RPS Suggests: Excellent Espionage


RPS Suggests is where we put forward our own ideas for new games, or changes to old games, or anything else. Think of it like backseat driving for the games industry.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a strategy game possessed of turns, tiles, and pretensions of grandeur, must be in want of an espionage system. It is a truth less often acknowledged, that said espionage systems universally suck. In this edition of RPS Suggests, I’d like to humbly describe how to completely fix this forever.

The basic problem is this: espionage systems aren’t interactive, or barely so. In nearly every case – be it Civ, Endless Legend, or what have you – you assign a spy to a location, pick a task from a dry list, wait a bit, and then find out if the random number generator decided to play ball. There’s no back-and-forth between you and the enemy. Choosing what your spies should do might be interesting, except because the target only finds out about an espionage threat once it’s a fait accompli, the missions end up neutered to prevent frustrating bolts from the blue messing up the game experience. What is to be done?

Allow me to introduce the Excellent Espionage™ system. It works like this: instead of just heading out to a location and carrying out a mission, spies in enemy territory gather cards (‘intelligence assets’) in (let’s say) four themed colours to use against that enemy, while spies in their own HQ gather counterintelligence cards. Intelligence assets are then spent to carry out missions – each mission requires a different number and combination of cards, with more ambitious missions needing more. Crucially, the defender can use their counterintelligence cards to destroy the attacker’s assets when a mission takes place – the attacker and defender take turns placing cards in the mission’s slots and countering them. If at the end of this all the mission’s slots are filled, it succeeds; otherwise, it fails. Either way, the assets spent for and against the mission are lost.

This turns dull, roll-the-dice spy missions into tense resource-management decisions. Do you carry out a mission now, or wait until you’ve got some extra assets spare? Do you block a minor one-card mission, or save your counterespionage cards in case something bigger is on the way? How much good money are you willing to throw after bad? Rarer cards could have better bonuses, making the decision to use them more interesting. Spies could be levelled up to produce more of one kind or another, allowing strategic specialisation. Possibilities begin to open up.

On top of that, the cards themselves can tell a story. A Front Company might make you money when you play it, while a Double Agent might steal the intelligence asset it blocks, revealing the identity of the attacker into the bargain; carrying out a mission would suggest the plot of a whole spy novel, with each turn of the minigame bringing a new plot twist.

Most importantly, with espionage defence being as active as military defence, the missions would be free to indulge in the weirdest and most ambitious Cold-War-style antics. Top-end missions could steal territory and units, start or end wars, or topple governments. Espionage – the ugly duckling of 4X mechanics – might finally have its time in the sun.


  1. Ghostwise says:

    I am shocked — shocked! — that spying is going on here.

    • Metalfish says:

      Your intelligence sir.

    • BooleanBob says:

      Ilsa, I’m no good at locating the source of unexplained noises, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little security guards don’t amount to a cardboard box of oranges in this crazy world. Which is just as well, because my cone of vision is extremely short.

    • Gomer_Pyle says:

      Haha, good one!

  2. Xocrates says:

    Hmm… some good ideas, some bad ones. I like the having to gather some resource in order to go on missions, I really do not like the “the attacker and defender take turns placing cards in the mission’s slots and countering them” – like, are you playing a turn based game in your turn based game? Also, wouldn’t this mean that the people defending always knows who’s attacking and what they’re trying to do, completely removing the stealth aspect from espionage?

    And wouldn’t the most advanced people be essentially boned because they had to constantly be defending from everyone else, causing them to never have any significant amount of points unless they skip defense entirely for many missions, while their opponents might just be stocking them up because no-one is conducting missions on their land (and why would they? The guy ahead has no defense.)

    Like I said, some good points, some bad ones. Personally I would streamline it a bit – using civ as a reference – sending a spy into an enemy city generates “intrigue” points per turn, the amount of which varies depending both from the city size and buildings, as well as how many spies (from all players) are there. Placing a spy in one of your cities decreases the amount of intrigue it generates and how costly it is to conduct missions there.

    You could then use your intrigue to conduct missions in cities where you have a spy – and if you want to prevent abuse by getting intrigue from one place and using in another simply have the intrigue being a per city thing.

    So now you have a system where you need to consider your spy placement since you need both to consider the intrigue generation and the cost of missions, is defensible regardless of how many players there are in the game, and isn’t a minigame separate from the more general strategic layer.

