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Covert Review – Tactical Spying in the Cold War

Something remarkable happened to me last week. Not only did Reluctant Gaming Wife ask to play a particular game, but Slightly Reluctant Gaming Daughter, and Definitely Not Into Boardgames Teenage Son actively agreed to play too. And this was for the second time in two weeks. This, dear reader, is completely unheard of.

covert box

There was no bribery involved, and no threats of Internet disablement or new girlfriend banishment. Normally the only game that gets all of us around a table is the much-overlooked Genoa, and that tends to be only about twice a year and only after much moaning and nagging from me.

The game that got all four of us around a table twice in two weeks, voluntarily, and with more sessions tacitly agreed, is Covert, designed by Kane Klenko (Dead Men Tell No Tales, Fuse) and published by Renegade Games.

The Theme – West v East

In the early days of the Cold War, Stalin said that he wanted “all the secrets locked in the Americans’ safes”. In carrying out his orders, the Soviet intelligence services the KGB and the GRU (military intelligence) were incredibly successful. Even before the end of World War II the GRU stole America’s greatest secret, the atomic bomb, in real-time – it is said that Stalin knew of the bomb’s existence even before President Truman.

Over the next 40 years the Soviet Union’s espionage network helped turn a war-ravaged, third-world nation into a superpower that dominated half of Europe and challenged the West both militarily and technologically for the rest of the century. Covert immerses you in the world of Cold War spying in this divided Europe of the 50s and 60s.

Covert: What’s in the Box?

covert-board-game-special-ops-bag

The quad-fold board is attractive to anyone who likes maps (and everyone likes maps don’t they?) and the components are decent – wooden spy meeples, wooden cubes, a velvety bag to draw Special Ops tokens from, cardboard player screens, and the cool typewriter-font dice. It’s not The Gallerist but it’s absolutely fine. The spy gear shown on the equipment cards is cool and retro; tracking devices hidden in the heels of shoes, reel-to-reel tape recorders, all a lot more Dr No than Skyfall.

The rulebook is very clear with many images and examples, and short rules summaries in separate boxes on each page making it probably the best rulebook I’ve seen for a while.

Gameplay – Strategy, Tactics or Neither?

Covert is a game of action/movement programming, dice rolling, hand management, point to point movement, press your luck, set collection, variable player powers and worker placement.

covert board game board

That’s a lot of mechanisms. But happily what sounds like it might be a dog’s dinner is in fact very slick and intuitive. The fact that the rulebook is only 10 pages, and a lot of that is images, shows that Covert is a relatively straightforward game, albeit with a lot of depth.

Very simply, the main flow of the game is: You use five dice to program actions which you then take to gather resources which you use to complete missions to get points.

The missions you need to complete are defined by Mission Cards which you are issued at the beginning of the game, and you can collect during the game. Each of these has a number of requirements you need to fulfil: A combination of having your spies (meeples) located in certain cities or regions on the board, and having certain equipment (Agency Cards) collected behind your player screen. Once you’ve completed a mission it is tucked away as VPs banked for the end of the game, and it may also give you a valuable in-game bonus that will make it easier to complete further missions.

Each round is played in 3 phases:

  1. covert-board-game-action-circlesDice Placement – the actions you want to do each round have to be programmed by placing one of your 5 dice on the four Action Circles, which are essentially worker placement spots arranged in circles of 1 to 6. Once a die is placed in one spot the other players must place their dice adjacent to it, so tactical blocking of other players is definitely an important element of this phase (although there are a number of ways to avoid or work around being blocked). Players’ dice are deliberately kept visible to other players to make this possible, and presumably to prevent players giving into the temptation to ‘adjust’ their dice behind their screens.
  2. covert-board-game-decoderCode Breaking – In the code breaking phase you can swap two adjacent tiles on the Decoder to try to match one of the 3-digit codes on your two Code Cards. If you can, you receive the equipment depicted on the card which you can use (as per Agency Cards) or keep for a 2 VP at the end of the game.
  3. Dice Resolution – players pull their dice back off the board and take the actions associated with them to move their spies, take Agency Cards (equipment), take new Mission Cards, and complete missions. Things may not pan out as you expect and you may find yourself changing your plans and having to make alternative use of the dice actions you chose. A range of special actions on cards, player abilities and ‘Special Ops tokens’ drawn from the smelly bag help you get what you need and work around obstacles. You can play any number of these on your turn, and using them effectively is often the key to success.

These phases are repeated until someone completes their 6th mission, then the round is completed normally before each player is given one last chance to complete a single mission without any board/dice actions, just with the cards they have in hand (this “post-final round” can be a game winner if you’ve planned correctly). After that, a simple adding up of Mission Card VPs plus Code Card bonus VPs reveals the winner.

It’s Thinky, But Is It Fun?

covert-board-game-player-areaCovert hits a sweet spot for me and my family. It is exactly the right weight, complexity, length and theme to keep us all engaged and wanting to play over and over. We tend to enjoy mid-weight Euro games like Grand Austria Hotel, Istanbul, The Pursuit of Happiness, Lewis & Clark and Viticulture, and Covert has come in and kept all those on the shelf for quite a few weeks. In fact Friday night is now Covert night, which is totally fine by me.

