When I was first asked to play I, Spy, my mind immediately took me back to the children’s guessing game where the spy says something like “I spy with my little eye…” and gives a clue about the letter the object starts with and then players have to guess the object. This game has been played with me and my kids thousands of times and when I heard that title, I just got a little queezy inside from flashbacks of playing in the moving car where you had to guess really quick before you passed the object by while getting car sick. To say the least, I had no desire to play it. But, after I sat down and started to give it a try, I knew that there was something good here under that terrible title. Couldn’t they have called it “Web of Lies”, “Lose Lips Sync Ships” or even “World War I Spies”? Anything but I, Spy!
What is I, Spy About?
I, Spy is a game about trying to gain the most power and influence for your empire while not letting other players know the identify of that empire. You take on the role of a spy who is secretly working behind the scenes during the turbulent period of pre-World War I Europe. As a spy, your goal is to carry out various actions that will help your nation to advance on the global Power track through the accumulation of Influence points while also working against your opponents to degrade their power base. Sounds pretty innocuous, I know. Almost like “I spy with my little eye…”. But, the most important task that you have been given is to protect the identity of your employer nation, as if you are discovered, it will make it easy for the other spies to go about destroying your nation.
Each player will start with an identical deck of 12 action cards that they will use to carry out actions. In this deck, there are two cards that are directly aligned to each of the 6 nations including Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russian. When these cards are played, at the end of the round, they will provide Influence to that nation based upon the number of symbols of that nation printed on the card. Each of these cards has a different action and if a player wants to use a specific action, they know that it will provide Influence to a particular nation at the end of the round. For example, if you wish to use the mighty 4 space Overnight Line to move across the map more quickly, this will give Germany Influence and while trying to Sabotage a capital city, you will assist Italy with Influence. These actions include all types of options for the spies, including traveling, either by railway or by airship, taking Influence from nations, harassing other spies by “tagging” them to steal their cards, their money or to get a look at their secret Alignment token, or blackmailing them to be able to put some politicians in your pocket for end round scoring. In order to help your own cause though, you will be helping others. But you must manage this and stay in close contact until you are ready to make your big move.
The spies can also visit capital cities in their travels, including London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Budapest and St. Petersburg, where they can perform special actions such as raising funds and attempt to influence politicians, which includes Control, Empower or Scandalizing. Each of these abilities manipulates the politicians by either moving them around the board, replacing them or placing one of your control markers on them that allows you to know their abilities as they are hidden from all players. This is a truly important aspect of the game that cannot be overlooked as certain politicians can influence the scoring rounds and knowing that can affect your decisions in between scoring rounds.
Three of these capital cities (London, Berlin and Budapest) allow spies to recruit agents or assets that will provide some benefit to various actions taken throughout the game. These assets can include an Assassin, Informant, Journalist, Banker, or my personal favorite, the Anarchist, who allows for one additional Influence to be removed when taking the Incite Sedition or Sabotage actions. These assets are not cheap however, as they cost between 4-10 Supply Tokens (gold coins), which can be pretty difficult to come by. After having played, I can see the power in making sure you have several assets as their abilities make your actions that much more effective.
But the heart of the game is taking actions that will directly benefit your own nation, while not seeming too obvious about it, which will blow your cover and be akin to chumming the water for sharks as it will bring the predators in. You also must pay attention to the other players to try and deduce who they represent through their actions. If you can ever deduce who it is they are working for, it will make your efforts to destroy them that much easier.
Scoring takes place based upon the amount of Influence each nation has at the end of a Scoring Round, after being influenced and changed by politicians, and differing amounts of Power points will be awarded for 1st Place, 2nd Place, etc. During the first few scoring rounds, there isn’t much of a difference between the scores, but as the game grows later, the rewards will increase and make it much more enticing to push the limits and risk your identity to make sure your nation’s Influence is highest that round.
At the end of the game, each player is allowed to guess the country of all other spies. Additional points are scored for each correct guess, and a bonus is given if no-one correctly guesses who you are. In the end, the nation with the most Power after 5 scoring rounds will be declared the winner.
I love this game. I will admit that I have only played it once, but it has all the right elements to make for a fun gaming experience that has high replayability. The theme is fantastic and really shines through in the various actions available to players. There is something very satisfying about going an entire game, taking actions that both benefit you and harm you, only to have someone unable to guess your nation. We even had one player Sabotage himself and then after we accused him of being Italian, proclaimed “Why would I sabotage myself?!”. Well the answer to that query was one of the politicians was going to force him to lose more Influence than he did when he self-sabotaged. So you can see that you have to pay attention to not only the others players actions, but all of the effects that can occur at any given time to be able to deduce your opponent’s secret identity.
I am also a big fan of the artwork as it is very well done and adds to the thematic immersion. But, the best part was definitely the hidden identity mechanic. Having it in the game means that diplomacy, negotiation, subterfuge and outright deception are present, which always makes for an enjoyable interaction with a tense atmosphere. It’s also very difficult to figure out exactly how to manipulate the scoring without making it obvious who you are, which leads to lots of different strategies to try. The replayability comes from the fact that each country plays differently, and there are a lot of politicians that were never used in the game, so there will be plenty of options for manipulation there. If I had a complaint, it would be that the game is advertised for 90-120 minutes and our play through took 150 minutes, which was mostly due to rules learning as well as trying to figure out strategies for hiding your identity while taking actions that benefit you. I also can see lots of Analysis Paralysis for those prone to this malady.
Overall, this is a good game for groups that enjoy hidden identity games and who can appreciate the historical element to the topic. I definitely will be interested in playing this again in the future as will my entire group.