    • Rorschach617 says:

      “And wouldn’t the most advanced people be essentially boned because they had to constantly be defending from everyone else, causing them to never have any significant amount of points unless they skip defense entirely for many missions, while their opponents might just be stocking them up because no-one is conducting missions on their land (and why would they? The guy ahead has no defense.)”

      The “offensive” espionage cards would be farmed by active agents on foreign hexes, the “defensive” espionage cards would be farmed by counter-intelligence services. It wouldn’t be just one pool of cards to play from, the advanced faction would not be using counter-intelligence assets to spy on other factions.

      What could happen is an attack overload, where all the other factions spy on you, leaving you with a finite amount of cards with which to fight a large number of engagements. But this could be dealt with faction improvements.

      For example:

      “You have built the Centralised Financial Records office. Enemy front companies no longer generate Espionage Cards.”

      • Xocrates says:

        I never actually mentioned “offensive” actions in that paragraph, because I did notice that the way the system is described there are may be defensive only cards.

        I was merely pointing out that with multiple players in the game it is very likely (and indeed, optimal) for one player to be over-attacked due to very limited defensive options, while leaving every other player much more resistant since they can stack up defensive cards.

        Compare with civ where spy defenses are static and work equally well regardless if you suffered 1 attack or 10.

        • Rorschach617 says:

          I read your argument to mean that the advanced player would be unable to spy on, or prevent spying from, other players because of a shortage of cards. Maybe my mistake.

          But I still think that the problem of attack saturation is not as bad as you believe. Players could always be given the opportunity to build faction improvements that act as persistent defensive cards.

          Irl, organisations such as GCHQ or the NSA are tasked with monitoring enemy agents within friendly borders. This can be simulated as persistent cards that never get “spent” and counteract enemy cards.

          In short, the advanced player can spend money and resources that the other players do not have to make their spying on him more difficult. This changes the challenge from “how many cards can the advanced player hold at one time” to “how many cards can the attacking spies actually use after all their useless cards are removed from play.”

          • Xocrates says:

            The problem isn’t “just” the attack saturation. That sucks, but is largely unavoidable. The problem is also that everyone else will have a much easier time defending since they’re not using their defensive cards nearly as much.

            So the advanced player not only will be unable to defend without spending a significant amount of resources, but will have a much harder time attacking.

          • Rorschach617 says:

            Even ignoring the possibility that building “CIA Headquarters” or “Lubyanka Square” might well give bonuses to offensive espionage as well as to counter-intelligence, so what?

            The advanced player is where he is because he has a larger pool of resources and potential resources than the opposition. The less developed factions just don’t have that, so they are far more vulnerable to espionage, disruption of their economy and the inherent loss of resources they need to build up a credible army of spies.

            I like the OP because it removes the pure random die-roll of espionage while opening the doors to better, more detailed, more nuanced espionage in civ-style games.

    • thrasius says:

      Edit: Ninja-ed

      I read it differently with respect to counter vs active spying. Take Civ for example. Perhaps you have counter points or cards for each city. Then you have points or cards for cities in which you’re actively spying. So you break it up by region, not overall. That significantly complicates the system but in an intuitive way.

      As for your point regarding “fog of war,” couldn’t one of the counter missions/cards be playing detection each turn? Or if it is real time (Stellaris), each month, day, etc?

  3. Zenicetus says:

    It’s true that most spy systems in strategy games suck, but that’s for reasons that I don’t think this suggestion addresses.

    Everyone says they want espionage in these games, but they’re thinking of how much fun it would be to run a spy network, not what a drag it is to be on the receiving end. Especially when sabotage is involved, and not just intel-gathering. I don’t enjoy spending lots of time in a strategy game playing whack-a-mole against infiltrating enemy agents.

    That problem gets even worse when there are enough other factions in the game throwing spies at you. This was a major problem in one earlier version of TW Rome 2. When a majority of other factions in the late game all consider you an enemy and start spamming spies, saboteurs, and assassins in your direction, it just isn’t fun.

    That’s why I think that whatever the actual mechanics are, it’s best to stick with basic intel gathering only. And basically sigint at that, not having to boot out embedded spies.

