A Handful of Questions
It’s Monday evening at Château de Thurot, and you know what that means…
Hypothetical Scenario Time!
Get this: You’re at game night, but it’s been sort of a long week and you just spent the last forty minutes zoned out while Geoff explained how haikus aren’t actually measured in syllables. But now everybody’s back to talking about board games, except — uh oh! — you aren’t exactly sure which one they’re discussing. As you listen to their conversation, can you fill in the gaps and sound like you’ve been paying attention when your friends ask your opinion, or will you make an enormous fool out of yourself?
“Geoff,” Paula says, because Paula is always calling everyone by their first name when she addresses them. It’s a holdover from her day job as an elementary school teacher. “Would you say it was sort of an intrigue game? Like Battlestar Galactica, maybe?”
“Oh, sure,” Geoff replies, nodding enthusiastically. “Not exactly, but there are definitely lots of options for tricking people.”
Your mind is racing. Like Battlestar Galactica? So… Dead of Winter? One Night Ultimate Werewolf? That prerelease of Dark Moon somebody got their hands on? The five-player mode of Specter Ops? There are too many options to consider.
But before you can weed out the weaker ones, Geoff is already talking to someone else. Your ears prickle. “Is it just me, or is it pretty rare that games use schools as their settings? Or do I just not play many games set in schools?”
“No,” Elliott chimes in, “I don’t think many games want to trigger any bad childhood memories that might be associated with the public school system.” Then he laughs.
Huh? you think. Was there a school in Dead of Winter? The place where you’re most likely to scavenge books, right? No, you’re pretty certain it was a library…
Suddenly you realize everyone’s eyes are on you. Elliott has asked you a question, and only now do you remember hearing his words. “What do you think of the worker placement elements?” At least, you think that’s what he asked. Ninety percent certain. Okay, eighty.
You stammer for a moment, delivering an unconvincing approximation of having to clear your throat. Your mind races. An intrigue game, set in a school, that uses worker placement? What could it—
“Argent!” you almost shout. But instead, you answer the question that Elliott posed. “Uh, I loved it. So many mage powers, you know? I love the way they, um, interacted. And the spellbooks kept it tense. Never the same twice.”
You’re feeling pretty good right now. You’ve got that warm glow in your belly, the one that tells you you’ve done good. Now they’ll never know you tuned out of the conversation back when Geoff was explaining the difference between syllables and on (“Known more often as morae in English,” he’d informed you as you started nodding off).
But what’s this? Everyone is still staring at you. And smiling. As you watch in horror, Elliott raises a finger, pointing it right at you.
“There’s no worker placement,” he says, voice singsong, his smile growing broader. “Pause the timer.” Geoff obliges, and one by one everybody at the table points at you.
“Spy,” they hiss. “Spyyyyy.”
Welcome to Spyfall.
Reduced to its simplest form, Spyfall is about the asking of questions and the answering of questions. Dig a little deeper, and it’s about the sliver of space between connotation and denotation, the surface, literal meaning of your words versus the wellspring depths hidden beneath them. It’s about saying everything and nothing, all with the exact same words.
Consider this. Everyone at the table is dealt a card. For most of those people, their card is going to show a location — say, a supermarket, or a theater, or perhaps a beach. For those people with those cards, there will also be a word at the bottom that tells them who they are, a customer or janitor or manager or vacationer, or any number of other reasons to be at that location. And they can rest easy in the knowledge that while everybody else will have a different role, they will also be at the exact same location.
Except one, that is. And their job is to figure out which person is that imposter, that object that does not belong. For them, Spyfall is a game of enforcing the security of their location.
For the other person, the poor sap dealt the spy card, Spyfall is about pooping yourself with anxiety.
Once everybody knows their role, the clock starts ticking and the questions start flying. One at a time, players direct a question at someone else about your shared location. Then the questioned becomes the questioner, and so on.
There’s an art to this. Your goal is to pose questions that will hopefully clue in other friendly players that you know where you’re located, while at the same time not letting the spy figure out the very same thing. Or maybe you’re the spy and your goal is to ask piercing questions without coming across as too obvious. Or worse, too oblivious. The instant someone suspects another player of being the spy, they can stop the clock and call for a vote, possibly outing the spy right then and there. By the same token, the spy can also stop the clock to guess the location, possibly ending the round early thanks to your blabbermouth friends and their obvious answers.
While most games begin with obvious offerings like, “What do you do here?” or “What do you smell around you?”, after a few rounds usually you’ll hear more interesting and creative queries, stuff like, “How does the motion of this location affect you?” and “What about this place gives you a migraine?”
There are a couple really cool things about this. For one, the free-flowing nature of the play leaves a lot of room for players to investigate leads. There’s basically only one real rule governing the question-asking portion of the game — that you can’t direct an inquiry at the person who just asked you one. Thus, it’s possible to spend a couple minutes redirecting the spotlight back towards the player you’ve come to suspect. Or, as the spy, you might pretend to suspect someone, perhaps getting them outed and ending the round in your favor. Or maybe just question the player known for taking a while to cobble together questions of his own. Those forty seconds he spends coming up with a question are forty seconds the other players won’t be using to deduce your dark secret.
The other cool thing about Spyfall is that it’s nearly always good for a laugh. And when I say “nearly always,” I mean over the course of dozens of rounds I have yet to see an exception. Most games end with friends breathlessly explaining their choices, why they thought so-and-so was the spy, how they deduced the location, asking what the hell Mark meant with that one weird answer. Great, hilarious stuff like that.
In one round, I was the unfortunate spy. I’d come to believe our location was the Crusades, mostly because everybody kept talking about infidels and holy stuffs. So when a friend asked me, “Dan, which of these was your favorite?”, the best course of action was to answer, “The Third, of course.” Because yeah, the Third Crusade is my favorite crusade, but also because it seemed like it could somehow, in a weird way, apply to other places. Like, the third arctic base is my favorite or something. The third casino. Whatever. The point is, it was such a good answer that all suspicion was suddenly cast off, and everyone began searching desperately for someone else to point the finger at. Meanwhile, I was wracking my brain trying to figure out if we were actually out on Crusade.
Hands down, Spyfall is one of the best party games I’ve ever played, accomplishing a whole lot of fun with just a few decks of location cards and a handful of questions. Unlike one particularly common brand of party game, victory isn’t always awarded to the most charismatic or most alpha of players. It can be won — or flubbed — by just about anyone, just because you happened to say the lighting in the supermarket was “bad” rather than “too bright.” In a span of time as short as ten minutes, it provides moments of brilliance, insight, floundering, and back to brilliance.
I vote you’re the spy.