Burn Notice

I normally make fun of how badly I chop up box images into properly sized headers, but I actually sort of like this one. The text "redacts" the identities of the agents. A nifty idea.

When Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit showed up in the same box as Unmatched: Battle of Legends, I set it aside under the assumption it would be a “lesser” offering from Restoration Games. You know, this wave’s Dinosaur Tea Party or something.

Nope. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Solomon Gambit is a firecracker.

"Don't fumble that pigskin!" —my grandfather, under the mistaken assumption that I know what a pigskin is

Playing a game of nuclear football.

Let me set the scene. Right in the heart of Europe, probably in a holding loop aboard Vienna’s iconic Wiener Riesenrad, is a briefcase. Don’t ask what’s in the briefcase; it’s a McGuffin classified. Spread throughout the cities around Vienna are six freelancing agents, identified only by codenames like Vagabond and Magician. You know, really cool names reserved for the spies who get lots of sex.

You are not one of these spies.

Instead, you’re in command of an agency bent on obtaining the contents of that briefcase. The agents are mere pawns. Sort of. If pawns aligned themselves with whichever overlord packed their pockets with the most gold sovereigns. Okay, “pawn” isn’t a good designation. We’ll stick with “agents.”

Also telephones and mahogany desks, I think.

Payoffs! How the world is really run.

As an older game given the breath of new life, The Solomon Gambit immediately has that classic feel. The rules are dead simple, with each turn mostly limited to paying off an agent or moving somebody from one city to another. There are a few nuances to both of these options, but not so many that this ever becomes cumbersome. Bribing an agent, for example, is easy until it isn’t. Early on you’re flush with sovereigns, and it’s easy to promise eight sovereigns to a single agent. But is that enough? Are you paying too much? This only grows more strenuous as your fun fund starts to run dry.

Of course, the rubber really meets the road when those agents have their loyalties tested out on the mean streets of Europe’s most appealing tourist destinations. The basic premise of movement couldn’t be simpler: agents can move to any adjacent city, and if the briefcase is in their space then they’re permitted to haul it along. In practice this often leads to juggling the case back and forth, or taking the long route to avoid an intercepting agent, or spacing people along an opponent’s route back to the headquarters. Simple, right?

Well, sometimes. The trick is that you can challenge any move. If an opponent announces that they’re sending Spyglass from Amsterdam to Brussels, anyone is free to halt that move by announcing a number. For a game about deception and mistrust, this demands the utmost integrity between players, since you’re only allowed to announce numbers you’ve actually allocated to an agent. So you shout out a number: “Two!” Now the person trying to finish that move can respond with a higher number. Back and forth it goes until somebody bows out.

Geoff always looks like a spy.

There’s a lovely map, but most of the game looks like this.

These contests are loaded in all the right ways. In fact, they generate a sort of virtual currency in their own right, one that’s reminiscent of auction games in the way they spill information to your table-mates. When challenging a move that can upend your plans, it’s tempting to announce the highest possible number. After all, if both you and your opponent have the same amount of money invested into the agent in question, your opponent won’t be able to announce a higher number than you, and therefore they’ll be stalled. But in addition to running the risk of being one-upped — and therefore becoming limited to a measly payoff on your next turn — you’re also announcing that number to everyone at the table.

You can probably already suss out why this is a problem, at least on one level. If Geoff has fourteen sovereigns invested in Roulette, it might be better to avoid her altogether. Maybe you can even bribe two or three spies into compliance with the same amount of cash. And since table-talk is permitted, there’s nothing stopping you from wheedling with another rival agency to drag the briefcase away from the porch of a winning player’s HQ. Inter-agency cooperation. Isn’t that a good thing?

On a less intuitive level, it’s also possible to burn spies. This is never an easy decision, mostly because you’ll need an agent in position to burn their target, and — brace yourself — it costs five coins that are removed from the game entirely. The upsides of such a payment can be significant, especially if you’re aware that two or more players have been in a bidding war for the affections of a single agent. With the suddenness of a bullet in the back of the head, that spy is gone, along with everything ever invested into them. Then again, a sixth of your total funds have just been wiped out. That isn’t insignificant, even for a blacklisted slush fund. There’s a reason it pays to pay attention to the numbers being bandied back and forth during challenges.

This is what happens when you're very, very good at paying the worst spies.

Burned agents run off with your investments. Oops.

There are two modern additions that Restoration Games has made to the original 1973 formula. And although they may prove contentious to those who preferred the game exactly as I’ve described it until this moment, I’m inclined to regard these as positive changes.

The first is a time limit. It isn’t surprising that such a game might occasionally devolve into a back-and-forth stalemate. Actually, those moments are often some of its most interesting. The briefcase may appear to be stuck bouncing between Kiev and Odessa, but it’s entirely possible that other forces are at work. Whether new agents are hopping a train to intercept or new payoffs are altering the balance of power, even some of its most static moments are wonderfully fluid.

But stalemates are a possibility, hence the limit. Here it takes the form of the titular Dr. Solomon. When the tracker runs out — and it’s a very ample tracker, providing plenty of time for somebody to win — each round concludes with a die roll. If nothing shows up, then the game continues another round; if Dr. Solomon appears, the game is immediately concluded and whichever agency has lined his pockets most comprehensively will win instead. But don’t go putting all your cash on the good doctor. He only accepts one sovereign per turn, forcing you to trade on your most precious resource of all: time. Be wary of anybody who spends three turns in a row on payoffs. There’s a chance they’ll be stalling from here on out.

The other big change is character powers. Each agent has one, simple perks like pushing or pulling the briefcase to or from an adjacent space, moving farther, or shoving around other characters like a schoolyard bully. It’s a slender but appreciated dimension, creating intersecting zones of possibility — a cluster of agents that might be forced to disperse, a lonely briefcase that can be gathered up from afar, someone who can traverse much of the map (sans briefcase!) with unprecedented vigor. The key is that these powers are important without ever becoming dominant; remove any particular agent (say, with a bullet), and the game continues just fine. As powers, they’re strong enough that it’s worth taking advantage of them, but not so flexible that you’re ever likely to forget that so-and-so can pull a trick out of their spy kit.

Upon whom shall we lean?

Who to lean on next?

The real appeal, though, is the way The Solomon Gambit leaves itself open to unexpected plays. In one game, everyone was wrestling for dominance in Central Europe, leaving a single agent twiddling her thumbs in Paris. Of course, an early bid had deposited her under my control, and it was only after everybody had placed themselves at loggerheads that she swung in to extricate the briefcase. In another play, one player was too cavalier with throwing around his weighty bids, resulting in three burn notices that wiped out all his investments except for a single sovereign. That was one heck of a reveal.

In every play there are moments of tremendous deception and outrageous bluffing, like moving an agent you haven’t bribed at all, or persuading the table not to invest in a particular character because surely they’re squarely under your thumb, or falsely driving up somebody else’s bid with a furtive smile in their direction when you announce a payoff. The lightness of the rules means they’re effortlessly internalized, letting everybody get down to the business of messing with each other’s heads.

No matter what Restoration Games claims as their motto, not every game deserves another turn. Conspiracy absolutely did. Like a .22 double-tap to the back of the head in a neon-bleeding nightclub in snowy East Berlin, the Solomon Gambit represents a terrific merger of classic sensibilities and modern polish.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on October 23, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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