Ace of Spies Game Review (prepublished version)

Please Take Note: This is a review of the game’s final prototype. The art, game bits, and the rules discussed are all subject to change. The game is being reviewed on the components and the rules provided with the understanding that “what you see is not what you might get” when the game is published. If you like what you read and want to learn more, we encourage you to visit the game’s web page or Kickstarter project page. Now that we have all that disclaimer junk out of the way, on with the review!


The Basics:

  • For ages 7 and up (publisher suggests 10+)
  • For 2 to 5 players
  • About 30 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Emotional Coping Skills
  • Pattern/Color Matching
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Moderate
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • In the dangerous game of espionage, only the most elite of spies survive and thrive, constantly competing to be the best of the best of the best of the best of the best….of the best.

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

Espionage is a game where betrayal is a given. This makes it a lonely game for all to play, as there are no friends you can trust. The only thing you can depend on are your enemies because you know where they stand. No, it’s your supposed friends you have to be careful for. That nice waitress at the corner cafe and the kindly old man who feeds pigeons in the park could all be agents. The only way to survive is to be quicker, smarter, and more paranoid than everyone else. Welcome to the game, agent.

Ace of Spies, by Albino Dragon, is comprised of 35 Mission cards and 120 City cards. The City cards represent London, Paris, and Berlin and contain agent, intelligence, locations in a city, tools, and special interrupt cards. As we are reviewing a final prototype of the game, we will not comment on the production value. We will state, however, that the artwork is simply outstanding.

Spy Gear

The players will be attempting to complete missions by collecting specific cards. Each Mission card will have a number of symbols on it that show what requirements must be met in order to complete it. The items needed will be found by the player in one of the three City decks. While the player searches for the needed items, they might find that it is more useful to send one of their agents out into the field or use their collected items to play a more direct role in the game. This makes it possible for the players to straddle the line between being a “spy hunter” and “intelligence gatherer”. Of course, so can all the other players.

Example of a Mission card and the meaning of the symbols

And no spy would survive long if they didn’t have a trick up their sleeve. That’s where the interrupt cards come into play. While a knife in the dark might sound like a good way to take care of a problem, a spy knows the subtly and public embarrassment are far crueller cuts.

Game Set Up

To set up the game, first separate the cards into four decks. Three of the decks will represent a city (London, Paris, and Berlin) and the fourth deck will contain the Mission cards. Shuffle these decks thoroughly and place them, face-down, on the table where all the players can easy reach them. These are the draw decks. Leave room for a discard pile, as well.

Next, deal each player 2 cards from each of the City decks (2 London, 2 Paris, and 2 Berlin) for a total of 6 cards. Now deal each player 3 Mission cards. The players can either keep all, only 2, or just 1 of the Mission cards dealt to them, but at minimum they must keep 1 Mission card. Whatever Mission cards they decide to keep are put in their hand and the ones they discard are placed in the discard pile.

Finally, draw 2 cards from each City deck  (for a total of 6 cards) and place them face-up in the middle of the playing area for all the players to see.

Determine who the first player is and begin.

Playing the Game

Players will take turns, taking 1 of 4 options and then attempt to complete as many missions as possible. Once they are done, the next player in a clockwise order goes. This continues until the game ends. The only time a player can play out-of-order is by using an interrupt card. Interrupt cards can be played at anytime and out of turn, but once played, they must be immediately resolved. Additionally, if the interrupt card only works when a specific condition is met, it cannot be played until that time, but it can be played out of turn.

First, the player must select t  1 of 4 possible options to complete.

Option 1: Draw 2 City Cards

The player can draw any 2 City cards from the City decks and face-up City cards. If a face-up City card is taken, it is immediately replaced by a drawing the top card from the matching City deck. The player can choose to take City cards in any combination from the face-up cards and City decks, but no more than 2 cards can be collected. The only exception to this rule is if a player takes a visible (face-up) interrupt card. If they do, they cannot draw another card. Additionally, a player cannot draw a face-up interrupt card as their second card. Those are the breaks, kid.

Option 2: Draw 3 Mission Cards

The player draws 3 Mission cards. The player must keep at least 1 of the cards drawn and is welcome to keep 2 or all 3. Any unwanted Mission cards are discarded.

