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Is A No-Betrayal Subterfuge Playthrough Possible?

It's <em>like</em> a PC game, at least.

Subterfuge [official site] isn't a PC game, but it looks like one, plays like one, and is heavily inspired by one. I've just finished my first game of it, and I think it's better than Neptune's Pride for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that it's an experience I had which ended up guilt-free.

If you're not familiar, Subterfuge is a multiplayer strategy game in which you and up to nine other people fight for control of a iconographic map of outposts. The outposts can be factories, generators or mines, and you capture them by inhabiting or attacking them with submarines full of 'drillers'. Battles play out unseen as you view everything as icons, seeing only movement orders and numbers changing. Most remarkably: the distance between outposts is vast, and the time to travel between them measured in hours and days, not minutes. My match took over ten days to complete.

Swap "submarines" for "spaceships" and everything above could also be said about Neptune's Pride, Subterfuge's close ancestor. Jay Kyburz, creator of that game, has given his blessing to Subterfuge, which is a good thing as otherwise the similarities might be uncomfortable. One of the randomly positioned outposts is called 'Kyburz' in each game, which is one of two ways he's honoured by the game's fiction.

The second is one of the ways the game improves over its inspiration: Neptunium. When I played Neptune's Pride, the only way to win the game was via territorial control. By conquering the majority of the map - 60 or 70%, I think - you were declared the victor. This meant that in a game of eight players, it was all but guaranteed that you would have to go to war with four or five people if you wanted to have any chance of winning.

You couldn't fight everyone at once, and you couldn't fight them consecutively as your forces would become depleted, and so by necessity you formed alliances. Neptune's Pride was a game about politicking, one which took place via in- and out-of-game message systems as much as it did on the actual board of play. You made promises and formed alliances against other players, sometimes simply to delay the point when you would have to fight those people. In other words: you made alliances knowing you'd have to break them in order to win. It was a game about betrayal - or subterfuge, if you prefer.

Subterfuge, perhaps ironically, is less a game about betrayal. If you've read our Neptune's Pride diary, or at least it's ending, you'll see it ended in a shamefest. I didn't want a repeat of that. Notably, none of my friends did either: I'd not played with most of them, they'd had their own experiences, and were consequently wary to return. And so my thought was: can I play Subterfuge and, while likely still attacking people, at least not betray anyone? Any alliance I made, I would honour to the end of the game assuming the other players did the same. If I had the intent of invading someone, and they asked me for a favour, then I would say no.

Neptunium is the first reason why I (mostly) succeeded at this. You win the game by gathering 200 of the resource, and the resource is gathered via mines. You can build a mine at any Generator or Factory outpost. The first costs 50 drillers, the second 100, the third 200, the third 300, and so on. It then produces 2 Neptunium per day for every outpost you control.

This means that there is not the same need to gather all the territory the ocean world contains. You could instead gather a small number of outposts - ten or eleven can be comfortably claimed without stealing from other players - and then use your drillers to defend and build mines in order to win.

It's clever. It's nicer.

The second reason a no-betrayal playthrough seems possible is the Specialists. Fights in Neptune's Pride were won purely through greater numbers. If you attacked with 40 units and their outpost had 30 units then, assuming no shields, the outpost was yours. You could do the math. Subterfuge does the math for you, even, letting you wind time forward to see the (expected) outcome of any decision before you commit to it.

Specailists are individual units which each player can hire using recruitment points, which are gained at a rate of one every 18 hours. You always have a choice from a selection of three. Examples include the Thief, who switches 15% of drillers in any combat encounter to your side during a fight; the Sabouteur, who can board enemy submarines and turn them and all the drillers they contain around and away from the outpost they were appraoching; the Admiral, who increases the speed of all your submarines by 50%; or the Martyr, who detonates herself as soon as her sub is engaged in combat, destroying anything within a radius, including outposts themselves.

These Specialists let you be clever, deploying them in interesting ways, in combination with other Specialists, or upgrading them at opportune moments in order to counter an incoming attack or turn an expected defeat into victory. Maybe you suddenly upgrade to an Admiral and the ship you'd sent to attack arrives ahead of the reinforcements your opponent had thought would arrive in time. That's a simple example, but the point is that the Specialists keep the Machiavellian machinations more within the game, rather than forcing you to deploy them via social channels by lying to your friends.

In the game I played, I attacked one other player without provocation. Overall, I only attacked two players, the second only after they attacked me first. I won the entire match. I am of course smug about it, but I won mainly through the goodwill of other players, goodwill gained because they did not have vendettas against me as strong as the vendettas they had against my other competitors who had betrayed them at some point during the game's ten day running time.

There are lots of other reasons why the Specialists especially are neat. They stack, which means that the game escalates over time, which in turn means that matches should never last a month as our Neptune's Pride game did way back when. They can also be hired by all players regardless of your status or present success within the game, meaning that even if you're mostly destroyed and (appear to) have no chance of winning, there's still an incentive to keep playing instead of giving up and no longer logging in. Lastly, there's enough variety and different strategies to be enacted through them that I can actually imagine myself playing Subterfuge a second time. Neptune's Pride was one of the most powerful game experiences of my life, but I never went back.

I was ready to dismiss Subterfuge, but the changes it makes to Neptune's Pride's formula are smart and undoubtedly make it better. If you can find friends willing to play with you, then try it - but if not just find some strangers, instead.

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Graham Smith

Deputy Editorial Director

Rock Paper Shotgun's former editor-in-chief and current corporate dad. Also, he continues to write evening news posts for some reason.