    • beleester says:

      You have the right of it. Espionage is fundamentally non-interactive and unfair. It’s about surprise, deception, and making sure your opponent never knows what’s happening until their base is exploding around them. Anything that make you feel like a clever spy (“I infiltrated and sabotaged the Roman Empire’s entire supply chain, and nobody suspected a thing!”) is going to feel unfair on the receiving end (“My whole supply chain just exploded one day for no reason!”).

      One thing I can think of is to shift spying from one-and-done events to ongoing actions that can be countered (and not necessarily by having your own, better spy network). For instance, maybe production sabotage can be undone faster if you send a military unit to the affected city and having them yell at the workers for a bit. Or maybe an agent can feed you false reports, and you see RUSE-style fake armies that your military can interact with to discover that they’re fake. That would integrate it into the larger wargame instead of being its own thing.

      Or maybe just straight-up give the defender a choice: “My lord, the factory is on fire! Do we save the workers (lose resources), or save the fuel supply (lose population)?”

      If you give the defender a choice about what happens, even if it’s just a choice between “bad” and “worse”, they’ll feel less helpless when they get spies out of nowhere.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    While this sounds like it’d be kind of annoying to play out, and more based on user skill than ‘spy character’ skill, it does seem more interesting than any of the Civ attempts at espionage. Also better than most games like this, which just straight leave spying out of it.

  5. Grizzly says:

    Didn’t Ruse already solve spying?

  6. Clarksworth says:

    I think a symmetric game gives away too much, and gets rid of the feeling of getting away with something. Thinking only of what fans of spy movies see: Espionage is basically “cleverly overcoming largely static methods of protecting information.” Counter-Intelligence is harder to characterize. It seems to be the marriage of designing static systems to protect information and having super-clever folks out-spy the spies (and then deploy troops to shoot at them).

    To me, I think this would make espionage an asymmetric game, with spying being the careful acquisition and deployment of useful resources to overcome my clever traps (that I put in place, if I can afford them, to keep you out) and extract successfully.

    Counter Intelligence then, would be part static, building traps and puzzles to keep you out (and entertained), and part basically spying, sending my spies to overcome the clever traps that you set to protect the location of your spies. And then maybe something highly interactive during the operation to capture/eliminate a spy

    The trouble of course, is by the time you build a system that makes this interesting, you pretty much have something worthy of making a game about all on its own.

    • beleester says:

      I’d look at Netrunner as a prime example of how to make “static defense” an interesting concept. In that game, the Corporation lays traps (ICE) which the Runner has to bypass in order to get at the goodies inside. The Runner can see how much Ice is protecting each target, but they don’t know what it is until they try to bypass it, at which point the Corp can pay to “rez” the Ice and bring it into play. Or maybe it’s a bluff and they’ll just let the Runner pass. ICE costs money, after all, and maybe the Runner won’t hit anything important.

      So playing as the Corp, you’re faced with too many angles of attack to cover everything with your limited resources. You rig up an unbreakable wall of ICE on your HQ and the Runner targets a remote server instead. And playing as the Runner, you’re faced with so many unknowns that could screw you over – you spend every last credit you have to breach their tightest security, and find you’ve stolen last year’s marketing campaign. Both sides need to bluff and predict the others’ actions to make their strategy work.

      Replace “servers” with “cities” and “ICE” with “counterintelligence assets”, and it would make a pretty good Civ vs Civ spy game.

  7. dylan says:

    This sounds a little bit like Endless Space 1’s approach to combat. Fleet battles are largely automated, but split into three ’rounds’ (long range, medium range, short range) during which rival commanders each play a tactic card to give their fleets some direction. For example, in the first round I might play a card to increase my missile firing rate, but you expected that move and countered with a card that negates all of my missiles. I take a serious beating, so in the next round I play a ‘heal’ card, which you again expected so you play a card to overcharge your guns and kill me before I can heal. As admirals level up, they give you more card options.

    I could easily see the same concept being applied to espionage. The only question is: why? Conceptualizing 4x espionage as a battle (even an abstracted card battle) just creates a parallel war system. Redundant systems with little meaningful difference is something 4x games do too much of already (I’m looking at you, Civ, with your money/science/religion/culture systems all being so, so samey).

