Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de


Folker Jung

C4 2007

No. of Players:
2 - 6

G@mebox Star



A dark looking game with a theme coming from the field of Espionage is The Circle which comes from the newly established publisher C4. Focusing on the end of the 19th Century, a sinister group called "The Circle" is making a bid for world domination, and the players take the roles of directors of the intelligence services of different nations which struggle to stop the Circle by use of their spies.

The main instruments to keep order in the game are a scoreboard on which the players keep track of the four sections of their intelligence services and of the Victory Points, and also a Time Wheel which simulates the passing of time during the game. Money does not play a role in the game, since what a spy really wants is to uncover secrets. Thus, "Secrets" actually form some sort of a currence, and at the beginning of a turn each of the players receives secrets which he may assign to one or more of the sections of their intelligence service. The sections are "Intelligence gathering and analysis" (INT), "Strategic planning and support" (SUP), "Agent control and recruitment" (REC) and "Security and external operations" (OPS), and the current level of secrets available in each of the sections is recorded on the scoreboard by the players putting cubes of their colour within the tracks of each of the four sections.

However, a player also may use two (or even all four) of his secrets to get new spies into the game. At the beginning, no player has a spy working for his intelligence service, but this will change in time when the players hire spies which be come available. There exist spies the colour of which defines them as belonging to the field of operation of one of the four service sections, but there also exist some spies with a grey border marking them as neutral spies. For each of the four service sections four different types of spies assist, and all these spies have been openly placed on the playing table before the game has started (thus forming a total of 16 small stacks of spies). The neutral spies on the other hand were shuffled before the game and put into a hidden pile, with only the first two of them being revealed to the players. As indicated, a player may use two of his start-of-turn secrets to get a new coloured spy into the game, and if the player uses the other two secrets as well he may also activate one of the grey neutral spies.

Of great importance for the game is the fact that each of the spies in the game has an activation number which defines the number of turns the spy needs to get ready. When a new spy comes into the game, he is placed next to the Time Wheel, at the side of the wheel which corresponds to the activation number of the spy. At the end of his turn, the starting player will twist the Time Wheel one step clockwise, meaning the all spies aligned to the wheel get one step closer towards activation. If, after spinning the Time Wheel, one or more of the new spies have crossed the activation marker, the players will get an opportunity to hire the new spies. If it is a coloured spy, the players just look at the "secret"-indicators on the track of the service section corresponding to the spy's colour, and the player with the highest amount of secrets within this service section will receive the spy and may place him in front of himself. Grey spies - and also coloured spies in case of a tie between the players secret-rankings - will be auctioned, so the players will be allowed to bid secrets either from all of their service sections or just from the section of the matching colour in case of a coloured spy. Unlike the undisputed distribution of spies to a leading player, the auction requires the highest bidder to "pay" the secrets he has bet and reduce his marker(s) accordingly.

So you now know how the players can recruit spies, but what is done with them? During a turn, before the Time Wheel is turned, the players can use as many of their spies as the wish. This is done quite similarly to the adding of new spies at the beginning of a turn, since a used spy need to be placed next to the Time Wheel, close to the side of the wheel matching his activation number. The player who has used the spy puts a coloured token on him to show that the spy belongs to his organisation, and he will receive the spy back if, after a few turns, the Time Wheel has be spun so far that the spy once again has crossed the activation marker. Then the player may take his spy back, and he is once again ready for action.

Each spy has specialised on performing one of sixteen different types of actions available in the game, and whereas the actions of coloured spies broadly qualify as being close to the service section of the matching colour, the grey neutral spies may have an action which belongs to any of the four service sections. For example, service section INT has spies which may their boss to receive additional secrets or reduce the number of secrets of another player, section SUP spies may support spies to move forwards on the Time Wheel or delay other spies and section REC offers spies which help in recruitment issues by temporarily changing a spy's colour or forces an other player to fire a spy. However, the actions of section OPS seem to be of most importance, since they include the killing of an other spy, the exchange of spies between two players and the capture of a member of the Circle.

An other possibility to capture Circle members is for a player to increase his secrets-indicator in one of the service sections over the value "12". In this case, the indicator drops back to "1" but the player scores two Victory Points for capturing two Circle-members.

Each time a player uses a spy or secrets which allows him to capture members of the Circle, this player may advance his Victory Points marker on the scoreboard by one or two steps. However, it must be noted that the Circle also has a Victory Points marker on the scoreboard, and whenever one of its members is caught the Circle will increase its endeavors to reach world domination and will receive Victory Points as well! Thus, the game cannot be won just by capturing Circle members, since this way the Circle would have the needed 20 Victory Points faster than any of the players. Thus, the players also must use their spies to infiltrate the Circle, and once per turn a player may send one spy to infiltrate the Circle instead of using him for an action. The spy is turned over to represent his infiltration mission, and the player will score one to five victory points depending on the value of the spy. In this occasion, the Circle will not score any Victory Points, and if a player actually should succeed to send four spies specialised on all four different fields of action of the service sections to infiltrate the Circle, he will be very effective on their mission and scores one additional Victory Point. However, spies on infiltration may not be re-called, so that the player never can use their action again. The only time such a spy may be used is when the Circle is close to winning, since a player can decide to sacrifice a spy on an infiltration mission, causing himself and the Circle to lose the corresponding number of Victory Points.

As indicated, the game ends when a player or the Circle receives his 20th Victory Point. If the Circle beats all the players, it actually will be the player with fewest Victory Points who has won the game, since he was seen by the Circle to be most harmless and will be "promoted" to defend the new World Order established by the Circle. Otherwise, the player scoring his 20th Victory Point will have won.

Phew, this game is not easy to enter, and it certainly has posed an interesting task to capture the rules within the frame of this short review. There actually are a few more minor twists to the game, but you should have gotten a general impression on how the game works. The author Folker Jung explained the game to my testing group, and this proved to be a quite efficient help since he pointed at a few of the strategies which the players actually may chose to win the game. So, on the one hand it is possible to specialise on hiring spies from one or two sections, using them for maximum advantage in their section's field of action. On the other hand, a player could constantly bid his secrets for grey spies, disabling him to receive coloured spies but getting him some of the slightly weaker grey spies at rather cheap prices. Eliminating or delaying the spies of other players, increasing other players secret-indicators and forcing them to capture Circle-members, or using spies for his own good - the players have a broad choice of possible actions which may lead to different ways to win the game every time it is played. And if a player falls far behing because his planning and plotting did not work out because of other spies intervening, it might still be worth to try to further the interests of the Circle in order to become the winner by having scored fewest Victory Points.

Although the game does not seem to include a great depth in gameplay when you first look at the playing components spread out on the table, it is quite surprising what kinds of ideas can be found in the game. As you will have noticed, it is especially the Time Wheel which serves as the motor of the game, and I really liked the simulation of the time passing after the spies had acted. A player will have to think carefully when a spy should be used, since he will need some time to become ready for another action, but it is also possible to use powerful combinations of spies from different service sections to make great advances or cause dire losses to other players. The game is difficult since the players need to get familiar with the powers of the spies and it also needs to get used to develop a strategy, but once the players have fought the Circle one or twice they will be enthralled by the strategic options available. However, keeping the world from disaster takes time, and so the players should be willing to invest something around two hours when playing the game for the first times and a good amount of extra time for getting familiar with the rules. The game even includes full English rules, and it should not be underestimated just because its somewhat Spartan looks.

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Copyright © 2012 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany