when it crumbles

So I took a temporary break from my posts about board games to talk about other stuff. But I’m sorry to say, I’m back. And I’m still talking about board games.

Most of the games I’ve talked about recently have been quite large, lavish affairs that take a couple of hours to play (far more so in the case of Arkham Horror) and involve lots of little fiddly tokens and, in extreme cases, hexes. For a bit of a change of pace, I thought today I’d talk about a game that basically consists almost entirely of talking. The game is called Spyfall and it’s, well, it’s a bit weird. Also, technically it probably shouldn’t be classified as a board game because it doesn’t actually have a board. And, although it does have cards, it’s not really a card game either. It’s probably best described as a “party game” but I suppose that depends a lot on the kind of parties you go to.

The premise of Spyfall is, I think, one of those things that you either get instantly or which makes no sense. At its heart, it’s the purest game of bluffing I’ve ever seen and, unlike poker or liar’s dice or skull and roses, it’s bluffing in the kind of free-form way you get in job interviews and, indeed, jobs.

In Spyfall one of you is a spy. The spy has infiltrated some kind of situation or event but, for reasons that I admit don’t entirely make sense, assuming you really are a professional in the world of espionage, the spy doesn’t really know anything about what they’re infiltrating. I guess there’s a certain level of abstraction going on here: in “real life”, the spy knows that they’re infiltrating the secret lair of Dr Villainy but doesn’t know enough about Dr Villainy’s organisation to confidently pass themselves off as the third henchman from the left. In the game, this represented as the spy literally having no clue where they are.

This might be best illustrated with an example. At the start of the game, you select a thin pack of sealed cards from thirty such packs and deal one card to every player. One player gets a card that simply says “spy” while the other players might get a card that says, for the sake of this example, “hospital.” The spy wins if they work out that they are in a hospital. Everybody else wins if they work out who the spy is. Starting with somebody (the game is a bit vague on how you choose the first player) the players take it in turns to ask one another questions. For the non-spy players, you want to pick questions and answers that signal to the other non-spy players that you know you’re in a hospital (or whatever) without signalling to the spy that you’re in a hospital.

Good opening question: So, how’s your day been so far?

Bad opening question: So, how’s your day been so far in this hospital we all work at?

Of course, I’m over simplifying because actually “how’s your day been so far” can be a pretty shoddy opening question because it’s so vague that it doesn’t signal anything to anyone. Worse, if you’re in a hospital, people might conclude that the question is actively incongruous because no-one has a good day in hospital, and start to suspect you of being the spy. A better question might be “what do you find most stressful about your job” or, um … um … and the fact I, sitting here at my desk with all the time in the world having played this game before and having chosen the relatively simple example of “hospital” instead of one of the more outré scenarios, like “pirate ship”  or “crusading army” am having trouble coming up with good opening questions might go some way to illustrate how hilariously difficult this game can be.

Of course, while the non-spies are trying to signal to each other that they know where they are, the spy is trying to pick up on those signals and effectively mirror them back to the other players (if the spy can last eight minutes without being identified, and eight minutes is a really, really long time in this game then they can win that way as well).  This means that the spy has to walk a really difficult line. If your questions and answers are too vague, then people are likely to start thinking you’re the spy because everybody else will be giving answers that really closely fit the scenario. If they’re too specific, there’s a good chance that you’ll imply something hilariously wrong. For example, you might have picked up that you’re all somewhere dark and crowded and, therefore, assume that you’re in a submarine when really you’re at a nightclub. You might have worked out that you’re all involved in some kind of political campaign and conclude that you’re probably in the embassy, when in fact you’re part of a crusading army. You might deduce that everyone is wearing outlandish costumes and therefore think you’re in a theatre when, in fact, you’re on a pirate ship.

There’s nothing more delightful in the game than somebody asking a question that, in context, is truly ridiculous. Like “how much training have you had for your current role” when you’re all pirates. Or “what do you think we’re doing wrong with our social media presence” when you’re all, um, pirates. I guess what I’m saying is that surprisingly few questions are good when you’re pirates.

In case it isn’t obvious, being the spy is really hard. This isn’t like Werewolf or Avalon: The Resistance or any of the other hidden traitor games, which I might come to in a future post, where the spies have more information than everybody else. Here the spy has nothing.  The most feeling miserable feeling in a game of Spyfall is being the spy and having to ask the first question because you know that while everybody else is looking at a card with a detailed illustration of the location that you are all supposed to know you’re in you are just starting at this dark blue card with the word “spy” on it in big letters. (Pro tip: if you’re spy, spend a long time looking at your card, because otherwise it’s really obvious you’ve got nothing to look at). And, let’s be clear, when I say “miserable feeling” I mean miserable in that fun way that realising you’re totally screwed and have eight minutes to talk your way out of it is fun-miserable. This might be a personal taste thing.

