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This is a quick writeup for my Frederick's Spy Ring game that took place on Livestream during the early months of 2021. I had done a series of Civ4 games featuring culture, naval action, and religion over the previous few months and one of the remaining mechanics that hadn't been explored was espionage. I don't particularly enjoy how espionage functions in Civ4 Beyond The Sword and we traditionally banned active spying missions for our Multiplayer games because of how unbalanced they can be. You can use spies to revolt enemy cities, steal technologies, or even force opponents to spend a turn of anarchy by flipping their religion or civics into something that they dont want to be following. It's trivially cheap in terms of espionage points (EP) to pull those civics shenanigans and it winds up being much cheaper to steal techs than to research them yourself. The active spy missions also turn on big dice rolls which means that they're both unbalanced and simultaneously subject to the vagaries of RNG chance. In other words, its way too cheap to revolt a city and invalidate all the defenses (something the defender can do virtually nothing to stop) while also potentially failing due to a bad dice roll. The outcome of military campaigns shouldn't be flipping based on a single spy's 80% tossing of the dice.
Anyway, while I don't care much for the espionage mechanics, it was an unexplored area in terms of what I had featured on Livestream and enough viewers had requested an espionage game that I thought it would be a good change of pace. I tried to come up with variant rules which would be simple enough to understand while pushing me towards the use of spies. Simply requiring the player to steal everything wouldn't work since spies themselves don't unlock until Alphabet tech in the Classical era. I thought about starting the game with Alphabet via the Worldbuilder but it felt like it would be too crippling of a penalty to need to steal basic worker techs like Mining and Agriculture. Instead, I eventually came up with one rule: the player can only research Ancient era techs and afterwards must keep the science slider locked at 0%. This would allow me to play through the early game without twisting myself into pretzels and then run a specialist economy to target a limited number of high priority techs. I would never have much in the way of research with the slider locked at 0% but I could still get creative with Scientist specialists to do a little bit of teching along the margins. Most commerce would go into espionage and then spies would have to do the rest. I'd have to think carefully about what I wanted to research and what I could obtain via steals from my AI neighbors. This seemed like a good setup for a fun and interesting game.
When it came down to picking a leader and civilization for this game, there were three traits that I was picking between. Organized felt like a no-brainer due to the centrality of courthouses for this setup. The normally dreaded Spy specialists would actually be fantastic for this variant and I would need to get them into play ASAP. Industrious also seemed like it would be very important because the Pyramids were a mandatory build for this game. If I couldn't land the wonder and get into Representation civic then I would likely need a restart. Philosophical was the other top trait due to the many specialists which would be run in my cities. An early Great Spy would also be needed to start the espionage stealing train and that would be far easier to accomplish with the Philosophical trait. Ultimately I decided to choose the Organized and Philosophical traits and ended up with Frederick of Germany as my leader. I was crossing my fingers and hoping that there would be stone available near my start to land the Pyramids, which would provide double the benefit of the Industrious trait anyway. I didn't expect that I would ever get any use from Germany's impossibly-late unique unit and unique building but at least I would have Freddy's useful trait combo. Thus this game became Frederick's Spy Ring and we were off and rolling.
I went with an Inland Sea map at Standard size with one fewer AI opponent to create a bit more space for everyone. This was Emperor difficulty with my usual settings of turning off Tech Trading, Vassals, Events, etc. I also removed Barbarians for this game as a change of pace so that I wouldn't have them nipping at my heels over the first 100 turns. The initial map roll had a lot of floodplains tiles but no food resources that I could see. That didnt look too appealing and I rolled a second map which delivered the gorgeous starting area pictured above. My last game in the Book of Kells had challenging local terrain around the capital and this was the exact opposite: grassland pigs for food, triple floodplains along with several more riverside grassland tiles, a gold resource, plus marble! Wow! While that wasn't as good as stone for the wonders I was targeting, I certainly wasn't complaining. Germany begins with Hunting/Mining starting techs which allowed me to open with Animal Husbandry research while training a worker. When that initial research finished, it turned out that there was a horses resource one tile east of the capital as well - sheesh! The worker connected the pigs, then the gold, then the horses and this game was off to an amazing start.
