This meeting of the Spy Club is now in session—there’s been a crime in the neighborhood, and it’s up to us to catch the culprit!
In Reaping the Rewards, I take a look at the finished product from a crowdfunding campaign. Spy Club was funded on Kickstarter in October 2017 by Foxtrot Games, and was delivered to backers this summer. It’s published in conjunction with Renegade Games and is now available for purchase.
Spy Club is GeekDad Approved!
What Is Spy Club?
Spy Club is a cooperative game for 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 45 minutes to play. It retails for $45 and is available directly from Renegade Games, from Amazon, or your local game store. Although the theme of the game is solving mysteries, the game itself isn’t actually a deduction game and is more about set collection and card management. There is a campaign element, but it is not a legacy-style game and nothing is destroyed or permanently altered (other than the scorepad sheets). The game is designed to be family-friendly in the theme and artwork, and since it is cooperative you could also play with even younger players with some help.
Spy Club Components
- Suspect pawn
- Escape marker
- 18 Idea tokens
- 4 Focus tokens
- 8 Character cards
- 54 Clue cards
- 25 Movement cards
- 4 Incoming Clue placards
- Card tray
- Central board
- 4 Player boards
- Case Log score pad
- Blank sticker sheet
- 174 Campaign cards
- 16 Mosaic tokens
- 12 Completion tokens
- 5 Player tokens
- 9 Tracker tokens
- Ring token
- Arrow token
- 6 Disc tokens
- 4 Player Reference cards
The illustrations in the game (by Bartlomiej Kordowski, with additional artwork by Malwina Kwiatkowska and Helen Zhu) are really fun. There’s a variety of different kids—some younger, some older—who have different personalities that show through in the pictures.
The clue cards–which include motive, suspect, location, crime object, and distraction types—are colorful and include a lot of fun little details. Each clue card is double-sided, and they may or may not have the same type on the back. There are also multiple copies of each clue, so that if you get a pizza card, you don’t know for sure what will be on the back of it.
The central board is made to look like a corkboard, with a pushpin-and-yarn track, various envelopes holding notes and evidence, and a map pinned to the center. The board itself is two large puzzle pieces, and it’s double-sided so that you can play in standard or advanced mode.
The player boards are simple cardboard strips, made to look like rulers with masking tape on them, and are used to organize your clue cards. The strips are puzzle pieces designed so that you can make a 3-clue board for 3- or 4-player games, and a 4-clue board for a 2-player game.
A lot of the small cardboard components are used in the campaign mode only, but they’re designed to be multi-purpose. There are discs and squares showing the six card types (plus snowflakes), and the squares also have dots on them, so they can be used as numerical randomizers as well. The backs of the squares have a mosaic pattern.
There are a few other token types, like the completion tokens, which match the player colors and have an “X” on one side and a checkmark on the other; a square with an arrow on it; and a cardboard ring. I’ve seen several of these components in use, but not all of them.
The player reference cards are double-sided, with the turn sequence on one side and the types of actions on the other. It’s easy to read, and really useful. It also shows how many of each type of card there are in the deck, which is important because there are far fewer motive cards than object cards.
The overall component quality is quite nice; the cards are all oversized cards with a nice finish, and the cardboard pieces like the boards and tokens are all sturdy and punched out easily.
How to Play Spy Club
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to solve all 5 aspects of the case before time runs out.
Set up the central board on the standard or advanced side, and place the escape marker at the bottom of the escape track. Place the idea tokens near the board.
Create the movement deck by shuffling each of the three sets—daytime, sunset, and nighttime—separately, and removing one card at random from each set. Stack them so that nighttime is at the bottom and daytime is at the top. Place the movement deck on the central board.
Shuffle the clue deck, making sure to flip over half of the deck to the reverse side. Place the deck in the card tray, and then draw additional clue cards, placed to the right, marked with the incoming clue placards. Note that the number of additional clues (and placards) is based on the number of players.
Give each player a player board (sized according to the player count). Draw cards from the clue deck to fill everyone’s board—these cards are your “hand.” When drawing cards, be sure not to flip cards so that the backs of the cards remain unknown. Each player gets a focus token—the magnifying glass—and places it on the far right clue, and each player also gets 1 idea token. Each player also chooses a character card—you can write a name on the provided stickers, which are supposed to peel off (but I admit I skipped this part).
Choose a starting player at random, and place the suspect pawn above their right-most card.
If you’re just starting the campaign mode, set cards 3 and 4 next to the board—the cards specify when they should be flipped.
On your turn, you get up to 3 actions, and you may do any of the following actions (including repeating actions):
- Investigate: Flip over any number of your cards, one at a time.
- Shift Focus: Move your focus token and collect ideas.
- Confirm: Spend ideas to move a clue card to the center row.
- Scout: Spend ideas to get a card from the incoming clues.
A single investigate action can flip any number of your cards (but only once per card).