Spyfall has an “advanced” rule whereby the non-spy players as well as answering their questions from the point of view of a person who belongs at the location described on their cards also have to do so from within a particular role. So if the location is “school”, you could be a teacher, or a pupil, or the principal. If the location is “hospital”, you could be a patient, or a doctor, or an intern. I  put the word advanced in scare quotes because, well, to a degree it’s hard to tell what counts as being advanced play in an asymmetric game  where one player’s job is much harder than everybody else’s. Perhaps I’m wrong, but from my experience adding roles actively makes being the spy easier. The non-spy players have a tendency to assume that everyone is interpreting the location/scenario the same way they are and, when you add roles into the mix, that can lead to misleading miscommunications amongst players.

For example, I was playing a game recently in which the scenario was “corporate party” and one of the question / response pairs was “How do know you [player x]” with the response being “I don’t really, but I’m pretty sure that without us here, this thing we’re doing wouldn’t have gone ahead.” My initial response was to think this was a really suspicious answer because, well, it was a party and I’d vaguely assumed that everyone’s role would be a party attendee type role. So the notion of any particular person being integral to the functioning of the event struck me as incongruous. It wasn’t until a couple of questions later that I remembered that we were playing with roles and it was quite likely that the person who gave the funny answer had been given the role of DJ or Party Organiser or something. In that game, for what it’s worth, my assigned role was “gate crasher” which meant that I had to answer questions in a way that implied that I knew I was at a party that I wasn’t supposed to be at. It never came up as much as it could have but it did occur to me that these existence of these kind of roles opens  up a lot of weird gambits that the spy can attempt. For example, in that scenario it would have been completely legitimate for me to answer any number of questions with “To be honest, mate, I’m not even supposed to be here.” Which would pretty much work for the spy in every scenario. But would take some serious guts to attempt on a whim.

And that’s kind of what makes this game awesome.

Spyfall is a game about interaction between people and, basically, what makes it fun is, well, your friends. If you are the sort of people who would enjoy watching members of your immediate social circle try desperate to improvise convincing answers to questions for which they have no context whatsoever then you’ll probably love Spyfall. With every round being eight minutes long, it’s very quick to play and since the mechanics boil down to “ask a question, give an answer” literally anyone can learn it.

Having said all that, I don’t think it’s a great game for families. These kinds of games only really work if everyone is on a very similar wavelength, and people feel comfortable enough to look stupid in front of each other. I don’t really know how well it would work if you were playing it with the hypothetical ten year old that I bring to all of these gaming sessions. For a start, a ten-year-old would have no idea what an office party is actually like. It’s probably also not a great game to play with your parents because, again, you’re likely to have slightly different cultural assumptions about things.

In fact, ironically, in spite of its immense implicitly and lack of fiddly pieces, it isn’t entirely a game I’d recommend for non-gamers. Because actually it does take some getting used to—our first few games involved a lot of self-conscious shuffling and genuinely slightly unfun embarrassment, as we tried to work how to the hell we were supposed to do this. But it gets funnier the more you play it and very much rewards investment. In fact, it probably works best with a group of people who’ve played it quite a lot with each other because you begin to develop codes and signals so there’s kind of a metagame. Like, if Hypothetical Steve (presumably the father of the Hypothetical Ten Year Old) asked “are you feeling well?” during a game in which you were on a cruise liner then, maybe, “are you feeling well?” will enter your group’s parlance as a code for “we’re on a ship of some kind.” Although, of course, it could also be code for “I want the spy to think we’re on a ship of some kind because, let’s be clear, I am well aware that we’re not on a ship but we are in some other context where that question might still make sense.” But then the other players might think, “oh my gosh, Hypothetical Steve must be the spy because he clearly thinks we’re on a ship.” And so it goes on.

In conclusion Spyfall: definitely the best game about asking your friends questions in order to work out which one of them is a spy while the one who is a spy listens to the questions and the answers given to them in order work out the nature of scenario on which they are spying that I’ve ever played.


6 Responses to when it crumbles

  1. Reading your board game posts makes me ALMOST want to move back to the city, closer to my old circle of friends, so I could have a large group of people to try all these games out on. I come back to my senses fairly quickly, but still… there aren’t many things that can make me yearn for the old days even temporarily!

    So, well done. You’ve made me angsty and questioning of my life choices. At least for a few minutes…

  2. Mel says:

    This sounds awesome and makes me slightly sad I don’t have a group of friends to play these kind of games with… May I come visit? 😉

  3. Laura says:

    I’m really bad at deception games, I just can’t lie! But this sound fun, so I might give it a try. Fun fact: the name of the Spanish edition is “El espía (que se perdió)”, which translates as “The spy (who got lost)”.

  4. Lennan Adams says:

    RE: questioning life choices and needing new game-friendly friends, me too. *SIGH* Although, this game sounds like it could be traumatic for the easily embarrassed/terrible at small talk types among us (i.e. me). I need some game friends to play the Arabian Nights one with me. I wouldn’t even feed them blood pudding!

  5. Pam/Peejakers says:

    This sounds like fun & potentially hilarious 🙂 But I think it would probably make me too nervous, even if I did have the right group of friends to play this with. Especially if you’re playing the Spy! Really, the level of deception involved sounds kind of meta. Pretending to be a spy who is not only pretending *no*t to be a spy, but also pretending to be trying to find out who the spy is while *actually* trying to find out where you are . . . omg!

    Though it might be pretty entertaining to watch other people doing all that 😉 I volunteer as Official Observer 🙂

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