Matt Lees' Column

‘Subterfuge’ Shows Us That Some Games Should Never Be Played with Friends

This game unlocks some of the worst aspects of the human mind.

by Matt Lees
23 October 2015, 4:29pm

All 'Subterfuge' gameplay screens via Google Play

A message appears in public chat: "Whispers in the dark." He's not wrong.

Illuminated green lights sit beside the names of each person currently logged in and playing – five people out of a total of eight. And yet aside from this brief observation, the public chat channel remains as dead as usual. The players currently logged in are busy with private conversations. I should know, because I'm talking to almost all of them at once. Deals are being made, alliances formed, wars are being planned that won't happen for days.

And meanwhile, everyone is talking about me. Matt's position looks strong. Should we be worried? Matt's telling me that I should worry about you. Matt wants me to join his secret alliance. Subterfuge is all about trust, which means Subterfuge is all about lying: a strategy game about territory control in which everything moves at a glacial pace.

Playing Subterfuge, billed as "a week-long game of strategy and diplomacy", running on your smartphone or tablet, is simple – you drag a line from one of your outposts to another, get an estimate of how many hours it'll take for the submarine to get to that location, and then choose how many units you actually want to send. These tiny submarine markers slowly crawl across the map, seizing territory or reinforcing borders. Crucially for a game that pans out in real-time and lasts for several days, you can spin a little time-wheel in the corner of the screen to queue up actions that will happen in the future. By looking ahead like this, you can see the exact outcome of battles that haven't happened yet, but only based on what you currently know. A lot can change in ten hours, and very few things in Subterfuge are certain.

Each game takes place in a scrolling underwater map, designed in such a way that everyone playing is entirely surrounded by other players, and immediately jostling for the exact same territory. This territory is made up of three different types of outpost you can seize: Factories produce new units, Generators determine how many units you can produce before you hit your cap. Mines produce Neptunium – the resource that determines who actually wins the game.

"After a week of playing with friends, you'll genuinely feel like you need a holiday."

The smart thing about Mines is that you can only build new ones by spending the same units that make up your army, ensuring that players who sneak into the lead do so at a point where they are also weakened. Favourites to win quickly get crushed, with heroes of the revolution warping to become the new evil overlords. When your allies need your help most, the idea of instead swooping in to seize their Mines is intoxicating. It's like Lord of the Flies meets The Lord of the Rings.

After a week of playing with friends, you'll genuinely feel like you need a holiday. You send a fleet to attack in the dead of night, and wake up to find you've only got two hours to evacuate your queen before she gets killed. It seems frantic in writing, but in reality most actions tend to take between 10 and 20 hours to carry out. Sending submarines from one side of your territory to the other might take as long as two whole days, which means you need to be sure that each play is the right one.

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In theory it's a game you can just turn on every day to play for a few minutes, but in practice it can quickly feel like utterly life-consuming stuff. Notifications pop up on your phone to inform you that enemy subs have appeared on your radar, and suddenly you aren't at a party having a nice time any more – you're that drunk one from Battlestar Galactica, storming around like a melodramatic cloud.

Negotiation becomes the real game, but the darkness remains your greatest enemy. Your own borders remain bright and clear, but outside of that everything is dim: perhaps those outposts just outside of your view are factories, building up a terrifying army.

You're assured by an ally that reinforcements are coming. They won't appear on your radar for 32 hours, but you're assured that help is on the way. What can you do to be sure, though? Well, you can't see that part of their territory – but another adjacent player can. The green light next to their name is switched on, so you send them a message to try and confirm. After a couple of minutes, they confirm what you hoped – a number of your ally's ships are slowly making their way towards your borders.

Relief is soon replaced by something else. They aren't the only player currently online – the ally supposedly sending you ships is currently logged into the game too. Suddenly that gap of a couple of minutes stretches out to feel like a tangible void. Did they have enough time to contact my "ally" and confer so they'd know what details to provide? Perhaps they're secretly working together. Another player shares a border with those two, perhaps it might be wise to inquire.

"I haven't seen them fighting, they seem to have a truce." The paranoia slips through the bars of its cage. It all makes sense now – you're clearly being fooled. Zooming back to look at the game's map, you see more green lights have since switched on – players popping on to queue up orders, perhaps. But maybe they're all typing away in an unseen group chat, plotting your demise.

Subterfuge with friends unlocks some of the worst aspects of the human mind. It's like going to bed early, stoned and alone. Hearing laughter through the walls and finding yourself positive that every single joke is at your expense. Except that you're a fully grown man on a sober Sunday morning, staring at your iPad with a comedy frown.

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"Imagine the Blue Shell from Mario Kart... except the Blue Shell is a handful of friends you thought you could trust, repeatedly stabbing you to death with knives."

Trust remains the name of the game, but trust remains impossible: Subterfuge is a game with only one winner, and there's nothing more dangerous than being in the lead. Imagine the Blue Shell from Mario Kart, except that it sneaks up behind you over a matter of days, doesn't make a sound while doing so, and when it's too late to avoid it you finally realise that the Blue Shell is a handful of friends you thought you could trust, repeatedly stabbing you to death with knives. Fuck. Don't do it. Just play Mario Kart. Live a good life.

The scenarios I've gone through above are fabricated but based so heavily on truth that it amazes me we finished a game without anyone having an actual breakdown. We're documenting the hellish game in a video series that recently started, but don't be misled by the fun we seem to be having in part oneSubterfuge is a brilliant strategy game that you should absolutely play with strangers. Delve into a world where everyone's a bastard, trust no-one, lie, and stab your way to the top. But Whispers in the Dark With Friends? That game is hell.

I've played plenty of games that have made me uncomfortable, but Subterfuge with people I know and love was like an engine that turned my head against me – dredging up teenage insecurities, pouring every drop of paranoia into a bucket, and then sloshing into every corner of my brain for the best part of a week.

More information on Subterfuge can be found at the game's official website.


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