When you shift focus, you also collect 1 idea for each card of that type in your hand. For instance, in the photo above, if I shift focus to the other Game Piece card, I would collect 2 ideas because there are two object (yellow) cards in my hand. If I shift to Dog or Chores, I only get 1 idea.
To confirm, you move a card from your hand to one of the five spots below the central board—if there’s already a card there, you exchange cards. You must spend ideas equal to the distance from your focus to the card you confirm. That means confirming your current focus card is free. Confirming the Dog in the photo above would cost me 3 ideas.
When you scout, you may take any card from the incoming clues (including from the tray) and spend ideas according to the space you took it from. You may place it in any spot on your board, but if there’s already a card there you must discard it first.
If you and another player both have your focus on the same card type, you can take bonus teamwork actions! These actions are unlimited, but may only be performed as long as you still match focus types, and only before you have used your last action.
- Compare Notes: Swap a card from your hand with a card in the other player’s hand. (Note that you can’t take back a card that you gave away on the same turn.)
- Get Advice: Take any number of ideas from another player.
After taking your actions, you refill your hand, from right to left, taking cards from the right side of the incoming clues first. Then slide clues to the right and refill from the deck as needed.
Finally, you move the suspect. Flip over the top movement card, lining it up with the previous card (or the 1-2-3 on the board if it’s the first turn). The suspect icon will appear next to one of the numbers—move it clockwise along the cards in the players’ hands, skipping to the next player if needed. If the suspect is shown in a doorway, you also move the escape tracker forward a space.
Depending on which card type it stops at, it will trigger one of the events shown on the center board:
- Motive: Flip over all cards in everyone’s hands.
- Suspect: Remove 3 ideas from the game (from the supply if possible, otherwise from players).
- Location: Advance the escape marker 1 space.
- Crime: Discard the two rightmost incoming clues.
- Object: Remove 1 idea per solved aspect.
The grey cards are distractions—if the suspect lands on a distraction, there’s no event.
To solve an aspect of the case, you must fill all five slots in the center row with the same card type. As soon as this happens, you check the icon at the bottom of the most recent movement card—this indicates which of the five cards is the correct answer. In the photo above, the most recent movement card shows the square icon, so the crime was Prank. Set aside the solution card, and then discard the remaining cards in the center row.
The game ends in success if you solve all 5 aspects of the crime.
You lose if any of the following happen:
- The escape marker reaches the “Escaped!” space.
- You need to remove ideas and there aren’t enough left.
- You don’t have any more movement cards to draw at the end of your turn.
- There aren’t enough clues to fill your hand at the end of your turn.
Spy Club can be played in individual, completely separate sessions, but you can also play a campaign mode, which is made up of a series of 5 cases. I’ll explain a little bit about how the campaign mode works here while staying mostly spoiler-free; the only images I’ll show are of the two starting cards for your first campaign.
When you play in campaign mode, you will unlock more cards from the campaign decks as you play. For the first case of the campaign, you use cards 3 and 4, shown above. Card 3 says that you flip it over when you solve the first aspect of the case. Card 4 is to be used at the end of the case, to instruct you how to proceed to the next case.
At the end of the case, you get to record your score on the scorepad, and you also get to record one new aspect of the case. The story is that the crime you just solved was only part of a larger scheme, and over the course of 5 cases, you’ll try to put together the aspects that make up the larger case. For each aspect you managed to solve, you score 3 points, and if you record a new aspect, you get 5 bonus points. Note that you may record any of the aspects you solved in the current case, as long as you only record each aspect once during the campaign.
That means you can continue in the campaign even if you didn’t manage to win a case—you just have a lower score. If you are unable to record a new aspect (because you didn’t solve any of the remaining aspects), then you just leave that portion of the scoresheet blank. We managed an A+ in my first campaign, although I realized afterward that we missed a couple of rules that made it a little easier, so I’m putting an asterisk by that score.
For subsequent cases, the solutions you record will unlock additional cards from the campaign deck. As an example, because we chose to record the Suspect: Librarian in our first case, during our second case we unlocked some cards that had rules related to books. Since there are a total of 39 different unique clues among the five aspects, each one unlocking a different set of cards, you can play many campaigns and have different experiences each time—especially because you get to choose which aspect to record each time, so you have some more control over that, too.
The scoresheet also has a section for notes, because some rules that are unlocked from a case will carry over through the rest of the campaign. There are also plastic baggies provided so that you can store your campaign cards separately. At the end of a campaign, you total up your score and compare it to the grading chart—100 is a perfect score; below 60 is failing.
After a campaign is over, it’s easy to reset everything by just putting the cards back into the campaign decks in numerical order.
