Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 15+mins
Play Time (Goof): Sounds about right
Producer: Cryptozoic & Hobby World
Designer: Alexander Ushan
As a child I used to pretend I was a spy, sneaking around the house, seeing if I could follow members of my family without them knowing, calling in updates to my “Guy in the Chair” (my favorite line from Spiderman: Homecoming… you know… the classic spy movie).
I have a fascination with the espionage genre in tabletop gaming. Awhile back I glanced at the game Specter Ops, and raved about the thrilling heart stopping action I felt as the Agent (read: spy). When I was introducing a new person to my gaming group recently I discovered a significant portion of my games involve either hidden movement or some sort of traitor element. But Spyfall takes the theme in a very different direction, a social deduction direction. A… party game direction.
Look, party games get a bad rap. I think the issue people have with this type of game comes from a lack of mechanics which you use to outplay people. They work best when there’s a simple concept which everyone can grasp in a minute or two. Allowing the gameplay to evolve naturally. Where this can fall down is with the people you play with. Some people don’t find this type of steered conversation to come naturally or as a source of fun. But when you get the right people together, party games can be an absolute blast.
Where I think party games truly shine is when you have a large number of people who want to play together and you don’t have a whole day to allow everyone to take “tactical turns”. A good party game keeps everyone involved during most of the phases, whether it be listening, lying, deceiving, arguing, or watching for those slight non-verbal ques.
So how does Spyfall measure up? Does it work as a spy game? Does it work as a party game? Or does it drop dead like I would if I were an actual spy (Secret Agent G-00-F?). Read the following dossier to find out.
Lets run through my check list from the introduction:
Simple concept. Spyfall is about a spy who doesn’t know where they are, and the rest of the group trying to determine who among them is the spy. If the spy works out where they are first, they win. If the team accuses the correct person of being a spy first they win. Took less than a minute to right the paragraph so reading it should be a breeze. Big fat tick in the yes box right up.
Guided Conversation. Gameplay occurs in the form of questions which you ask one another around the table, looking intently at the way a person answers to determine if they actually know where everyone is (and in my case trying to make them as uncomfortable as possible). Depending on the people playing I’ve found this to be both a fun challenge and like pulling teeth in an “enhanced interrogation” scene. I think a list of “beginner questions” would really help new players. Just five or so generic questions which might keep the game moving if someone is uncomfortable or unsure of what to ask. Those moments of “oooh interesting answer. I wonder what question this person will ask…they’re taking a long time…okay I’m bored now…” are more frequent then I’d like. Having said this, I’ve also seen some people get really creative. And the role provided on the bottom corner of the gives players a fun persona to take on and helps with answering the questions fired your way.
Large Number of Players. This is one of those cases I’m convinced the box is lying. It says Spyfall can be played with three to eight players. Lies. Honestly I don’t think it works well with less than five. Any less and the probability of the Spy being asked a question or expected to ask a question first up is too high. And the suspect pool is too low to effectively pull off the Spy role. The more people, the more interesting conversations which get held. But I’ll be honest, I haven’t had a chance to play at the highest player counts yet. I’ll be sure to update you all when I do if too many players imbalances the game as well.
BUT! (Continuing on my last point). This game runs so smoothly with five and six players. Everyone is engaged at all times. Listening for responses and trying to decide what they will ask next. Each question a person asks ideally takes a few seconds of conversation and a round can take a couple of minutes. If I have a larger group looking to play a game, I’ll probably pull out Spyfall.
Pros: ++Simple Concept, ++Fun and Capable of Handling Higher Player Counts, +Guided Conversation
Cons: -Lack of Help for New Players, -Not Fun at Lower Player Counts
The theme in Spyfall is a bit odd. Everyone, even the guy working the concession stand and the janitor, is trying to work out who the Spy is. I guess they could be undercover operatives from an enemy faction but this isn’t ever really explained. (Check rulebook to make sure. Nope. It’s really not in there. Remember to delete this series of notes. Seriously, they can’t fall into enemy hands).
