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Spione

Spione is the game of the Cold War that I have wanted to play for a while. Although ostensibly routed in the fiction of Graham Greene and John Le Carre; Spione offers an effective mirror to the paranoia and fear of the wider conflict in Europe and the messy post-war politics of occupation and redemption.

Summary

Physicality

Spione is a big book for what is in fact a surprisingly small and simple game. The majority of the book is context and background, a sufficient history to induct any potential player of the game but perhaps too dry to tempt someone who is not already a fan of the spy genre or the real-world situation.

You will also need to download and print out the various handouts and sheets. Some of these are purely informational, such as the map of Berlin and list of German names. The character sheets on the other hand are necessary to actually play the game.

Place and purpose

The game is focused on espionage in Berlin during the Cold War between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of East Germany. The heart of the game is about creating the stories of two spies and driving their lives as people into conflict with their lives as spies.

Details are given of the agencies on both sides of the wall, their goals, methods and internal conflicts. The game periods are divided into decades and a decade is chosen randomly at the start of the game. A story set in the Berlin of the Eighties is going to have a very different feel for a KGB agent that one set in the Fifties.

The characters will have a goal set for them by their handlers and masters but to some extent the game is not really about spies spying. Instead the mission is a springboard for conflict, causing the character to need to deceive others about their intentions.

Mechanics

The game play is divided into two phases. During the initial phase the players either frame a scene involving one of the spies or narrate a simple sentence length addition to an ongoing scene. The goal in the scene for the players is to drive the character into a conflict that is important and is not easily resolved. This is called the Maneuvers phase.

This might be something physical like escaping from pursuing policemen or might be emotional and mental such as lying to a spouse or friend. These conflicts are called Flashpoints and provide a way for anchoring facts into the free-flowing general narrative.

The game uses a conventional playing card deck to resolve these conflicts. A number of cards are played depending on the card number of the spy involved in the Flashpoint, these are laid out in a line. There are some rules for moving cards from the right to left but once these moves have been completed the resolution is narrated by moving along the line left to right. The owner of each card can narrate something about the Flashpoint resolution when it comes up in the sequence.

The mechanism is complex to describe but is actually simple to use and allows all the players to be involved with finding the outcome of a conflict. The overall tone of the outcome is based on whether a spy suit is the first card in the sequence or not. If it is a spy card then the outcome will broadly be in the spy's favour; if not then things will go against the spy.

Opinions

Spione is a pretty interesting game because if I am honest it is not simple to grasp all the subtleties until you've played it a few times. During the free narration it is difficult to limit yourself to a single fact and slice between the two stories, it is an acquired skill. Players have to follow what the others are saying constantly because you might need to pick up a conversation or piece of intense action and contribute to it. I have seen plenty of people having to stop the flow and get a recap of what is happening because they have become lost in the flow of the two stories. It is a demanding game.

The Flashpoints mechanism is completely opaque and while it works it does act as a totally separate system that does relate to the Maneuvers phase. You also have to remember to make sure the central Flashpoint question is resolved as per the rules as otherwise you can end up with a Flashpoint actually being ambiguous. Using your cards in a Flashpoint is tricky, used well they ratchet up the tension and push forward the narrative but as with a lot of powerful free narration mechanics you can find people again getting lost and not being sure what they want to do or what options to select to help drive the story in their preferred direction.

It is also hard to understand that the game is not about the spies failing or succeeding in their missions (in fact the game acknowledges that a spy might die at the start of the game) and therefore the people who are "running" the spy are not playing them in a conventional roleplaying sense. Instead the spy players are actually the spies sympathisers and cheerleaders, seeking to lessen the cold around them and offer a way out of their situation.

So it is a hard, demanding system. Played right, though it nails the atmosphere of a John Le Carre or Graham Greene novel. The single sentence narration results in hard, taunt sentences that rattle the story along. The mechanisms make sure that while things are tough for the spies they are also capable of their own victories and surprises. The resulting atmosphere is exactly the right mix of suffocating paranoia, faint hope and spiraling mistrust and disorder.

This is a spy game that is actually about spies rather than trying to recreate the cinematic hijinx of a Bourne or a Bond and as a result it is a unique experience that I both value and enjoy.

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