Spyfall is, by far, my favorite new game in quite some time. It easily beats out Dead of Winter.
Some time ago, I lost any excitement for playing The Resistance/Avalon. I had more or less played it out. Spyfall is the first game to manage to make me feel the "need to play this 100 times in a row" desire since The Resistance.
Through the magic of Keller probability, I managed to be selected as the Spy for my first three games. This proved to be exceptionally difficult, as I didn't think to look through the list of locations before we began. While we opened the rulebook to the list and laid it in the center of the table, I was terrified of being caught looking at it and had to try to guess the current location with only fleeting glances at the book while other players were looking at a question asker. It was tense, and I managed to win my first two games before losing the third because I hadn't spotted one of the locations on the list.
The Keller probability continued as I ended up being the spy 8 out of 12 plays that first night. It was a wonderful triumph to not just escape detection in 6 of those 8 plays, but to watch as the most cunning player, Jay, was able to spot me a few times but unable to convince the others as I BSed my way to victory. His agony at my wily-ness was so very delicious.
This game was an insta-buy for me.
In trying to determine why I enjoy this game so much, it helps to position it within my gaming "slots". The games I enjoy, while including quite a bit of variation as a whole, tend to fall within one of several categories of enjoyment. Some of these categories are economic (Acquire/Imperial), trick taking (Wizard), deck-building (Core Worlds/Eminent Domain), and social deduction. There are a couple of oddballs in my favorites, but the games I like generally stick to one of those archetypes.
Social deduction is a category that I tend to burn through, which is not something that has happened with the others. Werewolf was lynched by one too many family Thanksgiving marathon sessions. The Resistance was exposed as too random. Resistance Avalon conjured an extra year of life into the mechanic. But even that fell under a spell of repetitiveness.
A common problem with all of those games is information. They all start with a majority of players in the dark about the game state. This means that most people, most of the time, will be acting completely randomly. Meaningful decisions come late in the game, if at all. This explains why Avalon was able to breathe new life into The Resistance for me: it gave another player meaningful decisions from the very start of the game. It also explains why Battlestar Galactica has never started to get old for me even after all these years: starting the game with no information about the traitors doesn't matter because humans have other interesting problems to deal with early on.
Spyfall flips that. Most of the players do start with information and only one does not. And even that player has a specific task to act upon early. Every move (question) is meaningful for every player at the table, since the game is about information exchange, encoding, and decoding.
Spyfall also employs thread-the-needle tension. Non-spies want to reveal their identity to everyone, but the only way to do that is to reveal the information they have, which is exactly what the spy wants them to do. This works only because the spy is allowed to end the game at any time to guess the location. This rule is key to the whole game working.
I can't stress the above enough. The spy-guess rule is the linchpin of the entire game. A lazier social game would not have that rule and just expect players to "play in the spirit" of the game. Well, screw that. Instead, the designer wisely set the rules up to incentivize players to act in the spirit of the game instead of relying on a vague, unenforceable admonition. The rules make someone who is trying to win indistinguishable from someone who is playing in the spirit of the game, despite this obviously meant to be played as a fun party game.
Is it possible to have fun with a game that fails to do this? Yes. As said earlier, I enjoy Battlestar Galactica despite it relying on very fuzzy, B.S. rules about revealing information on what cards you play to a skill challenge. But it always feels incredibly awkward when it comes to policing table talk for those rules. A mechanic where Cyclons could crush the humans if they knew what everyone played would improve that game immeasurably.
However, right now, I'd rather play 3 hours of Spyfall than a game of BSG. And I'm pretty sure the effective use of the thread-the-needle tension is the cause of that.
Copyright © 2015-2019 Michael R. Keller
archive by Andres Gleixner from the Noun Project
archive by Andres Gleixner from the Noun Project