The game's website/rulebook explains how you can win: be the first player to accumulate 200 kilos of Neptunium (Np). You can transform any of your outposts into a mine, and a mine generates one kilo of Np each day for each outpost you own, and thus, the more outposts you have per mine, the faster you will accumulate it. Simple! But then the rulebook splits an infinitive for emphasis: "How to really win - Diplomacy." You can accumulate the Np on your own, but acquiring and protecting the outposts so that they will generate Np requires talking with the other players, making deals, negotiating borders and exchanges... more than anything else, it is a social game about manipulating the other players.
I have won both games of Subterfuge that I have played. Not simply placed well; although you can get gold, silver, and bronze ranking depending on how much Np you have when the game ends, I have somehow managed to get the gold ranking both times. Am I an expert? Not necessarily. Luck definitely played a big part in my wins. But I would like to think that I had a solid, flexible strategy that was neither too aggressive or too weak, and I was asked by almost all of the players (both seriously and facetiously) how I managed to trick everyone into letting me win both times. So I have spent a couple of weeks thinking about it.
I love negotiation games. If I was made at gunpoint to single out an atomic rules mechanism that I called my favorite, "negotiation" would be it. And perhaps it is the practice that these games have given me that helped me so much in Subterfuge.
Out of the more than 200 board or card games that I own and play, I have only given four a rating of 10 on BoardGameGeek.com. And one of those four is Intrigue, unquestionably one of my all-time favorites and an unbelievably good negotiation game. Playing well almost entirely revolves around discussion and negotiation, since the game is simply five rounds of asking for people to give you income, and accepting bribes when people ask you for income. And it avoids the problem of heavily "mathing out" the situation, because even if you calculated out income and bribes, you never know when someone is going to betray the situation to get ahead themselves. Every time I play Intrigue, I enjoy it, even those times where I have to openly weep to convince someone that I deserve the spot of income that (unbeknownst to them) will not simply allow me to win, but also maintain my lead and decisively hand the game to me.
Similar, but markedly more complex, are the twin FFG games Cosmic Encounter and A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. The former is a complicated, messy game from the 70s where players take on the role of an entire alien race, and try to conquer five foreign worlds. You are randomly assigned a target player each round to assault, and then the game enters a phase where both attacker and defender call for allies, rewards and exchanges are negotiated, and then combat cards are flipped to resolve who gets what... and sometimes, who has pulled a dirty trick and soiled everything for everyone but themselves. It suffers a little from its design pedigree, but not so much that I can't look past the vestigial bits and enjoy the negotiation. In A Game of Thrones, as you would expect if you have any familiarity with the books, you play one of the great houses of Westeros trying to claim enough power and support to take the Iron Throne, and the deal-making and backstabbing can quickly get out of hand. Even simpler games like Article 27, a game about UN Security Council members voting on issues, and Bohnanza, a game about farmers growing and trading beans to make money, are some of my favorites.
The appeal of being able to short-circuit the regular rules process to gain an advantage with nothing more than a plan and an appeal is a great attraction to me. These games are massive fun, but absolutely exhausting. Each of them has their own mechanical series of rules which necessitate tactics and strategy, but they combine rhetoric, persuasion, psychology, negotiation, economics, improvisation, and composition into that vast world. Take every topic I am interested in reading about, every cool non-fiction subject I love, and whirl them together in a game? I'm in.
But let me say this: I am not a master negotiator. I don't always win these games, and I don't always love how brutally downtrodden I can get when negotiations go sour... at least not in the moment. However, I do have a tendency to do well. Perhaps, very well. Yesterday, I was playing a very small game of Intrigue, and one player was in a situation of choosing to either favor me by doubling my income, or favor an opponent by bringing his income back into line with the rest of ours. And remarkably, I was rewarded with the job. You would honestly think that repeatedly making out like a bandit in games where the other players have such direct control over your success would be difficult. And you would not be wrong. If everyone bands together, they can very quickly and easily take down the leader. The real trick, as you will see when I get to my strategic discussion of Subterfuge (a few thousand words from now), they have to have the skill to negotiate and trust one another entirely, or the plan to take the leader out won't work.
One last aside before I get to Subterfuge: David Sirlin, designer of Yomi (one of my other BGG 10s), has harsh words for people who complain about players using a game's rules to their best effect. In competitive fighting games, there are people who complain that a particular character's moves are "cheesy" or "broken" when, in fact, they simply don't have the skill to win against them or the commitment to learn that skill. Those people are affectionately called "scrubs," and they are mocked mercilessly for setting up their own "proper" way of playing that involves implied rules of behavior that have nothing to do with the game. Is that move cheesy and unbeatable? Then why don't you use it? Because you have some sort of "honor system" that prevents you from using it? Well, welcome to being a loser.
