Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Spy Trackdown - If The CIA Had This, They'd Have Found The Mastermind Years Ago
A buddy of mine, who is arguably one of the coolest cats and most ardent Ameritrashers to walk the planet, invited me down to his place a while back and we attempted, in vain, to play his copy of this game to find and apprehend the evil Mastermind who is the target of the game. Apparently the Mastermind had removed the batteries from the handset that comes with the game, leaving us unable to play, and therefore unable locate him.
Disappointed as I was, I was impressed with the simplicity and theme of the game, and so I tracked down my own copy for about twenty smackerels on the gamer's paradise that is Ebay. A week later, I had a brand-spankin' new copy, ready to track down the Mastermind that had eluded me down in the dirty south. That bastard's time was soon to come. And by "bastard" I mean the Mastermind, not my buddy.
Unfortunately, between my workaholism and the nighly home remodelling, the Mastermind was left to wreak his terrible havoc on the planet as I just didn't have time to play. Then, one day, my daughter noted that she was all about whipping my ass at yet another game, and since she's a Cluedo wizard, I figured I'd better crack this one out and see if I could hold my own against her. Little did she know that investigation and espionage was encoded into my DNA by my father, and since she was one generation removed, I figured I had a better than average shot at winning. And so it began.
Now before I get too much further, let me tell you what the game is about. This game is seriously one of the coolest little deduction games I've ever seen. The idea is that two to four Special Agents, presumably dispatched by CIA, Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Mossad, are hunting a devilishly clever Mastermind, a criminal of the highest intellect who will stop at nothing to evade you...except move at any point during the game.
In other words, the Mastermind is in a stationary location somewhere on the planet and you, as a professional intelligence officer, are to find and execute him. The game doesn't actually specify execution, but recent events have indicated that the final disposition of Masterminds is pretty much going to end up with a smoking 5.56mm NATO-sized perforation in the skull. Plus, capturing a bad guy isn't as satisfying as sending him to Hell, or 72 Virginians. Or whatever. I'm going to assume that once captured, he enters the US "Rendition program" where he is waterboarded repeatedly and subjected to long, repeated sessions of Barry Manilow at 140 decibels.
To find this Mastermind, you have to travel via various locomotive methods such as a motorcycle, plane, jet, or via special cards such as an airdrop. The secondary objective is to find the covert agent on each continent, and when found, this agent will provide you with cards to help in your hunt for the Mastermind. Now I know what you're thinking: "Pete, what's so special about that? It sounds like a lot of other games..." but let me assure you, it's not.
The difference is that this comes with a computer a'la Dark Tower that controls the game for you and provides you all the clues to the whereabouts of the agents and the Mastermind. The neat thing about this is that it has two volume levels, and will give messages to the group in the louder one and private messages in the very quiet one. In short, this game is cool as ice and twice as nice, and that's just how it is.
When you crack the box, you'll be met with a 17x11, bi-folded rulebook that explains gameplay exceptionally well, a neat little radio holder that locks into the board, the board itself which is very well illustrated and looks like something out of the old "War Games" film, four little unique plastic miniatures in different colors, a cardholder, and a smallish deck of cards. All components are of great quality, and the radio is a neat little thing in and of itself. There's a little sensor button on the back that lets it know whether or not it's picked up or not, changing the volume, so you need to be sure to set it in the holder firmly whilst playing to avoid not being able to really hear the messages. It has had a couple of brain farts during the several games I've played, but they were all correctable with a simple button press that didn't affect gameplay.
Let's get to the game itself, though, starting with setup. Setting up is very simple in Spy Trackdown. You just lay the quad-fold board out and place the radio holder and card holder on the board, setting the cards and radio in their respective spots, then you pick a figure. Once you turn the radio on, the radio will ask you which agents are playing, and each one has a really cliche name based on their color such as "Whitewolf" and "Silverwing", and you press either the X or O buttons to confirm. The radio then tells you all where to place your little figures and the game is ready to play.
