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RPS Suggests: Excellent Espionage

Spy vs Spy

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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.

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Oliver Milne

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