruit the various operatives and agents throughout the numerous locations in Estoril.
To do this, players will each start with the same set of six spies. Players will take turns sending these spies out amongst the six locations in Esotril. Most of the time these characters are placed face-down in secret, but depending the location, they may be placed face-up instead. Each location provides a recruit, and the player with the highest amount of strength amongst their characters at that particular location will receive the recruit into their spy ring. Seems quite simple, except that each character has different special abilities, and these abilities will resolve before strength is checked. Some characters have an assassin ability, which removes another agent from the location. Some provide bonuses based on their nationality. Others are used to seduce agents and manipulate the spacing amongst the locations and on the board. This one aspect of the game takes City of Spies from a simple, hand management game, to a unique, puzzle-oriented strategy game. After 4 rounds, the game ends and the players with the most Victory Points (and best built spy network), wins the game.
- Location boards
- Mission tiles
- Character tiles
- Starting Character tiles (a set for each player color)
- Cube markers (a set for each player color)
- Start player tile
- Pair of Dice
- Summary aids
At the beginning of the game, each player receives a set of Starting Character tiles. Each set contains 6 Characters and have a matching colored icon listed on the top right corner of the card. Players will also receive a number of Cubes matching that color, depending on the number of players in the game:
- In a 4-player game, each player receives 3 Cubes.
- In a 3-player game, each player receives 4 Cubes.
- In a 2-player game, each player receives 6 Cubes.
Next, all 12 Mission tiles are shuffled together. The top 4 tiles are drawn and placed in the central play area, while the remaining tiles are returned to the box. Each of these Mission tiles are worth 6 Victory Points at the end of the game, and contain a symbol representing what is needed to complete the mission. Each Character card has a range of these symbols on them. The player that has a group of Characters containing a majority of the particular symbol listed on the Mission tile (in relation to the other player's Characters), is rewarded the Victory Points for that mission.
All regular Character tiles (not the Starting Character tiles) are shuffled together and placed face-down next to the Mission tiles. Throughout the game, players will attempt to recruit these various characters into their ring of spies. Since each player begins the game with the same 6 characters, diversifying and expanding your spy ring can help increase your ability to gain Victory Points at the end of the game.
Finally, players will roll the dice to determine who's the Start player. That player received the Start player tile and places a white cube on the Round 1 space. A game of City of Spies consists of 4 total Rounds. The Location boards are also placed near the play area. They will be used at the beginning of each Round, but are not needed during initial setup. After setup is completed, the play area should look something like this:
As mentioned, players will attempt to recruit various spies to their ring, during four Rounds of play. Each Round consists of a Location Phase, a Deployment Phase, and a Recruit Phase. Let's take a look at how each phase works and some examples of gameplay:
I. The Location Phase
At the beginning of each Round, a set of Location boards are configured to arrange the play area. All 8 boards are shuffled together, then 6 of them are randomly selected. These 6 boards are then placed face-up in a random configuration, creating a 2x3 grid.
Each Location board consists a number in the center of the board. During the Recruit Phase, locations are resolved in order from lowest number to highest. The board also consists of a reward space (outlined by a black & yellow caution border), along with three other deployment spaces. Each deployment space contains a roman numeral and may also have a bonus icon, which award certain special abilities. We'll look further into how a location is resolved later on.
After Location boards have been configured, each location receives a Character tile on its reward space. Players that have the most strength in a particular location when resolving the Recruit Phase will be awarded this character, thus adding him/her to their spy ring. Most of the deployment spaces have the word "top secret" written on them, referencing that when a character is added to those spaces, they'll be placed face-down. Most of the reward spaces do not contain this text. Therefore, when drawing a Character tile during the Location Phase to place on the reward space, if the space does not contain the "top secret" text, that tile is placed face-up. If it does contain the "top secret" text, it is kept face-down.
For instance, taking a look at the example above, a Character tile has been drawn and placed on each of the 6 reward spaces amongst the Location boards. Four of the reward spaces did not contain the "top secret" text, therefore the Characters placed there were placed face-up. Two of the spaces did contain the "top secret" text. Therefore when the Character tile was drawn and placed on this reward space, it was kept face-down and hidden.
II. The Deployment Phase
During the Deployment Phase, and beginning with the Start player moving clockwise, each player will place a Character tile from their hand onto an empty deployment space. There are essentially two deployment space sections of the board. All deployment spaces that contain a boarder with the outside edge of the map are considered "outer" deployment spaces, while all spaces that are fully surrounded by other spaces are considered "inner" deployment spaces. A player can choose to place his Character tile on any of the empty outer deployment spaces by simply placing it face-up or face-down as the space permits (top secret icon) and placing one of their player cubes on top of it. A player is only allowed to place a Character tile on an inner deployment space as long as that space is orthogonally (not diagonally) adjacent to one of this other placed Character tiles. Players continue to place Character tiles on the deployment spaces, moving clockwise, until all players have run out of cubes.
