It’s 2:47 in the morning, or as my friends joke, my lunch time. The only light in the room comes from my phone’s screen, something I’ve been staring at for quite some time. One of my subs is headed towards an enemy factory. A green blinking light means that I’m not totally fucked, but the post-battle results on the time machine indicate that I’ll have fewer drillers than I’d like, even after taking the factory. Checking how long it will take reinforcements to get to the factory only shows how grim holding the factory would be. I begin to send reinforcements from multiple other sites to compensate and find myself dragged into a conflict lasting several days.
Waking up that morning, I find that a message has been sent to me from the original factory owner. “I will not forget this moment.” Sheesh, save that line for a bad decision I make in a Telltale game. As I’m lying in bed, a quote from A Hunt for Red October rings through my head. “Listen, I’m a politician which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies I’m stealing their lollipops. But it also means I keep my options open.” Never had a quote rang more true for a game like Subterfuge, where the game of politics becomes married to the game of war in ways that remind me of freeze tag alliances in gym class.
Subterfuge is the kind of game that, if given an elevator pitch to an EA or Ubisoft representative, would cause the person presenting the idea to immediately fall down some Dr. Evil-style trap and never be heard from again. The goal of Subterfuge is to produce 200 units of Neptunium or to have the most Neptunium by the end of 10 days. A game ends either at 10 days or when a player has produced 200 Neptunium. This video shows a game that took 204 hours and 42 minutes long; even for being sped up at over 100x the original speed, the subs seem to slowly inch their way to their targets like curling stones. Eight players attempt to protect their factories and generators, create drillers, and talk their way out of hectic situations. A player can also be eliminated if their queen is captured, an aspect I’ll touch on later.
The game’s movements are tortuously slow. I’ve seen Dragon Ball Z fights end quicker than this. Sending drillers from factories even a close distance to each other might take a few hours, and there’s no course correction mid-flight. This causes heightened tension with every driller movement, as making the wrong move can create openings in your nation and leave drillers on the move useless until they reach their destination. It also creates a game that’s long-term but promotes checking up on a game for a few minutes. On my walks to class I found myself staring at the map, observing player movements and debating on what moves I might take up next.
Each player starts off with a small number of factories and generators. Generators serve as the universal pop cap, while factories produce drillers every 8 hours. In the first two days of a Subterfuge game, players tend to spend the time communicating with adjacent players over who will take which abandoned factories and generators, as well as forming alliances or no-fly zones with other players. Attacking other players this early on is like using a shotgun in Destiny: you’re automatically judged as a horrible and disgusting human being. Since so many abandoned sites are lying around, it tends to be less advantageous to promote hostilities so early on.
At this point, I had made friends with the two people to the east and west of me. I was hesitant, but the three of us created a group chat in the game. If someone back-stabbed someone, it would have to be a team effort of two people. “Either I’m completely boned, or they both hold to being peaceful,” I thought.
Luckily both held to the alliance. After the two-day expansion, borders began to rub against each other like sweat subway patrons, and tensions between nations were running high. A message from a player below me stated that he planned on attacking the player to my right who I am allied with. Seeing an opportunity to strike, I message him to focus on his southeast positions while I focus on his northeast ones. The moment he sent out his drillers to reinforce his southeastern position, a flood of my drillers were being prepped to take over two of his factories. As well, I had told my ally where I told him to strike, so he was prepared for the enemy’s movement.
The informality of the diplomacy is Subterfuge’s strongest aspect. Using an in-game chat system, players can message any combination of the other seven players in the match. In these auto-corrected fields are where the real battles of Subterfuge are fought. Being sent a proposition for a peace treaty comes with the asterisk that everything is permitted; nothing is forbidden. Even points like evenly-dividing out empty factories comes with the worry that he might decide to send a larger driller force towards where he just told you to go.
During the middle of a game, a heavy emphasis is placed on the specialists. Every player has a queen that rules their nation: lose the queen, and you lose. Every 12 hours the queen can hire a specialist that can bend the rules. A navigator, for example, allows a sub she is traveling in to change course mid-flight. A lieutenant on a sub will help the sub move 50% faster. Some specialists focus on more passive benefits. My first hire was an intelligence officer, who increased the sonar range of all bases by 25% and revealed what bases were factories or generators outside of my field of view. The right specialist at the right time can help change the tide of battle, but losing one in a battle can be crippling.
Mid and late game is when you start drilling for the precious Neptunium. You can convert any generator or factory into a drill site for the cost of 50 drillers at the site. Using drillers as the only usable resource in the game creates the worrisome tension of when and where to build drill sites. It’s reminiscent of how money in Metro 2033 was bullets. It means that combat and the economy are directly linked; losing ships in a fight can weaken your chances at creating a drill site, but creating a drill site might weaken your other positions. Creating a drill site too early will cause you to become quickly targeted. Allies might become greedy, or drillers from your other sites might have to be pulled out, leaving you more vulnerable to attack. Build it too late, however, and you’ll be terribly behind. One drill site doesn’t produce more than 15 Neptunium a day, meaning that multiple drill sites are required in order to reach your goal of 200.
As the game progresses, you realize that the time machine function is the only thing you can trust. It allows you to speed up time to see what the game will look like when all the visible actions are taken into account. This tool allows the “what if’s” that you’ll inevitably have to be shown up to two days into the future. While the tool doesn’t account for other players’ reactions to whatever move you plan on pulling, the device is completely accurate. As well, you can plan for sub movements or specialist hires to automatically happen at certain times, just in case players need something to happen while they sleep or are busy.
One issue with the game is that due to its long game time, some players tend to stop playing after a few days. In my current game, four of the original eight people abandoned the game by day six. Creating custom games with your friends can help alleviate that issue, but at the price of possibly sacrificing those friendships. The game is also relatively easy to run. My iPhone 4, which I thought at this point would only be useful as a flashlight and as a paper weight, was able to run it with only some minor stuttering and occasional app reset. But since the actions take so long to happen, it’s acceptable.
If you were to tell me a year ago that one of my favorite RTS games would be on a phone, I would’ve smacked my gob so hard that I’d have to chew with my cerebellum. Subterfuge was able to turn that notion around completely, offering a simple yet elegant economic system, a diplomacy system more dynamic and tense than a Middle East peace talk, and an interesting time mechanic that breaks down 10 days worth of game into small 15 minute chunks of time.