What do you get when you stuff Rikki Tahta, designer of the ever-lovely Coup, into one end of a particle accelerator, and Spyfall — or better yet, A Fake Artist Goes to New York, which I still contend is the better of the two — into the opposite side, then flip the power switch?
Nothing, you goof. That’s not how particle accelerators work.
If this were a television program featured on the CW, however, the unholy merging of these two substances would result in The Chameleon. It would also very likely be improbably attractive and infuriatingly dramatic, but let’s set that aside for now.
If you’re like me — as in, someone who enjoys social deduction games but doesn’t take them so seriously that every weekend revolves around an increasingly aggressive ongoing metagame of One Night Ultimate Werewolf — then you’re probably aware of Spyfall. It’s that game where everyone is in some location, like a restaurant or submarine or chop shop. Everyone but one person, anyway. That’s the spy. And while it’s everybody’s job to ask questions of one another that will simultaneously signal that they’re the good guys without revealing anything too specific, it’s the spy’s task to, well, figure out where the heck he is.
Like so many of this brand of party game since Dixit, it’s a living, breathing example of the impossibility of true communication. A clue that seems obvious to you will sow suspicion in the minds of your most trusted loved ones. Existential dread eventually settles in. It’s inevitable.
In some ways The Chameleon is a direct evolution of Spyfall. At least if we accept that progress means that things will get smaller and more efficient with time.
Here’s the deal. Everyone can see a sheet at the center of the table, a four-by-four grid of entries in a shared subject. Artists, say. Inventions. Phobias. That sort of thing. As in Spyfall, one player is the odd man out. They can see the sixteen entries as well as anybody else, but they aren’t holding the decoder card that tells them which one is being highlighted that round.
Already this has at least one advantage over Spyfall, in that the chameleon has some idea what they’re angling for. When the topic is Zoo Animals, and more importantly, when you can see what everybody else is working with, it’s a little bit easier to sell people on the idea that you’re one of the herd. Spyfall’s lack of reference cards has never been more conspicuous.
The Chameleon takes this one step further. Rather than going around the table and having everyone ask questions, here everybody gets to say a single word. “Kibble.” “Stretchy.” “Nervous.” “Stripes,” says the guy who always gives too-obvious clues. “Ogre,” says your eight-year-old niece. Most of her clues have something to do with rhymes or indicating the first letter of the animal in question.
It’s an utter joy to play these sorts of games with young people, by the way.
Once everyone has uttered their word, you’re free to debate, question, harangue, prevaricate, or whatever else it takes to deduce who the chameleon is or squirrel away your shameful identity as a lizard-person. A short vote later and the round is done, wrapping up with the chameleon escaped or getting one last chance to identify the word.
It’s brisk, more so than Spyfall. Where that game could last five to eight minutes per round, it isn’t uncommon for The Chameleon to wrap up in two or three. If your chameleon gets unlucky and has to speak their word first, it might be over before it has a chance to really get going.
This is where The Chameleon both shines and occasionally feels a bit anorexic. Spyfall had a tendency to put people on the spot, even in those few short minutes. By making its main clue-giving section a rapid-fire sequence of single words, The Chameleon is less about thinking on your feet and more about the freewheeling Q&A session after the fact. Which means it’s more likely to give the odd player out a fighting chance to identify the correct word. Stutterers and deliberate thinkers, rejoice.
It’s less stressful, is what I’m saying. Whether you wanted Spyfall to be lighter may well be the determining factor in whether this is an improvement.
Either way, The Chameleon is a formidable consideration for casual get-togethers, and the fact that it comes with a dry-erase board so you can write up with your own topics is a stroke of genius. Filling in those blanks is a game in its own right.
Long story short, this lizard’s got legs. They just happen to be a bit stumpy.