NOTE: Secret Directive is a Kickstarter Project that is yet to be released. The version we have in this review is a review copy sent to us by the designer. This will not affect the final score; we believe in journalistic integrity at BGR and will give an honest, unbiased review of the game.
“Who are the people in the shadows?” This is the question that Secret Directive asks, a wonderful new card/board game by designer Mike Lee. Secret Directive is a game that pits spy agencies against each other, sending their secret agents to gather intel that will either benefit their mother country, or inhibit the progress of their rivals. It is a card drafting/deck building game at its core, allowing you to play cards on yourself or on your enemies, though the mechanics go much deeper than that with the game’s ability track, which grants you special abilities the farther up you progress. The more intelligence a player brings to their own country, the higher up they will move on the board. But beware, because enemy spies are everywhere, and they can supply you with false information that will inhibit your progress. Finding the balance between your own progression, and the amount that you sabotage your enemies is the key to success in Secret Directive.
This game is currently unreleased, with a Kickstarter campaign that is now live. Designer Mike Lee was kind enough to send a review copy to Board Game Resource, though this will not affect the review or the final score. If you like what you read here, feel free to visit the Kickstarter page and help this game to become a reality!
How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?
The objective of the game is to gather intelligence in order to advance your country to the last space on any one tech track. There are four tech tracks in the game, each one with ten steps, and represented on a board. By playing cards that represent intelligence (each track having its own intelligence cards), players can move up. Each track yields its own benefits:
Economy increases your income, allowing you to gather more coins which in turn can be used to play Secret Directives, which are secret actions (in other words, unbeknownst to other players until they are played) at the end of the round.
Military increases the number of spies you can have, which increase the amount of possible turns you can take each round.
Science gives you access to more cards, either powerful actions or more valuable intelligence.
Culture allows you to easily kick enemy spies out of your country, which may be trying to sabotage you.
In Secret Directive, every player starts out with their own board (representing their mother country), three spies (which is what players use to take turns), a deck of ten cards (the same deck for every player), and two “Secret Directives,” secret action cards that can be played at the end of the round. They also receive one coin, the currency that pays for the use of Secret Directives. Their deck consists of two of each type of intelligence, as well as two action cards. Everyone’s cards start out at level 1. There are more powerful actions and superior intelligence cards at levels 2 and 3, but these can only be accessed by advancing up the science track.
A round consists of players using their spies to take actions, until all spies have been used. Each spy represents a turn. Once every player’s spy has been used, the round ends. Every player starts out with three spies, but can gain more through the military track. This means that, if one player has four spies and everyone else has three, they will have an extra turn at the end of the round. A spy has six different actions they can take:
Play an intelligence card: The player has a hand of five cards and can play one. Intelligence cards can be played at the top of your board. At the end of the round, the amount of intelligence played determines how far you move up any given track. This is determined by taking the highest amount of intelligence cards on your board in one category, and subtracting the second highest category. For example, a player that has three military cards and one economy card on his board will move up two spaces on the advancement track. Why, then, would somebody play an economy card if they already played military? The answer is that they wouldn’t – an enemy spy would. Moving your spy to another player’s board allows you to play intelligence cards on their board, allowing you to slow down their progress. Even better, the victim inherits the card that you send them, allowing you to get rid of cards you don’t want and forcing them to fluff up their deck.
Play an action card: Your hand will consist of intelligence cards and action cards. Playing an action card will yield whatever benefit is listed on the card. There’s a myriad of different action cards, though only one is available by default; all the rest must be unlocked via the science track. The level 1 action card allows you to gain a coin, research a card (choosing a card to add to your deck), and add another card to your hand, which may open up more opportunities for you that round. Some of the more powerful actions consist of drawing multiple cards, stealing other players’ money, or even permanently converting one of their enemy spies to work for you.
Move a spy: This is where things get interesting. Cards can be played either on yourself, or on an enemy. However, it’s impossible to play cards on an enemy without first moving your spy to their country. The move action allows you to place one of your spies on an enemy board, to square 0 on the “capture track.” Every time they take an action in an enemy country, they’ll move up the track. The higher up they are, the more likely they are of getting caught. A die can be rolled at the end of each round, and if it’s equal to or less than the spot that your spy is on, they will get thrown in jail. Releasing enemy spies requires that you pay a coin to your enemy, and even worse, your spy has to spend the next round in rehabilitation, effectively robbing you of one of your turns. A spy can be moved from one enemy board to another, or back to your own country. It is risky to send a spy to another country, and it also limits your actions at home, but it may just be the ticket that turns the tide of the game.
Research: The player can add a card to their deck. Every player has a deck, but they only have five cards to work with each round. Every round, your hand (and all cards played) is discarded and you draw five more from your deck. Once all cards have been used, the deck is shuffled and used anew. Researching allows you to add cards. Want more military intelligence? Add military cards to your deck. At all times, there are three cards from each level displayed in front of the players. Research allows you to grab one of those, or to peek at the deck and choose one of the top two. If the player has advanced on the science track, they can also choose from level 2 or 3 cards, depending on where they’re at.
Income: This allows you to collect income. Your income level is decided by where you’re at on the Economy track. By default, players receive one coin from an income action. Being farther up on Economy, however, might give you three coins for one income action. Coins are used to play Secret Directives.
Pick up a Secret Directive: Secret Directives are actions that are hidden from other players, which can be played at the end of the round. They are distributed at random. A player can have as many as they want, and must have a minimum of two. Using this action allows you to draw another Secret Directive.
The thing that sets Secret Directive apart from other games is the unique spy placement mechanic. As mentioned above, cards can be played against your enemies, but only if your spy is on their board. Moving a spy limits your own progression potential, but can inhibit others. Furthermore, certain cards change in context depending on the territory. “Assassinate,” for example, allows you to kill an enemy spy, ending up with them washed up on a beach and useless for the next round. Playing this card with a home spy will assassinate an enemy spy that’s on your board. However, sending a spy to another country and playing assassinate there will assassinate one of their home spies. Do you want them out of your country, or do you want them to produce less at home? The spy that you use will determine that. There are also actions that are exclusive to home or abroad. “Sabotage,” for example, is a nasty card that can move someone back two steps on a track. However, this can only be played abroad. To hurt an enemy, you have to send a spy their way.
At the end of the round, there is a sequence that is followed to resolve everything and prepare for next round. First, Secret Directives are played. This can shake things up – sometimes spies will move, cards will be played, or decks will be modified by the directives. Second, progression is done on the tech tracks. There are “stop” points on the progression board, so even if a player is supposed to progress three spaces, they’ll have to stop if they run into a barrier at two. Third, players discard their hand, and all cards played that round. Fourth, incapacitated spies are moved. Spies in rehab move back to HQ (allowing them to perform actions again), and spies washed up on a beach (assassinated) move to rehab. Fifth, rolls are done to boot spies out of countries. This can only be done with culture – the higher up you are on the track, the more rolls you can take. Sixth, you draw five more cards from your deck, and the round begins anew. The player who reaches the last space on the development track wins the game.
The thing that I like about Secret Directive is that, at the end of the day, it makes me feel like a spy. This is a game that, the more you play it, becomes more devious and aggressive. You might start off playing it safe and advancing your own interests, but then it happens. Somebody sends a spy over to you. They might do something even more sinister, like parachute a spy your way and then play another card that steals your money (the parachute action allows you to move a spy immediately and play another card). And then, oh, it’s on. The shenanigans begin. Spies are sent back, sabotage erupts, and before you know it, everyone is after each other, determined to serve their own interests while ruining the chances of their enemies. Each game of Secret Directive I’ve played has been successively more fun than the last as players have embraced the cutthroat nature of the game.
This, to me, made the game a whole lot of fun. I even introduced it to a group of friends who usually are lukewarm to designer games, and after each game, they were begging to play again. The game appears something simple, but offers a wide variety of strategies. Finishing a game and seeing what you could have done differently makes it immediately enticing to play again, especially when you’re pondering ways to get sweet, sweet revenge on your saboteurs.
