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Graham Rutland
United Kingdom
Leyton
LONDON
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The full review, including images, can be enjoyed at LudimusinLondinio

If 80s Cold War fiction classic WarGames taught us anything it’s that, in nuclear war, “the only winning move is not to play” – and that you don’t leave whatever passes for AI at the time in charge of a freaking nuclear stockpile pointed at your neighbour. Would you leave Clippy from Microsoft Office in charge of the ICBMS? Yes, it would be amusing for all of half an hour – and then you would be trying to look after your three-eyed children.

Still, if there’s one setting that’s a comparatively under-explored hotbed of gaming potential in the face of myriad medieval offerings and umpteen utopia/dystopia scenes, it’s the Cold War – fifty-odd years of two superpowers racing each other to the international equivalent of the biggest backyard BBQ, the biggest fireworks display and, in a move of proto-hipsterism, getting to the unexplored, untouched moon before all the cool kids. As well as being a pathetic, half-century willy-waving contest of epic proportions, it’s also weird, as though the USA and then-USSR never actually engaged each other directly in conventional warfare, the numerous conflicts and struggles of the Cold War have been extensively, nay, exhaustively explored in film, TV and videogaming.

So why not to the same extent in tabletop gaming?

I suppose it’s that ‘everyone loses’ thing. Thankfully for all of us, nobody was daft enough to tuck their head between their knees and smack the red button for the first (and only) time – impressive given the war’s 46-year history and plenty of fallings out between the superpowers, although some wonderful urban myths persist around Boris Yeltsin hauling around a nuclear briefcase smashed off his tits in the final days of the USSR. Yet, when involving ourselves in any sort of Cold War fiction, the first thing we want to know is when the nuke is going to drop. We’re humans and we love the smell of fallout in the morning in a gaming context, if, indeed, it has a smell. That’s a problem in games when a nuclear weapon is invariably the ultimate reset button.

But if we take nuclear armageddon out of the equation for a second, what does the 20th century’s weirdest conflict offer up?

Spies, obviously. James Bond was essentially born from a culture of early Cold War spying and subterfuge, for goodness’ sake. American films still use Eastern Europe as the setting the moment any sort of cloak-and-dagger antics are afoot. Huge swathes of the brilliant Matt Damon-era Bourne films are set there as it’s an enormously strong association for our larger cousins across the Atlantic. For them, Europe = shady business – and they’d be right. I had a very fascinating couple of hours chatting to a Cold War-era intelligence officer – and shan’t repeat what I heard, but suffice it to say it adjusts your perspective on a lot of the late 20th Century. This, then, is the Cold War’s route into gaming.

Which is where we find ourselves with Cold War: CIA vs KGB’s so called ‘revised edition,’ which, so far as we can see, means it comes in a smaller box, which is an odd move for publisher Fantasy ‘BIGGER BOX WITH MORE PADDING’ Flight Games. But hey, all good.

There were lots of routes that could have been taken with this one. A Cold War-era Risk would have been superb, with borrowing of the Death Star mechanics from Risk’s Star Wars variant ably taking the place of nuclear weapons. Well, this isn’t what we have here. Neither is it a miniatures game in which T72 tanks get blown to pieces by Harrier jump jets. We’d like to play it, though. It isn’t even a Pandemic-esque boardgame that sees NATO trying to contain a constantly growing and evolving Communist threat – which we’d also like to play.

It also definitely isn’t a reskinned, amped up version of card gaming classic Blackjack spliced with Trumps. That would be silly and a little diminutive in our treatment of the historical significant subject matter.

Wait. What?

It is?

Oh. You’re sure?

This is the first reaction to expect when sitting down to play the game. All of the obvious gaming interpretations are off the table in favour of what can only politely and accurately be described as the spliced DNA of Blackjack and Trumps (that games you played with a deck of cards as kids before you became cool enough to learn Poker) on steroids. There really is no other way to describe it, so here goes:

Each turn, the American CIA and Soviet KGB (players 1 and 2) sit in front of two decks: Groups and Objectives. They then draw up a card from the Objectives deck in what is the first phase of the turn: Briefing. From a choice of 15 Nations or 6 Events, this card has in either case strength and points values and a population limit, the maximum number of Group cards each player may have in front of them this round. Nation cards are always a Cold War flashpoint country conferring anything from 10-30 points, while Event cards, worth just 5 points, reference a Cold War occurrence such as a nuclear test, Nobel Peace Prize or space launch. While worth a lot less, Event cards can crucially be discarded later in the game (and their 5 points along with them) to trigger a beneficial effect – and yes, when the nuclear weapons launch card is played, everyone loses out.

