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I'm tangled in a web of lies, and I might just get away with it. This is Subterfuge, a mobile real-time strategy game designed by World of Goo's Ron Carmel and Casey's Contraptions' Noel Llopis.

Mike Rose, Blogger

October 13, 2014

27 Min Read

I'm tangled in a web of lies, and I might just get away with it. One player is providing me with combat support, while I'm actually helping out his enemy. Two other players think I'm their best buds, but honestly, I don't even know if I'm friends with myself anymore. This is Subterfuge, a mobile real-time strategy game that plays out over the course of a week or so. Designed by World of Goo's Ron Carmel and Casey’s Contraptions' Noel Llopis, it's a game that is as much about bluffing and negotiating as it is about attacking your opponents. At least, that's what Carmel told me -- and honestly, I wasn't convinced at first. As I delved into the first few days of the closed alpha, it felt very much like a long drawn-out strategy game, perhaps a more casual take on a genre that has long been associated with hardcore PC players. And yet by the end of the game 10 real-time days later, I could now fully appreciate what this Neptune's Pride-inspired, pocket-sized epic has to offer. Before I jump into a detailed account of how my first crack at Subterfuge escalated, the basics: You control a series of underwater outposts in a randomly-generated world, and you find yourself surrounded by numerous other real-world players. The goal is to take as many abandoned outposts around your starting position as quickly as possible, and then either ally up or battle with those around you to secure more electrical output and sub-making factories. Combat occurs via sending subs towards enemy outputs, and the winner is the person who can build and keep the most mines for the longest time. Moving between outposts usually takes 12 hours+, and you can only see the action occurring in your general vicinity, so you have no idea what many other players are doing. Half the game is spent staring wildly at the over-map and shifting subs around, while the other half is spent privately messaging other players about future plans and/or bluffs. I jumped into a game of Subterfuge, and over the last couple of weeks, found myself losing sleep over tiny images of subs moving along straight lines. Here's how it went down.

Day 0

I've joined a 10-player game, so everyone involved has to wait until all 10 slots are filled with willing combatants. Right now I've got the red player, Meganlynn, to my top left, and Thapollo beneath me, a sort of light brown color.

Before the game officially begins it's possible to choose your starting moves, such that when the 10th person has joined, your initial movements will be automatically carried out. The best idea is to grab as much real estate as possible from the get-go, so I start shifting single subs into my surrounding outposts. I'm a little wary of where Meganlynn plans to move -- so this is where the chat comes in. Before the game has even started, I begin my backroom discussions. "We totally need to team up," I say to Meganlynn, "otherwise we're going to both lose a whole bunch of drillers against each other before we even properly begin." She agrees (or at least, that's how it reads), and we settle on a truce. Here's the thing - I have no idea who "Megan" is, or whether she's(?) trustworthy. Even if she is, I might need to break the truce later. This is a game about bluffing, and for now at least, truce or not, there's no way I can trust her. And she clearly shouldn't trust me.

While this is going on, I notice someone called Martinpi joins the game to my top-right (in purple). I recognize his name as Martin Pichlmair from Broken Rules, a developer I know fairly well. I perhaps disgustingly decide to take advantage of this, knowing that if he knows who I am, he won't attack me. I make contact, let him know it's me, and with that, I know that border is pretty safe for the time being.

Day 1

A notification on my phone, and we've kicked off! Player number 10 has joined our ranks, and the subs have begun their initial runs. This is the part where everyone just tries to grab as much as they can before any real conflicts have to occur.

I have lots of lovely space between me, so I try to grab as much as possible there, while also branching out to the right. Orange player RoryM is moving a single sub to a factory beneath me, so I decide to be cheeky and send 10 subs to steal it from him. The game has only just started and I'm already being nasty. I should note at this point that I'm usually a very reasonable player, and don't particularly enjoy starting conflicts. However, I decided before this game started that I would try being that sort of player - being aggressive might be fun, and this sort of laid-back, slow-paced arena might be the perfect place for me to try that out. A great feature in Subterfuge is the ability to rewind and fast-forward time. Using a dial, I can spin it back to see what I've already done, and spin it forwards to see what should happen in the near future. Note that the Time Machine only displays what is currently known about, and thus, if subs are shrouded in fog and pop into the action in the coming hours, the Time Machine's prediction will be wrong. The further you go into the future, the worse the prediction becomes. Indeed, hours later, thapollo's sub appear from below. It turns out he's going to take Westland factory, because his 3 beats my 1. I decide to shift a bunch more subs towards Westland, because I want to keep that line intact and not leave myself open to attack this early on.

