Review: Confusion Takes USA vs. USSR Into Uncharted Territory

Sometimes in life, you take two steps forward only to take one step back. Unless you're not allowed to move forward more than one step. Or you can only move backwards on a diagonal, not directly back. Admit it, maybe you don't even know which ways you can move. If so, you are experiencing Confusion.

Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War is one part deduction and one part "capture the flag." Think of it as a game of Clue meets chess. Instead of deducing the who, where, and how, you are instead trying to figure out the movement capabilities of your various spy pieces, and then maneuver them to retrieve a top secret briefcase before your opponent can do the same.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2

Playing Time: 45 minutes

Age: 12 to adult

Publisher: Stronghold Games

MSRP: $59.95

Release: September 2011

The Gameplay: Let me be clear, Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War is not what most veteran gamers would expect when they crack open the box of a Cold War-themed game. That label usually conjures up visions of hours-long games with finely-tuned mechanics that represent intense political and military maneuvering. Instead, Confusion delivers a lightly-themed abstract strategy experience not commonly associated with war and politics.

That being said, Confusion has a lot going for it, and its uniqueness plays largely into its success. The goal of the game is rather simple: be the first player to have one of your 13 spies retrieve the top secret briefcase and carry it to the opposite side of the board. The twist here, as was previously mentioned, is that you begin each game with no information as to how your spies are allowed to move around the board.

On each turn, you will declare one move such as "move spy A forward three spaces" or "move spy S one space to its left". The spy pieces themselves are large rectangles, with movement rules printed on the side facing your opponent so that they can easily view the piece and inform you whether the declared move was legal or not. Regardless of the result, you will now know slightly more about that piece than you did previously, and can make notes in a dry erase portfolio. This will allow you to slowly deduce the identity of your pieces via process of elimination.

Throughout the game, any spy that lands on an enemy spy will capture it (permanently removing it from the game), giving Confusion that chess match feeling even though the real goal is to claim the top secret briefcase. For this reason, it is also important to track what information your opponent knows about their own pieces. You can knowingly move into an enemy spy's range, but if your opponent is not confident that their spy could make such a move, you may just get away with the maneuver. At its core, Confusion is a series of such calculated risks.

The final twist is the presence of double agents. Each player has one spy that is secretly playing for the enemy team. When a player attempts to move this piece, the opponent is allowed to make up their own rules as to how it is allowed to move (and change their mind at will). This makes the process of elimination difficult when attempting to identify pieces, but spotting a contradiction in what moves your opponent allows will reveal the double agent's identity. Before declaring a move on their turn, a player may voluntarily remove one of their own pieces, a useful tactic for eliminating the double agent if they are confident that they know which spy it is.

The Components:

• 26 unique two-piece, bakelite-style, spy playing pieces

• 1 bakelite-style top-secret briefcase playing piece

• 2 dry-erase spy notebooks and dry-erase markers for record keeping

• 1 large playing board

• 6 cardboard tokens (for use with variant rules)

• 1 rule book

For those not familiar with bakelite, it was the world's first synthetic plastic, often used for game pieces such as dominoes or mahjong tiles due to its polished look, durability, and weight. It is not often used today since production costs are high, and is therefore associated with a retro look and feel that is perfect for a Cold War-era spy game.

Beyond the use of a bakelite-style plastic, the choice to split each spy piece into two parts must be discussed because it is a key part of what makes Confusion work so well. Early versions of this game had solid pieces to represent the spies, with an identifier and the movement rules permanently tied to each other. The problem here is that as pieces became worn and marred, players could easily remember what identifiers corresponded to what rules. Such advance knowledge ruined the entire game, and a solution was needed.

The front faces of two USSR pieces and the rear faces of two USA with movement inserts in place. The top secret briefcase is shown in the foreground.

Now, the pieces are split into a shell and an insert. The shell has a public identifier on the front (a letter name and a spy-themed sketch) and a slot to accept a smaller piece on its back. The smaller inserts have movement rules engraved on them, and are double sided to allow pieces to be turned around and display alternate movement rules for promotions or variant-style play.

The love for this game's components does not just stop at the spy pieces, though. The dry-erase folder for tracking player knowledge is a huge step up over other deduction games that use just a pad of paper. The board has great art that sets the theme without distracting from actual gameplay, and board construction is of high quality as it is thick and flush-mounted to avoid nasty creases on the playing surface. Lastly, the rules are clear and concise, weighing in at only four pages.

Final Thoughts:

From a production quality perspective, Confusion definitely stands above the crowd. I would put an even heavier emphasis on how this affects the value of a game, given the recent troubles that numerous publishers seem to be having in upholding their quality standards. Expansions are shipping with mis-matched components, cards and tiles are warping right out of the box, and games are having errata to their rule books published before they are even released! Confusion is devoid of these issues, and for that, Stronghold Games deserves credit for delivering a quality product amid the challenges of being a small new company.

As with any game, Confusion will work best with certain audiences and not well with others. There is the simple matter that if you do not like abstract strategy, then you will not enjoy this game. Hopefully, the appeal of war and spy themes among gamers does not trick abstract-hating players into experiencing buyer's remorse.

In the case of this review, I am a fan of abstracts, and during my time with the game I actually did come to believe that a Cold War spy mission was the best possible theme. While the Cold War theme matches up with the mechanics at only a very high level, I would still say that Confusion still avoids having the dreaded "tacked on theme" moniker being applied to it. It's not a hard mental leap to see the ordering of covert operatives across foreign lands as an exercise in controlled chaos, and for that reason would choose to say that Confusion is appropriately yet lightly themed.

One of the only complaints that can be levied against this game is that some of the alternate rules included seem to cheapen the game. These variant style of play give each side special powers such as taking a double turn or revealing the identity of one of their own spies. While all of this is purely optional and its hard to criticize added variety, these variant rules make the game seem as though it is trying to be something it is not. I'd rather see Confusion stand confident as the great game that it is, and leave the house rules to the fan communities.

The other is that although Confusion is easy to teach, it can be prone to mistakes if neither player has any experience with the game. The backwards and forwards directional arrows, while color coordinated, are inverted depending on which side you play on so that they always point from your point of reference. The spy inserts also double-sided, since one of the advanced rules allows a piece to be promoted (changing its abilities to allow movement in any direction) if it reaches the opposite side of the board. This can lead to the occasional setup mistake, and players may confuse their forward and backwards directional arrows until they get a hang of things. It is only that that Confusion will really shine.

Confusion: Espionage and Deceit in the Cold War lives up to its advertised 30-minute play time, is easily taught, and delivers enjoyable strategic gameplay. This means that Confusion will score very highly when ranking the "bang for your buck" that it delivers, and ensures that it will take a prominent spot in many gamer's collections.