Why do I bring this up? Well, after having won the latest game of Subterfuge, I was confronted by one player who accused me to doing evil things like tricking people when playing. And I was genuinely confused; the game is all about manipulating the information and alliances in the game to great effect. Sometimes you need to lie or deceive in order to get an advantage, and that is an understanding that everyone in the game should have. Same for Intrigue, Cosmic Encounter, Diplomacy, and many, many other games. If this player set up an imagined system of rules in his own mind about how people should play, and I broke it, that is no one's problem but his. Even if everyone else in the game had this imagined honor system, the game still allows and promotes behavior that is not a part of that system. Scrubs use this tactic to prove that even though they lost or did badly, they were still the better player because they were following special rules. Thumbs down, scrub. Thumbs down.
Okay, now finally: How to Win at Subterfuge! Sorry it took so long, and I thank those of you who are still with me.
- First, and most importantly, start a good relationship with everyone, even your distant opponents. They won't be distant forever, and even if they are, they can (and often happily will) serve as a distraction for your nearby opponents, harrying them on their opposite side. How do you start a good relationship when you can't know what your opponents' plans are? Be friendly! Be compromising! Be honest! Be trustworthy! You must start the game by taking actions that will get you on that player's good side. Take a chance in moving away from your shared border, and make sure they know you are doing it to show them you are trustworthy. Give them gifts to help them against other players.
- Which leads to a second big tip: don't attack your new friends. Help them attack others. I know it is easy to think "I just convinced that dumbass to move everything away from me, and now he's got all of these outposts just sitting open." I can promise, it is far more useful in the long run to have a person who feels good about your relationship and have fewer outposts than it is to have a permanent enemy and more outposts. A friendly player will continue help you, even when you are obviously winning. People continually asked me why no one would attack me even though I sat in first place for more than half the game. Here's part of the answer.
- Tip three: Use the fog of war to your advantage! You can only see so much of the board, but so can the other players. They do not know what is happening on the opposite side of your territory. So, as far as they are concerned, what is happening is what you tell them is happening. "I'm attacking red! I can't commit to helping you with Teal! So sorry!" I'm not saying lie. But, you know, consider the benefits when the only player who can contradict them is a friend, because you aren't, in fact, attacking them. Also, sell information if you can. People will be friendly to someone who tells them anything they don't know.
- Tying into my first tip, you should volunteer to help other players whether it helps you or not. I don't mean "whether it helps you or hurts you." I mean play the role of a negotiator. If you don't have a dog in a fight, the players who do can be convinced to see you as a neutral party to can help them resolve their issues and focus their efforts in more effective directions. Not only that, but you were so generous to do so that they will now both consider you a friend and tend to be helpful, if not by giving you actual help, at least by hindering your enemies.
- Implicit in that is tip five: anyone who attacks your opponent is helping you. If you expand that all the way out, that means everyone in the game is helping you. If you can think about your territory as being surrounded by allies instead of being surrounded by enemies, you can imagine a huge number of ways to progress in the game, to help those allies, and generally be a force for good in their eyes no matter what else is happening... even if you are helping their opponent's as well. This seems weird, but it works - no one refuses help. As one point, I was obviously funding multiple players who were attacking one another. Neither would complain for concern that I would withdraw my help and allow their opponent to overrun them.
- Always be helpful, but never be too helpful. You are always vulnerable, you know it, and everyone else knows it. So when you can't risk helping, or you simply don't want to, paint a picture of how you really can't afford the drillers, you need to reorganize in the distance, or your subs are all tied up. If you look like a hopeless, confused ally, very few people will consider attacking you. "Just help when you can."
- Keep your position and outposts so that it is always easier to hit someone else. This one is tricky, and requires a strong mastery of the mechanics, but it is possible: maintain defenses enough on your border (and defending is easier than attacking because of shields) while also offering help to your neighbors to attack one another. They will see the relationship triangle as a conflict between the two of them, where gaining your help is what will turn the tide, rather than the possibility that they should join together and nail you to the wall.
- Lastly, and this is more of a mindset than a pro-tip: Even if you are a master of negotiation, you can still lose. As I said when discussing Intrigue, in a social, negotiation game, if everyone colludes, they can take you down very easily. I hope that doesn't happen, but it can. And keeping that in mind will keep you thinking about the game and your alliances in the proper way. They are absolutely essential, and you must protect them.
I'll close with a bibliography of sorts, for people who are interested in learning more about the subject from scientists, psychologists, and experts... after all, I'm just a guy who plays a bunch of games. There are people who devote their entire careers, even their lives, to understanding how the human mind works, how it is tricked, and how you can make sure you don't get caught in those tricks. The quintessential book here is Influence, by Robert Cialdini. It explains the ways in which people are pliable, how we get convinced of things, and shows you how to make sure you don't get sucked in. Similarly, Predictably Irrational, by Dan Arriely, is about how people are tricked even when we know there is a trick happening, and how even the decisions we make that seem irrational (e.g. all of the other players in the game not attacking me) are really very predictable. You also can't go wrong with The Big Con, by David W. Maurer, which was research done into both large and small confidence games, and was the basis for the movie The Sting. Lastly, although I haven't read it yet, it is next on my list: Thank You For Arguing, by Jay Heinrichs, an in-depth look at how to get a point across and -- the most essential skill in Subterfuge and just about any other negotiation game -- how to make people believe you.