Interesting, while it looks like he'll also grab Clearfog, the Time Machine tells me this isn't the case -- there's enough of a gap between me reaching Clearfog and thapollo reaching it, such that six subs will be produced there, beating his three. Phew! I can see that in around 20 hours time, I should have a decent spread of electrical outposts and factories. Once I'm at this point, I can start thinking about where to go next.

Day 2

After a fairly settled Day 1, I wake up to check out the lay of the land. Up in my top right, there's one more factory going spare, so I decide to make a move on it -- I'm fairly certain that Martinpi isn't going to try and take it if he sees I am, and hopefully no-one else above me will go for it. Woodwitch will be mine! Zooming out, I find that my claimed land is looking fairly neat and compact. Thapollo has shifted away from me (for now), and Meganlynn is keeping to the truce. The leaderboard suggests I'm fifth out of 10 players, and that perhaps I haven't spread as fast as some players -- but it's clearly too early to say whether someone is going to run ahead. Remember: The winner is whoever can dig their mines out and collect 200 Neptunium first.

I decide to build up a headquarters at Lightcastle, my central outpost where my queen resides, with the plan to create my first mine there. I need 50 subs to convert into a mine, so that shouldn't be too difficult. It's going to take half a day to set into action, but my borders are looking fairly well guarded right now, so I'm not too worried. At this point I jump on a plane to visit Switzerland for a few days, and don't manage to get back to the game for nearly 24 hours. Fortunately for me it's still early game, and not a whole lot happens overnight.

Day 3

I wake up, and it's obvious that everyone is still scoping out the opposition. No-one has attacked me, and I now have enough subs at Lightcastle to build a mine. Blue player Mythos also had the same thought, and has built a mine while I slept -- the game says he will now win in 16.6 days. That's clearly a rather long time, but note that this figure will shift as he builds more mines, and steals or loses outposts. There's still plenty of days left to be played.

Remember how I said that I wanted to try and be the aggressive player? I see Thapollo shifting subs to Kiesling, a single outpost, and I decide he must be thinking about building a mine there. Now, if I were a clever person, I'd wait until he built the mine and then try to steal it. Alas, I am not a clever person. I decide that the Smithrand factory is looking a bit open for a steal, and move 30 subs in that direction. When I take it, I can then move in on Thapollo even further! Or so I tell myself. Can you see the problem yet? (I couldn't.) At this point, I've selected a few different specialists. One (situated at Northwell) drains the shield at said outpost in favor of giving me a boost to my maximum number of subs allowed. Meanwhile, the Princess at Westland allows me to see further into the fog.

I've also managed to take the factory up north with zero resistance, so I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself right now. Later in the day, Meganlynn tells me that she's planning to build a sentry at her Stonesage outpost -- unfortunately, this will mean it's within range to attack my Bellbush factory. We decide to swap factories in a triangle, such that I take a factory further away, and she takes Bellbush. While I'm sorting this out, I decide to check out how my southern attack is going. The answer is: Not very well. With my princess in place, I can now see that Thapollo is firing 56 subs in my direction, and using a general to make them move at twice the speed. He's going to take back Smithrand, and still have all those subs at Kiesling. I may have a problem.

I start frantically shifting subs down to shield myself from the counter-attack, but the damage is already done. I pull a small number of subs back to create a new wall, and kinda pray that Thapollo doesn't decide to put together an attack of his own. But of course, he does. Those 55 subs start moving in on my next available factory at Clearfog, and it becomes clear that he's about to roll in on me -- in fact, he'll be right next to my mine and my queen at that point. I am now really regretting being a dick. Clearly I've not learned my lesson though, because I decide at this point that it might be a good idea to attack the light purple player Admiral Able above me. And it's with this move that I'm about to learn a valuable lesson.

"Are you attacking Admiral Able?" Meganlynn messages me. "I said I'd protect him!" It turns out that the two players are friends, and in an alliance together. If I continue to attack Admiral Able, Megan will have no choice but to attack me. I could really do with that not happening right now. So I agree to convert the attacking subs into a gift, and Admiral Able agrees to send them back once he receives them. I've essentially just wasted a whole 24 hours and not managed to get anywhere. Then Megan lets me know that, "Thapollo and snak are planning to take you out." Snakattack is the green player to my bottom right, with whom I have not yet had the pleasure. Apparently I'm not going to get any pleasure from his company either, as he begins helping Thapollo to mop me up. I don't sleep very well that night.

