Critical Play – Spyfall (Jonathan Kula)

  • Spyfall by Alexandr Ushan – Played on, originally a card game!
  • 13+ ; as far as I can tell, it’s widely marketed to anyone with a group of friends to play with. It’s a pretty light game (rounds are very short and independent of each other).
  • The game is 3 to 8 players; it’s driven forward by a sequence of very quick “rounds” of questioning within a unilateral competition (many vs. one) where the one is unknown, but the one doesn’t know the “location.” The goal for the players is to find out who the one (the “spy”) is, while the spy’s goal is to discover the location– this means there’s an information tension. The only way to indicate who is a player is to convince other players they know the location– but since all information is shared in the open, they risk informing the spy as well. This tension makes the game interesting! (here you can see that I know the location and am given a role to roleplay as– which gives the spy some cover especially for a weird answer or two (it could just be a weird role!))
  • A Fake Artist Goes To New York is another really similar one– same principal (it uses the same tension– how to share information publicly without revealing that information, vs. a “spy”/impostor who wants to not be discovered). I think Jackbox’s Fibbage could also be compared– although it doesn’t use that same tension, it does still make use of the idea of “blending in.” In it, players try and blend trivia answers in with the true answer, with the goal to deceive others into picking their answer while also sussing out the truth– here, the tension makes it hard for other players to find the right answer (the players could all agree to make their answers obvious so everyone gets it right every time, which would technically max out everyone’s points, but then what’s the point?). I think Spyfall gets points for being maybe the simplest version of this concept: the information on cards shuffled is all you need, everything else can just happen verbally. This is even simpler than A Fake Artist Goes To New York, which requires drawing implements.
  • The game was fun!! I think navigating the tension gives this suspense that plays off nicely when all is revealed (and can make you feel Smart™ and/or Cool™ in outwitting the others– and the more rounds you play, the more evenly distributed this is!). The rounds are short, so nobody gets too invested that the fun gets stuck, and with the timer short enough there’s actually an urgency that encourages mistakes (and increases fun!). I think the game can live and die by its timer though– too long and you run out of questions to ask (and it gets too easy), and if it’s too short it can be too frantic. Our first game had a timer set at three minutes (!!) which was way too fast especially for a new player. Having a list of all possible locations is also pretty important I think, otherwise the possibilities are too widespread.
  • As mentioned above, our first game was only 3 minutes long and we had new players, which meant that it was a little hectic. On the flipside, I think the most epic moment (for me at least!) was when I was the spy, and I got each of the other players to suspect each other. (Yes!)
  • Here are a couple potential suggestions to improve the game!
    • Have a wider or more varying set of potential roles for each location. Once you start to memorize the roles for each location, it becomes much easier as the spy to figure out where you are. Alternatively, have players come up with roles– but be sure they make it interesting!
    • Add extra “brownie points” for working certain things in in your answers. (e.g., each player gets an additional card; a card might say, ‘work the phrase “dang howdy!” into a response’ or ‘despite your role, you truly hate this place. Act like it.’). This could add to the chaos and give the spy even more cover, while adding to the fun element too!

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