    I personally like enjoy Europa Universalis 4’s approach to espionage. You can sink cash into gaining foreign intelligence, claiming titles, or funding foreign rebels, but it’s not cheap. Having to decide whether to fund an Austrian insurrection or build yourself a new warship is a meaningful decision, with very different outcomes, and speaks to the character of your nation.

  8. mattevansc3 says:

    The problem with espionage isn’t that its boring more so that its just another direct attack that also happens to be less fun than deploying a tank. You could go through most 4X games and never use it.

    Espionage should be a resource, not a unit. Spy networks in your cities are for counter espionage whereas spy networks in your opponents cities are there to screw with them. As they generate resource you can perform actions. Not the boring stuff like destroy a building or steal some research but things like bribing/influencing their advisors to get your opponent to research literature instead of iron work. Change where you rank on certain leader boards. Leak their trade deals to other empires to start trade wars. Find out how many times your opponent asked their military advisor about attacking you. Lie to another country about how many times your opponent asked their military advisor about attacking them. Mess up shipping orders so that your opponent sends three camels instead of two or sends iron instead of silk. Troll them, troll everyone, start the flamewars and watch everything burn.

    • thelastpointer says:

      Now these are some neat ideas! The original suggestion, however, is not — it’s just adding a minigame (and an extra resource), and that’s rarely an elegant or smart solution.

  9. icarussc says:

    Wow, I think this is a totally great idea! If only I were a big game developer …

  10. Frank says:

    I think the problem is that the game is not designed from the ground up around espionage, intelligence/secrecy and security; instead, these systems are tacked on as an afterthought.

    For me, cards instead of dice doesn’t solve anything. Both are random and quite lame.

  11. Korolev787 says:

    I would like for games to incorporate the idea of a network – real intelligence agencies spend huge amount of resources painstakingly assembling a network of spies and double agents – I would like to see a game in which you spend a lot of resources setting up a network – and it doesn’t give you any return for ages – but then after you’ve invested significant resources you can “switch on” your network and let it hinder your opponent – maybe delay resource gathering, maybe inform you occasionally of troop movement. The more you invest in building up your network, the greater the flow of info and the more resistant it is to counter-attack. Every now and then you could be given the option for your network to engage in a risky venture – say, sabotage a unit production facility for X amount of time. But if you fail, the network is severely compromised – or better yet, your opponent may then be able to subvert your network and use it to send FALSE info back to you – classic double agent action!

  12. Hyomoto says:

    That sounds awful. I’m going to play freaking Gwent every time someone decides to use a spy? The reason the systems are like this is because it’s just one of many things the game is asking you to manage. Perhaps I’ve read it wrong, but that was my response.

  13. The Bitcher III says:

    Think the whole information and intelligence in 4x needs a bit of rethinking, sending out scouts just to see what is physically there is a daft and outdated nonsense. Like no-one ever made a map by the Medieval times, or the Romans not knowing the boundaries, contents and allegiance of large, near-neighbouring territories (without going through the hoops to engage in direct conversation).

    But M2TW must have got something right, as I remember very well my best spy. Sent him to The Vatican because the more I conquered, the more the Papacy turned against me, and I had barely had so much as a single seat on the council in 100 years. It was around this time he picked up his little assistant, an 11 year old boy. I like to think that had nothing whatsoever to do with his succesful infiltration of the Papacy’s inner circle, and the assassination of the latest pontiff (poisoned food).

    All for naught, as before the end of the next turn, the replacement I connived to install was, likewise, assassinated.

  14. sagredo1632 says:

    An alternate scheme would be akin to the way that Endless Legend handled diplomacy (e.g. tie espionage to an asset that has a utility outside of spying). This would automatically generate a trade off between the ability to commit acts of espionage and that other activity/goal. In Endless Legend, for example, perhaps espionage would cost diplomacy points? or culture points in Civ? I like the idea of entangling the various systems of 4X games, which are too often run as isolated mini-systems. Tying espionage to a finite resource would alleviate some of the spamming problems mentioned.

    The tricky bit, of course, is how to make it fun without overwhelming the already complex task of doing 4X. It tends to get a lot less love than diplomacy, which is shame. If developers equaled out importance of both, and made the systems co-dependent, that would be quite clever, and realistic to boot (do you really think *none* of the embassy staff works in intelligence?).

  15. Lacero says:

    I’m late, but you should play the diplomacy card game in star ruler 2.