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Review: Ace of Spies

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You are a spymaster tasked with completing missions for king and country. You must recruit agents, gather intelligence, provide the proper tools for the job, and set up meetings in the right locations in order to succeed. But watch out! Rival spymasters are out there as well, and they are not above stealing your plans from under your nose. To be a spymaster requires nerves of steel…and perhaps unscrupulous backstabbery.

Do you have what it takes to win the coveted title Ace of Spies?

How It Works

Ace of Spies is a set-collection game for two to five players. Players are spymasters trying to complete crucial missions for their cause. The player with the most points at the end of the game will be declared “Ace of Spies.”

The three city decks and display.

To setup, players shuffle the three city decks and deal two cards from each deck to each player, then lay two cards face up from each deck to form the display. Players then receive three mission cards, one of which they must keep (they may keep all three).

Players may do one of four things on their turns:

  • Draw one face-up interrupt card or two cards from the display/city decks
  • Draw three mission cards (keeping at least one)
  • Play an agent card for its special ability
  • Perform a special action

Special actions include things like taking a card from the discard pile, searching a city deck for a card, or forcing another player to discard cards. These actions all cost cards from a player’s hand. After performing an action, players may complete any missions for which they’ve collected the necessary bits and score points. Finally, players must discard down to ten cards, and play passes clockwise.
In addition to these actions, players may play interrupt cards at any time during the game. Interrupt cards have powerful, one-time effects and are removed from the game after they’re resolved.
Once any deck runs out of cards, one player reaches 75 points, or seven missions are completed, each player gets one last turn, and points are tallied. Players lose points for incomplete missions. Whoever has the most points wins.

Timely Intel or False Information?
I should begin this review with a statement of my biases. I’m not a fan of “take-that” games. I like games that involve some luck but usually stay away from games that require lots of luck, even in shorter, filler games. In light of these biases, you might be asking yourself right now, Well, then why are you reviewing this game in the first place? Sometimes that’s how the chips fall, and we do what we must.

But! If you’re still here, I’ll tell you my impressions of this game. It’s true, as you might have guessed, that this is not a game for me (and I’ll tell you exactly why). But despite my biases, this isn’t a bad game, and with the right group, it might be a hit.

I’ll start with the worst of it: the components. I haven’t been in a position to know the details firsthand, but given the number of indie publishers who have taken to printing in China, it must be cheaper to print there. Cheaper, however, does not always (or often) mean better, and that maxim applies doubly to card games. The cards in this game are serviceable and not as bad as they could be, but they are not what you might hope in a game that requires frequent shuffling. The finish is almost gritty, and the cards are somewhat unyielding. But I’m a stickler when it comes to cardstock–you probably don’t care about it as much as I do.

No, the scoreboard doesn’t lie flat. Yes, it only goes to 25. Don’t ask me why.

What you should care about is well-written rulebooks, and Ace of Spies does not deliver in this department either. For being a pretty straightforward game, there are many cases not addressed in the game’s rulebook. As an example, each card has an icon on it, identifying it as one of the pieces necessary to complete a mission. However, in card text, the icon is identified by name and not by icon. This wouldn’t be too bad, except that the icon key is buried in the back of the instructions (I missed it the first time through), and the name of “spy gear” is not consistent across uses. (It’s “spy gear” in the rules, “tools” in card text, and its title is not relevant for actual gameplay except in card mentions.) The rules list interrupt cards as an afterthought, when they are a pretty key part of the game. Also, the rules are unclear about drawing face-up interrupts from the city decks. The rules say that no more cards can be drawn after choosing one–does this mean players can choose it as their second draw? (The rules don’t say, and a wily loopholer could make a case for it, but we followed Ticket to Ride and ruled no.) Are city decks reshuffled after being searched? These are things that aren’t too difficult to rule on, but I prefer to have an authoritative source to point to.

The other components for the game are, like the cards, serviceable but not great. The included scoreboard is better than a scorepad, maybe, but it doesn’t lie flat, and the game is played to 75 while the scoreboard only goes to 25. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Just do three laps… The problem is that scores are constantly in flux, and there are plenty of nasty cards to reduce your point total. Losing 17 points from 43 is not deal-breaking mental math, but the scoreboard isn’t doing players any favors. Even making the board go to thirty, or some other multiple of ten, would have been an improvement. There are also 25 and 50 point markers to show you’ve reached a milestone, but again, with points in flux, it’s annoying to turn these in and get them back as needed.

All…that…text. Lots of options on your turn, but also lots to remember.

