Spies and espionage are surely one of the underused themes in the world of boardgaming. Where there are plenty of titles out there based on trading in the Mediterranean or zooming through space, there’s comparatively few about sneakiness and subterfuge. Perhaps that’s down to the tricky nature of creating such a game – spying is inherently about secrets and lies, which is a hard thing to translate into a format you can put on a table.
Confusion is – impressively – a title that manages to do just that. Strictly for two players, it’s an abstract strategy title where you begin by knowing everything about your opponent but nothing about yourself. Originally released back in 1992 as a straight abstract game, it has now been reissued by Stronghold Games with a brand new theme and a brand new title: Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War.
Taking control of either the Americans or the Soviets, the objective is simple. In the middle of the board lies a briefcase – all you need to do is to get that case to the opponent’s side of the board. However, doing so is a lot trickier than you’d expect; as mentioned above, while you may know everything about your enemy, you begin the game with no information about your own pieces.
Both players have a range of spies at their disposal, each of which is represented by a two-part tile. The outer part shows the piece’s code-letter, the inner part (visible only to your opponent) has symbols representing the moves that piece is allowed to make – and all are different. At the beginning of the game each piece is randomly made by putting together the two parts which are then lined up in a set fashion. Then the sneakiness begins…
To move a piece, you first say which one you’d like to use, then state how you’d like it to go; for example, forward three spaces. Your opponent then consults the image they can see saying if the move is legal or not, gives you a straight Yes or No, then you either move it or leave it. To keep track of these moves, each player has a folio where they can eliminate all the incorrect suppositions and hopefully work out exactly what each of their pieces is allowed to do.
Hopefully is the important word there, for in Confusion – as you’d expect – you can’t trust the enemy. The rules explicitly state that they must tell the truth when you attempt to move one of your pieces, but there’s a problem. Each line-up of spies has a treacherous double agent within its ranks and while it’s meant to be under your control, this is the only piece that your opponent is allowed to lie about. Judicious use of this bad apple can often be a massive advantage in playing Confusion, but you must be consistent. If it’s discovered, it can be sacrificed and removed from the game forever, meaning your guy behind the curtain is useless.
Before each play you need to consider how you’ll approach the game. Focus on working out exactly what a couple of pieces limitations are and solely use them? It could work, but if your opponent attacks and removes them from the game, you’re back to square one. The opposite idea, using everything you have on the board, could also be a good idea, but you’re leaving yourself open to a lot of potential problems. That piece you’re sure can move diagonally may not be all you think it is. Balance of play is important. You can’t leave yourself open.
Early games of Confusion can be… well… confusing. There’s a lot of information going around that needs to be processed and the folios will see plenty of scribbling and rubbing out – thankfully they’re dry-wipe and you get a bunch of markers – but players must constantly pay attention to what’s going on. However, once you get used to the symbols, what they represent and how to eliminate them in your file, the game comes into its own.
By adding this Cold War theme, Stronghold has brought a whole new level to the game with both sides hunkering down, giving as little information away to the other side as possible. It also helps that – as usual – the company has taken a solid game and given it the now famed Stronghold treatment, producing something utterly beautiful to look at. The folios look fantastic, the board wonderful but the biggest hat-tip must go to the pieces that represent your spies.
They’re easily one of my favourite things from any game I’ve played this year. They’re chunky and hefty, they look great, and when they’re dotted about the board it’s a fantastic sight. Sure, there’s a temptation to hurl them when you make an error, but please… try not to. There’ll be legal ramifications.
So, not only does Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War play well, it looks lovely. Are there any issues? Well, perhaps a couple, but they’re minor. While the learning curve isn’t too bad, there is that high level of information that can cause a bit of a brain scramble when you’re first playing it. Thankfully after a few more plays this gets simpler but some players may be put off by this initial spike. I also had a few problems with getting the inner parts of the pieces out a few times, but get a pin and prepare for some wiggling about – eventually they’ll pop apart.
Having managed to get it to the table a fair few times now, I can see that – for the right kind of players – Confusion has a lot of longevity in it. The randomisation of the pieces at the start of each game increases the shelflife massively and even though the game is relatively simple to explain, there’s a lot of depth in there. Stronghold Games has obviously put a lot of care and attention for this remake, taking it from relative obscurity and producing something that many gamers will enjoy.
Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. Despite the simplicity, Confusion is a bit of a brain burner, especially in early games. However, if you’re looking for a two player game that offers a great challenge, you should definitely consider giving it a look – especially if you’re after something where being mean and sneaky is encouraged.
Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War was designed by Robert Abbott and originally released in 1992. Art for this new version from Stronghold Games is by David Ausloos. Strictly for two players, games take between 45 minutes to an hour. If you’d like to pick up a copy, it’ll cost you around £35 / $40 – well worth the price!