This is ultimately a game that depends on heavy player interaction. The game is alright if everyone just keeps to themselves, but its real meat comes from the spies that are sent abroad. This becomes necessary as certain players move up faster on the tracks. When it becomes apparent that a player will soon win, and if saboteur spies aren’t sent over, then they surely will. However, in inhibiting one player from winning, a door might open up for another player to sneak the victory in instead. Maybe, then, that player’s progress is slowed down by enemies, only for the person in last place to suddenly play the right combination of cards that shoots them to victory underneath everyone’s noses. When the game gets close to being won, a relationship forms between players that is simultaneously co-operative and antagonistic. The enemy of everyone’s enemy is their friend, but you better believe that under the façade of friendship formed to stop that player, that everyone has their own secret plans. Progressing your own secret plans, while working with and against other players, trying to bring everyone down while you sneak ahead under their noses, is what makes Secret Directive a really entertaining game to play.
An important caveat to note is that this game is aggressive; there’s no way around it. In this age of tabletop gaming, there are plenty of games that are limited in offensive play, and if your group is the type of group that doesn’t like to play “mean” games, then this might not be the game for you. Secret Directive, to be honest, is not very interesting if it’s not played aggressively. The game was fun when we played to ourselves, but not that fun. It was when we started playing against each other where the game’s true potential started to shine through. The end-game frantic desperation to stop each player from winning is particularly entertaining, but potentially infuriating if you’re the type of person that prefers to live and let live in your games. There are plenty of alternative, more peaceful options out there, but if you’re okay with a game where everyone in the group is trying to screw each other over, then Secret Directive is a lot of fun.
One aspect of Secret Directive that may deserve some criticism is its king-making potential. “King-making” is a term often used to describe an instance where a losing player can singlehandedly decide who wins or loses the game. As noted above, there are many occasions of “John will win unless I stop him this turn. But if I stop him, then Jessica will win and nobody can stop her.” Knowing you can’t possibly win yourself, do you play against John and let Jessica inevitably take the win, or do you not give her the satisfaction? Sometimes, the situation might not have happened if better strategy was employed earlier, or it might just be that Jessica hurt you earlier in the game and now your fate is in her hands. Either way, this situation may very likely arise in Secret Directive, and it’s up to you to decide whether it’s a negative or not.
Setup is minimal for this game, and will probably take about five minutes. It’s as simple as setting up three decks and putting the player boards in place. Overall, Secret Directive hits just the right spot in overall length.
How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?
Let’s just go straight to the first turn for an example. You have three spies available, each representing a turn. Your starting deck has two of each kind of intelligence card, and two Admins (an action card that allows you to pull a card from your deck, pick up a new one, and draw a coin). Maybe in your starting hand you have two science cards and two military cards in your hand. By playing both of either of those, you could move up two spots on the development track. But wait, there’s a “stop” mark on the first science space. That means that, even with two science cards played, you’ll only move one space, meaning it’s only necessary to play one. However, the second science card is in your hand this round, meaning it won’t be there next round. You won’t be able to advance science next round, and military certainly won’t be there either, since they both came out in this hand.
Let’s say you go the science route. You’ll play one science, meaning your other two actions don’t need to be used to play an intelligence card. Maybe you’ll use an admin card and grab a science card to add to your deck. Only, this gets discarded at the end of this round too, so still no science next round. You decide you’re going to want to focus on science, so, given that you have one more spy, you decide to move it to an opponent’s board. The spy is “used” for his move action, so he can’t do anything this round, but you’ll have a mechanism in place next time to play a card on your enemy. Since you know your next hand is full of culture and economy cards, which you don’t want, you can send one of them to your enemy, getting rid of that card for good and adding another card to their deck. If you send a card out each round, you make it more likely that you’ll draw science cards. This is great, because you now only have two actions at home; you’ll need to use both of them to advance your science if you’re able to draw it.
