‘Sabotage’: A Sneaky Game of Cat and Mouse

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Sabotage cover

The villains have built doomsday devices in their volcano lair, with plans for world domination—but spies have broken into the lair to hack the devices and foil their plans. Grab your gadgets and slip on your sneaking shoes… it’s time for Sabotage!

What Is Sabotage?

Sabotage is a hidden-movement, roll-and-write game from Tim Fowers and Jeff Krause for 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 60 minutes to play. It’s ideally a 2-vs-2 game, but there will be an app so that you can play 2 players vs. the app, and you can play 3 players if one player takes on 2 characters. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $59 for a copy of the game. Note for parents: The game has a spies-vs-villains theme and plays with a lot of spy movie tropes, including doomsday devices and guns, but nothing much more intense than you would see in, say, The Incredibles.

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Sabotage components
Sabotage components. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Sabotage Components

Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality. For instance, the divider screen in the finished version won’t be a just large sheet of corrugated cardboard; in fact, the box will have magnetic flaps that open up to form the screen. The exact quantity of wooden cubes and bits was also not finalized in the prototype.

Here’s the list of components, from the Kickstarter campaign:

  • Transforming magnetic box/divider
  • 4 Villain miniatures
  • 4 Spy miniatures
  • 16 Dice
  • 2 Map boards
  • 2 scorecards
  • 10 wood walls
  • 35 Wood Cubes
  • 4 Dry Erase Markers
  • 36 tokens
  • 24 tracker chits
  • 6 Cards per Character

The prototype uses character sheets, but the final version will use cards. The character sheets are dry erase sheets that show the characters and their abilities, along with a grid of squares for recording your moves. They’re double-sided, with the introductory abilities on one side, and then the full abilities on the other. The dossiers are similar sheets (not dry-erase) that include all of the abilities but not the grid, so that you can keep track of what your opponents are capable of without looking at their secret moves—I didn’t see these listed in the Kickstarter components, so there may be some other plans for providing this information to the other team. The final game appears to have the various abilities on cards, and just a small grid of four boxes on the character card for writing down your moves—presumably you erase and reuse that grid each round.

Sabotage device tokens
Various devices that you may encounter, depending on which characters are involved. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

There are plenty of device tokens—devices and traps that the villains and spies will be able to build, particularly in the advanced game. This photo is what came with the prototype, though I’m not sure which ones are final. The “tracker chits” mentioned in the list are for marking where you think the other team’s characters are when you’re not sure—I used my own PennyGems for this purpose.

The maps are 4×4 grids, each space marked with a letter, and the four quadrants marked with different colors.

The artwork, as with Tim Fowers’ previous games, is by Ryan Goldsberry. If you’re a fan of Burgle Bros., you’ll recognize the spies from the game. I really like the retro look of the artwork, and it fits really well with this game, too. There’s not as much of it on the prototype, though, other than just the character portraits, but I imagine we’ll see more of it in the finished product.

Sabotage Hawk miniature
The Hawk miniature. Image: Tim Fowers

Sabotage will include miniatures (the prototype used Burgle Bros. meeples), a first for Tim Fowers. There are two copies of each miniature, so that you can track your movement on your own board and mark where you think the other team is.

Sabotage is definitely the fanciest game, in terms of components, that Fowers has published so far, with lots of specialized bits like the divider screen, miniatures, and dry erase cards. That’s reflected in the price, which is also higher than most of his other games to date, but I’ve always been impressed with how his games have turned out in the final versions.

How to Play Sabotage

You can download a copy of the rulebook here, and you can also watch a playthrough here from Penny Arcade Presents.

The Goal

The spies are trying to hack the doomsday devices 8 times; the villains are trying to shoot the spies 5 times.

Sabotage map setup
A sample map setup for the intro game. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu


Give each team a map board, and set up the 5 walls, 3 doomsday devices, and 2 generators so that the two maps are identical. Then place the divider between the two teams, with one map on each side. (Teammates sit next to each other.) One team is the spies, and the other is the villains. Give the Doomsday Hacks sheet to the villains, and the Spies Hit sheet to the spies.

Each player gets a character sheet from their team, 4 dice, and a dry erase marker. On the spies’ board, put 4 markers on each doomsday device. The rest of the tokens and markers are set aside in a supply. Each team gets a set of 4 miniatures, one of each character.

Sabotage game in progres
The spies try to save the world by deactivating the doomsday devices. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu


On each round, one player rolls the dice, and then all players set their dice to the same values, so everyone is working with the same pool of numbers.

