Spice it up! with Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit

My favorite moments in gaming revolve around the stare down. I glance at my hand or my position on the board. Cast a side long glance at my opponent, then back to the board. Then stare intently at the other player for a second or two. Not their position on the board. Not the amount of cards they have in their hand. Nope, I am staring right into their eyes trying to figure out how much influence they put on Dr. Solomon….

Well, hold on, I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself, there.

I grew up loving the spy tropes that we saw on TV and in the movies. Spies were cool to me, so much that I even joined a fraternity in college whose informal mascot were “spies”. (Yes, our annual shindig was themed around, you guessed it, spy movies.) Secret agents were slick, they were debonair, they were always ready with a wry one liner at the perfect time in every occasion. In addition to the cool gadgets and exotic scenery, the act of outwitting their opponents in the field, usually just using their brains and not their brawn, made them even cooler.

Are there any games out there that could spice up your family game night with spy versus spy themed fourberie? The folks at Restoration Games were kind enough to send us a review copy of a game that just might deliver that experience for you. Let’s find out!

Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit is a 2019 release from Restoration Games. It is based on an original game by Eric Solomon, but reimagined and freshened up by the team at Restoration, namely Rob Daviau, JR Honeycutt, and Justin D. Jacobsen. With art from Matt Griffin and Jason Taylor, Conspiracy plays from two to four players in about 40 minutes. The rules teach is pretty simple, perhaps five minutes for experienced gamers and maybe ten for family gamers.

Players take on the role of spymasters vying for control of secret agents in order to move the McGuffin — i.e. Dr. Solomon’s briefcase — to their home city. Be the first player to do so and you win! Or, if the game reaches a stalemate, Dr. Solomon just might grab the suitcase and join up with you as the winner if you have given him the most influence during the game.

PRESENTATION:

Restoration Games are known throughout the hobby for publishing well-produced games, and Conspiracy is no exception. The art in the game perfectly matches the theme, and gives the game a real 60s spy flavor, yet at the same time, seems fresh and updated for modern sensibilities.

I love the look of the big game board that comes in the solidly constructed box. The board has cities spread all over Europe connected by string, almost like the police board on an episode of Castle. The spies themselves are represented by chunky, colorful plastic pieces that feel almost like little paperweights. The varied colors makes it easy to spot which spy is which, and where they are on the board.

The money in this game — called “sovereigns” instead of “coins” of course — is represented by clickety little gold coins that feel great in your hands and make satisfying noises when moving them around. I also appreciate the size of the player shields. They have colorful art on them that depicts your “home country”, and unlike some games, they are just the right size to cover your actions and your personal player board.

All in all, Conspiracy is a great presentation. It will cause people to turn their heads when they see you playing this game at Chili’s while watching reruns of Get Smart on the big screen.

GAMEPLAY:

The premise of the game is simple. Players are told that there is some seriously important information contained in Dr. Solomon’s briefcase, represented by a little black plastic piece that you place in the center of the board. That briefcase needs to be moved to your home city before the other players move it to their side of the board. If you do, you win!

How do the players accomplish the movement? Everyone has access to six spies in different cities, each with a unique power. Some can move quicker than others; some can utilize the train system more efficiently; and most can manipulate the briefcase and other players better than the rest.

nullOn your turn, you will have just a few choices. You can declare that you are influencing this round, and behind your player screen, you will add as much “influence” (i.e. bribing the spies with gold sovereigns from your personal stash) as you want OR add one single gold sovereign to Dr. Solomon’s area of your player board. In either case, you do not have to announce how much or which character you are paying off. (That’s an important rule we got wrong on our first few plays, unfortunately.)

You can do this every round until you run out of gold, because once a sovereign is played, the sovereign stays there for the rest of the game (absent exceptions below).

Your other choices are to move a character or burn a character. Both are simple. Players announce their intentions — saying something like, “I will move Beacon from Paris to Brussels.” Before the move happens, in clockwise turn order, the other spymasters can try to block that move. They do this with a quick “auction” where players “bid” their influence. For instance, if I have six gold sovereigns on Beacon, I might say “I have two” and then geaux back and forth with the mover to see who is willing to reveal the most influence. Yes, you have to be truthful, and yes, you cannot “bid” more than you actually have placed on that spy, but no, you don’t have to keep revealing until you reach your max. You can always try to bluff other players into thinking you have less influence on a certain spy than you really do have.

If you “bid” more influence than the first challenger, the challenges do not stop there. Every other player has a chance to challenge. If no one successfully challenges your spy’s movement, then you can make your move AND this triggers the special power of that character. Triggering those special powers is the key to winning the game, as they can really help you move that briefcase across the board rapidly, or prevent another player from doing so. Note: The challengers who lose the challenge take a short one round penalty that restricts them to influencing their spy board. Double note: I use the word “bid” to describe the auction, but this is really a misnomer. Players never actually spend the gold sovereigns on any character when challenging a move. They stay on that character until the end of the game, except for when a player “burns” a spy.