As I said, the components are the worst of this review. The game itself plays fine, for the most part, once you get past the hurdle of learning it from the rulebook. The game is mostly straightforward and feels familiar–if you’ve played Ticket to Ride or its card game, you’ll know generally how to play Ace of Spies. And there are some interesting twists on this formula. For example, in Ticket to Ride, there is no hand-size limit, and whether you’ve completed your tickets is revealed at the end of the game. You can keep drawing and drawing and drawing as long as you want, waiting for that one card you need. In Ace of Spies, you have to discard down to ten cards every turn. Ten cards?! That doesn’t sound so bad. Well, it doesn’t, but if you’re working on completing three missions that will likely be stolen or sabotaged, you want to hold as many cards in your hand for as long as you can.

Yes, that’s the other place where this game really differs from Ticket to Ride: the nastiness level in this game is very high. Interrupt cards especially allow you to be particularly nasty to your fellow players, and all of this is targeted (not the equal-opportunity attacks of, say, Dominion or 7 Wonders). Cards let you steal completed missions, sabotage them, or discard them entirely. You can force your opponent to discard hand or mission cards as well (especially nasty after they’ve just found the last card needed to complete their mission). There is not just interaction in Ace of Spies, folks: there is CONFLICT (though this should be apparent from the Kickstarter video–one of the best I’ve seen, by the way). Plan accordingly.

Interrupts are awesome! …Unless you’re the target. Then you hate them.

There is a problem in that whether you draw interrupts is luck based, as is the relative power of the interrupts you draw. Some are notably better than others, and since these can have game-changing effects, it’s no fun to be without them. However, despite cries that this game is entirely luck-based, there is some amount of planning in the game. As I said, there’s a hand management aspect in determining how long to hold your cards. Agents are scarce, and so players need a standing plan to snap them up when they appear. There are also special actions that allow players to search the decks for just the right card–but these come at a high cost.

In fact, my least favorite gameplay element, even more than the high conflict, is the special actions. Don’t get me wrong: I realize something like them is necessary. (Unlike Ticket to Ride, you have to match color and symbol on the mission cards, and there are three separate decks to explore.) But the special action system is so…cumbersome, especially in a straightforward game and for a game of its weight. If a game is going to involve all manner of chaos and nastiness that I (most of the time) cannot control, I want the game to play fast-and-loose. I want to breeze through the rules and get right to the game. Ace of Spies does most of this well, especially if you’ve played Ticket to Ride before. But these special actions–ugh. They complicate the game in a way that it shouldn’t be complicated. They’re included on the player aids, which helps (though there are only four aids and the game advertises up to five players), but it’s still hard to keep track of exactly what you can do. On the face of it a “wild” system seems like it would be better, but not having tested this, I can’t say for sure.

I like the artwork quite a bit, especially on the agent cards.

The theme is what saves Ace of Spies for me. I love the art in this game, and the spy style is borne out throughout the game. Though the flavor text can make agent cards confusing, it enhances the rest of the game. Yes, you can get away with only looking at symbols and colors, but the text is good and helps support the theme. And if you watch the Kickstarter video I linked to earlier, you’ll see how even the conflict relates to the theme. Not my bag, but it’s not tacked on.

Ace of Spies is not a bad game, even if it’s a game I don’t enjoy. If you like games with lots of take-that moments, games that involve being on the giving and receiving end of nastiness, and games centered around spying, you’ll probably like Ace of Spies. If you don’t, you won’t.

Which mission will you choose…?

There was one game moment that’s illustrative of this divide. I had just completed a 21-point mission, and one opponent played the Double Crossed interrupt to steal it from me wholesale. I was, of course, brooding and vowed revenge, but throughout the game, I did not draw any interrupts–until, that is, the very last turn, when I drew Double Crossed. I smiled an evil smile, and even though another play would have benefited me more, I stole my mission back (which was, aptly, The Ace of Spies). It turned out that my thieving opponent was holding a Double Crossed card as well, and he played his right after mine, stealing my mission from me a second time. But wait! Another opponent played a Not So Fast! interrupt to counteract the other guy’s Double Crossed. Vindication! Well, for a few seconds, anyway. Another opponent then played False Information, consigning my hard-won mission to the discard pile. But better the discard pile than in an opponent’s dirty mitts!

This interchange provided some laughs and was a fun arc to the game. Some of you will read that last paragraph and say, “Awesome! How do I get in on that action?” YOU, friend, are exactly who this game was meant for. For those of us who prefer more control, who like to tend our own gardens and only subtly plant weeds in our opponents’, we will likely want to stay out of the spy business.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Albino Dragon for providing us with a review copy of Ace of Spies.

Summary

  • Rating 6
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Summary

Pros

  • Lots of nastiness (if you like that sort of thing)
  • Good artwork and theme
  • Some interesting hand management decisions

Cons:

  • Lots of nastiness (if you don't like that sort of thing)
  • High-powered interrupts lower the incentive for playing well
  • The production, from the components to the rulebook, is not as it should be
6.0 Average

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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