Day 4

Interestingly, when I wake up on Day 4, I'm actually second on the leaderboard, due to my mining exploits. Thapollo has dug into my center deep, but not made any further moves on me. He's shifting forces towards me though, so I can sense more attacks on the way. I manage to hold Snak back on my right border by shifting subs around, but it still feels like a fruitless exercise -- trying to hold back the incoming tide with bags of jelly. Thapollo then makes a move on my left-most factory at Emolia. Meanwhile he shifts whopping numbers of subs up towards Clearfog, and moves up to take my factory at Norston.

Only 24 hours before I was looking pretty decent, and now my outposts are falling as hard as the familiar Manchester rain. Can you even begin to imagine if there was more bad news on top of this? Well, it turns out that Snak has been worming his way through RoryM's forces on my left, and is now attacking me from both the left and right. This is the bit of the game I like to refer to as "the lowest of the low." I go to bed pretty convinced that Day 5 will see my demise. It's worth noting that my experience of Subterfuge up to this point has involved very little bluffing or conversation. Other than building the truces with Megan and Martin, I haven't really seen the side of the game that is apparently "even more important than the world map." Of course, what's actually happening is that I'm completely missing the point. Snak and Thapollo have been working together since the start, and having meticulously planned a co-ordinated attack against me. It was my lack of conversation that has led me to this point -- if only I could realize how much more powerful words could be than subs!

Day 5

It's even worse come the morning. Thapollo has moved in on my factory at Westland, and I now have barely an outpost to my name. If he attacked my mine at Lightcastle right now, I'd be dead for sure. But I have a final trick up my sleeve. Quite by accident, I realize I can build a sentry at Lightcastle. Just like Megan's, it will attack an enemy sub's within range every two hours, killing 5 percent of subs aboard. I build one in the desperate hope that it might slow Thapollo down.

It's not going to stop snak though, who is continuing to attack me on the right, and will soon take another of my outposts. Interestingly, Martin has begun shifting subs down towards snak -- in a fit of desperation the night before, I begged Martin to attack snak for me. I would appear that my wish was granted. Zooming out, you can see the carnage that my early attack caused. I've gone from having around a dozen outposts, down to seven. It's been brutal, and if I'm honest, I'm on the verge of ragequitting. The only thing that stops me from doing so is that it'll essentially mess up the game for everyone else, and since I'd hate someone else doing that to my game, I decide to stick around and see how long I can hold out. Hilariously, the leaderboard still tells me I'm second. What's also interesting is that I'm not actually down that many subs compared to the people around me, including Thapollo. If he is truly going to finish me off, he must be leaving his borders wide open elsewhere. Indeed, when I check back later in the day, something strange has happened -- thapollo has backed off. He still owns all my outposts that he stole from me, but he's shifted many of his subs away from me. There's no way he can attack me anymore at this point, because he simply doesn't have the numbers. That doesn't mean I'm safe, of course -- he's shown how quickly he can react, and snak is still closing in on me.

And then, a turning point: Thapollo messages me, asking for a truce. Clearly something has rattled him somewhere else, and for now, it would appear I'm off the hook -- albeit, left a battered mess in his wake. Stupidly, I now have visions of revenge in my head, and decide that my sole goal should be to take thapollo down if I get my strength back up. Because revenge solves everything, right? All I can do at this point is bulk up my borders where they're looking weak, and hope that snak doesn't decide to, well, snack on me anytime soon. I don't think I can really take many more hits.

Day 6

This is the day which I refer to as "When I realized how to play Subterfuge." I wake up to find that Meganlynn has built a couple of mine, and is going to win the game in 4.3 days. Thapollo has also messaged me to ask if I'll help him stop her. I don't really need to think particularly hard at this point. I tell him that I'll help out, but then I immediately tell Megan about the impending attack. I also grab myself a couple of useful specialists, including the Tycoon, who speeds up my driller production by 50 percent.

Thapollo has clearly realized that I am in the best position to attack Megan, and is now courting me. He sends me 30 subs as a gift, and tries to give me some advice on how to play. I thank him, tell him I'll try my best to stop Megan, and continue to plot my revenge against him. And this is what Subterfuge is all about. He has no idea whether I am actually attacking Megan or not, since he can't see all of my outposts, so I can tell him whatever I want and he can choose whether to believe it. I am a downed beast booting myself back up again ever so slowly. My iPhone tells me that Subterfuge accounts for 37 percent of my battery usage in the last 7 hours, and I'm really not surprised.

