Having played 500-600 different board games it starts to become pretty easy to judge a board game by its cover. Looking at today’s game Spy Alley I thought it was going to be another bland roll and move game with a spy theme. Not being a fan of roll and move games this was not particularly encouraging. While my initial impressions are usually pretty accurate, there are occasional board games that have been pleasant surprises in the past so I was hoping that Spy Alley would be one of those games. Spy Alley might be a simplistic deduction game but it is truly a hidden gem.
How to Play Spy Alley
- Each player is given $10 times the number of players.
- All of the players are also given a scorecard and a playing piece. Each player places their playing piece on the start space.
- The spy I.D. cards are shuffled and each player randomly draws one. All of the extra spy I.D. cards are placed back into the box without the players looking at them. Each player looks at their spy I.D. to find out their secret identity without letting the other players know.
- The move and gift cards are shuffled separately to form draw piles.
- All of the players roll the die. The player with the highest roll gets to start the game.
Playing the Game
A player begins their turn by rolling the die and moving their playing piece clockwise the number of spaces rolled. The player will then take the action corresponding the the space they landed on.
The objective of Spy Alley is to acquire the password, disguise, code book and key belonging to the country of their secret identity. When a player acquires an item they mark it off on their scorecard.
The catch is that everyone can see what the other players have collected. Since players can guess each other’s secret identities, players need to acquire items from countries other than their secret identity in order to keep the other players from knowing their secret identity.
Black Market: A player landing on this space can purchase one item of their choice for the price indicated on the scorecard.
Border Crossing: When a player lands on this space they must pay $5 to the bank. If they can’t pay the $5 they must enter spy alley.
Code Books: A player landing on a code books space can purchase as many code books as they want for $15 each.
Collect $20 and Collect $10: Players collect the corresponding amount of money when they land on one of these spaces.
Confiscate Materials: A player landing on this space can confiscate one item from one of the other players. If the player chooses to confiscate an item they take it from the player and pay that player the corresponding amount of money.
Disguises: A player landing on this space can purchase as many disguises as they want for $5 each.
Embassy Spaces: Until a player has collected all of the items for their secret identity, these spaces do nothing. When a player has all of their needed items and lands on their own embassy, they will win the game.
Free Gift: When a player lands on one of these spaces they take the top card from the gift card pile. The player reads the card and takes the corresponding item for free if they don’t already own the item. If the player draws a wild card they keep it in front of them. This card can represent any item and the player doesn’t have to say what it represents until the end of the game.
Keys: The player landing on the space can purchase as many keys as they want for $30 each.
Move Card: When landing on this space the player takes the top move card and places it face up in front of themselves. On a future turn a player can use a move card to move the corresponding number of spaces instead of rolling the die.
Passwords: A player that lands on this space can only purchase the password corresponding to the space that they landed on.
Spy Alley Entrance: When a player passes the entrance to spy alley they can either choose to enter spy alley or continue moving around the outside of the gameboard. If a player lands on the spy alley entrance though they must enter spy alley.
Spy Eliminator: A player that lands on this space is given an opportunity to guess the identity of all of the other players that are in spy alley with no risk of punishment if they guess wrong.
Start: Players collect $15 each time they land on or pass the start space.
Guessing A Player’s Secret Identity
At any time in the game a player can choose to use their turn to guess another player’s identity instead of moving. The player announces their guess to the rest of the players. If the player guessed the other player’s secret identity correctly, the player whose secret identity was guessed is eliminated from the game. If the player guessed incorrectly, they are eliminated from the game.
The player that is eliminated gives all of their cards, money, items, and their spy I.D. card to the other player. The remaining player then has to decide whether they want to keep their current secret identity or if they want to switch to the other player’s identity. The player discards the spy I.D. that they don’t want to use without showing any of the other players.
End of Game
Spy Alley can end in one of two ways.
If all but one of the players have been eliminated due to guessing incorrectly or having their secret identity guessed, the remaining player wins the game.
Otherwise the first player to collect all of the items for their secret identity and then land on their embassy, wins the game.
My Thoughts on Spy Alley
As I already mentioned I can’t say that I had high expectations for Spy Alley. This mostly came from the idea that it just looked like another typical roll and move game. Move around the board gathering the items that you need. I have played other roll and move games with similar mechanics and none of them were that great since they mostly relied on dice roll luck.
Spy Alley might just look like a typical roll and move game where you collect items but Spy Alley actually finds a great way of combining these mechanics with a deduction/bluffing mechanic. If you just moved around the board buying items Spy Alley would be a boring game. Spy Alley gives you some interesting decisions though. The key mechanic in the game is trying to balance acquiring the items you need while not being so obvious that the other players notice. This means that you will have to waste time and money buying items that are totally worthless to you just to try and cover your tracks.
It might not sound like much but this mechanic actually gives players quite a few more decisions than most roll and move games. Players really have to decide whether they are going to go for a quicker riskier strategy or if they are going to take a more passive long term strategy. While it is generally advisable to purchase items when you land on the appropriate spaces, what you decide to purchase is much more interesting. You could choose to mostly focus on purchasing the items you need to win which will make it much quicker for you to win the game. Another player is likely to guess your secret identity though so you are taking a risk. If you are more passive it becomes quite difficult for other players to guess your identity but it also takes a lot longer to get all of the items you need which gives the other players opportunities to finish before you.
The reason you have to hide your identity is that players can guess the secret identity of another player at any time on their turn. What is so interesting about the mechanic is that it is one of the biggest high risk high reward decisions that I have seen in a board game in a long time. If you guess right you will be significantly rewarded but if you guess wrong you are eliminated from the game and have to give everything to the player you incorrectly accused. The stakes can’t get much higher can they?