With no barbarians around to spoil things, my scout was able to defog the immediate surrounding land without fear of meeting its demise. There turned out to be stone just two tiles east of the marble, leading the viewers to accuse me of rigging the map. I swear, this opening position rolled completely by chance! I needed to lock down that stone quickly for early wonder building and there turned out to be a great spot for a city three tiles northeast of the capital. Piggapaloosa was planted directly on top of a plains hill marble for the ultra rare 3 production center tile with another grassland pigs resource in the inner ring and the stone out in the second ring. I built an early monument here to pop the borders and get the stone connected quickly. This allowed some early forest chops to knock out the Great Wall and begin accumulating Great Spy points followed by a push for the Pyramids. They completed on Turn 77 after bulldozing most of the remaining forests around Swine Time. That was a relief as I was starting to get worried that one of the AI leaders would take the game's most important wonder and deny Germany access to the critical Representation civic.
Even with stone fortuitously on hand, the need to build those wonders slowed expansion by a good bit and I raced to catch back up afterwards. I was lucky in terms of which AI leaders I had drawn as my neighbors, with Lincoln to the west and Pacal to the east. Both of them were pacifistic individuals and conflict was unlikely in the early game, leaving me free to push settlers and workers over needing to invest in military. After the initial trio of cities in my core, I pushed settlers to the east where there was a fertile river valley about halfway between my territory and the Mayans. The terrain was simply better in that direction and I gave it priority over locking down the border with America on the other side. Fortunately Pacal was busy chasing after his own wonders and ended up being slow to expand towards me, allowing the Germans to control everything useful in this direction. I picked up the whole quality region and left him the scraps in a resourceless wooded area beyond Sidney Barks.
In terms of research, I knocked out all the Ancient Age techs in quick order thanks to the gold resource at the capital and then ran into the limitations of the variant. I was stuck at 0% on the science slider once the Classical era arrived and forced to use Representation specialists to generate any beakers. My plan was to use the Oracle to pick up Alphabet tech only to see one of the AI leaders snag the thing a single turn before it could be chopped out at Sidney Barks - argh! To be fair, Turn 82 was pretty late to land the Oracle on Emperor difficulty but it still hurt. I was forced to limp to Alphabet tech over the next dozen turns by running a bunch of 6 beaker Scientist specialists. I couldn't even train spies and begin stealing techs until I reached Alphabet which meant that there was no way around this. Then I crawled along to Code of Laws to unlock the all-important courthouses to start generating those espionage points in earnest. The real game was now afoot.
The Great Wall did its job and turned up a Great Spy for the initial Great Person out of the capital. I went ahead and used him on an infiltration mission with the Mayans for the flat 4000 EP payout. This ability gets less and less useful as the game goes on but it was absolutely massive at a time when my whole civilization struggled to generate 100 EP while running at max deficit espionage slider spending. Instantly I gained all of the passive espionage benefits with the Mayan cities that my scouts had defogged as well as gaining a massive advantage at the under-the-hood espionage calculations. For the full details on how espionage works in Civ4, this guide at CivFanatics is the holy grail with all of the information that you could ever want. The much shorter version is that one of the biggest factors in the espionage calculations comes from "total EP generated over the entire game" as compared to the EP generated by the spy's target. By using the initial Great Spy for 4000 EP, my German civilization instantly had more EP generated than anyone else in the world and I picked up a huge discount to both passive and active espionage. (It's the -37% discount in the picture above.) Note that there's also a 10% discount for each turn that the spy spends standing in place in the target city, maxing out with the pictured 50% discount. If the player can stack up these spying discounting, techs can wind up being much cheaper to steal than to research themselves and this can be exploited against the AI in a number of different ways.
So the espionage economy might sound great but I found it to be kind of a pain in the butt to use in practice. There's the obvious downside of only being able to steal techs that an AI leader already possesses: no free techs or Great People bonuses from the tech tree or leveraging a military advantage from getting to rifles first. The AI leaders often research some dumb stuff and being forced to follow them isn't always a good decision. Then there was the sheer annoyance of needing to move the spies around themselves. Spies only have 1 movement point (with the Commando promotion to use enemy roads) and they are extremely slow to reach their target. The player has to micro them to their destination, then they have to spend 5 turns sitting there to maximize the espionage discount, and there's always a chance that they'll get caught and killed any turn that they're in enemy territory. It's pretty low if you have a big lead in EP like I did, roughly 1% odds each turn, but when the player is using a bunch of spies some of them are bound to get caught eventually. Finally, there's still a dice roll when making the actual steal attempt and even 95% odds go bad on occasion. There were several different times in this game where a spy failed their tech theft and it set back my plans since I had been counting on them to come through. The whole thing was a major irritant to manage.