For instance, the Green player has decided to place a Character tile on one of the outer deployment spaces on the top-left most Location board. Because the space contains a "top secret" icon, his Character is placed face-down and hidden. He'll place a green cube on top of it to show that it is his.
On a following turn (as seen above), the Green player could now place one of his Character tile's on this inner space since it is adjacent to his other placed Character.
Some of the deployment spaces contain a special eye icon next the roman numeral on the space. There are three different type of these icons, and these abilities are resolved as soon as the player deploys a Character tile on that space.
- When a Character tile is placed on a space with the eye icon containing no arrows around it, the player can immediately look at a face-down Character tile at this location.
- When a Character tile is placed on a space with the eye icon containing orthogonal arrows, the player can immediately look at a face-down Character tile at this location or at any location that is orthogonally adjacent to this one.
- When a Character tile is placed on a space with an eye icon containing orthogonal and diagonal arrows, the player can immediately look at any face-down Character tile in play.
III. The Recruit Phase
After all players have deployed characters and have no more cubes to place out, the recruiting begins. During the Recruit Phase, each location is resolved to see which player receives the new recruit from the Rewards space. Each Location board contains a number at its center, and locations are resolved from smallest to largest number, in order. When resolving a location, the Character tile in the Rewards space will be rewarded to the strongest player at the location. This is determined using the various abilities and strength totals on the various other Character tiles there.
To begin, all Character tiles that were previously placed face-down (including the Rewards tile) are revealed face-up. Beside each Character tile (not including the Rewards tile) is a roman numeral. Character abilities are resolved in roman numerical order. For instance, as seen above at the Hotel Atlantico location, the Blue player will resolve his character's abilities first, since it is located at the roman numeral "I" space (top leftmost space). The Yellow player will then resolve his character's abilities on the top, rightmost roman numeral "II" space, followed by his character's abilities at the bottom, rightmost roman numeral "III" space.
Once all character abilities have been resolved, players will total their strength at the location by adding together the strength of all characters they own there. The player with the highest strength adds the Rewards tile to his hand as a new recruit. If there is a tie in strength, the player with a character in the roman numeral I space takes priority, then the II space.
Some locations may also contain a special bonus, seen in the Rewards space. According to the Hotel Atlantico location from the previous example, when resolving Character abilities here, any Character with a German flag icon will receive +1 to their overall strength. According to the Casino location (seen above), after resolving Character abilities, each player will roll 2 dice for each character they have there. The difference between the two dice rolled is added to the character's strength total. Therefore if the player rolls a 2 and a 6, he'd at +4 strength to that Character.
Taking a look back at the Hotel Atlantico example, we can see that the Blue player will resolve his character's ability first since it‘s located in the roman numeral I space. His Character tile contains the "nationalism" icon, meaning that his special ability is that he’ll receive a +1 strength bonus for every Character tile in his location and at any adjacent location that contains the same flag icon as himself.
In this case, the only Character tile matching his German flag is the one in his own location, owned by the Yellow player. Thus the Blue player’s character would increase his strength total from 4 to 5. The Hotel Atlantico location also awards a bonus +1 strength to all German characters (as seen on the Rewards space), therefore the Blue player’s character actually has a total strength of 6.
Next, the Yellow player’s character in the II space is resolved. This character has the “Assassin” ability, referenced by the gun icon located on her tile. The Assassin ability allows the player to choose another character at the location, removing it from play. Therefore in this example, the Yellow player chooses to remove the Blue player’s character from play, returning it back to the Blue player’s hand.
Because the only characters left at this location are owned by the Yellow player, he’ll no doubt win the location and receive the Reward tile. Even if the remaining character has a strength of 0, he’ll still win the tile since no one else can beat it. However in this case, the Yellow player still needs to resolve his other character’s ability. This character has the “Conspiracy” ability, referenced by the octopus icon (seen below). This allows the player to look at the top character tile of the draw pile, look at it, then can decide whether to switch it out with the Reward tile.
Since he knows he’ll win the Reward, he decides to switch out the current Rewards tile with the one he’s drawn from the top of the stack (he’ll place the previous Rewards tile at the bottom of the stack). You’ll notice that the previous Rewards tile was worth 1 Victory Point at the end of the game, while this one is worth 4.
Once all six locations have been resolved, players will retrieve all Character tiles they placed out this Round, along with their colored cubes. Because of recruiting Characters, players may now have more than 6 tiles in their hand. Therefore, they’ll need to decide which 6 Characters to keep in hand, discarding the others into a single discard stack. While the discarded Characters can not be used again to send to locations, they will count towards Victory Points at the end of the game, granting 1 Victory Point per discarded tile. Think of these spies as those retired, yet still loyal to your ring.
Finally, the Start player tile is given to the player to the left. The new Start player will advance the cube to the next Round space on the track. Once the 4th Round is complete, the game has ended.
End of Game Scoring
Once the game has ended, players will total their overall Victory Points. First, players will receive 1 Victory Point for each discarded Character tile in their discard stack. Then, players will add to it the Victory Points values listed on the bottom of each Character tile they have in hand. As you can see, players will have some decision-making to do when deciding which Characters to discard and which to keep in hand. A discarded (or retired) Character is only worth 1 Victory Point as opposed to its listed value if kept in hand.
Tiles in hand are also important because they are the only ones that can be counted towards completing the various Mission tiles. If you’ll remember, a player can complete a mission by having a majority of the Mission’s icon amongst his Characters in hand. Each Mission tile is worth 6 Victory Points. If there is a tie in majority, the players will divide the 6 Victory Points evenly, rounded down.
At the end of the game, the player with the most overall Victory Points wins the game.
City of Spies can be viewed as a cunningly subtle deck-building game, with the various recruits being those that players will expand their spy ring with. As every player starts with the same set of spies, accumulating and building a unique ring begins with this recruiting element. Since players are only allowed 6 active spies at any one time, hand management becomes a major strategical principle in succeeding, and can directly affect end-game scoring. Should a player keep the spy in their crew active simply because he awards 4 Victory Points at the end of the game, or should he discard this (ultimately becoming a 1 Victory Point tile) and go with another spy with a more powerful in-game special ability?
There's a certain focus on timing, in regards to maximizing a character's special ability at a location. The same special ability can affect things differently depending on whether it's being resolved from the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd roman numeral space. For instance, being able to resolve the Seduction ability (which allows the player to move a character tile from an adjacent location to an open space at the current location) before another player's Assassin ability, may help the active player double-up on characters at that location. Thus, the Assassin's removal of a character here would not necessarily award the Assassin player the recruit. There's a sense of a sophisticated puzzle aspect to such a simple game.
The designers of City of Spies have incorporated the spy theme quite well within the game mechanics. While players will secretly place their spies face-down on a majority of the location spaces, many of these spaces allow the player to look at a hidden spy elsewhere on the board. In a two-player game, this won't have a huge affect, but in a four-player game it really invokes a sense of shrouded operatives and attempting to figure out who's trying to resolve which abilities to gain the recruit. The locations themselves also provide unique rules, and are in fact based on the real, actual locations in Estoril, Portugal. For instance, you aren't allowed to assassinate others at the Santo Antonio Church, dice will be rolled aplenty at the Casino Estoril, and the character with the lowest strength is pushed off a cliff to his death (character is removed from the game) at the Hell's Mouth chasm.
It's hard to really pinpoint why City of Spies works, but all the gameplay elements seem to blend well with one another. At first glance, it may seem like a simple party game, and while the rules themselves are simple, City of Spies is neither straightforward strategically, nor a party game. There's quite a bit of weight to be found in how to manage and manipulate the various special abilities and locations, but the game never feels difficult to comprehend. And between the characters, special abilities, location rules, location tile orientation, and mission tiles, there's a massive amount of variation and replayability to come by. City of Spies is one that I feel will surprise quite a few people. Though a bit too weighty for the gateway game tag, it's an ideal game for hobbyists, blending hand management, deck-building, and area control.
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As always, Scott, a fantastic review! You're probably my favourite reviewer out there, written or video. Now, about the game.....
I just can't get over how tense and thematic Estoril is! Definitely one of the best games of 2016 for me. Mind you, I've come to recognize that I love what I call "pass games": games where the rules require you to play a card, but really, you'd much rather pass and wait to see what your opponents are going to do! Yes, it's that painful!
Wow, thanks for the compliment! Glad you enjoy the reviews.
I know what you mean about the tension. Not something I really expected from the game, but a wonderful design. Loving it.
Wow, thanks for the compliment! Glad you enjoy the reviews.I know what you mean about the tension. Not something I really expected from the game, but a wonderful design.
Having read the rules in advance, I thought the game was going to be deathly boring and themeless...until I played it. How could I have been so wrong?
Great review I enjoyed reading your impressions of the game and you did a good job describing the gameplay and the tension - a excellent overview.
This game is one of our surprise hits of 2016 at our house. I think it's a very underrated game right now and I'm always trying to turn people on to it. There's lots of interaction and more depth than people would guess.
It's a fantastic game!