It’s hard to disprove a conspiracy. Present factual evidence that there are no lizard men, no UFOs, the Earth isn’t flat, or that jet contrails are not, in fact, dropping psychotropic drugs on an unsuspecting populace, and the believer responds “of course they want you to think that!” and keeps believing their crazy theories. That’s the foundation of the funny and fast-paced card game “Conspiracy” from designers Boglárka Benke and Máté Mayer through their publishing company Urban Games.
Conspiracy is for 1-4 players and can be played cooperatively or competitively, and includes a solo mode, the latter of which is what I played with a prototype: The game is coming soon to Kickstarter (mid-April) and as it’s fun, lively, and visually engaging, I expect it will do well. But games are about gameplay, so that’s what this review is about. Conspiracy is definitely a casual party game too because there’s a fair amount of randomness, however good your strategy, particularly in solo mode.
BASIC GAME COMPONENTS
The basic theme is that each player has their own conspiracy plus a hand of action cards with which they try to win followers based on news stories. Amass enough followers and you win. In solo mode, the goal is 110 followers. There are a dozen different conspiracies from which you can choose and I selected Zionist Shadow Government:
Note: As you can see with this first element, the graphics are terrific, but the themes can be potentially upsetting if you do secretly believe one or more conspiracies. As with most party games, it’s an adult theme and you need a sense of humor and at least a few grains of salt, if not an entire bottle. I have an irreverent and dark sense of humor so nothing here offends me, but I know people who might find one or two of these game items to be offensive.
The lavender box denotes the special ability of the Zionist Shadow Government, and it’s a powerful one: “Once during the game at the end of a turn draw an Action Card. You can then play an Action Card from your hand regardless of the conditions. The card’s ability can also be used.” This essentially gives you a bonus turn!
The dynamic elements of the game all revolve around Action Cards. There are a couple of different types, including “Shadow Government” cards that are denoted by a red mark on two corners, along with cards only for co-op multiplayer or competitive multiplayer. Solo play begins with a hand of four Action Cards. Here are three examples of these cards:
The most important aspect of these cards is the Influence on the bottom, but each has its value. Left to right, “You Tell Everyone You Were Taken” has an influence of zero, but adds 10 bonus followers if you place it on your conspiracy theory. “Insider Information” has a huge influence of 5 but means that you won’t be able to draw a new Action Card at the beginning of your next turn. Finally, “Numerology” is an Action Card that’s worth more if it’s played later in the round: Its influence value is the total number of Action Cards played (minimum 1, for itself).
There’s a separate deck of News Cards that have funny – and often spot-on – reports about something related to one or more conspiracies or related news. In solo mode, all of the shadow government Action Cards (with the red corners) act as the automata, so here’s the first round of my solo Conspiracy game:
The news story is about microchips and the pandemic (prime conspiracy material!) and it’s worth 30 followers. But the Shadow Government has revealed the “Meme Making” action card which has both an Ability and an Influence. The latter is a bit more complex in co-op or solo mode: In this instance, the card’s influence is 1 + number of players, so for solo, its influence = 2.
There are only six shadow gov’t Action Cards in solo mode, so it’s a fast game; six rounds and you’re done. The real challenge is those pesky Abilities, however. Whether you win the News Card by playing a card with more influence or not, if you don’t explicitly cancel the Ability, it’ll apply, with the most frustrating ones that require you to discard a News Card. That’s right, I could win 30 followers, then the very next round end up having to discard it as they turned out to be too darn fickle!
PLAYING SOLO CONSPIRACY
While the game is intended to be a fast, fun, party game, solo mode has a slightly different energy because it’s just you versus the game, no chance to laugh, hoist a shot, or similar. My first round turned out to be pretty easy as I needed to best the “Meme Making” card by having 3 or more influence. If you tie, you can always play another Action Card (which can be an essential tactic) but you always have to attain higher influence. I play “Loot Nephew’s Piggy Bank” with 5 influence, which handily overcomes “Meme Making” with its paltry influence of 2:
The result? I have won the News Card and gained 30 followers! Woot!
The second round is a slightly less exciting News Card – only 20 followers – but remember, if I flip it over, it’s probably worth more and will give me a special power or capability. Meanwhile, there’s a big problem on the horizon with the shadow government’s Action Card:
The problem is that unless I block it, the shadow gov’t is going to force me to discard a News Card. I only have one, I don’t want to do that! Fortunately, if I play a card with matching influence (1) I can then play a second card to break the tie, and my influence 1 card – “Tinfoil Helmet” – neutralizes the Shadow Gov’t card, meaning that I will not lose a News Card. Phew!
I play both of the cards shown above for a combined influence of 4, beating that Troll and winning the EU reform news card. 30 + 20 = 50 followers so far. Not too bad, but I have to be able to keep ’em!
A BIT FURTHER INTO THE GAME
Another few rounds of Conspiracy solo play and here’s what I am, with 60 followers and almost no Action Cards, which is particularly distressing because the shadow government action card – “Playboy Posters” – will force me to discard my followers card, dropping me down to 50. Worse, this is the last round:
There was no way to avoid it, I lost, collecting far less than 110 followers in this game. As I said, the gameplay is fast but it’s also fairly random because so much depends on the order of cards revealed and the special abilities of the shadow government Action Cards.
I played a couple more solo games, losing time and again, until, on the fifth play, I got a sequence of cards that allowed a far better outcome:
This is the last round again, but this time I have sufficient Action Cards to overcome the shadow government card and end up acquiring the last News Card, giving me a very good end score:
Add ’em up and I ended with 140 followers, a very good outcome. I won by “proving” that the Zionist Shadow Government is sufficiently legit that, well, lots of simple-minded people joined the movement. Go Shadow Gov’t!
THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS
The humor and illustrations that comprise Conspiracy are very appealing and quite funny. Sometimes it’s in a Cards Against Humanity sort of way but it can definitely spark some entertaining, and perhaps enlightening, discussions with friends and family. In solo mode, however, it’s a bit more cerebral because you don’t have anyone else around (in fact, one aspect of the multiplayer game is spinning the tale of how your newly won News Card fits into your particular conspiracy, something that’s a pointless task when you’re flying solo).
The gameplay is straightforward, though the abilities on the opponent’s cards can be crushing, particularly if your Action Cards do not include any way to prevent the loss of News Cards, round after round. It’s disheartening to gain followers just to have them run away at the end of each round, as I experienced in the first few plays. That’s one reason that the Zionist Shadow Government proves one of the best conspiracy cards for solo play because it offers a sort of get-out-of-jail option where you can play a bonus Action Card. Very helpful!
Still, the best solo games are a balance of strategic planning and randomness to ensure that it’s not entirely deterministic and ultimately then boring in solitaire mode. Conspiracy is good fun, but if you’re planning on the solo mode, be prepared for some level of frustration as you find you’ll need to play time and again to finally win the game. Fortunately, it’s a fast play, so you could easily get in 3-4 games in a 30-minute time window. Will you then have 3-4 wins? I’d be surprised. But you will have fun. Now, about those contrails…
Disclosure: Urban Games Ltd sent me a prototype copy of Conspiracy in return for this candid review. Thanks!