The fact the Spy has no knowledge of where they are always struck me as bizarre. Like they’d been taken to the location via boxed crate, and they’re blind, and there’s no music or ambient sounds playing, and the spy in the artwork is a different spy to the one at the gaming table… seems like a stretch. Even for someone who is willing to suspend reality at a moment’s notice (when I have kids trips to the supermarket are going to be insanely imaginative).
So don’t go into Spyfall expecting a simulated spy experience. However, there’s something to be said for the way you’re attempting to hide among the group. The feeling of “they don’t know I’m not one of them” and attempting to play mind games and use what information you have around you in order to effectively blend in. It captures the emotions of being a Spy in a semi-abstract way. And it does so really well, particularly in higher player counts.
Pros: ++”I am totally hiding among you”
Cons: -Concept is a Stretch
The artwork in Spyfall is a crack up. You find yourself taking a look through the artwork on the card to see if you can pick the spy and what other oddities are present in the scenario in front of you. But this can also be an issue. See the ‘Spy’ card always looks the same. It’s got a picture of the Spy on it and in big letters the word “SPY”.
So… it denotes you are the spy. Do you get the idea? You are the Spy. Yeah I’m dragging this one out a bit to illustrate a point. The point not actually being you’re the Spy, because I’m sure you get who the Spy is by now (hint: it’s you). The point being it takes less than a second to look at the card and work out you’re the spy. So people around the table can tell if you quickly put the card down. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, when you’re new to the game and don’t know all the locations you end up staring at them in the middle of the table trying to work out where you all are. It really detracts from the experience. I don’t know why they didn’t put a list of the locations on the Spy card. Just the names would have been enough. Refresh your memory when you first get given the card, which means you don’t get given away so quick. And players often check their card to see whether some answer fits in a strange way or not so you can disguise your activity a bit easier as well.
The overall component quality of Spyfall is fantastic. The cards feel nice, the colours really pop, and it sets the mood to get engaged with the game. But a huge score in the pros column for me is how quick it is to set Spyfall up and get the game rolling. With another social deduction game I’m quite fond of, namely Avalon: The Resistance, it can take a while to set up, nothing gargantuan like Arkham Horror or Zombicide: Black Plague (games which also cater to the same number of players), but long enough people start getting antsy or frustrated. Spyfall, you can basically tip the cards out of the table, give a couple shuffles and be ready to go. No real wait time, no groans of “how do we play this? How much longer till we can start? What do you mean I can’t get grimy food all over your cards?”
Spyfall comes with 30 locations. This is REALLY important. For a social deduction game like Spyfall, a lesser amount of locations would really eat into it’s replayability. With 30 locations, and questions which likely fit multiple scenes, it really keeps things fresh.
Pros: ++Component Quality, +Artwork is Fun, +Set Up, +Lots of Locations.
Cons: –Lack of Player Aids.
By all accounts, Spyfall should feel like a “filler”. It’s quick, easy to set up, easy to learn, and fun to play. But I can’t bring myself to treat it like one. It’s fun, and it’s actually pretty intense. It feels like a Drama exercise more than a Tabletop game, and one which I genuinely enjoy.
I actually had some feedback recently from the parent of a friend who stated they enjoyed the deceptive element. Which is unusual for someone with such a strong moral compass. But this is why party games work, they give you permission to act a bit silly. They give you permission to behave in ways outside of how you conduct your daily life. Which may be why, as stated in the intro, some people don’t like them. They’re comfortable in their box, and don’t want to be forced out of it (Which is fine. There’s a game out there for everyone and this isn’t for them).
I give Spyfall:
Brief note here, I spoke with a friend about my idea of a list of basic questions for people to have if they’re new to the game. He suggested a list of questions as well as a list of the locations on the same page, this way people can be looking at either and it doesn’t give away whether they’re a spy or not. I think this is an awesome idea and I’ll let you know how it goes.
A BIG heartfelt thank you to Gateway to Games for sending along a copy of Spyfall for me to review. Gateway to Games are offering readers of TGR 5% off at checkout if you use the promo code GOOF5. Supporting the people who support The Goof Review goes a long way to keeping this website growing. So check them out HERE.
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