Creaking Shelves
United Kingdom
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This review was originally posted on the Creaking Shelves blog. Check it out at for more reviews and Kickstarter coverage.

Coolly, Jane surveyed the room. The guests were mingling, talking amiably, sipping at their drinks and snacking on the hors d’oeuvres. Jane, however, was not. She hated eggs.

At last, her target appeared at the head of the stairs. He strode smoothly down the stairs with the air of a man who’d done it all his life. The corners of Jane’s mouth twitched with the beginnings of a smile. She stepped forward, dress sliding without hitch over the gun concealed at her thigh.



“Down here!”

Jane stared down in shock. “What the hell are you doing in there!?”

“I’m under cover!” The bin flapped as he spoke.

“Well… what do you want!? I’m on a mission here!”

“Oh yes. We know! I’m here to offer you a job!”

Jane swung her head around as the pot plant behind her suddenly yelled, “Don’t listen to him! Work for us!”

“No! Ignore him! They’re an awful agency! Just spying on celebrities for the media. No real spy work.”

“We’re branching out.”

“So I see…”

Jane sighed as her target disappeared into the crowd.

Sub Rosa or, quite literally, done in secret, is a game of making secret bids on secretive spies while slyly manipulating the secret bids to ensure you get to secret the spies away in your super secret spy organisation. Whoever is able to sway the most spies steals the game. You’ll have no trouble concealing this game about your person either: made up of a mere 5 cards to be swayed and a handful of cardboard chits with which to be doing the swaying, this micro game will certainly fit the pocket of the most discerning spy.

Using your numbered chits, you’ll be bidding on the spy cards. All the spy cards. At once. You’ll need to choose your battles carefully. I suppose technically this is an area control game… but I feel uncomfortable ascribing ideas of control or conquest to the 5 female agents depicted on the spy cards, so we’re going with simultaneous auctions from here on out! You’ll be bidding in secret too, placing your chits face down making this a battle of wits rather than of calculation.

It is supremely quick, the game ending once all but one of your bidding chits are spent, so while you will only have 6 turns to take, that hardly means there is no story arc to experience. You’ll start off circling each other, putting out feelers, choosing where you want to fight and where you will ignore. The number of spy cards is always such that you won’t avoid rubbing up against your opponents, and this friction will inevitably lead to a conflagration of battles in the mid game. Your weapon in this period is not so much the chits in your hand as the agents themselves.

Much like real spies, each agent has a corresponding action associated with them that allows you to cause huge amounts of disruption, or to psych out your opponents. In fact each card has two sides with different powers, boosting the variability of the game nicely. The abilities can be used by playing the special starred chits you have available, but you only have two. Timing and careful selection of the actions are absolutely key here. This is as big a part of the game as the bidding itself, and getting the most out of the actions can put you in a very good position to win the game. The powers give you important strategic decisions to make at the start, and valuable tactical options during the late game, even if it means making a sub optimal bid in order to use them.

One of my favourite things to do when I’m not working or writing articles is infiltrating, and in Sub Rosa infiltrating will probably one of your favourite things to do too, because it lets you move any chit, yours or your opponents. Not only does this let you shore up one of your cards, it let’s you send two opponents into direct conflict over a card you don’t care about! Supremely fun to do! And raises the question of why would you do anything else?

This is Sub Rosa’s one weak spot. The powers create great variability in theory but they are not equally interesting. It’s like walking into a weapons locker in your favourite spy movie and seeing an array of different excellent pistols… and a shotgun. For example, on the reverse side of Infiltration is Diversion, the same action except the controlling player decides where it goes. It’s a fundamentally weaker version of Infiltration. It is slightly less mean, but other than for reducing the take-that element of the gameplay, I would never take Diversion over Infiltration, and I would only be disappointed if it came out randomly. Likewise, check out the Change Mission power:

Given that cards are functionally identical for scoring, swapping the position of two agent cards is completely pointless. With the exception of screwing with the Promote card and anyone who put their starred chits there. That’s not a bad interaction by any means, but when it’s the only interesting thing you can do with the power the overall decision space of the game is reduced. This isn’t true for the majority of the cards. False Intelligence is as fun as Infiltration, Reconnaissance has really interesting scope, Charm, Coup, Sabotage and Decoy are all quite powerful when timed well, put they’re not as consistently powerful as Infiltration and False Intelligence.

This is a minor criticism though! Complaining that Infiltration is ‘too fun’ is a bit like saying “this buffet is too delicious”. Especially when a degree of asymmetry might instead focus the fighting around certain cards more than others. None are so powerful as to be game breaking, and you can do extremely well by staying out the way and picking off cards around the edges. Likewise, this relative power level may well be a reflection of my limited time with the game; alternative strategies may evolve with time or with different players. The abilities remain an awesome part of the game, the core tricks that add spice and the entertainment of disrupting your opponent’s carefully laid plans.

The hidden bidding at the centre of Sub Rosa is tremendously cool, ensuring you rarely know how close you are to winning a card and the need to take multiple cards to win the game means you need to push your luck and manipulate like a super sleuth to win two cards. It’s easy to get the balance slightly wrong and end up with no cards at all. Which all comes together to make the final reveal such a great bit of theatre! The winners will be cheering, the losers bemoaning their luck and those still waiting for the other cards bouncing with anticipation.

There are lots of other layers to consider too, smaller things that don’t have as big an impact on the game but you’ll want to have in the back of your mind. Things like how the last chit placed on a card is worth one less than its face value, meaning you’ll want to get in as early as possible, but that the lowest placed chit decides who wins a tie. Or that the value of the chit left in your hand will decide an overall tied game – it doesn’t happen often but could be important. And then there’s the fact that the starred chits have to be placed face up, giving away information about your total bid. Can you use that to bluff your opponent into overcommitting to a card?

There are a surprising number of factors to consider when playing this ostensibly simple game, exactly what I’m looking for from a filler. Sub Rosa is not a game that strapped me to the table and threatened to cut me in half with its hyper laser of awesomeness. It’s a game that has you uncover its subtleties and its strategies over the course of a couple of plays and its so much more rewarding for that! Each game builds up from initial skirmishes through full on races with Mario Kart-esque disruption from the action cards, up to the brilliant final reveal. It keeps everyone engaged and messing with one another throughout. Yet the paucity of available moves makes timing the placement of each of your chits hugely important. Just great fun!

Rating: Special Agent

This review of Sub Rosa: Spies For Hire is based on a prototype copy of the game. Many thanks to Robin David and Nate Brett for making this available to me. Sub Rosa will be seeking funds on Kickstarter soon, and a Print and Play is currently available for free here:

This review was originally posted on the Creaking Shelves blog. Check it out at for more reviews and Kickstarter coverage.
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