Option 3: Play an Agent

The player can play an agent card from their hand and use the agent’s special abilities. The agent card is placed face-up and the player reads the card’s text out loud to all the players, completing the card’s action if it is not blocked by another player. The agent remains on the table in front of the player, cannot be used for completing missions, can be stolen by other players, but still awards points at the end of the game.

Option 4: Perform Special Actions

The player can discard any number of cards from their hand to complete a special action. Each card has a point value (noted in the top left corner of the card) and the player must discard a number of cards so the total of all the card’s values is equal to or higher than the special action cost. The special actions are as follows:

  • Collect any 1 card form the discard pile = 5 points
  • Collect any 2 cards from the discard pile = 7 points
  • Collect any 1 card from 1 City deck = 5 points
  • Collect any 1 card from the Mission deck = 7 points
  • Force any player to discard any 1 card of your choice from their completed mission = 5 points

Second, the player  may now attempt to complete a mission. This is done by the player placing the Mission card on the table and all the necessary City cards needed to complete it. A player can complete multiple missions during their turn as long as they have the cards to do so. Note that some agent cards reduce the necessary requirements to complete a mission if used.

Third, the player ensures they have no more than 10 cards in their hand (Mission cards are not counted) and then their turn is over. The next player in turn order now goes repeating the above.

Triggering the Endgame

The endgame will be triggered when one of the following three conditions are met.

  • One of the 4 decks are exhausted (no more cards)
  • A player reaches 75 points (based on the cards played out in front of them)
  • A player completes their 7th mission

All players now have one final turn to collect as many points as possible or to reduce their opponent’s points. The last player to have a turn will be the one who triggered the endgame.

All the players now count their points. You only count the points of the cards played. This includes agents (played alone) and completed missions. When counting points for completed mission, add the mission point value and the value of each of the cards attached.

The player with the most points wins the game and is declared the Ace of Spies!

To learn more about the game and read the complete rules, see the game’s web page or Kickstarter project page.

Prediction

This game is, essentially, all about collecting sets of cards and playing them to the table as fast as you can. This is, in itself, not that difficult. Where the difficulty comes into play is all the different ways you can mess with a player, hindering their attempts to complete missions. Additionally, because you have a hand size limit, you must spend a good deal of time managing your hand. Do you collect all the yellow tools or do you try to mix them up? These are the questions the players will have to answer while they are playing, making this a much more involved game.

I have no doubt my 7-year-old can handle this game and I know the Parent and Gamer Geeks will not be confused by it. I really have no idea how the non-gamers will react to it at this point because it is not completely clear to me all the ways the players can interact and mess with each other. Only after playing the game will I know for you. But the interest is there and even my 4-year-old wants to give the game a shot. Reading is necessary, as is math, meaning I will have to help him out with the cards.

Teaching the game didn’t take long. The only questions the players had were about interrupts and ways to get points. One Parent Geek asked an excellent question about the scoring and was wondering if it was a good strategy to get higher City cards to complete missions or just finish missions as quickly as possible. I suggested it would depend on the table. If your opponent was taking their time to collect big point cards, they wouldn’t be completing missions quickly. At the same time, if you finish missions as fast as possible, you are not spending any time looking at the points. I suggested that if she thought a player was taking their time, she should work as fast as possible to get 7 completed missions, possibly locking the other player out.

After teaching the game to my family and little geeks, they were ready to go. My 7-year-old was skeptical but my 5-year-old was very excited about playing a game where spies were involved. And so, as I set up the game to be played, I asked them their thoughts on it so far.

“Looks kind of tough as you have to collect a lot of cards for your missions, but you can only have so many cards in your hand.” ~ Liam (age 7)

“I think it looks like a good game, Dad.” ~ Nyhus (age 5)

Optimism sprinkled with doubt. Not bad, really. Let’s play the game and see if my little geeks can beat their old man in a game of subtle espionage and set collecting.

Final Word

My 7-year-old had a good time with the game and played it very well. My 5-year-old did not. He spent too much time focused on his set collecting and completely ignored the player interaction game mechanisms. This cost him the game, even while I was helping him. I only read the cards when he asked and only suggested a few time he should look a bit harder at the cards. He’s old enough to play his own game, but lacks the necessary reading skills to play the game fully. This hindered him and he recognized that, stating he looked forward to playing it when he was older. The 7-year-old, being a very good reader, did an excellent job of balancing his resources and focus in the game, resulting in some very strong plays and close scores. Both little geeks had meltdowns during the game when their points were taken, but quickly came back to the table filled with new-found determination to crush their enemies.