Day 7

The seventh day rolls around, and Megan is building up considerable numbers as she prepares for the attacks that I've warned her about. She's building them up not on her borders, but one line in, such that snak and thapollo don't notice. And then the attacks begin. Snak sends everything he's got at her, and I decide to use this moment to hit him on the other side of the playing field. I want Deepness back, and I'm hoping that he's too distracted with his attack on Megan to worry about little old me taking a single outpost.

Megan is now so far ahead that she's able to provide me with support -- this essentially means that I get a few extra subs from each of my factories each day, and my maximum sub number goes up by 50. I'm still very weak, but I'm stable for now. But this gives me an idea. I message Mythos, the light blue player on the other side of the map who is in second place, and make him a deal -- I'll attack Megan for him if he offers me support. He agrees, and starts providing me with additional support on top of Megan's. Here's the thing: He has no idea that I have no plans to attack Megan, and he'll never know either, since he can't see what I'm up to. If he was clever, he'd see that another player is also supporting me, and it must be Megan. Fortunately, it would appear that he's too distracted. I soon discover that Mythos is working with snak and thapollo. I pray that my deception doesn't filter through to him via snak, who -- in the meantime, is now running away from me on the right border. Moments later, I receive a message from him: "Hey Rave, you want to call a truce? Let's stop Megan, she's going to run away with it."

I message him back saying sure, I'll definitely attack Megan. Now I have three enemies who believe I'm helping them attack Megan, and despite the fact that I have barely any outposts left, I suddenly feel extremely powerful. They may have the numbers, but I have the lies.

Day 8

As Day 8 begins, I finally make a decision -- Martin's factories need to be mine. What you have to understand at this point is that I've been watching his progression, and it seems like he's not in the best health. His territory has shrunk, and according to the clock, he hasn't logged in in over 24 hours. This leads me to believe that either he's without internet, or he's decided to crash out of the game.

And so I move in on him, and send him a message explaining so. I desperately need more factories, and with Megan due to win in 2.6 days, I need to get a move on, whatever I'm doing. It probably won't be 2.6 days for long, though. I can see Snak slaughtering Megan on the left-hand side, and her desperate attempts to slow him down. I could try to help out a little, but honestly, I feel like I'm in a fairly delicate position right now, and I don't want to mess that up. Plus, I'm kinda eyeing up her mine at Clark Rye for a steal. I know, I'm a terrible human being. I've also noticed something interesting in the south - I spot Thapollo supplying RoryM with 40+ gift subs. I've no idea what's going on there - is he helping Rory slow down snak now? - but I try not to think too much about it. At this point, I'm desperately trying to find weak points in the borders around me. I decide to shuffle subs to the left in a congo line, keeping my borders intact, but providing me with more push power on the left. All my factories are on the right, so I have no problems with gaining numbers there.

And then I see Megan moving out of the electrical outpost Feld to my left, and I go for it. I shift 15 subs in that direction, and hope snak doesn't go for it. Also noticeable is that Thapollo has just moved all of his units from my borders back into his territory -- literally every unit. I could attack him now, but it isn't too beneficial for me this exact moment in time, so I just make a note of it. Later in the day, I receive a message from Snak. "Hey Rave, what side are you on? Megan and Martin said you were with them." Gah, my lies are unravelling! I tell him that I'm pretending to ally with Megan so that I can strike at the appropriate time, but honestly, I'm just getting lost in my lies now. Which ones are even real anymore? Am I actually going to attack Megan? I mean, I guess I'll have to if she is about to win.

Snak asks me to take her mine right now, and I say I will. I put my phone down and go for a sit down. I can't decide what to do - it feels like maybe I should attack Megan, because at the end of the day, my helping her to win isn't me winning. If I can slow her down, it will mean I have zero real allies, but it also means I have more time to try and turn it around. I'm so deep now that I even ask my girlfriend what she thinks I should do. I explain the whole situation, and she looks at me blankly. "You're an idiot," she says. I take her advice onboard - I think she's saying that I should not attack Megan. Or she's just calling me an idiot. The world doesn't make any sense to me anymore. Snak is trying to take Feld from me, so I shift even more subs along to fend him off. I've now dropped to fourth in the ranking, but this is far from over. And then something incredible happens. There's a ping, and it's Snak messaging me. Actually, it's Snak messaging everyone. The public chat, that has up to this point barely been used, suddenly explodes. "We have to stop megan or she will win!" he says. "Snak and mythos are already take care of attacking me!" fires back Megan. "She will win in two days!" answers Snak.

