This game had me at its title – Top Secret Spies. Since the days (way back) when I eagerly awaited publication of the latest James Bond adventure, I have been a fan of spy novels; the generally undefeatable hero, the tradecraft, the interplay of opposing idealogies. Loved Bond, Nick Carter, Commander Shaw, Sam Durrell, Matt Helm, Jason Bourne, and, of course, the very subtle George Smiley. These days, it’s Mitch Rapp, Jack Ryan, Alexander Hawke and John Rain.
Then, too, Top Secret Spies was designed by Wolfgang Kramer, whose later design of Mexica introduced me to the world of Euros for the first time, and who would go on to create a host of other games that I’ve enjoyed over the years – El Grande, Princes of Florence, Tikal, Colosseum, and most recently, Asara.
Top Secret Spies, published originally in 1986 as Heimlich & Co., would be the first of five Kramer games to win the prestigious German gaming award, the Spiel des Jahres. He would win again the following year with Auf Ausche (a trucking, pick-up and delivery game), in 1996 with El Grande, in 1999 with Tikal, and again, in 2000, with Torres.
Top Secret Spies was reportedly the first game to employ a victory point track, circling a game board, which, in Germany, in honor of its creator, is known as a “Kramerlieste.” Loosely translated, it means The Kramer Track (thanks to Mortiz Eggert of Germany’s West Park Gamers, who tells this tale on the group’s Web site – http://www.westpark-gamers.de/index.html?/transcripts/ggn15.html).
With all this going for it, I was set for a memorable game experience, which, first time out, playing with a single opponent, did not happen. Seemed a little mundane to me. Roll a die, move a bunch of mega-meeples around the Kramerlieste. . uhh, I mean, scoring track, until one of those mega-meeples made it all the way back to the start (41 spaces). But I felt as though there was something lurking beneath the surface of it; some aspect of thinking or strategizing that I just didn’t pick up on my first play with only that single opponent. So I brought it back out to play with three players, and then immediately afterwards, with four, and my opinion of it changed. While it lacks the sophistication of some of his later designs, it’s a tricky little game, because you have to make decisions designed not only to further your own cause, but do so in a way that disguises what you’re doing from your opponents.
Here’s the deal. You’ve got seven spies (the mega-meeples, in seven colors) that are placed at one end of an inner oval track, featuring 12 buildings. At the start, the spies are placed in The Church, which bears a value of “0.” Each successive building around this inner track features values from “0” to “10,” and a 12th building (The Ruins), which has a value of “-3.” The single die has values ranging from “2” to “6” and one side with a value designated as “1-3.” When you roll this die on your turn, you have the option of moving one or several of the spies along this inner track. If you roll a “6,” for example, you could move one spy six spaces (to the building marked with a “6”), two of them three spaces (to the “3” building), or three of them two spaces (to the “2” building). Of course, where they end up will change as the game progresses. If you roll a “1-3,” you are afforded the option of moving a total of 1, 2, or 3 spaces (or, in the Top Secret variant, not moving any of them, and picking a Top Secret card; more on this later).
There is a rectangular block of black wood (known as The Safe), which starts out in front of the “7” building, and acts as a scoring signal. As soon as one of the spies advances to that space (chooses to land there and stop; going through and past it doesn’t count), all spies score points on the Kramerlieste, depending on where the spy stands at the time. If the green spy is at building “2,” then the green, wooden scoring disc advances two on the track. If the orange spy is at building “10,” then the orange disc advances 10 spaces on the track, etc. The Ruins, with its “-3” value, sends scoring discs backwards. Once this scoring has taken place, the player who moved the spy into the building with The Safe gets to move The Safe to a new location of his/her choosing, and play resumes.
At the start of the game, a deck of seven cards, featuring each of the seven spies (color coordinated) is shuffled and dealt out to all players. If you’re playing with less than seven players, the extra cards (Free Agents) are placed, unseen, face down, near the board (in two- and three-player games, one or two of the spies are removed from the game altogether). The object of the game is to see to it that your spy (whichever spy is shown on the card you’ve been dealt from the deck) reaches the end of the scoring track first, but you’re going to try to disguise which of the spies in play is yours. You’ll want, as an example, not to be moving your own spy forward all the time, because your opponents will catch on, and take steps to stop you. By the same token, you don’t want to be advancing opponent spies all the time, because that won’t get you anywhere.
