Overall Rating — 8 out of 10 (Very Good)
Strengths — Immersive art that evokes a certain grittiness appropriate for the genre. Fun play mechanics that keep players moving around the board and balancing multi-pronged paths to success. Easy-to-learn deck-building that can make the end game feel wildly different than the start.
Areas of Possible Improvement — Lacks the positional strategy that made R.I.S.K. so popular. Could use a bit of simplification of symbology
Cole Medeiros’ Web of Spies is a welcome addition to the deck-building craze first brought to the national spotlight by Dominion and similar role-playing games. In Web of Spies, each player controls a cache of five spies (colored pawns) that start off in the same city (as depicted on a large mapped board), but soon spread out and attack others in an attempt to be the last spy organization standing. While each player starts with a deck of ten cards, dealing themselves five per turn, in some refreshing twists on the usual formula, every action, including simply moving spies around the board, costs cards as currency, and all such currency must be spent per turn or will simply be lost (discarded.)
To attack and potentially eliminate other spies, players must use attack cards, such as Black Car, Uzi, and Rocket Launcher. When attacked, players use defense cards to try to cancel the attacks, and if all attacks are successfully defended, the defending spy survives. If not, the attacked pawn comes off the board. The most fun element of Web of Spies, however, is that the aforementioned weapons are themselves up for grabs; two such public resources and one secret resource are on the world map at all times (as designated by a colored die), and spies must reach them in order to then buy those resources and add them to their decks, once again using cards as currency.
Randomization and an element of luck are brilliantly rendered here, as a player’s fate feels somewhat connected, but never too strongly connected, to the way the resources fall. The roll of two dice determines the country and the region, respectively, into which each come, and it feels just as exciting to have a powerful one come onto the map within easy reach of a spy as it does to eliminate other spies in the first place. To maximize use of their five cards per turn, players must often make difficult decisions: does one buy a resource, even if it costs all five cards, thus limiting maneuverability for that turn, or instead work on positioning, or is a balance of the two best? It’s all very engaging.
During this reviewer’s testing, it didn’t seem like one part of the board was particularly advantageous over another. Not that the designer should copycat the idea that Australasia is an effective bottleneck, or any such common wisdom, but more to the point, the few cards that have effects specific to certain continents don’t feel like quite enough to impact the over-arching strategy. I’d be intrigued to play on a map where some positions are much harder to access than others, but might be privy to shortcuts like “private jets,” or the like.
Fortunately, that semi-flaw doesn’t so much detract from Web of Spies as much as it forces opponents to focus on deck management, which this reviewer gathers is pretty much the point. And my praise for the variety of effects in the deck cannot be overstated: from especially powerful “trash this card” abilities that allow, for instance, switching a dead spy for a live one of the opponent’s or searching through a discard pile for a desired card, to random initiatives that can potentially cripple an opponent (e.g. a Rocket Launcher attack discards one to five cards from the opponent’s hand before he or she even starts defending), an especially good move can literally bring a player back from the brink of defeat.
Is it absolutely necessary, though, to distinguish both between defense and attack cards and then again among three more types of cards, to resolve a battle? For instance, player A can attack with an attack card that also has a dossier on it, but player B must defend with a card that is both a defense card and also has a dossier on it. A dossier itself is not enough, and neither can an attack-only card defend. This comes across as needlessly complicated at first blush, but on the other hand, using fewer symbols would likely have made it too easy to defend, thus extending the lengths of iterations by leaps and bounds. It suffices to say that during testing, this reviewer had to remind his game partners to check whether all symbols matched appropriately multiple times. This dynamic bordered on confusion, while not quite ever crossing over into it.
Nevertheless, I would play Web of Spies again. It strikes an excellent middle ground between appealing to the casual gamer and serving the needs of those that seek deep strategy. Its deck is large enough and the number of locations diverse enough to ensure that the game never plays the same way twice. And the professionally-produced imagery, full of jagged blacks, reds and dark themes, successfully transports players into an alternate setting. Cole Medeiros has worked hard to bring this game to the public, and he deserves your support! I recommend that Web of Spies become a part of your game closet!