One by one, other players start voicing their concerns over who is winning, who isn't, who is attacking who... and all the while, I stay perfectly silent. See, the problem is that if I get involved, someone might voice whether I'm friendly with them or not, and then I'll be forced to admit who I'm allied with, which is... well, I don't even know who I'm allied with anymore. Am I actually allied with anyone? While all of this is rumbling on, I am given the option for another specialist. I realize I can bag myself a Minister of Energy -- this essentially cuts my driller production in half, but adds 250 to my maximum number of drillers. Thanks to the support from Megan and Mythos, plus all the factories I've been stealing back, I'm in the position by cutting by half isn't too bad, so I go for it. I'm now in a very good position - only snak has a highest maximum electrical output than me, and I'm gaining 240 subs per day. If someone else can take down Megan, maybe I can actually win this thing.

Day 9

Mythos has pulled his support overnight. He's clearly cottoned on to the fact that I'm bullshitting him. And yet, I'm still earning myself 192 subs a day, well ahead of everyone else. Martin has resigned from the game, and all of his outposts are now abandoned. Unfortunately Mythos has moved in overnight and stolen a couple of them. And also... ah.

Megan has been pushed back pretty badly, to reveal that Mythos will now win in 47.5 hours. I let Megan get destroyed so that someone else could win even more quickly. I make the decision that, with my new forces, I need to start pushing Mythos back. I ask Snak whether he plans to attack Mythos. I then gradually that feeling of hopelessness begins to shroud me again. This time it isn't because I'm being battered - it's because I'm actually a decent size, yet there's very little I can do to stop another player winning. At least when Megan was winning, I was slightly in control - I was right next to her, and could potentially stop her if I so choose. I was in control of that destiny. This one? Not so much. Snak is still attacking Megan - in fact, he's sending 132 subs towards one of her mines. That's when it dawns on me: Snak is still helping Mythos, and wants him to win in the same way that I was helping out Megan.

I ask Snak if he's going to stop Mythos, and he says, "Not sure if we have time. I'm sending subs to stop him." I assure him that he does have time. I explain that I'm planning to attack Mythos, and I need him help. Two minutes later, the 132 subs he had planned to fire in Megan's direction have changed course and are moving back into the depth's of Snak's base. Megan also says that Mythos has laid off her, and that's the point when I realize what is going on - he knows all he has to do is hold out now, so he's wrapping himself up into a protective shell and getting ready to wait out the next 40 hours to victory. I need to hurry.

Day 10

I'm rapidly shifting units towards Mythos, but I'm fairly certain I'm going to be too late. I get myself a Tycoon specialist, which speeds up driller production by 50 percent, and continue my dash. I'm fifth in the ranking table now, although this is as far as I'm going to fall - no-one below me even has a mine. This part of the game is called "Desperation." As far as I know, Mythos is on the verge of winning, and the person who can help me take him out (Snak) is actually helping him win. Oh hey, remember that revenge I needed to serve up? Now seems like a good time.

I start throwing all my subs at thapollo's borders, attacking every output of his that I can reach. It looks like RoryM is also attacking thapollo. "I'm attacking two of his mines and Rory is hitting a couple generators," says Snak of Mythos. "Hopefully that will slow things. Yeah right, I think. I build a third mine in the meantime - might as well, since we're on the way to losing. This is one of the subduing parts of Subterfuge. In a regular fast-paced RTS, the bit where you realize you're about to lose normally includes frantically throwing all your units at everything you possibly can, and praying you can lucky somewhere. In Subterfuge, you can see failure coming from a mile off. In fact, the Time Machine allows you to countdown to the exact moment you will lose. That exact moment was coming in 19 hours, and I couldn't see any real way to stop it. I keep digging into Mythos' base, but he's bulking up his borders where I'm attacking. I pray that someone else is breaking through, but I doubt it. I'm now one of the most powerful players, and yet I'm entirely powerless to stop him.

As it turns out, I made a grave error. Thapollo was, in fact, collecting together all of his forces to stop Mythos - hence why he moved off my borders a couple of days ago. My attacks on him have caused him to shift his units back up again, and leave Mythos alone. Essentially, my desperation has led to the downfall of everyone except Mythos. I then spot Snak gifting subs to Mythos on my border. The bastard. It's all over. The game ends, and the final board is revealed. The videos you can see below show the entire game playing out from my point of view (with Fog of War in place), and then the entire game with no Fog of War, showing exactly what everyone was up to. So this is Subterfuge. The game is still in development, and currently in closed alpha, with no hint of when it might see a release. We will, of course, keep you posted.

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