Play moves straight on to phase two: Planning. From their hands, the spymasters choose one of six spies and play them facedown as Agent X. These are ranked from 1-6 and are identical on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the only stipulation being that a spy played in Turn 1 goes on leave for Turn 2 and cannot be played again until Turn 3. Each has an effect at the end of the turn dependent on the winner:

#1: Master Spies flip the victory/defeat. At the end of a round in which the Master Spy is played, the winner loses and the loser wins.
#2: Deputy Directors are each side’s failsafe – while they have no effect on gameplay they are unable to be killed and refuse to go on leave. They prevent players from being totally eliminated or otherwise unable to play a spy and are always the final spy you will have left – while this will delight less able players, the lack of elimiation will frustrate the more bloodthirsty.
#3: Double Agents allow players to neutralise (but not kill) each other’s spies to put them out of action for a turn.
#4: Analysts allow a sneak peek at the top 3 cards of the deck next round and rearrangement of those cards.
#5: Assassins cost their handler victory that turn, the flipside being that the enemy agent is removed from the game: permanently.
#6: Directors invoke an element of doubling down: defeat leaves you with nothing, victory scores you not one but two Objectives.

Speaking of losers, the loser of the last round (determined with a flip of a coin for the game’s starting round) takes posession of the Balance Token and begins the third phase, Influence Struggle, by taking a card from the top of the Groups deck. This deck contains 24 cards split into four groups of values 1-6 each: Media, Political, Economic and Military. Just like in Blackjack, players continue to draw cards from this deck to come as close as possible not to 21, but to the strength value of the Objective card drawn, meaning the principle, if not the goal, is identical. Making things a lot more tense than Blackjack is the fact that this value is frequently in the 7-12 range. Even more tense than this, contests for Event cards are played on one card only to a value of 6. While they are no accidental self-eliminations in these rounds since 6 is the highest value that can be drawn, they come most purely down to luck of a single card draw, and are nice palate cleansers between longer struggles for territories.

In a further departure from actual Blackjack, players do not draw cards one after the other until Sticking or Busting. Instead, players take turns. This is important, as each drawn Group card has an ability. Instead of drawing for their turn, players can invoke the ability of one of the Group cards in front of them, tapping it and resolving the effect. Political cards allow players to steal Groups from or foist Groups off on one another provided the end result sees no player ‘go bust’ (‘incite instability’ in the game’s parlance). Military cards allow for the removal of enemy Groups whilst Economic cards instead neutralise them, preventing them from using their abilities. The most interesting, in a Blackjack context, are the Media cards, which allow a sneak peek at the next card in the deck – this can then be added to a player’s Group cards, discarded or placed back on top of the deck. Make no mistake, while this plays like Blackjack on one level, the sheer screwing around with each other’s runs is something you don’t see in your local casino. Players can approach the point of wanting to stick many times in a round, only to have their run wiped out and start again.

This continues until one of three conditions is met:

One of the players incites instability in the region by exceeding its strength value with their Group cards – going over 21 in Blackjack. Just as Blackjack players who go bust lose their bet, so players of Cold War lose whichever spy they committed to the round;

Both players pass consecutively, in effect ‘Sticking’ as in a game of Blackjack;

Both players have drawn to the population limit of the card being fought over.

At this point, the fourth phase, Ceasefire, is entered and either the player with the highest total in front of them wins (just as in Blackjack) or the game moves to tiebreaking when the totals are the same. Each Objective card is influenced by the four Groups to different degrees. Starting with the influence to which the contested Objective is most susceptible, players check what value of cards from that group they have in front of them. For example, the Greece card is affected, from strongest to weakest, by Politics, Military, Media and Economy (oh, the irony). In a tiebreaker, the player with the highest value of Politics cards in front of them would win Greece. In the event of a tie at this stage, the next influence (in this case, Military) is moved onto until a winner emerges.

