Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: Spy Alley

We played Spy Alley tonight, a simple boardgame which seems to be published by a small independent game company, Spy Alley Partners LLP.  They look like they've adopted the model I'm looking to implement - they have a small line of games, and they sell through distribution and through their website.  They're bigger than I'd be starting out; the game is lots of places (many online retailers, although I think we got ours at a regular store), and it's well-constructed and appealingly designed.  It looks from the BoardgameGeek entry like there have been earlier, cruder versions in production.  So, it looks like this group has made a go of independent publishing, and may be doing well.

The game?  Eh.  We've played it a number of times.  It's fun enough, and there's an interesting mechanic at the core.  You are trying to collect all your nation's spy gear while not letting on to the other players what nationality you are.  The spy theme isn't really integrated heavily into the game play; you could be collecting four of anything.   But,  the game wouldn't be much without some kind of theme to put it on, and the spy motif fits the hidden information well, so it works.  The ending is very luck-determined, though; you roll a die to move every turn, and your choices are pretty severely limited by what squares you end up landing on.  As the game progresses, you sometimes gain more control of your movement through move cards (a mechanic borrowed from the classic Careers).

You have the option of taking a very high-stakes gamble at any time - trying to guess an opponent's nationality.  If you succeed, the opponent is out of the game; if you fail, you're out.  You win either by eliminating all opponents (or letting them eliminate themselves) or by collecting all your gear and making it to your embassy (one hard-to-reach space on the board).

There's another major luck factor, though - there's one space on the board that lets you make free guesses to try to eliminate opponents.  In our games, that's usually how people are knocked out, and that's how I went tonight. There are six nationalities, and I got free-guessed three times, knocked out on the third.  Not very satisfying; nothing I did mattered much, and the end came suddenly.  That's fairly typical in our experience.  It's more fun the longer you last, though.

When you knock somebody out, you get all their stuff, which is imbalancing but makes the game go faster (and accelerate as it goes on).  There are some other clever design elements too, although a lot of it is just random.

But, the kids like it, and it's a relatively quick family game.  As an added bonus, we have fun trying to talk in the accents of the various nationalities, and the light-hearted deception mechanic is fun.

Photo above by Chris Hawks, borrowed from

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