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[Review] Spy!

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Joined: 03/23/2011

For a while, Kosmos’ two-player games have reigned supreme, and still do to a certain degree (although Crocodile Pool Party does make one wonder). But in recent years, other companies have started to issue their own series of small-boxed games; and the competition is growing. Uberplay has done this recently, releasing several “small box” games, including Spy (Uberplay, 2004 - Reiner Knizia). Spy has all the earmarks of a Kosmos two-player game, and if it wasn’t for the box size (smaller than that of the Kosmos’ series), I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.

The difference is that Uberplay’s small box games are often able to be played by more than two players, and Spy is no exception. Although I think it’s a fine two-player game, even an excellent (albeit light) one; it also works fairly well with more than two players. The game is vastly superior with two, and works well, as long as only one or two rounds are played. The game isn’t as good as some of Knizia’s other works, such as Lost Cities or Schotten Totten, but is fun, fast, and easy to play with a rummy-type feel; and it has seen a lot of play in my circles.

Twelve “Target” cards are arranged face-up in two rows in the middle of the table. Six of them show secret hiding places (hat, glasses, cigarette lighter, watch, camera, and pen), and the others show six continents, each in a different color ( yellow Africa, purple Australia, red North America, blue South America, orange Europe, and green Asia). One spy token is placed on top of each card, with the remainder of the spy tokens divided equally to the remainder of the players. A deck of 108 cards is shuffled, and each player is dealt a hand of three cards with the remainder forming a draw pile. Each card is a combination of one continent and one secret hiding place. One player is chosen to start, and then play goes in a clockwise order.

On their turn, if a player has three cards in their hand, they MUST play one of the cards on the table in front of them, keeping the card “on call”. After this, the player optionally may try to carry out a Mission. They do this by playing cards from their hand and/or table of one suit. The player discards all cards played and places spy tokens on the Target card that matches the suit of all cards played. The number of tokens placed on the Target card is the difference between the amount of tokens already on the card, and the amount of cards played. (If Bill plays four orange cards, and there are two tokens already on the orange Target card; he places two of his spy tokens on the card, bringing the total on that card up to four.) A player may carry out as many missions as they can on their turn, if they so choose.

After this, a player must draw one card and add it to their hand. The round ends when one player runs out of spy tokens. This player is then declared the winner, if the game consists of only one round; otherwise, the other players score penalty points for each token still in their possession. After one round for each player in the game is played, whoever has the least penalty points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: I really like the size of Uberplay’s small box games. They’re square, sturdy, small, yet hold the components very well. This one is no exception and has a very nice plastic insert that holds the cards and tokens well. The Spy tokens are black with a pair of “spy” eyes staring at the gamer and are of decent quality. The cards, also of good quality, are very well designed with the symbols being very clear. I especially like the continent suits. While most people will just call out the colors, rather than the name of the continent, the different shapes will help color-blind folk. Also, the continent symbol and hiding place symbol are on the card five times, making it very clear which components are on each card. The box is black, with “spit” type artwork, wrapping up the game in a fairly attractive package.

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on a small four-page booklet - white font with a black background, helping with the theme of the game. The game is very simplistic, so the four pages are used to show some colored pictures and illustrations. The game is easy to teach - I was able to explain it in less than a minute to some people - and the strategies were simple to pick up. I would compare the difficulty setting to just below that of Lost Cities.

3.) Players: The back of the box states that the game is for two to four players, and that the game is “very good for two players”. I have to agree wholeheartedly. While a multiplayer game adds some interesting facets not found in a two player game, it also adds a lot of chaos that really isn’t that necessary for a light game of this flavor. The two player game was much more interesting, and there was less information to keep track of. With so many good multiplayer game fillers out there, I doubt I’ll ever bring this out as a multiplayer game, keeping it on my two- player shelf instead.

4.) Rounds: I very much recommend only playing one round, because the game can a bit tiresome for some when played with more than one round. It’s also not fun to try to overcome a point deficit. We preferred to just play the next round as a rematch, with the score boards cleared.

5.) Strategy and Fun Factor: The game has the exact same tension that I feel in a Rummy game. How long will you hoard your cards? One ends up watching like a hawk the cards the other player places in front of them, wondering just what three cards are in the other player’s hand? It’s also interesting (and fiendishly fun) to play cards of the same suit the opposing player is planning to play - the turn before they do so. Of course, when the same thing happens to you, the fun isn’t so great; but still, it makes the game interesting. Players can have heaps of cards in front of them, hoping for a few huge missions that will assure them the lead; or accomplish every mission the moment they can, hoping to keep the other player at bay, making their missions less useful. Or a player can mix and match these strategies. There is nothing brain-burning about the game; the strategies are short and simple. Do you accomplish missions this turn or not? And there is some luck of the draw, but the tactical nature of the game just demands that you plan around the cards you get.

I really enjoyed this game; it was short and simple, fast and fun. It’s been a while since a played a short, fun two-player game of this stature, one that is enjoyable, simple, and yet addicting. I’ve played it with several people; but the lone judge, the one with whom it must pass its most excruciating test is my wife. And she loves it, and immediately wanted to play another game after our first, which is a rarity with the two- player genre. It’s a terrific game for couples, and even heavy gamers will enjoy it as a distraction. But on the pile of games my wife likes, this one is rising to the top; and I certainly don’t mind.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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