Burning a spy works in a similar way. Players will announce “I am going to use Beacon to burn Tempest.” So long as the two spies are in the same city, and that player has at least five coins on Beacon, and the other players do not win any challenges to your influence on Beacon, then Tempest will be removed from the game (as well as five gold coins from the player who did the burn.)

Each round, Dr. Solomon also takes a turn, by moving his “Solomon” die one move up a long track at the bottom of the board. When he reaches the other side of the board, then from then on the players will roll his die. If ever the die face shows Dr. Solomon, then the game immediately ends, and the player who influenced Dr. Solomon with the most coins wins!

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

I applaud Restoration Games for being very consistent in their ability to freshen up these games from yesteryear. I have never played the original, but what we have here is a very streamlined, tense game of tug-of-war using our proxy spies. The fact that no one player can really know what other players have on the spies adds to the intrigue and tension.

nullConspiracy runs in that lane occupied by Days of Wonders games, in my opinion, those family weight games that are easy to set up, easy to teach, and look amazing on the table. I have taught everyone from experienced gamers to people who have literally never played a hobby game before with no trouble at all.

Yes, I am predisposed to liking this sort of game. Sure, my absolute favorite games are all deeper: Concordia, Viticulture, Lisboa, etc. But, I also am a sucker for this weight of game, and Conspiracy falls squarely in the weight of games like Ticket To Ride and Mystery of the Abbey, games you can really enjoy with your family. If you’ve played Downforce from Restoration Games, then that’s an easy comparison in terms of weight and complexity, as Conspiracy is just a touch heavier than that awesome racing game.

I have played this game at every player count, so I feel like I have the flow of the game down pretty well. Our first two plays went awry, when we missed the rule about not having to announce that you are influencing Dr. Solomon. (As I said above, all players have to do is announce that they are influencing, not whether it is Dr. Solomon or any other spy, leaving the other players to guess whether you are playing for the stalemate by bribing Dr. Solomon or stacking chips on a character they need for victory.) Once we got that fixed, with help from Restoration Games, there was a different feel to the game.

In every game, there’s a palpable tension as the briefcase gets within a city or two of someone’s host city. The challenges come more frequently; players spend more turns adding ever more influence; and alliances seem to form and then fracture in an instant.

But as I alluded to in the opening, Conspiracy consistently delivers one of my favorite moments in gaming: staring down the other player. How many times have I looked at the other player trying to guess what their next move will be based on their previous actions? Countless, and that’s the moments I love in gaming and in this game in particular.

I don’t have much negative to say about it, other than the fact that the first few plays, I have noticed that players (including myself) struggle to remember the very easy special powers of each of the spies. I cannot put my finger on why. Perhaps it is because the cheat sheet with the different special powers is on the player shield instead of a cheat sheet once can bring up close? I’m not sure, but it does seem like it takes players a while to get the hang of how each character’s special power interacts with other players, the board, and/or the briefcase.

But that is a minor quibble, and one that is more player oriented. Instead, I’ll turn to some thoughts from those who played it with me. One was not a big fan of the gold sovereigns. In the age of cool metal coins, having little plastic “buttons” represent gold money seemed a bit off to her. Personally, I found the coins satisfying in their heft and sound, but your mileage may vary.

One of the players suggested that even though the game typically takes only about 30-60 minutes to play, it seemed to be just a few turns too short. This was not a criticism of the game length; it was leveled more at the fact that in some games it is hard to do anything to get the briefcase close to your home city, and they wanted a few more turns to eliminate spies.

The last criticism, one I don’t share, is from a player who felt that it would be too easy to focus just on circling around the board and forcing a stalemate, consistently adding coins to Dr. Solomon every few rounds to ensure a win. In the games I’ve played where a player focused on Dr. Solomon, it seemed that the player did not have much agency to stop the other players from moving the briefcase. But, duly noted.

SUMMARY:

PROS:

  • Beautiful production that will get some looks when you set it up;
  • Easy to teach rules, with a nice cheatsheet on your player boards;
  • Turns are quick;
  • Good family weight game for your teens and friends;
  • Stalemates are fixed with the Solomon Gambit;
  • Feels pretty true to the spy theme

CONS:

  • Strategy is not as intuitive for family gamers;
  • Coins are slippery and move around a lot behind the screen;
  • Too short and too light for deeper gamers;
  • But, too complicated for your younger set (game says 14+ and I think that’s a good age range, especially due to the components and sort-of-complicated way the spies move once the challenges are eliminated)

So, that’s Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit. As I said earlier, I have never played the original, but the publisher’s description said there are two new twists in the game with the special powers and the stalemate breaker (the Solomon gambit of adding influence to Dr. Solomon’s space on your player board). I like both of the additions, especially the fact that a player can try to hide the strategy of forcing the stalemate all while boosting up influence on Dr. Solomon to gain the win.

If you like family weight spy themed games, give Conspiracy a try. For those who like this style of game, you may want to check out Covert, which some of the Gumbo members felt was a better representation of the theme.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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