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Subject: Eam's Review #18, from when the game was new rss

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Eamon Bloomfield
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In the 12-year life span of SPI, they tried to create a game which would appeal to the general gamer market. Russian Civil War, After the Holocaust, Conquistador, all tried but failed. Due to the complexity of the rules, the sheer size of the game, or the obscurity of the subject, such games only met with limited success. All of this might have changes with Spies. Spies focuses on the five major powers in pre-war Europe and the lead-up to the outbreak of WWII.

(Before the review, I think I should say that I went for my annual visit to see Sid Sackson and his wife, Bernice. He told me, in 1981, that he had contributed his skills to this game after SPI (who were based in New York, where Sid lived), had ‘hit a brick wall’ in their attempts to make the game playable. I don’t know definitely what Sid’s input was but he thought it had gone well. Sid had a connection with SPI for many years. Old gamers will remember that he wrote mini-reviews for their Moves magazine).

Back to Spies c.1981 again. During a turn, an event tile is played. It affects any spy in any city listed on the tile. A player may then move his spies around the board, trying to pick up foreign secrets to return to his home country, to cash in for money. Along the way, police may try to intercept a spy, or a counter-spy may appear, to arrest the spy. The object of the game is to capture as many foreign secrets as you can whilst preventing friendly secrets falling into the wrong hands. It is an extremely simple game (by SPI standards) and, yet, there is no end to the various strategies that can be employed by each country.

Spies’ appeal to the inexperienced gamer is obvious. With a small four-page rules booklet (approximately equal to one page of SPI standard rules in other games), the game takes about 15 minutes to learn.. The large print on the map and the lack of hexes, remove the wargamer look. Spies’ lack of dice means that skill will be rewarded and you need not consult any complex combat tables.

Experienced gamers should not shy away from this game. There are several features that can, and should, be added to make the game more challenging. Each player should be allotted three minutes in which to complete their move and this time limit should be strictly enforced (there are seven turns in a five player game). In addition, diplomacy should occur only during the turn of one of the players wishing to negotiate. Such rules will greatly reduce the playing time; players will find that three minutes passes very rapidly. Those looking for a real challenge should reduce this time limit to two minutes.

This is an extremely well balanced game; in my games the order of finish has often been radically different. The five countries can be divided into two groups, the central countries and the outer countries. Germany, Italy and France comprise the former, and Russia and Great Britain the latter. The central countries are in an ideal position to gain secrets. France has easy access to Great Britain and Africa. Germany has easy access to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and Italy has easy access to the European Mediterranean nations plus North Africa. Whilst their central location has these benefits, it also makes them good targets. Germany borders on all four other countries (airlines make the countries adjacent). France borders on three other countries. Italy only borders on one other country but is within easy striking range of Britain and Germany. The central countries must play offensively in the extreme, trying to obtain as many secrets as possible. It is usually hopeless to let these countries try to hold back spies to protect their friendly secrets, since too many enemy spies will enter the country during the course of the game. Rarely do central countries end the game in possession of friendly secrets.

The outer counties are in a different position. Whilst their access to foreign secrets is more difficult, their own secrets are protected by their distance from other countries. Britain, actually, is not that far away from the majority of the action, since it borders on France and Germany and, generally, many enemy spies will enter Britain once the supply of secrets in Central Europe has been depleted. Only Germany has rapid access to Russia via the Berlin-Moscow airline, but if NKVD units are placed in Moscow, use of this route is hindered. Because of the distance between Russia and foreign capitals, other countries will usually only send their spies to Russia after most of the secrets on the board have been captured. The outer countries do not usually capture as many secrets as the central countries, but they often manage to retain some their original secrets, and often a game is decided on the value of these secrets. Counterspies are of little value to Britain and Russia. Part of the victory point’s scoring rules is that secrets become more valuable the nearer the start of the war. Each country has a multiplier for each year up to 1939. A secret found in 1935 might only be worth the printed value times, say, three. But if retained as a friendly secret or captured in the last turn, its value might be multiplied by as much as ten. This scoring system is an exciting way of building to a climax (and I think this was Sid’s idea).

Players must use diplomacy to reap the benefits of event tiles and to prevent a single player from taking too great a lead. Each player starts the game with ten event tiles. Gaining an advantage from the three (neutral) white tiles might not need negotiation; however the seven coloured tiles received, usually list friendly cities, and since players do not receive money or action chits for a friendly spy in a friendly city, diplomacy is an essential part of the game.

The example of such diplomacy is as follows; the German player wishes to play tile Ge6. He negotiates a deal with the British player where to move his spies in order to obtain action chits from the play of the event tile. In this instance he allows the British player to move his spies into Essen, Hamburg and Berlin. The German police units do not search for these spies. In exchange for the information and the actions of the German player, the British player gives the German player three of the six chits he received from the event tile. In diplomacy, chits may be exchanged, money loaned or spies exempted from being searched and, even, in extreme cases, a ‘jackal’ may be hired to prey on a victim.

Players may find that they lack action chits or financial resources to use all their spies in one turn. In such instances, players should position their spies in foreign cities where they will be able to collect action chits or cash from event tiles. Even if you do not have an appropriate card to reward your man in a foreign city, he will be suitably affected even if another player plays a tile for that city. Geneva and Istanbul are two examples of such cities; they are free of foreign police units and feature on many of the event tiles. Players who possess papers or escape chits may find it more profitable to occupy foreign capitals, for these cities are listed on far more tiles than the spy-haven cities like Geneva and Istanbul. Berlin is on 20 tiles, London on 18, Moscow and Paris on 17 and Rome on 15.

