Spyfall – Critical Play

Spyfall – What is it?

Although I played Spyfall from the online website netgames.io, Spyfall is originally a 2014 card game by Alexandr Ushan (published by Hobby World). Spyfall’s target audience is those ages 13 and up (according to the publisher), played with 3 – 8 players. However, the ideal number of players is 6.

In the game, all players except one (called the “spy”) know of a certain location. Through a short timed session of typically 3-8 minutes (less time if less players), players ask each other questions about the location to discern who is the spy. Non-spy players win if they correctly guess who the spy is. The caveat is that if the spy can correctly guess the location at the end of the game, the spy wins and everyone else loses.

First, roles and information (spy or not spy with location) are assigned to players. Only one spy exists.

Then, players are given Spyfall’s list of possible locations, and a timer counting down the time until the vote starts. Players converse to try to figure out who is the spy, and the spy tries to figure out the location.

After the timer is up, players vote on who they think the spy is. All players argue for their position, and voting only ends when consensus is reached.

Finally, the results are revealed. If the spy was not correctly identified, the spy automatically wins. If the spy was identified, the spy is given a chance to win if they correctly guess the location.


Formal Elements

Because the spy is playing against all other players, Spyfall is a unilateral game. The objective for the spy is to figure out the location. The objective for other players is to figure out who the spy is. Initially, all players are suspicious of each other and must be careful to ask questions that do not reveal much about the location, while also discerning those with knowledge from those without. Players give vague but telling answers that display their knowledge of the location, while the spy gives vague and general answers that mask their lack of knowledge, attempting to use as much context clues as possible to construct something reasonable. The spy must be careful in wording their question and answers so as to not give away their lack of knowledge. Spyfall relies heavily on conversation skills while keeping the specific mention of the exact location taboo (forbidden act), lending to an interesting and challenging dynamic that makes the game fun. In the end, either the spy wins and all others lose, or only the spy loses and all others win. Players pretend to be a spy or insiders with information. A single round lasts around 3-8 minutes as players converse.

Compared to Other Games

Spyfall is a conversation-based game that relies on social deception, with the premise being a spy trying to figure out insider information on the location. Unlike other games of its genre where players hide their identity, like Avalon and Werewolf, the premise is simpler as there are only two roles — spy and not-spy. Different players do not have special powers or actions. In this way, Spyfall is much better in being friendly to new players, making it an easy game to pick up and learn on the fly. However, this lack of variety can also make it less replayable; after each player has had the chance to be the spy a few times, the onus is on the players to make conversation different each round, attempting to make up their own strategies on how to be less suspicious, rather than any core game mechanics.

Types of Fun

Spyfall is a fun game when there are a sufficient number of players, and depending on if player’s dynamics in conversation play out well. Thus, it is primarily a game that relies on fun from fellowship and a little of fantasy (pretending to be spy or not). The fun is derived from deception and conversation.

However, it tends to be a little obvious who the spy is with only 3 players (through simple process of elimination) and conversation, the source of the fun, must be shorter to accommodate this shortcoming. When there are too many players like 8, it becomes hard to ask each person a sufficient number of questions, making information sparse and hard to keep track of. Thus, Spyfall is not as fun with 3 players or 8 players, but can be quite fun when played with a more ideal number of players like 6.

Where it Succeeds and Fails

As noted above, Spyfall fails when the number of players is too much or too little. In a moment of spectacular failure (or fun, depending on who you are), the spy was found out after a single round of question asking (which was quick with only 3 players), and we sat in awkward silence the rest of the round because it was so obvious. Because Spyfall relies heavily on conversation to make it fun, the fun dies quickly when conversation does too.

However, Spyfall is a great icebreaker — because it relies on conversation, it’s a great party game for people to warm up to each other. When you play with a good group with fun dynamics, Spyfall succeeds amazingly in being an enjoyable game. I know we had fun teasing each other when we figured the other gave a suspicious answer.

What I Would Change

  1. Some of the locations from the list of locations is quite obscure (what is World Way II Squad?), so either allowing players to customize their own list of locations to something they are more familiar with, or giving a short description/picture of each location would be great. This way, players start out with more information to go off of, and don’t resort to searching on Google what the location they’ve been given is.
  2. Having a scratchpad or checklist (being able to cross off locations from the list) to track information learned from the conversation would help greatly in making conversations and deduction more strategical. Allowing players to move locations around and group them to form connections/find patterns could also be helpful, so players can ask better questions.
  3. The list of locations remain static, which is fine for the first few rounds, but get boring after players become more familiar with each location and find patterns between locations. Randomizing the list of locations for each round could add variety and replayability to the game.

About the author

I like animation and game dev yeet.

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