SdJ Re-Reviews #8: Heimlich & Co. (a.k.a. Top Secret Spies)

  • Designer:          Wolfgang Kramer
  • Publisher:         Multiple
  • Players:             2 – 7
  • Ages:                  8 and Up
  • Time:                 30 Minutes
  • Times Played:  >6 (On the 2012 Amigo German Edition Using Rio Grande Rules)

Amigo Heimlich & Co

Heimlich & Co.: a 1985 nominee, the 1986 winner, and the game that gave us the “Kramer Leiste”…

Heimlich & Co., a 1985 SdJ nominee and the 1986 winner, is widely regarded as being the first board game to feature a score track running around the gameboard.  In Germany, gamers refer to such a score track as the “Kramer Leiste,” in honor of the game’s designer, Wolfgang Kramer.  The first published game to have the the mechanism was 1982’s “Das große Unternehmen Erdgas”, a promotional game Kramer had designed for a natural gas company.  Nonetheless, the “Kramer Leiste” (or “Kramerleiste”) was first used on a early prototype of Heimlich & Co., so that is the game credited with the first use.

Calling the score track by such a name is a fitting honor for one the all-time legendary game designers.  Wolfgang has won the Spiel des Jahres a record-setting five times.  He was the first German designer to win the award solo, and his 1987 win for Auf Achse made him the first back-to-back winner.  In addition to his wins, he has received 13 other nominations (starting with Niki Lauda’s Formel 1 in 1980) and 2 recommendations.  He won the 1991 Kinderspiel des Jahres. He’s been recognized by the jury in some form in 18 of the 37 years of the SdJ’s existence.  He’s won the Deutscher Spiele Preis three times and the International Gamers Award twice.  He’s had at least twenty five games sell more than 100,000 copies.  

I’m going to discuss the progression of Kramer’s career in the context of his SdJ wins and nominations, but given how prolific he has been even outside his SdJ honors, this series can only capture part of his success.  For a more complete picture, take a look at Larry Levy’s excellent “Special K” series, which Larry later updated.  Joe Huber wrote a great overview for his German Game Authors Revisited series.  You can find a few interviews with Kramer (some of which are in English) around the internet, but in my opinion the best one is Andrea Ligabue’s interview for his The Art of the Design series.  Kramer’s website also has a lot of interesting information, but only in German.

Heimlich & Co. traces its roots to around 1973, when Kramer began experimenting with either (1) having the player’s character remain secret, or (2) having players use common pawns.  The former would be worked into Heimlich & Co., and the latter would be worked into Kramer’s game Wildlife Adventure.

The first prototype of what would become Heimlich & Co. was an abstract game titled “Quick 1000,” which Kramer developed in 1977.  He presented the prototype to Ravensburger, and they liked the central mechanic, but they wanted a more thematic implementation.  This version of the game inspired the “Kramer Leiste.”  Kramer used a pencil and paper to record the score, but one day he forgot his paper and pencil at home.  Finding this to be an annoying problem, he came up with the idea of a score track running around the game board.

He worked the mechanism into the second iteration of what would become Heimlich & Co.  Taking Ravensburger’s suggestion that the game should have more of a theme, Kramer turned it into a racing game, with the locations later used in Heimlich & Co. representing speeds on a speedometer.  The Ruins space of Heimlich & Co. represented a mechanical breakdown.  This prototype was the first with the “Kramer Leiste,” which served as the racetrack.  He presented the new prototype to Ravensburger, but they were again not impressed with the theme, and Kramer then stopped development for several years.

Kramer thought of the spy theme in 1983, and he immediately went to work on a new prototype, which he called “Inkognito.”  He phoned Ravensburger, but he was unable to unable to persuade the editor that the new theme would work.  He then approached Reinhold Wittig, who agreed to publish the game as part of their “Edition Perlhuhn” series in 1984.  The first edition was released in a tube and titled “Heimlich & Co.”.  The game had positive reviews and received a SdJ nomination in 1985.  Ravensburger finally picked the game up, and Heimlich & Co. won the 1986 Spiel des Jahres.  The jury cited the novel gameplay and clever use of the spy theme as reasons for the award.