Rule Change and Clarification
One major change is needed when playing with fewer than five players. The rules states that Germany and Italy are to be controlled by one player. Whilst this is feasible in a two player game, it unbalances a three or four player game.
By adhering to this rule, it leads to a barrier down the centre of the map through which no player may safely pass. In the four player game it is better for one player to control Russia and Britain and, as the rules state, they should be run independently and not as in an alliance. In a three player game, combining Britain with Germany and France with Italy prevents any North-South blockage.
One additional clarification is necessary. The rules state that friendly secrets may be placed anywhere in friendly territory. It is important to note that France has territory in North Africa, and Britain has territory in the Middle East. Secrets may be deployed in these areas.

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steve mizuno
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A couple of observations, and then a comment.

The history of Sid Sackson's involvement in the game is quite interesting. I actually love this game, and if Sackson was involved in the design, he's probably a large part of the reason.

Most games, unless you have guys doing things that are pretty odd, all countries SHOULD retain at least one secret. No spy can steal a secret from a 4 value police unit. So at least one secret should be retained by each country until the end of the game. Failure to protect your highest value secret can lose the game for you.

Your comment about counterspies seems a little odd. Counterspies tend to never trap a spy within the borders of an enemy country. The reason for this is because players are loathe to waste cash and discovery chits on a non-cousin spy operating inside an enemy country. This means that almost all secret theft within an enemy country is conducted by one spy, Cousin, the 4 value spy. This spy is, according to the rules, immune to Counterspies. The only time a counterspy tends to capture an enemy spy is when that player is taking what they realize to be a pretty significant risk.

The comments about tile usage are right on, and although you only allude to this fact, I think you should have come out and stated it more clearly. Your own spies cannot collect chits or cash for cities listed on an event tile within your own country's borders. This dramatically effects tile play. However, if an enemy, or neutral city is listed on one of your own tiles, you can collect cash and chits for having a spy in that city.

Perhaps it was just my gaming group, but we did (actually, I did) extensive analysis of what tiles in what years produced the most chits and cash in certain specific cities, and often enemy players camped out in certain popular cities, such as Berlin. The German player, especially, often would refuse to play these tiles, as he did not want to build out the chit hand of the other players. And as you saw players placing spies in specific cities, often other spies would also be attracted to those cities, in order to not "miss out" on the potential for action chits and cash. Negotiation for chits and cash is also difficult to do, as you would have to somehow, in a very short period of time, make an arrangement with another player. This tipped off the rest of the players around the table as to the probably location of a lucrative chit or cash pull, so this would many times produce a situation in which any arrangement would be complicated by the other 3 players at the table. My group was particularly cutthroat, so would often refuse to play tiles that would benefit other players more than it would benefit an ally or the player in question.

As to the outer countries/inner countries secret retention issue - Spies! has a particularly visible leader board. All the secrets left at any time are clearly visible (although their point value is not). Often, the fact that Russia, for example, or Britain, has 3 or 4 secrets remaining will prompt the other players in the game to setup for a massive raid on the country with the most secrets remaining - particularly near the end of the game. This will mean that even if it is somewhat more difficult to get to them, all it takes is a relay team to get a secret back to your capitol to cash it in. Generally this only requires one additional spy to be placed in a good handoff location. So although it is more inconvenient to assault a non-central power, it happens... and it happens because players who know the game know that to fail to do this hands the game to those players who happened to be placed on the edge of the map. My group was particularly good at organizing for these relay races.

Now to the question:

Did you use my player aid spreadsheet to identify the frequency of certain cities on the event tiles? If you used my spreadsheet to add in the number of event tiles on which certain cities are noted (and I don't know if you did or not), perhaps you should also have mentioned that I generated this very valuable player aid - and the existence of the aid in the files area. The listing took me hours to produce, and I have only received four thumbs for this.
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Eamon Bloomfield
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Very good post. I wrote this review in the early 80's, and I haven't played the game for at least 20 years, so I am a little rusty when it comes to remembering details. Now, anyone reading your response gets your clarifications, which is very good.

I didn't use your spread-sheet, I didn't even know it existed. Maybe I should have looked, but I didn't. Between us, we can be happy that we have properly sorted this game out.

I was an early board gamer 30 years ago. There weren't many like me and no internet so I couldn't find like minds. I also had a shop, the second, I believe after Games Centre. I visited Sid every year when I went to the New York Toy Fair in February. If I'm honest, it was Sid who attracted me to New York, not the Toy Fair. I rewrote this review mainly because of the Sid connection. I hoped it would interest people to know this small detail in his life.
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steve mizuno
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Great! I think you should take a look at it, its something I'm rather proud about. I'm glad there is at least one other real fan of the game. I don't know why this one has never been reprinted. To me, it is an exceedingly interesting game, with a lot of replayability. Do you remember the SPIES! tournament at Pacific Origins?
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Eamon Bloomfield
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No but a pity, I lived in England then and it would have quite a trek to Origins (and expensive).
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SIMONE DONNINI
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soltan gris wrote:
Great! ... I'm glad there is at least one other real fan of the game...


+1 Add another fan of this game, mainly for the theme
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