Why You Should Play Spy Club
When I first heard about Spy Club, I assumed it was a deduction-based game, like Clue: there’s an answer hidden from the players that you’re trying to solve, and you use clues and reasoning to figure out the correct answer. In fact, that’s not the case at all: the theme of the game is about kids investigating and putting together clues, but the gameplay is really much more about manipulating cards to assemble sets of the five aspects before time runs out. That disconnect was slightly off-putting at first, but once I got past it, I really began to enjoy the clever puzzle that Spy Club presents.
The goal is to collect a complete set of each aspect by moving them to the center row. You can solve the aspects in any order, and often you’ll be driven in part by what’s available. Got a lot of purple cards in your hands or the incoming clues? Might as well work on the suspect first. But because some cards are more rare than others, you have to be careful. What if you confirm that watch as an object even though you haven’t investigated to see what’s on the back—it might be one of the few motive cards in the deck, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. On the other hand, if you spend too much time investigating to see what’s on the back of cards, you may not have enough actions to confirm anything on your turn.
Remembering what’s on the back of the cards is the memory portion of the game, which may appeal to some players more than others. We found that we were able to keep track of a few, but if cards got shifted around because of teamwork actions, we started to lose track. You don’t want to waste actions double-checking the back of a card, but at the same time you really want to know what’s on the back of something before you confirm or discard it.
You often have to balance using actions vs. using ideas. If you want to confirm a card, should you shift focus first and then confirm, or just spend the ideas to confirm it? You can always spend actions to shift focus to get more ideas, especially if you have several cards of the same type—but collecting ideas isn’t enough to solve the case, and if you spend too many turns without making progress, then you’ll run out of time (movement cards).
It’s also important to keep an eye on the movement cards—each card has three numbers on it, so you can count out the possible locations the suspect will move to, and what the effect will be. Ideally, you want the suspect to land on a distraction every time, so it doesn’t do anything at all; possibly, you want it to land on a red motive card because then everyone flips all of their cards, which is like getting a free investigation … unless you have your cards set up just the way you want them. The other effects, though, all bring you closer to the end of the game, removing ideas or clue cards, or advancing the escape tracker. By using clever teamwork actions or by paying attention to which cards will refill the slots in your hand, you may be able to set things up so that the suspect will land on your preferred color.
There are also some fun strategies like using the center row as a temporary storage space for a card, because it’s possible to have different aspects in the center row at the same time—you just can’t solve anything when that’s the case. If you have a suspect card and you don’t want to lose it but you’re currently working on a different aspect, you can confirm it anyway, just so that you don’t end up discarding it to make room for other cards.
Figuring out how to juggle limited actions, shuffle cards around to desired locations, and make sure that everyone has enough ideas on hand make Spy Club a fun puzzle to work out as a team. Although it is possible for an overbearing player to take the reins and drive the direction of the game, the memory aspect makes it hard for everyone to remember what’s on the back of every card, which mitigates that a little bit. When I played, we tended to discuss our moves with the group to see what everyone would like to do.
Where Spy Club really shines, though, is when you start digging into the campaign play. Because of spoilers, I don’t want to reveal specifics, but I was impressed with just the new rules and variations introduced in my first campaign playthrough. There are event cards, tools and skills, and cards that really change up the rules for the current case, introducing new wrinkles to the gameplay. Some cards make things a little trickier; some things give you an advantage. It was fun to feel like we were developing new tools and skills as a spy club, but also that the master criminal was escalating things on their end, too. It’s exciting to me that there are so many more mysteries left to unlock!
This campaign mode also differs from a lot of other campaign-based games that I’ve played. I think it still works best if you have the same group each time, but you really don’t have to. Each case is a standalone, and will have a limited number of new rules introduced, all laid out on the unlocked campaign cards. If somebody else wants to jump in during case 3, it won’t take too long to bring them up to speed on those new rules. I also like that nothing is destroyed or permanently altered, so it’s easy to reset after a campaign and start a new one, and it’s great that the nature of the campaign play means that playing it once doesn’t spoil anything for the next time you play (unless you record exactly the same five aspects again). Plus, with only five cases per campaign, you can get that sense of closure without having to commit to a year-long routine: this is an easy-entry campaign mode that works well for busy families.
There is a little bit of storytelling involved. When you solve aspects of a case, you’re encouraged to tell the story of what’s going on. That can lead to some really funny combinations at times. It also means that the depth of immersion depends a bit more on the players—you can play this as an abstract puzzle, or you can tell a story about what’s going on. It’s especially the case in the campaign mode, where the five aspects you record are supposed to make up the “master crime”—but since you get to choose which aspects to record, there’s a bit of a feeling that you’re making things up rather than discovering them.
I’ve played Spy Club with both adults and kids. (For the campaign mode, I played mostly 2-player sessions with an adult friend.) The gameplay is easy enough to teach that my kids were able to grasp it, and because it’s a cooperative game my 5-year-old was even able to join in, though she didn’t necessarily understand the underlying strategy. If you like puzzles, and the theme of kids solving crimes, sneak out and pick up a copy of Spy Club!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.