Except victory is still not assured even at this point, only dominance. The dominating player places their CIA or KGB marker over the Objective. Play moves to the fifth phase of Debriefing and spies are then revealed and triggered from lowest to highest value. Each spy has a different trigger depending on whether or not the CIA or KGB have dominated the round. A CIA Master Spy can turn a KGB landslide into an American victory after all (or, as is hilariously seen in some games, totally balls it up and hand a watertight victory to the enemy), while a Communist assassin dominating the Objective instead forfeits it to kill the CIA spy. The shrewd CIA op sending their Director into the field claims both the contested Objective and that on the bottom of the deck – and these are just a few of the possible outcomes. The triggers are resolved in this manner and the spies played, assuming they have survived this far, go on leave, unable to be played next round (the Deputy Director notwithstanding).

This is an incredibly interesting stage of the game in which the unexpected can happen, and it’s only once this phase is resolved that the outcome is clear. Initially, it does feel tacked on and like two separate games are being played – and more than a little random. There’s a feeling of having the Blackjack phase that contests the Objective, and this phase, which feels like Trumps and only enhances victory or defeat. New players especially will throw spies into the ring at random and hope that they’ve picked one that benefits them.

It takes a little while to eke out the potential interplay between the two phases, and players need to think, generally speaking, over two turns when setting up certain combinations – although these are still limited to what is essentially setting up the shot in turn one and taking it in turn two. Quite often the combinations played see the Analyst, Double Agent or Assassin pave the way in one turn for the Director, Master Spy or Deputy Director in the next. An Assassin or Double Agent can do away with their opposite number on the other side so the Director can safely take to the field, while an Analyst can help a Master Spy stack the deck so that a pitiful run of Group cards is drawn and the round ‘lost’ on purpose, only for the Master Spy to reverse matters. Indeed, this same Master Spy is the most difficult to play, with players deliberately trying to lose giving themselves away instantly. Worse, the bland, ability-less Deputy Director doesn’t really lend himself to any combinations at all.

This clash of spies, then, while interesting, does still feel too disjointed from the rest of the game if not played a particular way, and even then, the strategic scope is limited to a few, repeated combinations of characters that your opponent will soon pick up on and anticipate, whilst you quite often find that the same spies on each side simply end up meeting, rumbling each other and going home. It’s more Spy Kids than Spy vs Spy. Matters could have been shaken up enormously by not having the exact same identities from 1-6 on both sides. While this makes for a very balanced clash of spies, perhaps that’s the actual problem, with no one side having a dominating strength or exploitable weakness. There’s the potential to argue that the revelation of spies, rather than affecting future rounds as they largely do, could have taken place at the start of the round at hand, affecting that instead.

Whatever your feelings on this penultimate phase of the turn, unless a Master Spy was played, the final phase of Détente is entered and the dominating player claims the Objective and its points as their own and comes a step closer to the 100 points required to win the game.The Deputy Director aside, any surviving agents go on leave for the next turn and a new turn is started and followed in exactly the same way until one player achieves 100 points and wins the game.

It hopefully sounds straightforward because it is. It’s wonderfully accessible to anyone who has played either Blackjack or Trumps - and without wanting to over-generalise, who hasn’t? It’s also a little game, and we always like these at LIL. All told it comprises just 59 standard-size playing cards and even the score cards, Balance and Dominance Tokens, while assistive to new or early players, can be dropped once participants know their way around the game – a player’s score is immediately apparent from looking through their scored Objectives, whilst Dominance tokens simply highlight (for all of about ten seconds) the obvious that can be read from the Group cards a player has arrayed in front of them. Likewise, the Balance token simply indicates that which both players should already know: who lost the last round. With or without the extra tokens, that means the entire Cold War: CIA vs KGB experience, can fit into your pocket and be played between larger games of something else, as there is no reason why the score limit can’t be adjusted to 25 or 50 for quicker games.

Criticisms beyond the disjointed feel between the Debriefing and Influence phases also run to the 2-player stipulation. Real Blackjack is played against a house who, typically, must draw to 16 and stand on 17 or more – these work out to about 75% and 80% of the final goal of 21 respectivelyand introduce a predictable human/AI hybrid that must follow the same rules each time. I don’t pretend to know offhand how you might successfuly implement this element into the game, but the United Nations is notably absent as an AI factor, and currying favour with the UN to disparage the other player would have added an even more delicious dimension of screwing each other over to the game. There are also no 1-player rules, increasingly in vogue in many games, and yet one, solitary, lonesome soul can sit down at a Blackjack table in your local casino and play knowing that the dealer must go to 16 and stand on 17 or more.