Each player secretly plans how to use their dice, conferring with your partner as needed—though be careful what you say, because the other team is listening! You write down your chosen actions on the grid on your character sheet. Then, the villains will act first (in either order), and then the spies (in either order).

Sabotage villains basic powers
The basic powers are the same for all villains. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Villains have four basic powers, activated using different die values:

  • Move (1-4): Each die assigned lets you move 1 space; record the direction on your grid.
  • Pistol (5-6): You may shoot an adjacent space.
  • Generator (3-4): You may add a cube to a generator in your space.
  • Flashlight (1-2): You may shine a flashlight to reveal any spies in a straight line (stops at a wall).

The move and generator may be used any number of times in a turn (up to your available dice), but the pistol and flashlight may only be used once per turn. Powering up the generators is how villains get access to more dice—for each generator with 2 cubes on it, both villains may use an extra die.

When the villains play out their actions (after everyone is finished programming), they don’t announce all of their actions—only the pistol and flashlight. If you shine a flashlight into some spaces and there are spies there, they must announce which spaces they are on. If you shoot a space and any of the spies are there, they must announce it, mark a “spies hit” on the tracker card, and then remove the spy (or spies) from the map, and they also lose some “swagger” (more on that later).

Sabotage spies basic actions
Spies share the same set of basic actions. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The spies also have four basic powers, but they’re slightly different:

  • Parachute (free action): If you’re not on the board, you must parachute onto any square as your first action. Write down the square you are landing on.
  • Move and Scan (1-4): Each die lets you move 1 space and then scan for villains; record the direction on your grid.
  • Hack (5-6): Hack a doomsday device (remove 1 cube) or a generator (remove all cubes).
  • Earpiece (1—this has changed from the prototype): Move your teammate 1 space in any direction, respecting walls.

When you parachute onto the board, you must announce to the villains which half of the board you’re on, either top/bottom or left/right. Each time you move, you have to scan either your row, column, or quadrant, which gives the villains a little bit of information about where you are. However, if there are any villains in the spaces you scanned, they must announce their positions, and each villain you scan earns both spies 1 point of swagger, marked on your sheets.

Sabotage Swagger chart
Spies earn swagger by scanning the villains. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Earning swagger is important because that’s how the spies get access to more dice per turn. You need 2 swagger to unlock the third die, and 3 more swagger to unlock the fourth die. Every time you are shot, you lose swagger down to the nearest red line.

When you hack a doomsday device, you announce which one you are hacking, and remove a red cube (handing it to the villains). They can place the red cubes onto the doomsday device on their map to track how many times it has been hacked, and then mark a doomsday hack on the scoring chart. If you hack a generator, you just announce which location it’s in, and the villains will remove all cubes from it, if any (but they don’t have to tell you whether there were any cubes or not).

The earpiece action allows you to move your teammate secretly—you must have programmed it onto your actions, but to execute you simply move your teammate and announce to the villains that you have used the action. It’s a key way of covering your tracks, since hacking and moving gives away information about your position.

Sabotage Goal sheets
Spy Hits and Doomsday Hacks. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The goal sheets show some yellow and green squares—these are bonus cubes that are earned by the other team when you hit one of your targets. Each team starts with 4 yellow cubes (shown as “initial” on the prototype cards), and may earn more later. Yellow cubes may be spent to adjust a die +/-1 (and you can wrap from 1 to 6 and vice versa). You may spend any number of cubes per die, but each cube spent only modifies the die for a single player, not both.

Spies can also earn green cubes for the Slide ability. To use a slide, you simply spend the cube, and then move 1 space without announcing anything at all to the villains, so they don’t even know that you’ve used it.

Game End

The game ends when either team manages to accomplish their goal: five hits on the spies, or 8 hacks on the doomsday devices.

For the intro game, the number of hits and hacks is reduced, and players only use the basic abilities outlined above. The doomsday devices start with only 3 red cubes each.

Sabotage villains advanced abilities
Ophidian and Chantico have some other powers up their sleeves. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Advanced Abilities

Of course, the fun gadgets appear when you switch to advanced mode. Each villain and spy has access to some more powers, but they have to be unlocked in order, from Tier 1 to Tier 3. There’s only one Tier 1 ability, but each character has access to two Tier 2 and two Tier 3 abilities—you will have to choose only one of each to unlock.

Villains unlock abilities by spending dice—instead of using it to program an action, you cross off the corresponding die in the unlock column. Once unlocked, you may activate it by using the die value (or sum) shown. The Tier 1 ability for all villains is a motion detector: the villain chooses a row, column, or sector, and spies must announce how many total spies are in that area.