I did have modest research capability of my own thanks to running lots of Representation specialists across my cities. The Spy specialists were amusingly my top choice: 4 EP and 4 beakers apiece, what a great return! Both of those currencies were useful for once. I directed my research towards the Aesthetics line of the tech tree since the AI leaders were mostly ignoring those techs, allowing me to steal things like Construction and Currency while I chased after the wonders at the top of the tree. Along with the stone and marble resources on hand, this allowed me to land the Statue of Zeus (for denial value), the Great Library, the Mausoleum, and even the Sistine Chapel and the free Music Great Artist. The Great Library was particularly useful for a Philosophical leader and I tossed the National Epic into the capital as well to generate even more Great Person points. I would end up getting enough Great Scientists to stash a couple as super specialists while later running multiple Golden Ages and lightbulbing towards Education and Liberalism. This was a peaceful period with lots of building and no conflict to speak of. I'd found myself sharing a world with a bunch of peaceful AI leaders (Lincoln, Pacal, Joao, Sitting Bull, and Huayna Capac) who weren't warring with me and weren't warring with one another. Pacal had spread his Christianity far and wide and that kept me on good terms with everyone other than Huayna Capac.
One of the weaknesses of the espionage economy is that it doesn't scale very well as the game goes on. The AI leaders will eventually build security bureaus in all their cities which will both increase the cost of tech steals as well as decreasing the odds of espionage missions succeeding. Espionage is also kind of weird as a mechanic because the espionage buildings all provide flat EP independent of running the espionage portion of the commerce slider. You can therefore get massive amounts of EP without running the slider at all just by building lots of courthouses, jails, and so on. However, since each city can only build one set of espionage buildings, there's a major incentive to build as many cities as possible which can each provide flat EP for the wider nation. (Note that beakers and gold do not work this way in Civ4 - espionage really wasn't thought out terribly well as a mechanic.) Since I knew that the espionage economy wouldn't scale too well in the later portions of the tech tree and an espionage economy wants as many cities as possible, everything was pushing me in the direction of military conquest. None of the other victory conditions except maybe Culture were an option and therefore it seemed like it was going to have to be Domination for this game.
I started gearing up for war in the medieval period with a target goal of hitting Pacal once knights were available. I ran the single Great Person Golden Age to swap civics into Bureaucracy (making use of the extended 12 turn duration with the Mausoleum to generate a few more Great People via Pacifism and Caste System) and amazingly found that I had the inside track to be first to Liberalism as well. A Great Scientist lightbulbed most of Education and then I slogged along over 20 turns to Liberalism since no one else was close to the tech. I took Nationalism as the prize and used a Great Engineer to rush Taj Mahal, then flipped into Nationhood and Mercantilism civics which would both remain for the rest of the game. Nationhood was excellent for the espionage bonus and I was able to set up a Globe Theatre city to take advantage of endless drafting. I would draft vast hordes of maces, then muskets, then rifles over the course of this game. All throughout this period I was continuing to steal techs, now over a dozen in total according to the tally we were keeping at the bottom of the Livestream.
Once the knights were ready to go, I plowed into the unsuspecting Pacal on Turn 186 and immediately overran his border city. The Mayans were unprepared for this conflict and Pacal had no answer for the incoming wave of German attackers. This was the first time that I experimented with the "Support City Revolt" spy mission in any detail and I have to emphasize again that this is a poorly designed mechanic. For starters, the mission is far too cheap at a base cost of only 650 EP. That's reasonably expensive at the start of the game, however the cost never scales in any way and it becomes trivially cheap by the later stages of the tech tree. There's also no counterplay here whatsoever, nothing that the defender can do to prevent an enemy spy from showing up and performing a mission. You can run a counterespionage mission but that only makes things more expensive and drops the odds of success - it doesn't stop the enemy spy from being able to revolt the city. Finally, this mechanic is also far too binary in nature. If the mission succeeds, all defenses in the city are set to zero for that turn whereas if the mission fails the spy itself dies in the process. Way too much is riding on the outcome of a single dice roll here. If any budding strategy game designers happen to be reading this, the active spy missions are a textbook case of how *NOT* to do strategy game design. Take inspiration from how missile bases are designed in Master of Orion, not this nonsense.