I asked Kramer if he was surprised by the 1986 win in light of the fact that he hadn’t won in 1985.  He said he was surprised, but not because of the 1985 loss: he had expected another nominee, The aMAZEing Labyrinth, to win.  He pointed out that that game has had much more commercial success than Heimlich & Co.

Even if The aMAZEing Labyrinth has sold more copies, Heimlich & Co. itself has been an enormous commercial success.  The game has been continuously in print for 31 years, and it is available today from Amigo, who made a few minor rule changes (and added a 7th player) for their edition.  It is Kramer’s longest continuously-printed game, and with more than 1.2 million units sold, it is his second best selling game (behind 6 nimmt!).  It has been released in more than half a dozen other languages under other names such as “CIA” or “Agenci.”  Ravensburger released an English version in 1986, and Rio Grande Games released it as “Top Secret Spies” in 2005.  In Kramer’s interview with Liga, he said that Heimlich & Co. is one of the games of which he is is most proud, both because of its sales and because of the “Kramer Leiste.”

[A big thanks to Wolfgang Kramer for agreeing to answer my questions on the history of Heimlich & Co. and a few of his other SdJ winners.  Without his participation the above history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.]

Series Note: A Significant Moment in the Divergence of Approaches to Game Design

In retrospect, Kramer’s 1986 win seems like a significant moment in a broader trend of the German gaming hobby separating from the hobby in the U.K. and United States.  As Stuart Woods wrote, “The state of the gaming hobby in Germany was not altogether dissimilar to that of the USA and the U.K. during the 1970s.”  I would argue that this similarity extended at least into the early 1980s when Sagaland (1982) and Scotland Yard (1983) offered the first hints of German innovation in board game design.  The 1984 win of Dampfross and the 1985 win of Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet prove that there was still some harmonization between Germany and the rest of the world, even if many of the nominees in those years were by German publishers.  Nonetheless, by the time Heimlich & Co. won in 1986, there was strong divergence between the German game market and the market elsewhere, and German designers would win the SdJ every year until 1992.  As Larry Levy has previously explained, Wolfgang Kramer was the first hint of the “homegrown talent” that would differentiate German designers from those in the U.K. and United States.

Wolfgang Kramer himself has previously written on the rise of the hobby in Germany.  Jay Tummelson (founder of Rio Grande Games) translated Kramer’s article into English for The Games Journal.

The Gameplay: Secret Identities

Heimlich & Co. has seen several different editions over the years, each with minor rule variations.  The rules for some editions contain multiple variants.  This review will focus on the most recent edition by Amigo, as that the only edition I’ve ever played, using the English-language rules from the Rio Grande edition.  (The Rio Grande rules line up well with the Amigo edition.)  I’m going to describe the gameplay for the basic game, and then I’ll discuss the two most popular variants.  Neither of the variants discussed below appeared in the first edition of the game.

Heimlich & Co Components 2 Player

The players agree which “agent” colors will be placed into the game.  The Amigo / Rio Grande editions come with seven agents, which is enough to for up to seven players.  With two players five agents are used, with three players six agents are used, and with four or more players all seven agents are used.  The corresponding pawns are placed in the Church, and the score markers are placed on the start of the score track.  The safe – which triggers scoring rounds – is placed on the 7 space.

Each player takes a card corresponding to the colors of one of the agents in the game and keeps it secret until the game is over.  (Samples of the cards have been placed into the middle of the game board pictured above.)  The cards not being used by players — the free agent cards — are placed under the game board for safekeeping.  Each player knows his identity, but not the identity of the other players or the free agents.

