I’m not a big fan of games that feature deduction as their primary mechanism, but I almost always enjoy games that feature secret roles. I love the way people look at each other and try to psych each other out as they try to figure out who is who. Top Secret Spies, also published as Under Cover and Heimlich & Co., utilizes this secret role mechanism and moves the game along by a very simple roll-and-move play sequence.
Designed by Wolfgang Kramer, Top Secret Spies took home the Spiel des Jahres in 1986 and has been published by a variety of companies. I played the Under Cover version that was published in English by Ravensburger. The game will handle 2-7 players of ages 8 and up, and you can play it in about 30 minutes. The game comes with a simple board that features an oval track that looks like a street with buildings. You also get some wooden spies in various player colors, a die, and some cards to represent your secret spy color and some additional cards for the advanced version of the game.
The basic concept is that the spies are stealthily moving from building to building, collecting information that varies in value. On their turn, a player will roll the die and then move one or more of the spies according to the number of pips shown. I like the word pips, don’t you? After all movement points have been allocated, if one or more spies are inside of the building where the safe is currently located, then all spies will gain or lose points based on the value of their current location. In this way, spies will earn from zero to ten points, or they will lose three points if they are caught in the old ruins. The old ruins are bad. I figure that’s where they hang out to smoke the Mary Jane and read aloud from well-thumbed copies of On the Road. Anyway, they lose three points. If it was a scoring round, the current player will then move the safe to a new location, and the die gets passed to the next player. As spies earn points, a marker that matches the color of each spy gets moved around a scoring track. When a spy reaches the end of the track, the game ends.
This is a very simple process, but remember that players only know the color of their own spy, and not all of the spies on the board represent another player. The trick is to try to figure out who is who without letting the other players guess your color. The game includes advanced rules that use Top Secret cards that let players perform special actions and score additional points for correctly guessing the player identities. I played the basic version of this game without the Top Secret cards and I really liked it. The concept was so simple and yet the amount of “game” that happens during each turn is quite impressive.
I may have to track down a used copy of this one. There is something really charming about it. It has the feel of a classic game, and while I don’t see myself playing it often, I do think it would be one of those games that would see occasional play for years to come. I’m at that point in my gaming life where I’m ready to have a much smaller collection, but I will make some shelf space for Top Secret Spies.
This is part of my Spiel des Jahres winner series. If you would like to comment on the 1986 winner, Top Secret Spies, then please do so on this post. If you would like to discuss or comment on the Spiel des Jahres award in general, please do so on the Spiel des Jahres series post.