When I moved to Urbana, Illinois in 1987 to start grad school, I left behind a lively game group in my home town in Ottawa, and I missed it.
Fortunately Urbana has its own thriving gaming community (or at least it did, 30 years ago), and it wasn’t long before I fell in with a group of students who also enjoyed gaming. We traded Amiga games, gathered around lab PCs to play Starflight, and got together on weekends to try more ambitious diversions. One of the highlights for me was SPI’s Spies!, a fascinating and historical game of life-and-death spycraft in the run-up to World War II.
Typical of SPI games of the era, it was both fun to play and educational, and it gave me a newfound appreciation for the complexities of politics in pre-war Europe, and the dangerous games of brinksmanship played out in public and behind the scenes. It also helped bring to life an historical era I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in, and sparked an interest in World War II that has lingered to this day. If you’ve got some friends or family members whom you’d like to interest in 20th Century European history, trust me, this game is the way to do it.
[Click the images for bigger versions.]
Spies! (SPI first edition, 1981)
Spies! was designed by Lenny Glynn and John Prados and released by SPI in 1981. Unlike the major board games of the era, Spies! doesn’t involve moving armies around a colorful board. The focus is in on individuals gathering resources; avoiding the Gestapo, Scotland Yard, or other security forces; and navigating dangerous environments to nab crucial secrets, as all around them Europe lurches closer and closer to all-out war. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Jim Dunnigan’s 1971 Avalon Hill game of international power politics, Origins of World War II, and in some ways it’s closer to a role playing game.
It can be played with as few as two players, and as many as five. Players represent Germany, Italy, Russia, France and Britain, and the secrets up for grabs include the atomic bomb, the Enigma machine, sophisticated electronics, and lots more. It covers 1933-1939; the winner is the player who has best protected her own secrets, while successfully gathering those of her enemies before war finally breaks out.
SPI usually did a great job packaging and selling their games, and Spies! is no exception. I wanted to play the first time saw the back of the box. Here’s the text that fired my imagination.
Beneath the fragile peace, a net of intrigue stretches throughout the back alleys and dusky avenues of a continent’s glittering capitals. Through this baffling maze, fraught with the dangers of hostile police and double-dealing, a breed of solitary men and women pursue the closely guarded secrets of nations. Despite the ceaseless threat of capture and sudden death, these silent fugitives conduct their covert war — where stealth and cunning are weapons, and the warriors are…. SPIES !
Spies! is the exciting game of espionage and intrigue, where you guide the destinies of major European nations through the turbulent years of 1933-39. Two to five players – representing Germany, Italy, Russia, France and Britain — vie with one another to uncover the mysteries of the atomic bomb, the Enigma code device, sophisticated electronics, and other top secrets. Your spies move by rail, air, and sea throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in search of their quarry, constantly endangered by the security cordons of your opponents’ police and counterspies. Uncover an enemy secret, rush home to your capital — but don’t get caught ! The competition will be fast and furious, and everything depends on your… Spies!
Back Alleys! Dusky avenues! Silent fugitives! You know whoever wrote that text yearned to write spy novels. They probably would have been good at it.
I think part of what makes Spies! so appealing is the dynamic setting. Everyone is familiar with 1930s Europe, at least to some extent. You know the players, and what the stakes are. Boarding the Orient Express to Istanbul with a briefcase full of atomic secrets and the Gestapo in hot pursuit gets the pulse up in a way that invading a nameless province in a fantasy wargame doesn’t.
The sheer scope of the game is another big plus. Game play takes place across the whole of Europe and North Africa, from Belfast to Cairo, Casablanca to Moscow. I don’t know about you, but I can’t look at the interconnecting train lines and ports on the Spies! map without being reminded of countless spy movies. It’s certainly evocative of a dangerous era, anyway, and that’s not a bad thing for a board game.
For all its richness of setting, Spies! is easy to learn. There are two rulebooks, a 4-page Standard Rules which can be read in 15 minutes, and an only slightly longer Long Game Rulebook, which adds Action Points and Spy Havens. You can learn the game in under 30 minutes.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the core mechanic also gives Spies! its greatest replay value: the Event tiles. Each player begins with 10, including 7 unique to each country and 3 randomly drawn. These can be played or discarded at the beginning of each turn.
All 50 Event tiles for Spies! (click for a legible version)
The Event Tiles capture the significant events leading the continent (and the world) to War. They are things like:
British Commission New Type of Battleship
Hungary Presses a Claim to Rumanian Territory
German Arms Production Soars!
Arab Riots in the Palestinian Mandate
Every tile has consequences. Some make your nation richer, or poorer, or do the same to your enemies. Most also generate Action chits that you can used to advance your agenda, or hinder your opponents. It’s not too hard to create your own tiles to add a little variety (or increased historical verisimilitude, if that’s what you’re into).
Some Event Tiles can only be played in specific years, many can be played in any year, in any order.
The result, of course, is that events don’t play out the way they did historically. Or maybe they do, I dunno. When the heck did Hungary presse a claim to a Rumanian territory? Which one was that? (See what I mean about the game being educational?)
Anyway, the game unfolds differently every time — sometimes very differently. Sometimes events follow history. Maybe? You’d have to be more of a European history nut than I am to know for sure. But I sure know the exact geopolitical landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean the night Bill stole the secrets of radar from under my nose, I can tell you that.
Spies! (TSR edition, 1984)
Spies! was a pretty big success for SPI. I know this in two ways. One, there are about a million copies for sale on eBay on any given day (I bought an unpunched copy for $32 last month). And if you’ve ever tried to get a copy of a rare SPI game on eBay, you know they sure as hell don’t sell for $32.
Second, when TSR took over SPI in 1982 (as Bob Byrne covered in his article Simulations Publications Inc: The TSR Incursion), they killed most of the game line. But they did reprint a small handful of the most popular titles — including Spies!, repackaged to appeal to younger gamers, in 1984.
Origins of World War II (Avalon Hill, 1971)
Spies! is a unique game of geopolitical intrigue, and I’ve never played another game like it. It wasn’t the best game SPI ever produced, but it’s one of my favorites, and it’s still worth playing today.
Our previous coverage of SPI and other 20th Century board games includes:
SPI’s Swords and Sorcery by John O’Neill (2012)
Unleash your inner Conan with Barbarian Kings by John O’Neill (2013)
Magic Realm Lives Again by Jeff Stehman (2013)
Titan by John O’Neill (2013)
Avalon Hill’s Elric Young Kingdoms Adventure Game by John O’Neill (2013)
Vampiric Legions Versus Noble Knights: Avalon Hill’s Dark Emperor by John O’Neill (2015)
Simulations Publications Inc: The TSR Incursion by Bob Byrne (2017)
Big Adventure, Tiny Dungeons: SPI’s DeathMaze Mini-game by Deven Atkinson (2018)
See all of our recent Games coverage here.