The oldest player starts and the game proceeds clockwise.  A his or her turn, a player must roll the dice and move at least one agent.  The die roll indicates how many total spaces may be moved for as many agents as the player wishes.  For example, if a player rolled a four, he could move (1) one agent four spaces, (2) two agents two spaces each, (3) two agents one space each and one agent two spaces, or (4) four agents one space each.  If the die lands on the “1 to 3” side, a player can choose one, two, or three movement points.  All movement is clockwise.  A player is free to move any agent: he does not necessarily have to move his.

While it is tempting to always advance your agent, that is generally a poor strategy: other players will figure out your identity and then sabotage you.  Trickery and bluffing is a must.  This pursuit of secrecy can cause players to make absurd movements, and there’s generally a good laugh at the end of the game.

If any agent lands on the space with the safe, a scoring round is triggered.  Agents score the points for the space on which they are sitting.  Agents in the Church score no points, and agents in the Ruins lose three points.  Once scoring is finished, the active player may place the safe on any space.  If the space is occupied, a new scoring round is not triggered.

The game ends when a player passes the finish space.  At that point, all players reveal their identities, and the agent that moved past the finish space (or the furthest past the finish space) is the winner.  It is possible that none of the players win.

In the “Top Secret” variant, on a roll of 1-3, the player may instead opt to not move agents.  Otherwise, the rules are the same as above, with a few changes to add the 26 Top Secret Cards that come with the game.

Two of these are drawn by each player at the start of the game.  Players can receive additional Top Secret Cards during the game by either moving an agent to the ruins or choosing not to move agents on a roll of 1-3.  A player may have a maximum of four Top Secret Cards in his or her hand.

The Top Secret Cards are played during the Top Secret part of the turn.  A player asks if anybody wants to play Top Secret Card.  If nobody does, then none are played.  If at least one player wants to play them, they are played starting in clockwise order.  After a card is played, the next player can play a Top Secret Card, regardless of whether they previously indicated that they wanted a Top Secret part of the turn.  In other words, players may always adapt to the new information.  The Top Secret phase ends when all players have passed in a row.  During the Top Secret phase, players may always play more than one Top Secret Card at once.

Most of the Top Secret cards let you move agents around the board.  Some move players forward, some backwards.  One lets you place an agent in the Ruins, regardless of where the agent was before, and another lets you move all agents to the Church.  Some of the cards let you move the safe or move agents to the safe.

Another popular variant is the “Secret Dossier” variant.  This is my favorite version of the game.  It can be played with either the basic game or the Top Secret variant.  In the Secret Dossier version, the game ends when one player reaches space 29.  At that point, the players write down guesses for the identities of the other players, and their agent moves five additional spaces for each correct guess.

Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game.

I greatly enjoy Heimlich & Co., particularly when the “Secret Dossier” variant is added.  The basic game is just that: basic.  In that version there can be little incentive to figure out the identity of the other players or conceal your own identity late in the game.  The “Secret Dossier” variant fixes that concern, and that is the version of the game I prefer to play.  The “Secret Dossier” variant also makes it unlikely that a free agent will win.

I’m indifferent as to whether the Top Secret cards are used: they add a small amount of depth, but they also add complexity.  They introduce randomness to a game that otherwise lacks it, and some of the cards seem unbalanced.  For example, one of the cards let’s a player take one of the free agent cards and then return the card for the agent that is further behind at the end of the game.  Drawing that card obviously provides a significant advantage.

The theme works well, even if it is pasted on.  I’m glad that Ravensburger didn’t make this as a race game: while it may have worked, the mechanic matches up much better with the secret agent theme.  I wouldn’t call it an immersive experience, but this is a situation where the mechanics match the theme.

The components are nothing to write home about.  The artwork on the board and cards is decent but unexceptional.  The wooden pawns are a nice touch, but they too are basic.  Nonetheless, the components aren’t bad for the price: the MSRP of the Amigo edition is only 19.99 Euro, and I think I paid the equivalent of $15 USD for my copy.

