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Subterfuge is the most cunning game on iOS right now, here's how it works

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

For the past week I've been consumed in several tense and deadly duels beneath the sea in Subterfuge, a strategic and surprisingly social experience. Simply put, it may be one of the best strategy games I've played all year. And it's on my iPhone, of all places.

In the fiction of Subterfuge, multiple factions are competing to extract a rare mineral, called Neptunium. The first to mine 200 tons of the stuff wins. Trouble is, the entire planet is covered in water. Players fight pitched battles against one another by launching submarines filled with drillers against outposts. To the victor go the spoils.

There's just one big catch; combat takes place over huge distances, meaning that it will take hours, perhaps days for a submarine to reach its destination. In my current game, which I've been playing for nearly six days, no one has managed to extract more than 40 tons of Neptunium.

We could be playing for another week, or more.

So how does it work? Let's take a look at a screenshot from this morning, and I'll try and break down what's happening for you.

Early on, I allied myself with the dark blue player by sending them an in-game text message. We established our borders in the south and agreed not to attack one another. That freed up our drillers to conduct a joint campaign against Brown, to the north and west. I opened by launching a sneak attack near Sedna (19 drillers currently). In retaliation, Brown took over my Neptunium mine at Cebu, the little triangle right there in the center with 36 drillers right now.

This kind of long-term, strategic gameplay has been attempted before, most recently by Neptune's Pride, a 4x space game which saw some popularity as a browser and mobile game a few years back. The trouble with Neptune's Pride was two-fold. First, it was easy to start the game trapped in the center of the map, beset on all sides by bloodthirsty enemies. Subterfuge is played on a single planet, meaning that subs can exit the left side of the map, loop around the backside of the planet, and show up again on the right side. There are no blind corners, and everyone is surrounded at all times.

The other problem I experienced in Neptune's Pride was that rarely, if ever, did players in a losing position stick around to play through the end of the match. To combat that, Subterfuge has added what it calls specialists, essentially hero characters that are made available for hire semi-randomly over time. These units open up interesting play opportunities, and the chance to do something clever can breathe life into the game even for doomed players.


See those white circles on the map? Those are specialists. Each one of them has special powers that allow players to break the rules of the game in some small, but significant way. Making things more interesting, those powers stack.

At Nemo, currently my home base, I have my Queen who does all the hiring of specialists. I also have my Security Chief, which grants a bonus to all my outposts. At Serenity I've positioned an Engineer, who repairs drillers I lose in combat each time I win. In this way, I've been letting Brown punch himself out, fruitlessly splashing dozens of his own drillers on my defenses for days. I've also got a Double Agent stationed nearby, so if Brown is able to mount a substantial enough force against me I can simply take control of it and turn it against him. Other players on the map have Sentries, who shoot at passing enemy subs, teamed up with Princesses to improve their range by 50 percent.

While I've been distracting Brown, I've also been working in the background via text messaging with our game's five other players, brokering deals and making threats where appropriate to keep the heat off other parts of my empire.

The user interface allows you roll time forward and back

But here's where it gets interesting. The user interface of Subterfuge allows you roll time forward and back. That lets you easily recall what happened — all the way up to the beginning of the game — as well as project into the future and see the consequences of your actions.

You can even create videos, with audio commentary, at any time.

Let's dial things back two days of game time to see how we got here. Keep your eye on the factory at Kai-Chan. There's a sub there with 30 drillers and one specialist, a Martyr, shaped like a little stick of dynamite. Whenever the Martyr engages in combat, win or lose, she detonates herself and destroys every other sub in the vicinity as well as any outposts in range.

As soon as my Martyr shows up on Brown's sonar he freaks out, launching dozens of subs at her likely destinations. But, by planning out my moves ahead of time, I was able to keep her safe and maneuver her all the way up to Serenity.

That's when I had my ally, Blue, launch their own sub from further south. We've timed it perfectly so that Blue's sub will collide with my Martyr directly over the mine at Cebu.

If I can't have the Neptunium mine, no one can.

And so we'll see some time tomorrow, after his new mine implodes, if Brown would like to negotiate peace terms. I might back down if they're willing to give up Wallace or Ssam-Bar.

One of the other delights of the game is the choices it makes with its art style and its character design. Every one of the 29 specialist units in the game is a different race, gender and age, something I didn't even notice at first. Leigh Alexander over at Offworld has a great exploration of why that's such a meaningful choice. In short, it makes a very hardcore, white-male dominated genre more welcoming to women and people of color. And for a game like this, a larger player community is always better.

If I can't have the Neptunium, no one can

I'm not sure how this particular game is going to end up, whether or not I'll win or lose, but I respect Subterfuge's balance and the effort it's gone to in order to enhance my play experience. But be warned that if you turn off push notifications and are only able to check in on the game once or twice a day, you will be at a disadvantage. Perhaps that's something you can live with (or compensate for with a house rule in a private game).

For the next week or so, the first and the last thing I do with my iPhone every day will be to check in with my little fleet in Subterfuge It's a stress-filled, anxiety-ridden game. But it's meeting all my needs as a strategy gamer on the go, and I hope that by its clever design it will get more people interested in the genre as well.

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