So, there’s this game called Subterfuge for mobile platforms (I know that at the very least it’s on iOS and Android with cross-play) that’s a long-form board-game-like strategy game that plays out over the course of a week for up to eight players. Players use submarines full of “drillers,” which serve as basic combat units, to capture outposts to increase their power before they begin mining for precious Neptunium in interests of collecting two hundred units and being crowned the winner. As the creators of the game are careful to point out in their tutorial videos, the game isn’t just about controlling nodes and strategically moving units around the map, it’s about DIPLOMACY.
I was really rather annoyed by how often the word diplomacy came up in the tutorial videos, for primarily two reasons: the first being that the concept of diplomacy and alliances cannot truly exist in the context of all parties knowing that within the next seven-to-ten days, only one of them can be crowned the winner. Secondly, my first game was a game with three players, which meant the idea of forming alliances was even more ridiculous given how few players there were and the fact that I knew these people in real life. Sure, Joe and I could team up to knock Ryan out of the game first, but that’s not cool. I have to still do a podcast with that guy every week.
Subterfuge diaries are really in vogue right now. That’s not what this article is, though. I do want to explain how I felt about my time playing subterfuge, which means, however, that I’ll need to provide you some basic retelling of the events of our game.
Our first game was a three man game played between myself, Nick, my co-host Ryan, and our semi-regular special guest Joe.
The game begun simply, with us barely knowing how to play the game, and following the tutorials to a tee so that we could venture forth and claim some of unowned territories. Even in a three man game, you can’t see the entire map from the get go, but I hired a Security Specialist (or something) as soon as I could to help me see more of the map. At that point, there wasn’t a whole lot to see. After a few small conflicts, all the nodes were captured and we all began thinking about what moves we would have to take to win the game.
Joe contacted both myself and Ryan in an effort to work some kind of alliance. I responded eventually with nonchalance, Ryan’s response was obviously more enthusiastic, because they started gifting drillers to each other to help fortify their outposts on the fringes of their controlled zones. I focused on controlling factories so I could create more drillers and eventually start mining. I was trying to play defensively, while still spending some time pestering my opponents by capturing poorly-defended territories near my borders. I spent many days waiting for factory production cycles just to ship them off to defend outposts or send them inwards for mining. Then, around day 7, the shit hit the fan in a big way.
Joe was the first person to drill his third mine. At the top of the screen, Ryan and myself would see a message warning us that given the current pace, Joe was going to win in a matter of days. Ryan sprung to action, and sent a sub full of drillers to Joe’s nearest mine with intentions of capturing it. Ryan receives an incoming message from Joe reading: “are you gifting me those?” There is no message in return.
Ryan had broken a truce he and Joe had established early on, so Joe had no choice but to respond with force. He took his two Martyr specialists (basically suicide bombers capable of destroying all drillers, specialists, and nodes nearby when they do combat) and sent one to one of my fringe factories that I had fortified especially because it was so close to the action, and the other at a base that was holding Ryan’s Queen. Were his Queen to parish, Ryan would be eliminated.
I executed the strategy which I had formulated the moment I saw Joe hired a Martyr. A sent a single driller in a sub to the outpost his specialist was coming from. Battle projections showed that in six hours, the two subs would meet in the middle, the martyr would explode, and the only loses would be the drillers on Joe’s sub. Ryan’s strategy was less bold, but still effective. He took his queen and shipped her and all of his drillers to an outpost nearby. After the sub had launched, Joe could see where it was headed, and sent an army to capture that outpost. This meant that Ryan’s queen was on the way to an enemy-controlled node, and upon arrival would be captured and Ryan would lose. And there was nothing he could do about it. Instead, he cut his loses and gifted me every driller he owned and instructed me to “Crush Joe with your iron fist.” Joe couldn’t understand why Ryan would do this, and I explained that it probably had to do with the ruthless nature in which he eliminated Ryan from the game.
I immediately started perfectly coordinating sub launches so that they would reach Ryan ‘s outposts the moment he would be eliminated. The next several days Joe and I spent playing trying to capture each others’ less-defended territories while sending units from factories to bolster our territories in danger of being captured, knowing that I had more units, nodes, and Neptunium because of Ryan’s gifts, and I was almost certainly going to win.
This is the part where my mental state began to deteriorate. I wanted the game to be over because we both knew the eventual outcome and also because Ryan was eliminated and I felt bad that we couldn’t all play together like a god-damn family for once. Joe just wouldn’t let it end, even though he revealed to me later that he was simply struggling to prolong the game. I attempted to force the game to end sooner by capturing his power facilities to increase my mining speed, which left one of my mines vulnerable, the capture of which just cost me precious Neptunium and prolonged the game further! Every time I received a notification, a wave of anxiety spread across my body, knowing that I had to react as soon as possible so that the game could end. I was interrupting time spent with other people or using time I should have spent working to play driller tug-of-war with Joe, each of us sending multiple subs from different posts to the same location to just struggle against one-another. I eventually had to just fortify my mines and just let my win come a day later. In the end, Joe refused to give me the satisfaction and just resigned.
So as it turns out, two-player Subterfuge isn’t really that fun.
That’s the thing that makes Subterfuge so interesting: depending on who you’re playing with and how they decide to play, one game can be wildly different from another. In that same way, the game can dramatically shift from a slow-paced resource build to a furious battle where every launched sub triggers another sub to be launched in retaliation.
In the final days of the game, I hated how much I spent planning out future moves so I could finish the game as soon as possible because up to that point, my time investment was so minimal. I think ultimately, I had fun, and I want to try playing again. I would try a game with more people, but I also really appreciated the dynamic nature of having an small, odd number of players.
I think that Subterfuge is a brilliant idea. It allows people around the world to play a board game-like game that would normally take one sitting to play but turns it into a low-commitment long-form game that people with any schedule can play together. The rules of the game are simple, with the Specialists system adding real depth to the strategy. The application itself goes beyond what any board game could do, showing you exact simulations of future events as you have planned them to occur. It’s a wonderfully simple and sophisticated game and I encourage everyone to download it and play it with their friends, understanding the sort of crazy shit that happens when you play games with those you care about most.