Tuesday, April 19, 2005

James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game
Card game review by Sombrero Grande

Auric Goldfinger. Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Sombrero Grande. If you've ever dreamed of being a super-villain, the kind with his/her own secret lair complete with atomic robots, killer fish and loyal henchlings out the wazoo, have I got a card game for you.

Set in a world so remarkably like that of a James Bond movie that its title had to be reinvented to avoid legal action, James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game is a fun foray into spy film conventions from the bad-guy perspective. (James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game was previously available as a black-and-white card game from Cheapass Games entitled "Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond...", hence the need for the name change.) Imagine you're in the middle of constructing your evil lair--you just finished work on the radar-jamming reflector and nuclear device, and you've got plans all laid out for the gourmet coffee bar--when who should saunter in but some know-it-all, debonair secret agent just begging to be exterminated in some needlessly complicated manner. You could take Scott Evil's advice from Austin Powers and simply put a bullet in his/her head and walk away. Sure, or you could describe the intricate workings of your doomsday device first, tell your life story, leave the room for an unspecified reason or stake your entire fortune on a single hand of poker. Why would you do any of these? Why, to score more points, of course.

The goal of the game is simple: highest score wins. So how do you accumulate points? Build a lair, have a spy sneak in, catch him/her and then dispose of said spy however suits you. Sounds simple, right? Then how come it never works in the movies? It's hard to resist the urge to taunt Mr. Bond when he's lying there strapped to your table. In The Incredibles it’s called "monologing" and, let’s face it, bringing about a hero's end feels all that much more satisfying when you've given yourself time to properly gloat beforehand. Unfortunately, that's also enough time for the spy to figure a way out and destroy your entire base as a parting gift.

There are four kinds of cards in James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game. First there are Lair cards, pieces no evil lair is complete without. These range from the practical--submersible, proton collider, flying wheelchair--to the perks--heated swimming pool, electric toaster, gift wrap counter--and range from 1 to 4 points in value. Then there are Spies, each with a point value between 2 and 9. In true cheesy spy film tradition, many have names no loving mother would knowingly bestow, like Peppermint York, Matinee Price, and Marion Bright (sorry folks, no dirty ones...at least none that I've figured out so far). Then there are Bomb cards. These show up when rival super-villains realize your lair is just a bit nicer than theirs. Last but not least are the "Taunt" cards known as "Doublers" because they double the value of any exterminated spies they are successfully played on. It's obvious from the title of the game that the people who came up with all this have a great sense of humor, and the text on the Doubler cards really shows their stuff. Take for instance, taunts like, "Before I kill you, Mister Spy...I shall leave you to rot in this dungeon wearing nothing but your ordinary-looking watch," or, "...I shall throw you into this tank of sharks, blithely unaware that all shark tanks have enormous drains." My absolute favorite Doubler card reads, "Before I kill you, Mister Spy... Wait. What's that music? Ice cream!"

Taunts can be foiled if any of the other players has a Doubler of the same letter (they're divided up into groups of four, each group being denoted by a letter of the alphabet A-I) that they're willing to play. When that happens and the spy escapes, taking your prized lair with him/her, it's back to the drawing boards to build anew on your next turn. The game plays rather quickly and while there is a decent amount of strategy involved it's largely a game of bluffing and gambling. The package says it's good for 3-6 players, though the rules admit 2 players will work and I can back that up (though I usually forgo the suggested point cap of 33 and just play 'til the cards run out). James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game is available at the manufacturer's website www.cheapass.com for $14.95. It's a decent price for a fun, clever, quick card game with nice artwork that toys with an oft-parodied film genre in a new way. Play it in your hollowed-out volcano or subterranean command center...while you can.


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