on Jul 21, 2015
You remember back in your glory days, waking up in a strange place, unsure of how you got there or how the bone dry bottle of Jose Cuervo ended up in your greasy palm? Like Zack Galifianakis regaining awareness atop a blistering Saharan dune, nothing makes sense. Itâs as if you've just been subjected to an extended viewing of Cloud Atlas. This is Spyfall and damn it feels good.
Even Sammy Jankis had a system and this Soviet import does too. Half of the experience is engaging in this treacherous game of dancing along the edges of the darkness and trying to figure out just what the hell is going on, and the other half is everyone pointing their finger and telling inside jokes that stab at your liver like little alcoholic daggers of jagged steel. This hybrid social deduction and party game is all about sussing out a single spy amongst your group of friends by posing questions to each other in an attempt to clarify who's in on the killer quip.
Each non-Spy is dealt a card that has a specific location depicted from a large list. It's a mixed bag of esoteric stuff like a Space Station or Crusader Army, and mundane yet sometimes outlandish such as Circus Tent or an Office Party that more resembles Eyes Wide Shut than Microsoft. Then someone asks a question to another player without any limitations or restraint. The room for creativity and clever play is so wide open it's like the hills are alive with the sound of Nick Cave. Initially it's a struggle as players grasp for a life jacket with gems like "What is this place like?" or "Do you like the dÃ©cor?" Eventually you get fantastic subtle slices of brilliance as a buddy posits "What's at the center of our location?" for an image of a play featuring a Centaur on stage. Steve got a high-five mid-game for that one.
What's absolutely fantastic is that the question as well as the ensuing answer both offers key insight into deciphering knowledge. This two-step extension of a handshake is done with wry grins and curled eyebrows. You can't quite trust the indignant fool on the other end because one of you is the Spy. That poor sap knows about as much as John Snow and he's stuck trying to deduce what location was dealt out based solely on the revolving door of questions and answers. If at any time he feels confident in his evaluation, he can reveal himself and verbally stake his claim. If correct he gets the glory and if he fails then he gets a cascade of rotten lettuce and tomatoes followed by humiliating laughter because gaming groups roll like Monty Python in my world.
Of course players can yank the bell pull on the bus to drive play to a halt in order to call for a vote. If the table unanimously decides on a fella to accuse then he flips his card and reveals his true identity. Much like Werewolf, the group either wins or loses if they've correctly nailed the spy to the cross.
The impetus for action and underlying source of tension is a clock beating away in the background like a set of violent drums atop a V8 charged war machine in Immortan Joe's cavalcade. With only eight minutes to find what Tom Cruise can't handle, emotions rise and lines are rushed. It gets a little messy at times and things get flubbed, all in the name of good old fashioned traitorous fun.
The strongest of entries in the social deduction realm allow a breadth of freedom in weaving towards the outcome. The journey here is fraught with a necessity of creativity as players are seated around a huge sheet of canvas while crayons are slapped on the tables with an authoritative adult ordering the children to go to town. This establishes an identity that is wholly Spyfall and allows the title to earn its place in your collection as an exceptional activity of heightened enjoyment.
Spyfall boasts a very distinct feel depending on whether you're dealt that menacing Spy card or not. Your first game or two in this role will be rough indeed as you try to establish your footing atop a frayed rug that people keep shifting. When Ben points at you and asks how the weather is you'll dawdle, claiming to buy time so that you can phrase your answer in an indirect way to confound the one true traitor, but Jeremy's off to the side poking you in the gut claiming you're the weakest double-O since George Lazenby. You just have to suck it up and eat the worm.
While the experience of Spyfall is fascinating from a social and psychological perspective, from a practical one it can certainly get frustrating. Cryptozoic made a huge oversight in not including player aids and instead relying on a spread in the rulebook to list the locations. This large image in the middle of the book even suffers from the glaring mistake of cutting off a portion of the bottom row of cards, making things even harder. This glaring deficiency walks side by side with the poor artwork that doesn't help to establish even an Ally McBeal-thin mood. Some of the locations work due to their sheer over the top nature, but the Spy graphic and cover image come across as second rate and detract from the game's otherwise phenomenal merits.
I would unequivocally take poor graphic design and lack of practical support over a release with flawed gameplay. As an entire product the faults should be ignored and the merits lauded as this is a fresh game ready to pull you along by the jugular. Next time you're sitting around playing "Would you rather?" pull out Spyfall and kick it up a notch. With any luck you'll be in on the joke and you will be the one poking Jeremy in the ribs.