The higher tier abilities are a lot of fun, too: Ophidian has cameras that can watch the watchers, revealing a spy’s location when they’re scanning for villains. His freeze ray stops spies in their tracks, the doppler reveals all spies on the board, and his C4 can detonate to blow up a 5-square area, destroying walls and hitting all spies in the area.

Chantico, meanwhile, can choose between a flamethrower—which hits two spaces—or the strobe, which is like an omnidirectional flashlight. Her Tier 3 abilities include the earthquake (to shift all spies 1 space in the same direction) or the orbital strike, which can shoot distant rooms.

Sabotage spies advanced abilities
Spies have some nifty gadgets to get them out of tight spots. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The spies also have three tiers of powers, but they unlock them by spending swagger—so you have to choose between having extra dice for actions and unlocking abilities. The Tier 1 ability that all spies have is the Thermo: when you trigger it, you may scan any row, column, or quadrant, earning swagger if you find villains. The trick is that when you announce that you’re scanning something, the villains no longer know whether you moved and are in the area you scanned, or if you are using thermo instead, so it helps you mask your position.

Hawk can build single-use beacons, which she can jump back to as a free action, or she can tunnel to move through walls. Her smoke bomb obscures 3×3 area, within which both spies may move silently for the rest of the turn. Her vague hack lets her hack a doomsday device but not tell the villains which space it was.

The Hacker can create holograms—you announce the location if a villain reveals that space (e.g., with a flashlight), but when they shoot it they realize it was all smoke and mirrors. You can lock doors to keep villains out until they shoot them. The remote hack is extremely useful—you can hack from one space away. Finally, the sleep dart gives you a chance to shoot back—if you do, the villain is stunned for a round and you gain 3 swagger.

If you have a keen eye, you’ll notice that some of my photos show other villains and spies… these may be unlocked later during the Kickstarter campaign, giving you even more gadgets and abilities to play with.

Sabotage map
“Spies spotted in rooms D and N!” (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Why You Should Play Sabotage

Tim Fowers said that Sabotage was inspired by the “Mercs vs Spies” mode in Splinter Cell, the videogame that often rewards stealth over firepower. The Mercs vs Spies mode was a multiplayer, asymmetric mode, where spies used stealth to avoid detection while they tried to accomplish certain objectives. Meanwhile, the mercs had lots of guns and were trying to track down and shoot the spies.

I think he’s done an excellent job bringing that feel to a tabletop game. The two teams function quite differently, and there’s a lot of cat-and-mouse action as each team tries to figure out where their opponents are without giving away too much information. It can be very tense, whether you’re a villain or a spy, particularly when you’ve figured out that you’re in the same room as an opponent but they haven’t spotted you yet. The stealth part reminds me a bit of other hidden movement games like Scotland Yard or Letters from Whitechapel, though in this case both teams are hidden from each other, rather than having one hidden player and several visible players.

Because of that, though, I agree with the statement on the Kickstarter campaign page: Sabotage is not for everyone. For one, it works best with 4 player exactly. With 3 players, one player will take on both characters from one team. With 2, you play as the spies vs. the app-controlled villains. In both cases, I think the game loses a little something because of the interactions between players on a team; when both teams are trying to discuss plans quietly at the same time, those intense whispered conversations really add to the atmosphere of espionage and evil plans. It gives the game a little bit of the same vibes as Captain Sonar, where two teams sit across from each other and try to figure out the other team’s movements from incomplete information.

Sabotage planning moves
Plotting out my moves as Ophidian. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I know that the game is still being fine-tuned; while I was trying out the prototype, Fowers emailed me a few times with small tweaks to certain abilities, working on balancing out the two teams. So far I found that it was a little easier to play as the villains, because they don’t necessarily need to stay hidden. It helps, of course, because then the spies can’t tell if you’re sneaking up on them (and they can’t earn swagger), but ultimately the spies are more concerned with hiding their locations. I’ve had a couple close games with the spies coming within 1 hack of winning, but then blowing it when they got a little too cocky and thought they were done, giving away their positions too much. It’s very close, though, and I’m really excited to see how it finally shakes out.

I really like the various abilities that the villains and spies have. The decision of which ability to unlock is always a tough choice, and it’ll take me many more plays to figure out ideal combinations of powers and how to use them.

Sabotage game in progress
What are those sneaky spies up to? (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Overall, I’ve really been enjoying the Sabotage prototype, and I really hope it hits its funding goal so it becomes a reality. If you’re a fan of hidden movement games, it’s definitely worth a closer look! There’s a print and play available of the intro game, in case you want to give it a shot before you back it.

For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Sabotage Kickstarter page!

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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