Parent Geeks enjoyed the game, overall. A few thought the game was a bit too chaotic. Some found the player interaction and stealing or removing of cards highly frustrating. They still enjoyed the game, however, putting the blame on the players for acting nasty to each other instead of just being “well-behaved spies”. The non-gamers all but geek raged with this game. Whenever you would take their card or mess with their points, you’d think they were getting a hot poker in the eye instead. Clearly, not a game for them.

Gamer Geeks liked the game for its quick plays and nasty ways you could mess with other players. One Gamer Geek focused a good deal on player screwage. This made him terribly unpopular but he never came close to winning the game. On the other end of the spectrum, a Gamer Geek just buckled down and focused on completing her missions. This also proved to be a loosing strategy. When the game was over, all the players were wearing either smiles or sneers, but agreed it was a good time.

While my 7-year-old wears a mask of cool determination, my 5-year-old happily talks about the card illustrations

Gamer Geeks, this can be a very chaotic game. There is plenty of opportunity to mess with other players, resulting in what some might consider to be something of a mess. However, there is a level of control and direction in the game that keeps it all going forward. The three end game conditions, for example, give the players three different ways to control the outcome and length of the game. Additionally, because you do not reshuffle the discard pile, you will run out of cards, ending the game. This should make it very clear that to win the game, you must mix offensive and defensive tactics in order to be able to collect points as well as take points from other players. The end result is a rather interesting game of “take that” with a heavy mix of hand/resource management. As a center piece game for a night of games, however, we think it falls short. Excellent game filler and light enough to be a Gamer Geek’s slightly-more-than-casual game for the evening.

Parent Geeks, this proved to be a very worthwhile game but tested everyone’s patience with each other at the table. You will work hard, sometimes, to get points only to have them quickly whisked away. This can get very old for some people and will cause the game to flop. But this is part of the game and the challenge. This also elevates the game from being a simple game of set collecting to a passive-aggressive battle between the players. For families and friends who like a good game of cards and the ability to ensure that there is no such thing as a “free ride” for their opponents, this game is sure to please. For families and friends where relationships are already strained, please avoid this game at all cost.

Child Geeks, you are either going to love this game or hate it. Sorry, it is going to be one or the other. If you can rise above you level of disappointment and hurt when your points are being taken, you’ll find that you have as much an opportunity to do the same to the other players and can counter just as quickly after you are attacked. This gives you a great deal of power in the game and you should never feel that you cannot retaliate. If they mess with you, most certainly mess with them. If, however, you don’t like it when players can interrupt your game and change the way you are playing it, then you should avoid this game for now. It’s not that the game is hard, it’s just that some players are unforgiving. Especially older brothers and sisters who NEVER let you play with their toys.

I have read that some people consider this to be a great deal like Ticket to Ride. I can certainly see the similarities. The player needs to collect specific colors to complete missions much like you would collect cards to complete train routes. But this is no train game. Ace of Spies quickly sets itself apart and becomes a game of dodging and ducking as much as set collecting. The entire experience is fast paced and somewhat stressful as even your completed missions can suddenly be taken away from you. I must admit that I found this to be a bit of crotch kicker. After spending a good 5-minutes collecting and hunting for the necessary cards needed to complete a mission, my mission didn’t give me any points because of an interrupt. I was both hurt, angered, and fully engaged. Oh, yes. This game brought out the “bad guy” in me and I played accordingly.

The game is not without some issues, however. My concerns are primarily based on the rules and the lack of some details that I think should be addressed before the game is fully published. For example, the rules do not state how to count points. We suggest you count the points using the cards you have played to the table. At this time, no such direction is given in the rules. The game rules could also benefit from a visual example of how to set up the game and clearly stating that all the cards go into a single discard pile. But these are actually very minor and can be easily addressed in a FAQ or just by updating the rules a bit. Nothing major is broken and I have nothing of serious concern that would stop me from purchasing this game.

If you are looking for a set collecting game full of spy on spy espionage, then Ace of Spies is for you.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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