Over the last week I’ve been engaged in a tangled web of diplomacy, manoeuvring and betrayal. It has been playing on in the recesses of my mind – generally relegated to the back-burner – through work, travel and holidaying; while I’ve been hanging out with friends and family, as I stared out of the train window. It demands little in the way of time and attention, yet manages to consume me thoroughly as soon as I look in its direction. This is quite possibly the most interesting experience I’ve gotten out of a game all year.
Subterfuge. If you like strategy and diplomacy games, do yourself a favour – start downloading it now so you’ll be able to join a game by the time you finish reading this
For those of you who like throwing around genres, it’s a real-time strategy game, but since each match takes about a week or two and each command takes at least a couple of hours to play out, it feels more like a turn-based game. Heavy influences from other strategy games come through strongly, especially from the 4X genre; it immediately calls to mind Neptune’s Pride – a browser-based game that took the 4X formula and simplified it while simultaneously stretching it out over many days.
Subterfuge provides you with a relatively simple set of rules and systems to work within, a passable interface through which to do it, and cashes in on human nature to provide the hot, sweaty core of the game; as it informs you when you join a match, the chat screen is where the real game is played. The drama is built out of interaction between the people playing, and the in-game systems merely provide the channel for it to erupt.
The game can be split into two major parts: the visible game of armies and empires that consists of drillers (your troops), submarines (how they get around), outposts (points of land that you control) and specialists (special troops that have various powers), and the interaction between players – the game of diplomacy and double-dealing that builds up around the visible game; this is centred around the chat system which allows you to speak to whomever you want to, whenever you want to.
Players (up to 10) start in control of a few outposts on the map and are separated from each other by a number of unclaimed dormant outposts. As with most real-time strategy games, the idea is to expand as much as you can while managing your resources, and when you can’t expand any further without stepping on toes you start eyeing your neighbours’ outposts. Taking control by putting on steel-toed boots or by treading carefully and getting others to do your dirty work is up to you – usually you’ll have to do a bit of both; in the end there’s only one first place! The two victory conditions are either being the last person standing (floating?) or being the first to reach 200 Neptunium – a material that you obtain from mines that you can set up. The more outposts and mines you control, the more Neptunium you mine.
The best moments of the game are when the two parts fall out of sync – it is here that lies and betrayal face the light of day for those willing to look. “I’m sending you reinforcements! They should be there in 10 hours. I’ve set them to turn into a gift just before they reach.” could be a simple act of communication, or a false promise that someone bases all their actions off of. When the reinforcements arrive they could help fight off a common threat if control is passed over, but they could just as easily turn out to be a dagger in the back and used to attack, with the potential to bring a kingdom toppling down. There is really no way to know for sure until the future becomes the past.
…this makes information, and the lack thereof, extremely powerful
Another important aspect of the battlefield is the ability to predict what will happen – an ability that the game realises pretty excellently through a timer that can be turned forwards and backwards at will; every action on the board that has taken place and was observed can be replayed and poured over, and every future deployment, upgrade, localised victory and loss can be played out, calculated for and prevented based on the information available to you at the time – but this makes information, and the lack thereof, extremely powerful. Turn time forwards by ten hours to see your enemy’s queen die at the hands of your assassins and revel in your impending victory if you dare to – but she’s already planned on pulling her queen out, capturing your assassins and turning them against you with her hypnotist that lurks just out of vision in the fog. By the time you spot the trap it’s usually too late – almost every decision has a ten-minute window during which it can be cancelled; after that it has been committed to, for better or worse. It’s often worse, and sometimes you end up having to watch in pain as your sub makes its ten-hour journey towards certain doom. Yes, one of your ‘allies’ did see your common enemy’s hypnotist waiting there, but they didn’t warn you – your empire was bursting at the seams and they had a growing suspicion that you’d move against them next. I mean, you were planning on turning on them, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less!
Given the relatively simple premise and systems, there is a certain degree of luck thrown in to change things up, and this has some say in how successful you are – the random generation of the map, assignment of outposts and the sets of powerful specialists that you periodically get to choose from are outside of your control. There is also a small amount of reward for being able to quickly understand and skilfully manipulate the system. But what really determines your success in the game is your ability to interact with people: to make friends, make enemies, and deal with the fallout when one suddenly becomes the other.
So far, this has been the friendliest community of any multiplayer game that I’ve played
I was initially drawn to Subterfuge by the way in which it kept popping up on my radar. It sounded like more than just a real-time strategy game; it was as if Game of Thrones had shifted over from Westeros to Atlantis in a playable form. When I realised that it would work on my phone and that it was free, with payment having no significant influence on one’s ability to play it unhindered, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Half way through that first game I was hooked, and pretty set on buying into the full experience, but decided that I wouldn’t cough up any money till the dust had settled and the match ended. After all, that would be the test of whether it was really worth it, right?
Totally worth it. Zero rupees spent on a week of highs and lows, of promises made and broken in the same breath; I’d fallen down a rabbit hole of manipulation and misinformation, and through it all, (relatively) civil communication with complete strangers on the internet! There wasn’t even a second of hesitation when the final victory screen opened – I wanted more. Picking up the L2 pass ($10) is currently the only way of buying into the game and it provides one’s account access to more than one match at the same time, the ability to have more than four delayed orders simultaneously queued, and opens the door to ranked play.
It’s been about six weeks from that first match, and now that I’ve gotten through my fair share of games I can confirm that the quality has improved since I bought the L2 pass, but this is mainly because of the way that it has helped weed out toxic players – out of all the ranked games that I’ve played, there has not been even a single player that has flamed or been abusive – that I’m aware of, anyway – and that’s quite an achievement for a purely multiplayer game. That’s not to say that the unranked play is particularly bad, either – out of the hundred or so people I must have played alongside, only about five or six were really unpleasant. So far, this has been the friendliest community of any multiplayer game that I’ve played.
Because the game plays so heavily off of human interaction, it also leaves room for the players to change the way they play and communicate
So here I am with three games going on simultaneously. One with a bunch of my childhood friends – that depending on how forgiving they are will hopefully continue being my friends after all the betrayal and backstabbing plays out – and two with different groups of strangers. I check my phone every morning when I wake up and every night before I go to sleep, along with about a dozen mid-day glances. I’m sent a (disableable) notification when anything of note happens so that I can reassess the battlefield as troops move around and outposts change hands, and also every time someone sends me a message. It is possible to get caught up in the game of diplomacy and have your phone buzzing all day long, but it’s not really a necessary part of the game – it all depends on how you and the others in the game approach it. I wouldn’t recommend being in more than three matches at a time though.
Because the game plays so heavily off of human interaction, it also leaves room for the players to change the way they play and communicate. Over the last three weeks I’ve started hosting Talk Like a Pirate games that have been unbelievably entertaining; at the moment it seems to have turned into the Brethren Court, with each of us playing as captains trying to abide by (and hold each other to) the Pirate’s Code while doing our best pirate impressions. One of the captains who was invaded called for parley, and ended up banished to a single outpost to sit out the rest of the game (as opposed to just being eliminated).Like a good tabletop role-playing game, Subterfuge manages to find strength in people being people – we jump to conclusions, overreact and are spiteful, but are also capable of great forgiveness, trust and mercy.
As much as I recommend giving Subterfuge a try, be warned: it can be quite buggy and crashes often, though this will hopefully improve with further updates.
If you think Subterfuge sounds interesting, check out Cool Ghosts’ excellent video series Subterfuge Diaries. If you haven’t already, you can download it for free on the Play Store for Android or the App Store for iOS.
Header image from Subterfuge-game.com