It’s a very tactical game. You’re not going to get halfway through and wish you’d taken an action in turn 1 that somebody else took, and now you’re permanently hampered. Also you can’t really plan a strategy, everyone has to do the same things with the resources that come out, thinking from round to round and changing plans when they get blocked or a card they were relying on gets taken. This is what makes it easier for new players to understand and enjoy – the goals are straightforward, the resources are finite, but there is still interest because there are 17 ways to do everything and you have find the best one.

Covert knits together all its strands in a very intuitive way that makes it quite straightforward to learn and play, and yet has enough interest to make new players want to go back and play it again because next time they’ll do X better and pay more attention to Y.

covert-board-game-agency-cardsBecause there are so many different ways to do what you need to do, the puzzle aspect of the game is really interesting. Need to get one of your spies to Moscow? If you can’t just move there from nearby, maybe you have an Agency Card that you can discard to fly him there, or fly him nearby and then use a dice action to complete the move. Or maybe there’s an Agency Card in the market row that you could use to do this, but first you might need to move another spy into a particular region in order to access it. Or you could move another spy in order to pick up intel (clues left by other players’ spies) and use them to grab the card you need. Or in desperation you could draw a Special Ops token and hope it’s a movement one, or one that allows you to draw three Agency Cards and discard two, or…

And that’s just to achieve one aspect of one mission; normally you have three Mission Cards on the go with up to three requirements each. Prepare for a pleasant level of brain burn.

Minor Issues (For Fussy People Only)

Luck of the draw

Yes there is luck in Covert. The two main resources in the game are drawn from decks of cards, and the actions you can take are partly governed by die rolls, but there are many ways to mitigate both and doing so is an enjoyable part of the game. Can you win on the turn of a card? Possibly, and I have had it happen, but you have to be close in points as well as gearing up for a lucky break and getting very lucky on the draw. You can’t come from miles behind to win through luck alone.

Code breaking

I feel this part of the game is a bit weak and disjointed. It doesn’t feel like a big deal whether you break the code or not since you can get equipment many other ways, and 2 VPs is not that exciting. Also the code breaking is not connected to any other aspect of the game – you do stuff on the board, take what seems like a timeout to break some codes, then go back to the board where the real action is. I feel the codes in Covert should be tougher to crack (maybe 4 digits with two tile movements) and there should be a bigger reward for success, such as being able to complete or take an additional Mission Card.

covert-board-game-mission-cardsInitial Setup – Try Drafting?

The rule to choose 2 Mission Cards from 3 at the start of the game can still leave the initial setups somewhat unbalanced. There is a wide disparity of Mission Cards offering from 3 to 15 VPs, and although lower-VP cards tend come with better bonus actions they don’t always offer enough to adequately reward the effort of completing them. It’s certainly not 5 times harder to get a 15 VP mission done than a 3 VP mission, and since the game ends when someone has 6 completed missions you really don’t want one of your six being worth only 3 VP.

You might want to try starting by drafting cards – each player takes 5 Mission Cards, chooses one, passes the rest on, chooses another, and then the leftovers are shuffled back into the deck. You could do this either before giving out the other cards (so you’re choosing on the strength of the Mission Cards alone) or after (so you can choose missions based on your issued resources, creating a bit of a pre-game planning stage).

Covert – Goldfinger or Octopussy?

Games of Covert can be very close and scoring can highlight to players exactly where they made a fatal mistake – not grabbing an Agency Card at the right time, grabbing a weedy mission when they should have held out for a better one, being thwarted on the Decoder by another player messing up their plans, or often just not making the best use of their many resources and actions. This can lead to and enjoyable post-game analysis and some memorable games.

In one game my wife won on a tie-break as she’d completed 6 missions to my 5; I needed to get a spy to Vienna to complete another one in the last turn but try as I might I could only get him to Munich – just 1 city away. Gutted. In another game I came from 3 missions down to complete 3 more in my very last turn thanks to some epic combo moves (I thought), only to find that my opponent grabbed a mission with his very last die and was able to complete it in the post-final round for a “Hail Mary” win. Gutted again.

covert-board-game-diceI do win at Covert occasionally, I hasten to add. In fact we have all (including daughter aged 12) won at least one game which I think is a testament to this game’s balance and family friendliness. Also for its weight I find Covert quite easy to teach, and people seem to get it fairly quickly once they start playing. There are very few fiddly rules so confusion is kept to a minimum.

Covert hasn’t had much buzz since it came out but I am noticing a bit more now as people discover it and post about their plays on the Facebook groups. I feel it should be much higher up the BGG rankings and I hope it creeps up as more people get to play it.

For me Covert rates a 9. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of this game, I can see it getting many plays and becoming battered and torn over the years like the childhood copies of Buccaneer, Careers and Scoop I had back in the day. Yep, sad to say I’m that old, old enough to actually remember the Cold War… actually, I think I should have kept that particular bit of intel to myself.

5 (100%) 2 votes
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Jon Dunn

Mancunian now living in Leicestershire countryside. Grew up with boardgames, miniatures wargaming, D&D, Traveller etc. Left it all behind for work and "normal life", now happily re-engaged with boardgames thanks to Gaming Daughter (age 12), Occasional Gaming Wife (age undisclosed) and friendly local group of boardgame chums.

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