Critical Play: Competitive Analysis – Spyfall

For my game, I chose Spyfall, an analog card game created in 2014 by Alexandr Ushan. The game’s theme revolves around investigators and spies — one player is randomly chosen to be a spy and the others are investigators. The investigators do not know the identity of the spy and their objective is to determine the spy’s identity. The spy’s objective is to not reveal their identity. Furthermore, the investigators know a secret location (randomly chosen from a finite list) which the spy does not know. From these mechanics, a dynamic emerges — investigators are able to ask each other probing questions about the secret location to try to figure out who does not know the secret location and thus is the spy. To prevent the investigators from simply revealing the secret location outright, the spy has a second possible objective — to learn the identity of the secret location. If the spy accomplishes either of their objectives — avoiding detection or identifying the secret location — then the spy wins.

Spyfall’s competitive social framework evokes fellowship and challenge. The game is reminiscent of other identity games such as Among Us, Avalon, and Secret Hitler. However, unlike these games, Spyfall does not have any special roles, abilities or mini-games — the only clue players have to determine the spy’s identity is a single shared location. Spyfall’s simple, straightforward gameplay allows the players to focus on strategically quizzing each other and presents an easier learning curve for new players. This easier learning curve makes Spyfall a favorite at parties and other social gatherings and (I think) as a result, unlike most other identity games, it is typically lighthearted. Its lighthearted nature is further reinforced by its colorful cartoonish cards — a graphic design choice welcoming to new players. Since it is a board game, it does not have any inherent mechanism to prevent abuse. However, its lighthearted nature helps reinforce a culture of camaraderie instead of the sometimes cutthroat and antagonistic gameplay often present in rounds of Avalon or Secret Hitler.

However, while I greatly enjoyed playing Spyfall, I did notice one issue pop up from time to time. Different spies often have very different skill levels — worse spies are typically discovered very quickly and better spies can evade detection for a long time. This discouraged one player who was discovered very quickly whenever they were a spy — they felt that they did not have much chance to learn the role of a spy because they were discovered so quickly and felt bad for making the round so short. We spent a couple rounds experimenting with having two spies instead of one, and we found that this helped even out the spy team skill level and round length. When the player who had previously been discouraged was able to be a spy as part of a two-person team, they had a much more fun time.

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