Things might get tricky, then, if somebody else sends a spy your way. Now, you have someone that can play cards on you. IF you manage to play two science cards, you’ll only move up one space if your enemy plays a card on you, and that’s even if you draw two science in one hand, which isn’t a guarantee due to how many cards you have in your deck right now. If you only draw one science card in your hand, it will be useless since your opponent can cancel it out. Your objective, then, is to add more science to your hand, and subtract non-science from it.
Eventually, you reach the level 2 science cards. You research the “Leak,” which allows you to play two intelligence cards at once! If you have two science in your hand, this saves a spy for you, allowing you to play them both simultaneously. Now, what to do with the extra guy? Do you try to get MORE science, or do you research more level 2 cards, hoping to get more leaks? Maybe you’re going to rely on leaks to play multiple intelligence cards and you send your other spy to an enemy, leaving only one spy at home. Maybe you use the leak on their board, playing two cards at once against them. Maybe you don’t move your spy, maybe you have a Secret Directive that can move him at the end of the round, saving you from wasting your action on it. Maybe you see a parachute instead, which will allow you to move your spy AND play a card at the same time.
There are a hundred different things that could be done, and the point I’m trying to make is that there are a lot of decisions to make in this game, and the limited amount of actions you get keeps tension high and forces you to make sacrifices. There’s nothing without opportunity cost here, and you’ll have to play carefully.
There are plenty of different routes to victory in this game. Maybe you won’t actually play any of your spies, and you’ll see how long you can go using all three actions at home every round. Perhaps you’ll advance a few spaces on one track while secretly hoarding cards for another track so you can shoot ahead when people aren’t expecting it. Maybe you’ll go spy heavy and infiltrate two countries at once, relying on directives and luck to stop spies in your own country, resigning yourself to a maximum of one space on the track each turn. We haven’t even attempted many of the possible strategies, simply because there are so many. Secret Directive, for its brevity, is really a treasure trove of strategic depth. If there is a game breaking strategy that always wins, we haven’t found it, and I’ve had fun varying my game every time.
Luck Factor #1 – The right research cards don’t come out: In pursuing a certain strategy, it’s often important to build a deck that will complement said strategy. If we’re going with the science example mentioned earlier, it can be frustrating if science cards never come out on the table, effectively preventing you from adding them to your deck.
Mitigation – Adapt and change your strategy: This is an obvious solution earlier in the game. However, it doesn’t always work. If you go the whole game going science and then science dries up half way through, it’s a little late to go a different direction. Sometimes the cards up top just don’t work as well as you’d like, but being able to adapt is a strategy unto itself.
Luck Factor #2 – The cards that come out of your deck: Deck building is important here, and it’s all about maximizing the odds in your favor. You might build your deck and KNOW that there is an 85% chance of drawing two military cards, which you need to win. You draw your hand, and you get the one combination of cards that doesn’t give you what you need. Your deck was optimized, and it just didn’t work out.
Mitigation – Make your deck as good as possible: This is the best solution. Luck will always play a role, but by building your deck well, you can maximize the odds in your favor. There’s no way to completely get rid of the luck of the draw, so it’s just something to be expected that will happen from time to time. Aside from that, a player with a bad deck has no business complaining about this.
Luck Factor #3 – The luck of the draw with Secret Directives: This is one of the only legitimate criticisms I have against this game. Some Secret Directives are just better than others. While the directives are balanced in the sense that superior ones cost more money to use, it sucks when you start the game with two lame directives that won’t help you very much or that have a very specific, rare context in which they can be used. When you play a directive, you immediately get a new one to replace it (assuming you only have two). It’s nice starting out with a good directive, playing it eventually, and getting it replaced by another one that’s pretty good. On the other hand, starting out with two lame ones either forces you to take an action to draw one that’s better (something other players didn’t have to do due to the luck of the draw), or just burn your coins to spend one in hopes that you’ll get something better. It doesn’t have a huge impact on the game, but it is something that I feel could be balanced out a little more.
The other element of luck here comes with the directives themselves when they’re played. You might have a good setup, and you did all you could to prevent enemy sabotage, and then an opponent plays a Secret Directive that allows them to stick another card on your board. There is nothing that can be done against this if you don’t have a directive to counter it, or if you’ve already played one. This, however, is just part of the game, and I honestly never got frustrated from unexpected Secret Directives being played.
Mitigation: Just play them, or get more: All the directives have some kind of benefit, some greater than others. If you don’t want to burn an action to draw a new one, then you wouldn’t be spending your coins anyway, so you might as well pay up when you get a chance. Coins can be obtained by playing your default action card, so it’s highly likely that you’ll naturally accumulate at least three or four coins. By using a directive you draw a new one, which could be better. Otherwise, simply taking actions to draw them will likely give you better directives. This isn’t a total loss, since most secret directives are actions themselves.
There is luck in Secret Directive, but I didn’t find myself bothered by it too much. There are some things, like the directives, where I think, “Eh, that could have been done a little better,” but that’s as far as my criticism goes. Simply put, the luck in this game has not been significant enough to make the game frustrating.
After playing many games with several people over different player counts, I can safely say that Secret Directive is well balanced. The thing is, is that the tech tracks aren’t all equal, some help you more than others, but the game balances it in a way that makes them all viable options, and this is primarily done through the “stop” spaces on the board. Culture, for example, is unanimously viewed in our group as the weakest track in terms of benefits. It allows you to roll more dice to get rid of spies, which is not something that you constantly need, and even if you do, it still comes down to dice rolls. However, there is only one “stop” space on this track, whereas every other one has two. Furthermore, the stop space is earlier on, meaning that once it’s passed, it’s a straight shot to the end. You won’t get as much out of culture, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to move up. One of our games was won by culture – we all neglected it, until one person sneaked to the top of it and pulled a win out of nowhere.
Military, on the other hand, benefits you enormously by giving you more spies. How can you not be at an advantage when you have two more turns than everybody else each round? Unfortunately for military players, the two stop points are at the end of the track, the last one being on the second to last space. This can be a nightmare to deal with in the end of the game, where players are constantly trying to sabotage your movement. You have to progress up to 9, and stay there until the next round before you can win. If you ever get a Sabotage card played on you (which moves you back two spaces), you’re guaranteed to have to wait two more rounds instead of one to advance to the end.
In one game, two of us decided to see if winning was possible with no military progression (in each game prior we had always gotten at least one extra spy through military), opting for science instead. One of them won the game, and the other was second place. The other player made military his main focus, and was way ahead of us. He should have won, but got hit by our Sabotage cards which made him stumble at the end. The stronger science cards ultimately compensated for the lack of actions, and won the game.
I’ve also seen somebody win through economy, but it unfortunately wasn’t really due to him using its “advantage,” which is getting a ton of coins to use directives all over the place. He just played his cards cleverly. Economy can be very powerful if someone draws the right secret directives, but he wasn’t impressed by his and didn’t use them that much. I wonder if economy might pull more wins if the secret directive deck was tweaked a little bit, but it’s still a viable path.
Finding balance in the game was very relieving, because the rest of the game is very fun. I am happy that my fears were put to rest, and it’s fun playing every game and focusing on a new way to make your track win, knowing that they’re all viable options.
At three and four players, the game excels. The overall experience felt the same for me between three and four player games. Three takes a player out, but it still delivers the same type of sneaky, sabotaging experience that a four player game does. With four players, it really feels like anything goes. Four players is the best way to go, through three is more or less the same, and two is a more focused duel-esque experiences that changes the feel of the game, but that doesn’t detract from its overall quality.
Look and Feel
Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?
Secret Directive’s visual design is minimalistic and elegant. Kickstarter games are hit and miss in this department, and Secret Directive is definitely the former. Artist Daniel Giovannini does a great job here, evoking a clean, art-deco motif. Everything just seems smooth and clean, down to the box itself. Unfortunately, my box got a little banged up when it was shipped, but I blame that one on UPS. The art style is lovely, and the game just feels well organized from a visual standpoint. Nothing to complain about here.
First and foremost, this is a Kickstarter project, so anybody that’s expecting Fantasy Flight premium quality components might be disappointed, but the game does well overall here. The cards are sturdy and don’t bend easily, and the player boards/development track are made out of cardboard that holds up pretty well. This isn’t the thick, sturdy textured stuff you’ll find in expensive designer games, but it does the job well, and is more akin to what you’d find in most mainstream retail American games, like Monopoly or Clue. The game has nice wooden blocks for markers on the development track, as well as cardboard chits for spies made out of the same aforementioned cardboard material, as well as a standard black die. Knowing how cheap the designer could have gone, such as using plastic markers or cardstock boards, the component quality here is overall pretty good. No, it’s not the best, but it gets the job done and should do well in terms of longevity. For an unreleased, crowdfunded game, it’s exactly what I expect it to be and that’s not a bad thing by any measure.
My rulebook was made of printer paper, and wasn’t stapled together. I inquired to the designer about how it would look in the final product, and I was told that it will indeed be printed professionally, though the layout and text will remain the same. In other words, don’t worry, it won’t be on printer paper. As far as functionality goes it does pretty well explaining all of the rules. There were some major mistakes that were made in my first game, but that was due to me not reading as well as I should have; the rules were written plain as day. The rulebook is fairly well designed and has some pictures to boot. If there’s anything to complain about here, I wish it covered certain “what if” scenarios and small discrepancies a little better. An example is with cards that can be played at home or abroad, which can get confusing when you’re playing them abroad and they grant multiple abilities. In many games, we found ourselves wondering about a minute detail that had implications in the rulebook, but not complete 100% clarity for the context we found ourselves in. A FAQ section would probably help a lot here, but overall the rulebook is short, concise, and will allow you to hit the ground running pretty quickly.
Is it a game you can play over and over? Are there expansions available for the game, and if so, are they necessary? Does the amount of the content in the box justify the price?
I can’t comment on the MSRP of this game, given that it’s unreleased and currently being crowdfunded. There are, of course, backing rewards that will get you the game. Currently, contributing £10 (~$15) will get you a print and play version of the game, and £32 (~$50) will get you your own bona-fide printed copy. For additional rewards, check the Kickstarter page here. It’s up to you to decide if you want to back the game. I would normally comment on the value of the game at which it can be obtained through normal channels, but this is a Kickstarter page, not Amazon, and your money is ultimately money that is being used to help the game become a reality.
What I WILL say is that the game is very, very enjoyable, and that if you receive a copy, you’ll have a lot of fun playing it. I’ll also say that this is a Kickstarter project, and that the designer (most likely) doesn’t have sweet corporate hookups with a premium publishing company. If you’re unsure about the backer amounts, just know that you’ll be helping to bring a great game into existence, and that you’ll probably be helping someone to achieve their dream. It’s up to you decide if all of that together is worth the asking price, but I assert that it’s a wonderful game and that I would love to see it get funded after playing it. The rest is up to you.
Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by Secret Directive. Our group will continue to play this game, and I would love to see it get into the hands of more people. It blends good mechanics in a way I’ve never seen before, and promotes strong player interaction that will be great, uh, bonding time for you and your group. It has a perfect running time, and is easy to teach and set up. It is visually pleasing, with solid components that get the job done. Given that I’m committed to writing honest, unbiased reviews, I was really hoping this game wouldn’t be bad, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s fun, a lot of fun, and I’m glad it’s in my collection. I hope that it finds a place in yours, too.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF:
-You want something that can be played in an hour or less
-You like deck building and card drafting
-You like feeling like a spy
-You like to mess with your opponents (and be messed with in return)
-You like ability progression, or feeling stronger as the game progresses
-You like discovering new strategies every game
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF:
-You don’t like “mean” games or being aggressive
-You don’t like a light dosage of luck
-You don’t like the occasional king-making scenario
-You have more than four people in your group