1955: The War of Espionage

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Living Worlds Games, LLC, 2 players, ages 14 and up, about 30 minutes; $24.99)


In 1955, the world was a very different place. In the fifties, two major superpowers were locked in a Cold War. Now, two players can relive those days of political struggle in a tug of war, competing to exert influence against each other in a quest for political domination in this new game designed by Kevin G. Nunn: 1955: The War of Espionage.

In 1955: The War of Espionage, each player is the Spymaster for a particular “Faction”, either the blue or red. Rather than a map of the world, the board takes a stylized approach and uses tracks to chart the Influence exerted by those players in the six countries of the game that are “up for grabs”: the Soviet Union, Hungary and Poland (members of the red Faction) and the United States, England and France (comprising the blue Faction). The deck of cards is shuffled and each player receives a starting hand of 5 cards.

After examining his cards, the Start player chooses his “home” country and places a control marker of that country’s color at its track’s center space and the matching color spy on the flag of that country on the space closest to him. His opponent must now choose a country of the opposite Faction for his “home”, placing the matching control marker in the center of that track and his spy on the corresponding flag closest to him. Neutral control markers are now placed on the center spaces of the tracks of the other four countries in the game. (In a concession to “home field advantage”, the control markers of each player’s home country is moved ONE space closer to the controlling player indicating that player has more influence in that nation.)

Moving control markers is the what this game is all about and it is Influence that enables you to move them. Maneuver a marker onto the starred space next to you, and you have “locked in” that country and gotten control. Lock in three countries (or just lock in your enemy’s home ) and victory is yours! However, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

The heart of a turn consists of TWO card play actions (the Start player begins the game with only ONE card play action). How you use your cards is the core of the game and there are two types of cards: Country and Mercenary.

Each Country card depicts the flag of a country with the matching color banner of that nation’s Faction. It also has an Influence value ranging from 1 to 4. (It also has a “Special Power”. More on that later.) A Country card may be played for the country shown on the card at full value (so, for example, a 3 value England card will move the control marker of England 3 spaces CLOSER to you). If your spy happens to be in the country played, you can either combine another card of the SAME country in a single play (for example, adding an England 2 to your England 3 to make, in essence, an England 5 card) OR just add one to your card value (a bonus for having your spy there). You can also play Influence in any country your spy is in (but if the color of your card is NOT the color of the faction of the country, the card is worth one LESS influence). You can play ANY Country card in your home country but if the Faction color of the card doesn’t match, the card is worth one LESS Influence. But your opponent need not sit by helplessly. He may be able to block!

Your opponent may block your move if you are trying to exert Influence in his home country. In that case, he may play ANY number of cards to equal or exceed the value of the cards you have played. But there is a significant restriction. He can only play cards of the SAME Faction as his home country. He can also block an Influence play in any country in which his spy is located. Again, only cards of the same Faction color may be used in a block but, because your spy is present, cards with the matching flag of the country being influenced are worth +1 in blocking! If your opponent plays cards equal to or greater than the Influence you have played, your play is blocked and the control marker does not move!

Mercenary cards are less powerful (having values of only 1 and 2) but are much more flexible. They may be used by themselves to exert Influence anywhere. They may also be combined with another card (or cards) to increase Influence too. They are immune to any faction color restrictions and there is no limit to how many Mercenaries you can use on a single play. And then, of course, there are those Special Actions.

As mentioned, each Country Card has a Special Action a player may use in lieu of a standard Influence play. These Special Action provide a variety of possibilities from freezing a country’s control marker from moving until the next turn (great to use if that country is on the verge of being “locked in” by your opponent), to advancing two or three unsecured control markers in a single move, to moving your spy as a free play (opening up Influence card play ploys) or freezing your enemy’s spy in place, allowing a draw of extra cards and even forcing your opponent to discard down to 2 cards (from his normal arsenal of 5) to cripple his upcoming turn. Once a country is “secured” (by advancing its control marker to the final, starred, space on the track), that is normally it. But there is a Special Action “Revolution” card that will “unsecure” that nation and bring it back into play! And, of course, some Special Actions may be played out of turn to thwart a play!

After making your card plays, the active player draws his hand back up to five (if he has less than 5 in his hand) and may then move his spy to any country on the board. Now, it’s the next player’s turn. The battle continues until one player is victorious by either managing to secure three countries OR by securing the home country of his enemy.

Choosing a home country seems to be a “non-choice”. The longest tracks belong to the USA and the USSR. Since having your home country fall to your opponent will cost you the game, it seems obvious that you have to choose one or the other of these tracks to call home. But meaningful choices abound.

One of the most interesting choices in the game concerns whether or not to block your opponent’s move. You certainly do not want to see control markers advancing away from you and, if your opposition is attempting a big “move”, the temptation to block is, well, tempting. But cards played in blocking (just as those played in exerting Influence to advance markers) are discarded! Your opponent will get to draw back to five cards but you will not! By blocking, you reduce your hand size for YOUR next turn. You need to weigh the advantages/disadvantages in making such a play. But that’s not all.

Another category of decision making involves whether to use your cards to exert Influence or to benefit from a particular Special Action. This can be difficult as Influence is the main driving force to victory but those Special Actions can do a lot of damage and boost your own position too. The idea of one card having multiple and exclusive powers is not a new idea. (Broker, for example, used this technique back in 1961!) But here we have an excellent implementation of the concept. The two-sided board is virtually identical, the only difference being that the country tracks on one side are a little shorter than on the other allowing you customize game playing time to your own schedule (a nice touch). It should be said, however, that game play can vary from a brutal slugfest with each player fighting for small advantages to a quick and speedy end as a few critical card plays can shift the balance in a few countries!

1955: The War of Espionage captures the feel of a tug of war between two opposing powers. Game play runs smoothly and power (and Influence) can and does shift quickly through shrewd card play and, as to be expected in a card game, a little luck. Because of its topic and use of cards, the game has been likened to the Cold War game of Twilight Struggle (Spring 2006 GA Report). But 1955: The War of Espionage is easier to get into and quicker to play making it more accessible to a wider range of gamers. The game, for its playability and price, makes for an excellent buy.


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