**Update! – Secret Directive is back up on Kickstarter! This new version of the game features some updated rules, which hopefully address some of our issues with the game. You should definitely go over to their Kickstarter page and check it out!**
Secret Directive is a pretty unique deckbuilding/worker placement hybrid game up on Kickstarter right now. Designed by Mike Lee, Secret Directive puts 2-4 players into the roles of national spy agencies, each trying to use their intelligence to guide their country in the right direction by developing along 4 different progression tracks. Working with a small team of spies, you will make sure that your government keeps improving itself, all the while keeping tabs on your competitors, using covert influence to lead them astray.
So, how successfully does this game pack spy-vs-spy antics into a tight 45 minute runtime? Let’s investigate…
(Prototype Alert! – Our copy was sent to us by Mr. Lee for review. No matter how starkly beautiful the components might be, they are all still pre-Kickstarter and may change in the final product…but we hope not by much!)
In each round of Secret Directive, players will take turns activating their spies in order to influence their development, research new tactics, gather income, and use action and intelligence cards from their personal decks. These decks can be expanded and modified during the game, allowing for players to focus on different tactics as the game progresses.
By playing intelligence cards, players will attempt to improve one of their four national attributes; Military, Science, Culture, and Economy. All four of these development tracks are 10 spaces long, and the first country to max out one of these developments is the winner. Along the way, though, each track confers growing benefits, such as providing additional income along the Economy track, better card choices on the Science track, more spies on the Military track, and better ability to root our enemy spies on the Culture track.
Having access to better cards via Science or more coin from Economy is awesome, but let’s talk about that ‘rooting out enemy spies’ bit for a moment.
Andrew: One of the really unique things about Secret Directive is how it blends worker placement and deck-building. See, each spy is a worker that can be activated once per round to take one of the actions available to the players. One of those actions is to send that spy to another player’s board, seeding an agent there. And once you’re behind enemy lines, well, that’s where things get really interesting.
The Play Intelligence Card action is how you’ll be spending a lot of your turns in Secret Directive; using spies to guide your country toward developing along one of the four tracks. Interestingly, though, you can only ever improve one track per round – the number of spaces you develop at the end of the round is equal to the most-invested track minus the second-most invested track.
For example, if my player board looks like this at the end of the round…
Then I will advance 1 up the Military track (2 Military minus 1 Culture).
So, wait, why would I ever have cards in more than one track at a time?
Because the gears of government can only turn in one direction a time and can be easily fouled by conflicting intelligence. So why would I ever allow more than one flavor intelligence card onto my board? How would that even happen?
See, once you send an agent to another player’s board, you then have the opportunity to influence their country’s Intelligence network. Suddenly, playing intelligence cards isn’t just a thing you do for yourself to advance your own agenda, but now becomes an aggressive tactic for grinding your opponents’ engines to a crawl, disrupting their progress and (hopefully) buying yourself enough time to get out ahead of them.
Spies active in enemy territory attract increasing levels of attention, making it more and more likely that they will be captured, a function dictated by a die-roll and augmented by advancement along the Culture track. Imprisoned spies can be bailed out at a cost and are lost for a turn in rehabilitation before they can return to their wily ways.
Of course, your opponents are absolutely going to be doing the same thing to you, dumping cards into your nation’s intelligence network to balance out your attempts at progress, leaving your board cluttered with conflicting information – intelligence cards that then get swept into your discard pile, possibly diluting your carefully curated deck…
…or maybe giving you the tools you need to grow your influence in a new direction.
Jess: That’s one of the brilliant design choices in Secret Directive. When you play intelligence cards into an opponent’s nation, they become part of that player’s deck (at least until they dump them on someone else).
That’s a double-edged sword – if you’ve been neglecting Economy yourself, you can probably get away with treating those cards as junk to misdirect your opponents. Not only will it screw up their development, but it will get those cards out of your deck. But do that too often and your opponent may just lean into it, using all those Economy cards you handed her to blitz ahead along that track instead.
Every effort at slowing your opponent down might become an opportunity for them instead, and that’s really cool design, because a win at 10 Culture is just as much a win as one at 10 Science.
So let us not equivocate – we really like Secret Directive. The design is very clever, the artwork is absolutely fantastic (so wonderfully evocative of the cold-war era), and it is a genuinely fun game. However, it has a few problems, and the fact that no one will win with 10 Culture is the worst of them. Ok, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but hear us out.
See, it’s the victory condition that gives us trouble. As soon as a player hits 10 on any of the 4 tracks, they win. Now that’s cool – it implies at least 4 paths to victory, something we are always in favor of because it encourages diversity of strategy. But despite the fact that all 4 tracks give you some mechanical advantage as you progress along them, they don’t feel particularly balanced against each other.
Economy gets you coins, which fuel the (very powerful) Secret Directive cards that can be played only at the end of the round. Culture gives you multiple reroll attempts when trying to capture spies. Science gives you access to (admittedly very valuable) advanced cards the more you invest in it. However, one track has won every game we have ever played of Secret Directive – Military.
By investing in the Military track, you gain more spies. That means you get to take extra actions per turn. And that means you can more easily slow down your opponents while not sacrificing your own ability to improve. And those advantages are simply too hard to beat.
Sure, capturing enemy spies is really important and better Science gets you powerful action cards, but the advantage afforded a player who gets more actions per turn while also advancing towards victory is too tempting to be reasonably passed up. It’s not that an Economy or Culture-focused strategy couldn’t win, it’s that it wouldn’t win any faster or easier than a Military strategy is basically guaranteed to.
The fixes for this issue are myriad and, who knows, maybe Mr. Lee will rebalance the game before the end of the Kickstarter. The houserule we came up with that we liked the best is to change the victory condition slightly – 1st track to 10 ends the game, but then we add up all our advancements across all the tracks to determine final score. That promotes an interest in the ‘weaker’ tracks, while stopping runaway advancement from ruling the day. It’s a small tweak that vastly improved our experience.
**Again, update! – As of their new Kickstarter, the updated rules have been tuned to address these issues!**
The other criticism of Secret Directive, that it is too ‘attacky’ or aggressive, is normally a deal-breaker for us. But the truth is that we didn’t find it nearly as aggressive as to be unenjoyable, and there was something so civilized about the exchanges that we absolutely loved the aggressive aspect of the gameplay, which is not something that often happens in our group.
Secret Directive plays well with two players, affording a pair of would-be spymasters a tight, engaging experience. However, at 3-4 players, the game absolutely comes to life, with spies and intelligence flying all over the board, encouraging unspoken alliances and sudden betrayals, all done with a veneer of civility and refinement that feels so, well, spyish.
The game’s tone and theme are wonderfully crafted and the experience it creates is a genuinely good one. I just hope that the victory condition gets tweaked a bit.
If you are interested in backing Secret Directive on Kickstarter, you can do so right here. Even with some minor balance issues, this game is absolutely perfect for folks who like a little luck, a little subterfuge, and a little misdirection in their deckbuilding, adding enough interesting tweaks to keep it fresh and fun. We wholeheartedly recommend it!