On each player's turn, they may take two actions. Actions are based on location, but it always really amounts to either moving or playing a card. You may move along tracks from one space to the next, and spaces adjacent to any given space are connected by brightly colored lines which represent the method of travel. When you elect which space to move to, simply enter the X and O codes indicated on the board to tell the radio what you want to do, and it will accept or refuse the action based upon legality. The game assigns movement types by color, such as by jet, motorcycle, or car, but in the end there's no difference between them.
The other action type, which is where the meat of the game takes place, is in playing cards. The cards all have codes that you enter, just as in travel, to tell the handset what it is you're doing, and all of these cards have different and many times nasty purpose. Some examples of what cards allow you to do are that you can be airdropped to the other side of the planet, take another turn, set traps for your opponents which causes them to lose a turn, and close roads or airports so they are denied travel. The important cards, though, are the ones that point you in the direction of the mastermind and the one that is a dual purpose card allowing you to either search for the mastermind, telling you how far away from him you are, with the other purpose being to capture him if you believe you're on his location.
After you've taken two actions, the radio announces to the room what space you're on, with a mechanical voice stating "Agent Whitewolf is in Asia Zone 2, pick up the handset for a secret message." You then pick up the handset and jam it into your ear to collect this secret message. The sound level is a little higher that I'd ideally like, even though it is much lower than the normal level, because unless you take great pains to really cover the handset with your ear and hand, the closer players can hear what it's telling you, giving them much-needed intel. The message varies with what you did on your turn, but generally it tells you how many zones away from the continental covert agent you are. If you chose to play a card, it may give you additional information as well, such as your relative location to the Mastermind.
Since I'm on the subject of the cards and the secret messages, I'd better tell you how to get cards. It's pretty slick, really. As I noted earlier, there's a "covert agent" on each continent, and if you happen to end your turn on the agent's space, the secret message is that you've found him, and that you will get a certain amount of cards when you leave the continent. This is a very smart design in that if you immediately got cards, it would be like a spy convention on the next turn as all players rush to the space. Anyhow, the first player to find a covert agent on a continent gets four cards, and each subsequent meeting renders one less per player, with the fourth to find the agent only getting one.
The endgame comes when a player has played enough "Search for Mastermind" and "Point to Mastermind" cards to locate the Mastermind. Once a player has determined where the big baddie is, he plays a "Capture Mastermind" card, and if the player is correct, the game ends and the handset announces the winner. If you're wrong, though, you lose your next turn for being a dumb ass. Trust me, I've lost my turn several times by this method.
At the end of the day, it's a medium weight deduction game with some really slick mechanics and a bit of theme that lasts about an hour and a half if all the players are decent at deduction games. There's not a whole lot of runaway leader syndrome in this as some of these games have, and there's a lot of potential troublemaking. Luck is limited solely to the card draws, and there's enough valuable cards that you rarely get a card and wonder what the hell you're supposed to do with it. It reminds me a bit of Fury of Dracula without the depth, and without the requirement of having a player act as the mobile vampire. The short version is that it's twenty bucks well spent, for sure, and I recommend this game to anyone who likes deduction games.
Why This Made Me Put In An Application At CIA:
- Smart mechanics and quick lively turns make this a neat way to kill an hour or so
- The art's pretty decent, and the bits are very nice
- The handset is a really cool little device; like the Dark Tower but better
Why CIA Saw This On My Resume And Rejected It:
- The handset's "table" sensor is a little wonky and you'll occasionally need to reseat it for correct volume levels
- The immobile Mastermind makes this easier than it could've been, although this isn't an easy game
- Not the most thematic game ever, to be sure
- There's no "Abbottabad" space on the board
While this isn't the best deduction game I've ever played, it's still very good. I'd take this over Mystery of the Abbey or Clue eight times out of ten, and it's a very replayable game. The bits are great, and the handset is a very cool way to solve the problem of needing a player to act as the big baddie in the game. All in all, it's well worth the price of admission and anyone who likes deduction games should pick up a copy on Ebay or the BGG Marketplace.
To learn more about Spy Trackdown, you'll need to go to the Boardgamegeek page for it, as it's out of print:
If you want to see the rules, here's that page as well: