I think I have a semi-coherent set of changes that further reduces complexity from the playtest version and follows through on the removal of the cubes in favor of the operatives.
First, no more sub-locations. Each encounter deck has different illustrations, but the cards are functionally identical within each deck. Instead, there are 12 "reward tokens" -- 2 for each solution category, 3 "allies", and 3 "items". One is randomly placed in each city. Additionally, the 12 theme cards are randomly placed in cities, with each card indicated a type of city in which it can be placed. When you pass an encounter, you get to either receive the reward from that city's "reward token", OR visit the theme card in that city (or maybe it's both).
When you face an encounter, everyone gets to look at the card, but there's no Where's Waldo aspect, there are just icons, and here's what they do:
- Phobia: Active player faces the challenge at +2 difficulty.
- Item: Anyone with that same item card gets a white token on the card.
- Operative: Move that operative to the current player's city, IF the operative is activated.
No more enemy cubes; instead, the progress track is divided into 5 sections; at the end of the turn, the number of chips you pull from the cup is based on the section of the track the marker is on. (Chips either advance the progress track or let an operative execute his power).
There are several marked spaces on the progress track, at which something happens. One is "activate an operative" -- flip over the card from the card row. Another is "enemy attempts to dig for the temple"; but not sure where. Maybe another is "remove captured theme cards from the board" -- e.g. if the Grail Diary has previously been captured, on this space it has been burned.
So going back to the encounter cards, when you see an operative, if that operative is activated but not yet on the board, you pull him onto the board now, to your city, and you put his chip into the cup. If his chip gets pulled from the cup, or if you fail a challenge in the city he occupies, the special power indicated on his card is executed. When you are in a city containing an operative, something happens; maybe it's (a) you add a black chip or (b) if you visit a theme card or get to read a clue, the enemy progress advances by 1. Or maybe it's both of those. And maybe, as before, you can initiate a fight challenge against the operative to knock him off the board (but he never deactivates once activated?)
The operative powers include "advance enemy progress by 3", "capture a theme card and bring it to the nearest stronghold", "remove the reward chip from the city". Other possibilities include "move the PLAYER to the nearest stronghold", "deactivate a theme card's 'bonus knowledge'" (but this one may be too fiddly).
There are a few nice things that this does. First, it keeps the operatives moving around, keeps them showing up at a somewhat unpredictable but basically controlled rate, and most importantly, gives a completely scripted way for bad things to happen to the players, without the players needing to remember or police any special rules. The bad stuff that happens is /entirely/ contained on the operative cards, and the occasions on which the operatives get to execute those powers are fully specified; there's nothing to remember. So it's a big win in terms of reducing the number of rules the players must internalize to be able to play. The removal of the sub-location system (which I liked) also helps with this. Now, you face an encounter, and you either get a reward or get to visit a theme card. (If you want to do both, simply face another encounter). And if there's an operative there, do this if you pass, do this if you fail.
I really, really liked the system where the operatives are connected to encounter outcomes -- ie if you pass/fail an encounter that gives reward X, and the operative that matches X is active, then that operative gets to do something. But even with me not playing and simply policing the game's bureaucracy, we forgot to do this constantly. I think it's just too hard to remember, and it's highly preferrable if it's simply that the operative gets to do something if he's in your city, otherwise don't worry about it.
The other thing that's nice is that it should still organically create "convergence" at certain locations. A city that contains the more important theme cards is likely to be visited more by the players, which is likely to result in more operatives being drawn there, which makes it more likely that, e.g., that theme card will be kidnapped or the enemy progress will advance. Maybe if a city has multiple operatives in it, those operatives dig for the temple there?