Incognito

Oh mighty Phantom, where may I go?
Oh mighty Phantom, where may I go?

Gather round, kids, grandpa is going to tell you a nostalgic story now. Oh, don’t give me that look, I promise it’s not going to be a story about how I had to walk to school through three feet of snow barefoot again. This one is exciting. It’s a spy story. And it took place in 1988, in Venice, during the carnival. What? No, I really can’t tell you which secret service I was working for, I don’t want to have to kill you kids. Where was I? Oh yes, Venice. (This blog is equipped with modern pseudo-cinematic technology. Please imagine this text going all wavy for a moment as we’re starting the flashback. )

Carnival in Venice was like a spy convention back then. Everyone was there, you couldn’t show your face in the street because you’d be sure to meet someone you had worked against before. But you didn’t have to show your face, because this was the Carnival of Venice and everyone was wearing masks, anyway. That year, all the spies were going for the Plague Doctor masks and long, colourful coats. Those costumes were amazing, I remember we even won a price for the most beautiful game at the Spiel des Jahres that year. What? Yes, of course I’m talking about a boardgame, that’s all I ever talk about, isn’t it?I’m talking about Incognito.

So there I was, in the middle of the carnival, and I had a mission. At least I was pretty sure I did, but I couldn’t know until I had met up with my partner. That’s just how we did it in those days, never tell one person enough to be dangerous. My codename back then was Agent X. I know, it’s clichee, but it was my bosses idea. So, step one, find my partner for this mission, a Madame Zsa Zsa. I had never seen her before in my life, that made finding her a bit harder.

Okay, enough with the grandfatherly talk or this is going to be very confusing in a moment. Venice is really overflowing with agents this Carnival because every player has not only one agent but a team of four in his colour: a tall one, a short one, a skinny one, and fat one. That’s just how secret services build teams. In the regular game, four of those teams are roaming around Venice – the game in three players is slightly different. Before the game, each player receives three hidden cards that tell him his identity – Lord Fiddlebottom, Colonel Bubble, Agent X or Madame Zsa Zsa – his shape, that is which of his four speeple is really him and his code word – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie or Delta – that he and his partner will need to decipher their mission. I use speeple here for spy meeple, but meeple doesn’t really do the figures justice: each colour has four differently shaped spies, all complete with mask and black hat, they certainly did their part to make that beautiful game award happen. Now that you know who you are, it’s time to find your partner: the Lord and the Colonel always work together, so do Agent X and Madame Zsa Zsa.

Who are you under that mask?
Who are you under that mask?

To figure out who is who, you move around Venice and meet people. At least you try to meet people, but movement depends on the randomness of the Phantom of Prophecy. Most games would have gone with dice, but Incognito went with the Phantom, an iconic piece of the game that anyone who ever played it will remember. It’s a black bust wearing a white mask, large enough to just fit in one hand, and first thing on your turn you shake it and the three coloured marbles the Phantom shows tell you what you can do. Red, blue and yellow marbles let you move any of your spies through the streets of Venice, across the water or both, respectively. Each marble allows you to move from one spot in the city to an adjacent one. A black marble lets you move the ambassador – a dumpy, black figure that looks a lot like Batman’s Penguin – in the same way and a white marble means you sit down in a small, cozy trattoria and have an espresso. You lose your turn.

Things get interesting when you meet another figure. When you meet another agent, you can make some discreet inquiries about his identity or body type. He shows you three cards from his agent cards, a set of cards containing all the body types and all the identities: two of the requested type and one of the other. One of these three cards must be true. If you meet an agent of the same player again, he must show you at least one different card. After the transaction, you may banish the other agent to the far end of Venice, or wherever else you chose. Meeting the ambassador is even better because he’s a crafty one. He has files on every spy moving around Venice, and he’s willing to share them. When you meet the ambassador, you may again ask any player for his identity or body type, but this time he may only show you two cards, one of which must be true.

Incognito is a very nice deduction game that way: you’re trying to figure out who everyone else is while they are feeding you mostly lies. At the same time, you have to manage the information everyone else has about you, you don’t want everyone to know who you are. But your first goal is still to find your partner, so sooner or later you have to trust someone. When you’re sure who your partner is then the easiest way to give him a whack with the clue stick is to pass him your real identity cards from the beginning of the game instead of the other ones. Foolproof way to let someone know you’re not lying. The rules give you a less direction option with the agents quirks – excessive frowning, pulling your earlobe, that sort of thing – to give your suspected partner a discrete but non-committal sign. In reality, at least for us, that ends up four people sitting around the table trying to frown, pull their earlobe, twitch with one eye and turn up the nose at the other players all at the same time. It looks hilarious, but has as much information content as James Bond has ugly female co-stars: none. So we go with cold logic and certain information.

Were your Visa stamped?
Were your Visa stamped?

The really important piece of information to pass on to your partner, once you’ve established trust, is your code word, because with that he can decipher your common mission – you still cannot, until he hands you his code word as well. The missions are coded in your diplomatic passport: for each combination of code words with agents of your team, there is another mission. For example, if Madame Zsa Zsa says Alpha and Agent X says Delta, that means Zsa Zsa’s affair with the ambassador has been discovered and they must meet to flee together. If the code words were the other way round, the mission would be to bring the ambassador to the train station (the space labelled three) to help him escape alone.

When the mission is complete, both partners should stand up, shake hands in the most grandiously overdone manner they can and exclaim “Mission Accomplished”. Trust me, there is nothing more embarrassing than getting up yelling about your accomplished mission and staring into the face of your alleged partner sitting there and grinning back at you. Always verify whether he is who you think he is.

As deduction games go, Incognito is on the light side, but it’s a very good game, especially with people getting into the secret agent roles and having fun around the table. And the components indubitably deserved the Most Beautiful Game award, the speeple and the Phantom make Incognito a very memorable game.

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