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W. Eric Martin
Rarely do you learn about a game and immediately wonder why it doesn't bear the licensing of some well-known IP, but should you bring Destination X to the table, you will undoubtedly share the same thought I did: If this game had a Carmen Sandiego license, it would kill wallets across the U.S. game market.
By chance, Pressman Toy introduced Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Card Game in mid-2017 as a Target-exclusive title, and while that game is a decent deduction design, Destination X — designed by Bård Tuseth and Kristian Amundsen Østby and released by Norwegian publisher Aporta Games — does a far better job of channeling the edutainment experience of Carmen Sandiego and is a more interesting game to boot, at least for most of those playing it.
As with other spy-themed games such as Scotland Yard, in Destination X one player is the spy who is hiding somewhere and the other players are detectives who are trying to find the spy. The game includes 197 destination cards that represent the 193 UN member states and four areas that claim statehood and have some international recognition: Palestine, Taiwan, Kosovo, and The Vatican. The game includes a thick handbook that repeats the information shown on the reverse side of these cards, in addition to other information that isn't listed.
To start a round, the spy lays out six destination cards at random, then chooses one of them to be their secret location. The detectives shuffle a deck of 16 investigative cards, then each take a hand of three. On a turn, the active detective plays an investigative card from hand and draws a new card, then the spy reveals information from the handbook about their destination that relates to the card played. If the detective plays the area card, for example, you give the size of the destination in square meters; if they play the government card, you reveal the nature of that destination's government, typically republic or monarchy; if they play history, you reveal a detail about the destination such as "Former Spanish colony" or "Was part of the Mongol Empire".
After learning this bit of information, the detectives must remove one of the six country cards from play. If they remove the card that matches the spy's location, the spy wins; otherwise the next detective plays a card — perhaps population, language, or GDP per capita — then the spy reveals that detail about their location. At any time, the detectives can guess where they think the spy is, with this guess either winning or losing the round for the detectives.
Seven of the sixteen investigative cards
All of this sounds relatively straightforward and not much more than a trivia game, but the twist comes from the combination of two elements: (1) at the end of a round, whether the spy wins or loses, they lay out six new destination cards, choose a new hiding place, then the next detective in turn order chooses an investigative card to play, and (2) the first side to win three rounds wins the game, yet the detectives have only 16 cards for the entire game. This tiny deck is what puts the screws on the detectives, limiting their ability to pepper the spy for information over and over again until they narrow the choices to a near-certain candidate. Sure, the detectives can play four or five cards in a round before guessing a location, but if they miss one of those guesses, they've put themselves in a hole for the rest of the game.
Destination X rewards detectives for making smart choices. If you look at the destination cards on display – each of which shows the name and flag of the destination, along with a dot on the globe showing where it's located — you can sometimes choose an investigative card that will eliminate one half of the cards in a single go. Sometimes, depending on what the spy chose and what you play, you might have the answer handed to you immediately. In one round, I chose Cuba as my hiding place, and the first investigative card played was "Capital". For this card and a few others, the spy gives only partial answers (e.g., the first letter) because the full answer would give away too much info; even so, my answer of "H" put a flashing beacon on Cuba, and the detectives played only one follow-up card to confirm this choice before selecting it.
Handbook vs. card back, with underlines showing what the spy gives as an answer
Detectives are limited to cards in hand, though, so sometimes they just have to wing it as they won't have any ideal choices, but their need to wing it will also depend on the spy's ability to pick a good hiding place. If five of the destination cards are in Asia and you choose Guatemala to be contrary, then the playing of the Atlantic Ocean investigative card will give you away immediately. You just have to hope the detectives would think it fruitless to play such a card (or the language investigative card, or the history card or the agriculture card — okay, Guatemala is pretty much a terrible choice if you otherwise have five Asian countries in play).
This brings up the odd role in the game, that of the spy. You have to make a good choice at the start of the round, one that will ideally force the detectives to burn at least three cards before having a hint of your location, but you do nothing other than reveal information from the handbook while trying not to reveal other information by staring at the card you chose or letting the detectives see that you're looking at the front of the handbook (because then they'd know the country starts with a letter early in the alphabet) or smiling when a detective says something the reveals they're thinking of the wrong destination. All of your effort in the game is at the start of the round, then you sit and wait and hope the detectives can't detect you.
As I've learned over two games on a review copy, both with three players and both with me as the spy (and different detective teams), listening to the detectives' banter and watching them squirm is enjoyable, but if you're hoping for something more active and Mr. X-y, then you better sit on the other side of the table so that you can be the one asking the questions.
Destination X does contain a few other twists that I haven't experienced yet, partly due to my limited playing time, but mostly due to all of us players not being geography buffs. First, you can simply increase the number of destination cards in play to even the odds against knowledgable detectives. (For young players and, ahem, those who don't know a great deal about different countries, you can give the full answer for the capital or name of the currency instead of only the first letter. Learning might ensue!)
Second, the game includes seven red-starred investigative cards that can replace the starred cards in the normal deck, and these cards provide even less information than normal to the detectives. Instead of simply playing the religion card and getting the religion spit back at you by the spy — in shorthand, mind you, with the spy saying "Christian" instead of "Roman Catholic Christian" — you must instead choose to ask whether Christianity (or Islam or Buddhism) is a major religion in this destination. Instead of asking whether the destination is on the Indian (or Pacific or Atlantic) Coast, you ask simply whether it's on a coast at all. Heck, one of the questions is whether they drive on the left or right side of the road!
Third, the "Mission: Impossible" variant is for those with large tables and encyclopedic knowledge. The players lay out all 197(!) destination cards, then the spy writes down their location. The detective chooses any of the 16 investigative cards and learns the appropriate info, then must eliminate at least ten destination cards from play before playing the next investigative card. If the detective manages the find the right needle in this worldly haystack, they score points equal to the number of unplayed investigative cards, then players can reverse roles to see who does the job better. A true "where in the world" challenge worthy of an absent license!
Where will you hide this time?