Ideally, of course, you’re going to want to have your spy in front of the building which offers the highest point value when a spy moves into the space with The Safe for scoring. But again, you want to be subtle about this, because when an opponent sees that you’re moving (as an example) your green piece onto the “10” space and then moving another spy into the building with The Safe, this opponent, on his turn, is going to move your green spy off of the high scoring building and onto (example) The Ruins to set you back three spaces on the scoring track.
Enter the Top Secret variant. There are 26 Top Secret cards, used in the variant. At the start, you are dealt two of them, with the potential for getting more, as play progresses (you cannot hold on to more than four of them). You may draw a single card from the Top Secret deck when you move a spy into The Ruins, or when, on your turn, you roll “1-3” and choose not to move any spies. At each turn, players are offered the opportunity to institute a Top Secret part of the turn, during which they may play as many Top Secret cards as they wish. All players in turn order are allowed to do this, with play eventually returning to the player who rolled the die. These Top Secret cards do a number of tricky things. They can move spies of your choosing forward or backward (how much and in which direction depends on the card). They can allow you to switch the position of spies, move The Safe, move spies to the Ruins (which earns you another Top Secret card), or move everybody back to The Church (“0”). One Top Secret card allows you to draw an extra spy from the cards that were leftover when the deck was dealt out at the start, giving you two chances to win. This variant has a way of seriously interfering with whatever plans you may be formulating.
There are no clear paths to victory in this game. No guiding principles like (in chess) control the center, or use pieces in combination, or don’t advance the queen too early. You’re plodding, for the most part, engaged in taking your dice roll, advancing spies in the inner oval and trying to position yourself for the best possible outcome when scoring occurs. You’re advancing your own piece along the scoring track while, at the same time, trying to determine which of your opponents represents which spy. There is, in fact, a second variant, called the Secret Dossier variant, which adds points to your final score, based on your ability to determine who’s who; which players are which spies.
It was interesting to watch the second-in-a-row game of this with four players, because the repeat players suddenly got a little more cautious and the game took a little longer. We played the Top Secret variant and one player got into the habit of sending opponents to the Ruins and as a result, kept himself stocked up on Top Secret cards, which always gave him the opportunity to offset moves played by others (you can play multiple cards on your turn). I, on the other hand, was playing hand-to-mouth with the Top Secret cards; getting them and playing them immediately.
It is most definitely a gateway game; one you can safely introduce to a group of non-gamers with an assurance that neither the rules nor game play will be overwhelming, while at the same time, offering newcomers a subtle, puzzle-like goal. “I know what I have to do, but how do I go about doing it?” There’s an old axiom stating that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Top Secret Spies is an example of why you shouldn’t let a first impression rule your thoughts about the entertainment value of a game. Play this once to get the mechanics down and feel your way through the process. Then play it a second time and watch how knowledge you gained the first time through improves your enjoyment of the experience.
Over the years, out on the Geek, listed under its original name – Heimlich & Co. – it’s picked up over 1,600 ratings and has an average rating of 6.42. It is not without its detractors; people who’ve rated it at the bottom of the scale, because (one assumes) of its relative simplicity and lack of strategic depth. The Heimlich, by the way, does not refer to a life-saving medical procedure. The word in German translates to “secretly” or “slyly.”
Top Secret Spies, designed by Wolfgang Kramer, with artwork by Oliver Freudenreich, Deitrich Lange, and Matthias Wittighas been re-issued by Rio Grande Games and can be had for under $30. It’s playable by up to seven, and is recommended for ages 8 & up. It will generally take less than an hour to play, until such time that you have gathered a group of wily veterans who’ll work toward frustrating rapid advancement along the Kramerlieste. . uhh, scoring track.