Anyway, I made use of spies wherever possible to revolt the city defenses of Pacal's holdings. I was limited here not by available espionage points to spend but rather by the logistics of moving the spy units around. The darned things are just so slow in practice and every time that they succeed in a mission they teleport back to the capital city. I probably should have had about a dozen of them instead of the five or six that I was actively using. This didn't stop my conquest and the pace was still brisk but it could have been even faster with better logistics and planning on my part. One city after another fell and I seized control of Pacal's rich, wonder-filled territories for the glory of Germany. The biggest prize was the Christian shrine with a religion that had been spread to nearly 50 cities thanks to Pacal's tireless missionaries. He was eliminated on Turn 201 just 15 tuns after the outbreak of hostilities:
This was a short war as far as in-game was concerned while taking substantially longer in terms of real-world time. I generally try to avoid larger maps for this very reason and even a Standard size map like this one felt like a bit of a slog. (How people run those Huge Marathon games is beyond me.) The next big question was which AI leader to target for the following war. My initial thought was to continue onwards against Sitting Bull since the whole army had wrapped up the Pacal conflict on the eastern edge of the map. However, we spotted that Joao had "We Have Enough On Our Hands Already" on the diplomatic screen which indicated that he was plotting a war, and since he can't declare war at "Pleased" relations the only possibly target was Germany. I had about five total units on the western border with peacenik Lincoln and it seemed like a bad idea to commit my forces to a war against Sitting Bull when the Portuguese might be attacking from the other direction in the near future. For that matter, Sitting Bull had by far the largest army amongst the AI civs and I'd have to contend with Protective promotions on all of his longbows. That didn't seem particularly appealing to deal with.
Thus I embarked on a tactical pivot, dropping a Great Artist culture bomb to stabilize the border with the Native Americans while walking all of my military units to the far western border. (Sitting Bull responded by planting a filler city in my backlines and then culture bombing it in turn, argh!) This gave me enough time to upgrade all of the knights into cuirassiers and position them to hit multiple American cities on the first turn of a new war. I felt bad about attacking erstwhile ally Lincoln but Domination had become my goal and he was standing in the way. As for Joao, I demanded 1 gold from him and successfully locked him into peace for 10 turns, and afterwards he apparently dropped his war planning and went back to peaceful building. This left Lincoln isolated and he began collapsing almost immediately. There really isnt much to say here as I tore through America with cuirassiers and drafted muskets, using spies to drop city defenses whenever I could get them into position but frequently just blitzing through the defenders and accepting casualties to increase the pace of the conquest. Speed is extremely important as the AI will keep whipping out more defenders the longer the war lasts. We've seen this play out over and over again in our Multiplayer games and it applies to Single Player conflicts with the AI as well. The American war started on Turn 212 and it concluded a dozen turns later on Turn 224:
By now the most interesting parts of the game had largely come to a close and this had turned into a standard conquest exercise using rifles and cavs. I was fortunate that none of the AI leaders in this game had militaristic tech preferences and they were all slow to push towards Rifling tech themselves. Even with my specialist economy that couldn't run the science slider, I still managed to tech Replaceable Parts and Rifling before any of my rivals. I started upgrading to rifles and cavs at the tail end of the American war then spent two turns repositioning and healing before charging north into Portugal. Joao had a pretty big stack with about 25 units which was his "counter attack" group that the AI likes to build. Unfortunately for him, I predicted where it would move and hit the thing with collateral damage followed by waves of cavalry to wipe the whole thing out on the second turn of the war. Then it was a matter of walking from city to city and killing the defenders inside with Joao unable to respond. My timing here had been perfect, wiping out the main Portuguese army just a few turns before Joao teched Rifling and could upgrade them to more advanced units. He was still in the process of upgrading his longbows as I ran over his remaining cities. The last two Portuguese cities fell simultaneously on Turn 241 to wipe them off the map completely.
At this point, I was close to the Domination limit but wanted to make sure that I had enough territory to finish things off. I popped a Great Artist culture bomb in the most recent Portuguese conquest to bring it out of resistance and push back the nearby Incan borders. This allowed me to invade Huayna Capac and grab his closest cities as well. Unlike Joao, he'd had time to upgrade his whole military to rifles and these were some bloody fights even with airships in the skies for support. I could see that I would win the game once the remaining Portuguese cities came out of resistance and opted to fortify everything in place for the last few turns rather than stretch things out needlessly. The last few conquests popped out of disorder on Turn 249 and that was the end of the game:
Huayna Capac sniped two stacks of unguarded workers on the border to spoil the victory screen with a bunch of red text, blah. It didn't really matter at that point of course. Overall, this was another fun game and I enjoyed getting to mess around with one more part of the Civ4 gameplay that I hadn't tested previously. The best parts were the Classical and Medieval eras when I needed to balance expansion and my own teching against the research being conducted by the AI leaders for tech steals. The ending sequence of wars was noteworthy for using spies to revolt city defenses but otherwise a bit routine. Although I don't think that I'll be running another espionage game again, I'm glad that I was able to do so at least once on Livestream. Thanks as always for reading and following along with these games.