City of Spies: Estoril 1942 has players pretending to run spy networks during World War II, placing spy cards on six location boards to try to “recruit” new and more valuable spies for use later in the game. It’s a clever theme, but the game is so piled with special rules that the actual play is like driving in stop-and-go traffic, with no rhythm to it at all and frequent situations where you can’t do anything you planned to do.
Each player starts the game with the same six spy characters, each of whom has a strength rating, a point value for scoring at the end of the game, and a nationality. Most spy cards also have one or more special skills that allow you to do more than just compete on strength points—the assassin can remove another spy card from the same board; the seductress can recruit a spy from another board to an open space on the current board; the nationalist gains strength if there are other cards on the same board of the same nationality. The game comprises four rounds with six locations that vary each time, chosen at random from the eight total that come with the game, shuffled and rotated so the overall alignment always differs.
Each of the eight boards also has a special feature. The Church prohibits the use of an assassin card’s power, two boards reward an extra point to a specific nationality, the casino allows you to roll two dice to try to add strength points to your card, and so on. Most boards have four spaces, three for players to place spy cards, then a fourth space for the “reward” card that the player with the most strength points on that location receives. These are resolved in order, as the spaces are marked 1-2-3, so placing a powerful spy card on space 3 might make it irrelevant if an opponent has an assassin on space 1.
After each round, players decide which six spy cards to keep in their active rotation, retiring any others to their discard piles. The final scoring is the simplest part of the game: you add up the strength points of your six active spy cards, plus one for each card in your discard pile, and then all players compete for four “mission” cards, each with a bonus of six points, awarded to the player with the most matching symbols on their active cards. That could mean the most assassin or nationalist symbols, or the most Portuguese agents, or the most woman spy cards, and in our three-player games those mission cards always determined the winner.
The fundamental problem with City of Spies is that it’s slow, and a game of this strategy level should move much more quickly. Placing a spy card involves weighing too many variables, and some spaces on the board also allow you to peek at a face-down card elsewhere on the table, which just adds to turn length. Resolving all 18 or 19 spy cards on the six location boards at the end of each of the game’s four rounds also takes too long, because most cards carry a special skill or two, often requiring the player to make another on-the-spot decision, and most boards have that additional factor that affects strength points or requires further resolution after the fact.
City of Spies plays two to four; we tried it with two and three and found it took at least an hour, and one time we ended the game after three rounds because we’d crossed the hour mark and each of us had had enough. Unfortunately it just tries to cram too many good ideas into one game, and simplifying it—say, eliminating the location boards’ special features—would have made the play faster and more enjoyable without costing the game any strategic depth.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.