Ace of Spies: A four-sided game review

Ace of Spies is a small box card game that manages to take up as much table space as most big box behemoths. It should play in under an hour and combines simple set collection and ‘take that’ mechanisms into an enjoyable little package.

'That' board, plus a few of the Ace of spies cards.

‘That’ board, plus a few of the Ace of Spies cards.

The rulebook isn’t great, but just about does the job. For example there are a couple of annoying inconsistencies between the rules and the cards (‘spy gear’ in rules, ‘tools’ on cards, for example); or no explanation of what happens if there’s a draw.

The bulk of the game is the 150+ cards; three different coloured city decks, plus a mission deck. In short, players will collect cards from city decks to complete their missions. The cards are of reasonable quality stock, with nice back prints, art and flavour text.

Also included are a few meeples and counters, plus a scoreboard that goes up to 25 – in a game where you are often going both up and down in score (often by numbers such as 9 and 13) and where you need 75 to win. Who thought this was a good idea?

Note: This review is after only a few plays of the game (with six different people involved and having played two, three and four-player), but these threw up enough interesting reactions and observations for me to think it was worth putting a review together.

Teaching

Ace of spies is very easy to teach, as much of the game is like Ticket to Ride. For example, you have route (Mission) and train (City) cards; you can draw 2 face up or blind cards, but taking certain strong face up cards means you can only take one; on your turn you do one thing – draw three Mission cards and keep at least one; and completing these Missions is going to get you the points that win you the game – or negatives if you fail to complete them.

Most rules questions seem to be answered with, ‘it’s like Ticket to Ride’. But thanks to pretty much enforced take-that backstabery (via interrupt cards) and a lack of a board in favour of simply laying your sets on the table, the game doesn’t feel like it once you get going. People I’ve taught have immediately seemed comfortable with the game thanks to the similarities, but no one has complained it’s actually like Ticket to Ride in feel.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m a fan of trick taking games and of Ticket to Ride, as well as the pulp noir style, so I was off to a good start – hence backing Ace of Spies on Kickstarter. I’ve enjoyed my plays to date and am starting to see some depth behind the nasty nature of the game. But I haven’t been grabbed as I’d hoped I would be, mainly because the player interaction hasn’t really felt satisfying compared to a card game such as Jambo, or even Guillotine, where it feels more thoughtful.
  • The thinker: I’m torn on this one. I can see there is some depth in the special actions, allowing for some deeper strategic play – but essentially there’s only one route to victory. Also you’d think six face-up cards to choose from (plus blind draws) should lead to people usually getting what they want, but this means poor luck of the draw is only exacerbated more. For these reasons Ace of Spies is a nice light filler that can draw a smile, but it will not become my go-to game.
  • The trasher: One word – meh. I was nodding off in the rules explanation and the game never captured my imagination. Forced ‘take that’ just seems contrived; I want to choose my strategy, not have it forced on me. Also, despite a nicely wrought theme I couldn’t connect it with the game play – which just screamed ‘rummy with knobs on’ from the rafters. Either let me build something worth building, or let me properly mess with people – with a higher level of skill, not just the luck of the draw.
  • The dabbler: This is a game I can get right behind. It plays relatively quickly, is easy to pick up and doesn’t require permanent concentration. While TtR is great the board takes a bit of work to keep up with, so if tired/drunk/chatting I don’t tend to do too well; here that element is replaced by a more straightforward ‘screw you’ mechanism that guarantees interaction in every game. And you don’t feel so bad screwing your neighbour when you know they’re going to do it to you at any moment!

Key observations

The rules and special rules - all hail a good player aid.

The rules and special rules – all hail a good player aid.

I’ve found it interesting to watch people ignore the special actions on offer each turn in our early plays of the game. These are very powerful, will certainly turn a game, and are relatively easy/cheap to pull off. I think once someone starts using them, others will see how powerful they are and follow – but why are they not used from the start?

While uncomplicated, Ace of Spies does have quite a lot to keep an eye on. The card designs are pretty but not overly practical in terms of hand management – which certainly doesn’t help matters; instead it makes the game fiddly and we’ve been constantly eyeing our hands to work out what we have/haven’t got each turn.

I think this has led players to ignore the special actions, as simply getting to grips with the basics has seemed much harder than it should. Hand management in Ticket to Ride is incredibly simple – here it can be frustrating and really slow things down.

So, to the special actions – or one in particular. All let you rummage deck/discard piles for specific cards, which is great – but one lets you go through any ‘city’ deck and choose one card from it. Now, each city deck has a similar blend of cards – three of which seem extremely overpowered (but in a fun way). This special ability lets you dump a few cards and grab one of those, of your choice, just like that.

Fear my +1 nastiness card of nastiness!

Fear my +1 nastiness card of nastiness!

Ace of Spies is played to 75 points. One completed mission could be worth anything from less than 10 to about 20. One card lets you steal (and score) any mission from another player – a potential 20 point loss. One lets you take a mission from another player – a potential 40-point swing (your score in AoS ebbs and flows – no points you get are safe; your score is what’s in front of you). There are three of each of these cards, one in each deck. And finally, one blocks any one of these cards being played on you (there are only two of these).

As players start to realise this, the race for these cards could be fascinating – especially as once used they’re removed from the game instead of being put into the discard pile (Munchkin and Zombies!!! designers take note). Will this be a good thing? Hard to say, but it’s a probable disconnect between new/experienced players and could lead to a messy land-grab style start to each game.

Conclusion

I’ll be keeping Ace of Spies, but with some serious reservations. Alongside the overpowered cards issue above, I worry about replayability. While I draw a lot of comparisons to Ticket to Ride, the key element of that classic AoS lacks is a long term strategy and any long term tactical end game plan. There is no ‘longest route’, no joining of disparate track sections in the last turn, no end scoring ‘a-ha!’ moments. I’m not sure the simple bludgeon that replaces it is sufficient in a game that takes a similar length of time.

So for now Ace of Spies is 7 out of 10 for me, with the potential to go up a half point or so – but also to go down to a 5 (or worse). And if any reprint doesn’t come with a simple 1-100 point scoreboard, someone needs to send in the assassin…

One thought on “Ace of Spies: A four-sided game review

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