On that same thought, though as many players as you can reasonably fit around a table can play Blackjack, no more than 2 can play this game, and that’s hard to adapt for: the Objective deck seems to have been rather purposefully crafted – either one player takes the 100 points through successive victories over the first 5 or 6 rounds, or both players end up running the deck down to its final cards on anything from 80-95 points each. Victory in Cold War: CIA vs KGB is either a massacre or a close-run thing, and we feel equal parts pleased and suspicious of this slightly artificial rubber banding of the divide between players. This, coupled with the Deputy Director card, keeps novices in until the final play, but lacks some of the brutalism that will keep experienced spymasters interested.

We also lament that there will never be enough cards to accommodate more than two players – and that’s a shame. While the game tries to remain historically accurate, there would have been no harm in including territories that didn’t end up contested during the Cold War to give players a sense of crafting their own Cold War history rather than following the real thing, which, as I said at the start of the review, was basically a lot of saber-rattling followed by neither a clear winner or loser, the ‘fall’ of the USSR aside – and let’s say no more about that before this turns really political. This would also then have meant that a whole host of other Factions from either side of the Iron Curtain could have been involved: MI6, Mossad, the Stasi, the French DGSE to name just a few straight off the top of my head. At a simple level, a 2 player game would have seen players start off with a choice, with each agency perhaps conferring a special bonus and having a slightly different set of abilities in its lineup of spies.

Plus, in larger games, there would not need to be any stipulation whereby agencies from the same side of the Iron Curtain co-operate – just ask Chancellor Merkel about the NSA and her phonecalls as a point of reference. This could have introduced even more subterfuge and distrust to the Cold War experience, and a 3-player fan variant does exist that we aim to check out as soon as possible. We may even look into crafting an LIL homebrew using this game as a basis – watch this space.

We still like Cold War: CIA vs KGB a lot, and we’re asking it to tread a very fine line between accessibility and complexity, which is unfair, since the game resolutely sets out its stall with its Blackjack and Trumps influences and small scale – this is meant to be a simple game, enjoyable and accessible by all, and there’s another factor that adds to this accessibility – it’s cheap. In fact, it might just be the cheapest game we’ve bought here at LIL beyond a pack of 52 standard playing cards, and we had change left over from a ten-pound note. But my worry nevertheless is that successive plays by players who get more and more capable at the game, even with the element of luck that the Blackjack elements provide, will see the game become stale and repetitive, and for me personally that worry extends to another game: I haven’t mentioned it as yet, but part of my reason for reviewing this game is because a Star Wars reskin, entitled Empire vs Rebellion, is imminent, and I fancied a sneak peek at what was to come.

There is no word yet on whether or not new mechanics will be added – it is my hope that they will be.

I for one really look forward to getting my homebrew on with this game, and you’ve been very patient in getting through to the end, so:

*Let’s translate the title of the review. Repeat after me in your best Russian accent:

Bleck-jeck to-va-reesh
It’s Blackjack, Comrade!

and it’s also a:

3/5

I liked:
+ Cheap – as in ‘change from a tenner’ cheap, except very well built for that price;
+ Founded on two games that nearly everybody has played – Blackjack and Trumps - meaning it is incredibly accessible whilst refining and developing both concepts;
+ Quick, easy-to-follow rounds;
+ Adaptable for shorter or longer games by modifying the goal score, making it great for longer conflicts or quick between-games palate cleansers;
+ Brings the Cold War setting to the tabletop – more please!
+ Incredibly compact – another one to keep in your pocket!
+ Unashamedly refuses to tread the line between simple and complex, opting instead for the former.

Watch out for:
- Lack of asymmetric play between the two sides feels like a missed opportunity – the CIA and KGB are literally indistinct. Further factions or special bonuses for each side would have been awesome. This could have been added in as an advanced rule for experienced players;
– The Debriefing phase feels disjointed from the Influence phase;
– Combinations between spies are limited and become predictable, whilst newer players will simply play spies at random;
– 2 players – no more, no fewer.

You might also like: A hand of Blackjack among friends or at your local casino – not that I’m encouraging gambling for money, which you do at your own risk. Any of the umpteen variants of Top Trumps are also worth a look if you want to get a feel for the Debrief. The Edge battles of the Star Wars Living Card Game bear a passing resemblance to the Debriefing phase of this game, but form only part of a much more complex experience. Twilight Struggle is another card-driven, Cold War-themed game that we’d like to check out in the future which does seem to incorporate some of the elements we suggested this game might have followed at the start of the review. Finally, once it launches, Empire vs Rebellionwill stand as a Star Wars reskin of this game as a mimium – and hopefully more besides.
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