Gameplay tends to be fast, and in fact I’d describe this game as being a “filler plus.”  I’d guess the average play takes around 25 minutes.  The “Secret Dossier” variant goes even faster, as you only play to space 29, even if players tend to be a bit more strategic about their turns at end game.

Heimlich & Co. is very approachable for non-gamers, and even with the variants the rules can be explained in three minutes or less.  I haven’t played the game with kids, but it seems to me that it would work well.

My biggest complaint is the lack of replayability.  There is a novelty to this game, even thirty years later, but that novelty wears off after about five plays.  I’ll pull Heimlich & Co. out in the future, but this isn’t the sort of game that I could ever see myself playing more than a dozen times.  As I said, this game makes a great “filler plus” choice.  My second biggest game is that the game can seem chaotic at times.

Does it stand the test of time?  I think so.  The game is still fun, even 30 years later.  There’s a reason it has been continuously in print since 1984.  Would it win the SdJ today?  I don’t think it would be a favorite to win, although I think it would have an outside chance.  It hits all of the right notes: it is original and family friendly with some depth and a decent presentation.  There are other hidden identity games out there, some of which have dressed the mechanic better, but Heimlich & Co. is still a great example of the mechanic in its most basic form.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: I really don’t see the point of hidden colour games – you might be, you might not be, are you bluffing, are you not. Impossible to know to start with so keep everything bunched, throw a few red herrings and get lucky towards the end because people believed otherwise – or not. In the end, who cares. You didn’t get to do anything cunning, clever, strategic or fun. At least it’s only 20 minutes.

Mark Jackson: Yet another early SdJ winner that has been a part of my collection back in the day, but has since been traded away. I like that it plays up to 7 players – though it’s better with 4-5, so you have some neutral pawns in the game. However, I agree that it suffers from a replayability problem – after the first few games, nothing really new is likely to happen inside the system.

Larry:  My thoughts are almost exactly like Patrick’s, except that I’m not quite as negative about the game.  Back around 2000 or so, when there weren’t many good options for 6-player games, this got chosen a lot and I considered it harmless.  But yeah, it was all feints, bluster, and guesswork, and in the end, it all felt pretty random.  People seemed to enjoy it, but it did almost nothing for me.  Then again, I have no interest in the psychological aspects of gaming, so I’m clearly not the target audience.

I agree with Chris that this would have a shot at winning the SdJ today.  Kramer’s simpler games have a timeless quality about them and many of them have aged very well.  If Heimlich was good enough to win in ‘86, there’s no reason it wouldn’t be good enough to win today.

Joe Huber (7 plays): I’m not generally a fan of bluffing games – though this is one of the better ones, on the whole.  That’s still not enough as to keep the game in my collection, but plenty enough that when I was asked to play earlier this year (for the first time in more than a decade), I was happy to do so.  It’s a pleasant game, which I remain happy to play, but wouldn’t suggest myself.

As to whether the game might win today – that’s actually fairly easy to answer; the game feels very similar in weight (if not in details) to Camel Up, so I see no reason to think it wouldn’t be under consideration.  Against a Die Siedler von Catan or Ticket To Ride, I think it would fall short, but in a year without an obvious choice I think it would have a solid chance.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Chris W., Erik A.
  • Neutral. Mark Jackson, Larry, Joe H.
  • Not for me… Patrick B.
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2 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #8: Heimlich & Co. (a.k.a. Top Secret Spies)

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    I was fascinated by this game as “a different type of game” when it came out, and it’s fine as a quick activity with non-gamers, but I agree that it wore out it’s welcome with me fairly quickly (along with other games that borrowed this central mechanism, such as Colovini’s Clans).

    Still, there is a simplicity and elegance to the design that I admire, and of all the “Spiecal K’s”, Kramer has proven most successful in trying new things year after year, rather than relying on recycling his older mechanisms (the action point games of 15 years ago being the exception).

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Correction: “when I discovered it several years after it came out”

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