While this leads to some problems which I will get to shortly, you can’t deny that the mechanic has huge consequences on the game. If you guess correctly you not only eliminate another player but you steal everything that player has including their secret identity. Unless this is early in the game, you can end up taking a lot from the other player which likely will put you far ahead of the other players. One or two right guesses could easily lead to you winning the game. The risk is immense though. Who wants to guess wrong and be eliminated from the game? You then have to sit around waiting for the rest of the players to finish the game. The punishment is severe enough that you can’t just randomly guess the identity of the other players. You have to be pretty sure of your suspicions before you take that risk. With how beneficial it is to correctly guess another player’s identity I appreciate that the game has a significant punishment if you guess wrong.
The problem with the risk being so high though is that it tends to discourage players from taking guesses. Most people are not going to take that risk unless they are pretty sure of a player’s secret identity or they think the player is about ready to win the game. Unless you are really good at reading the other players it is going to be hard to get to this point unless one of the players is way too aggressive in obtaining their own items. If players play the long game and buy a lot of items that they don’t need, there is almost no way to know what their secret identity is unless you can read them. Maybe it is because my group is generally conservative when we play board games but none of us actually ended up making a guess in the game because it would have literally been a guess and no one wanted to take the risk.
The extreme rewards and risks continue when you get to Spy Alley. Spy Alley is a really interesting idea as it contains both the most rewarding and dangerous spaces on the entire board. Spy Alley includes the space that gives you the most money, lets you steal items from other players and even ultimately lets you win the game. There is even the ability to get penalty-free guesses of the identity of the other players currently in Spy Alley.
The problem is that the other players can also get the ability to take a free guess at your identity. While players are not going to make many guesses when they could be eliminated from the game with an incorrect guess, there is no hesitation when you have nothing to lose. If you are forced to go down Spy Alley you are in constant danger until you are able to leave. The risk is so high that I would recommend skipping the alley unless you either don’t have a choice, you will land on the space that gives you the free guesses, or you have all of the items you need to win the game. I actually think it is kind of brilliant that Spy Alley forces you to go down the alley to win the game. By choosing to go down the alley you are basically signalling the other players that you are close to winning the game so they might need to make a last ditch guess to try to stop a player from winning the game.
Spy Alley is never going to be confused for a heavy deduction game and I am okay with that. The game is a roll and move game with some deduction mechanics thrown in. While Spy Alley is probably not going to appeal to people that want a heavy deduction game, I think it will work well for people that are looking for a lighter deduction game. The game is simple enough that you should be able to explain it in less than five minutes. While children might not be great at concealing their hidden identity I see no reason why they couldn’t play Spy Alley. The game is also the perfect length for a light dexterity game at around 45 minutes to one hour.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of decisions in Spy Alley but I will freely admit that the game still relies heavily on luck. Since most of the gameplay is controlled by the roll of a die, rolling the right numbers at the right times are going to give you a big advantage in the game. In order to win the game you are going to have to land on the spaces that let you buy the items you need to win while also giving you money that you can need to purchase those items.
Because of the reliance on dice roll luck I appreciate that the game decided to include the move cards. Being able to draw a move card is one of the best spaces that you can land on. The move cards actually do a good job eliminating quite a bit of the luck in Spy Alley. If you collect enough move cards you can use them to strategically land on spaces that you need for your strategy. These become especially powerful at the end of the game if you need a specific number to land on your embassy to win the game.
While the move cards are powerful, the gift cards are probably even more powerful. Every gift card you draw will give you a free item. You might end up drawing a card that gives you an item you already have but most of the time these cards are quite valuable. If you end up getting one of the more expensive items for free it can actually save you quite a bit of money. If the item is something you need it is even better since you get one item closer to winning and you give no information to the other players since you were randomly given the item. By far the most powerful cards though are the wild cards. The reason that the wild cards are so valuable is that they can act as any item and you don’t have to reveal which unless you have already won the game. A wild card makes it much easier to get all of the items you need and keeps your identity hidden from the other players. These cards are so powerful that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they are the most expensive item to confiscate from other players. $50 is quite a bit in the game and yet the wild cards are probably worth every penny.
As far as components for a self published game I have to give Spy Alley credit. It was never going to compete with designer games that retail for $60+ but I think the components are still quite nice. The artwork is pretty nice and the quality is pretty good. I especially like the pegboards as they do a good job keeping track of the items you own and you don’t have to worry about running out of score sheets like other games. I will say that it is sometimes hard to get the pegs to stay in the board though. I also think a little more could have been done with the gift and move cards since they are really bland.
Should You Buy Spy Alley?
Spy Alley is the perfect example of a game that you shouldn’t judge by its cover. I didn’t have high expectations for the game and yet I was pleasantly surprised. Spy Alley might just be a roll and move game that has implemented a basic deduction mechanic and yet it is surprisingly fun. Deciding how much you should focus on your own items versus buying items to keep your identity secret is an interesting mechanic. Being able to eliminate another player at any time by guessing their identity is also exciting but comes at great risk. Being a roll and move game, Spy Alley still relies pretty heavily on luck though. While Spy Alley is never going to be confused for anything other than a light deduction game, I think it does a very good job in that role. I have no problem saying Spy Alley is a hidden gem.
If you absolutely despise roll and move games or deduction/bluffing games, Spy Alley probably won’t be for you. If you are looking for a heavier deduction game it might also not be for you. If you are looking for a light deduction game though you could do a lot worse than Spy Alley. If you can get a good deal on Spy Alley I would recommend picking it up.