There’s a lot of fun to be had with a social deduction game, a type of party game in which players share out bits of hidden information with the goal of being the first to guess the secrets the others are hiding. Werewolf and its many variant are an example, as is the luridly-named Secret Hitler. Spyfall is another example, a game that engages creativity and puts one player’s talents at deception and vagueness on the spot.
In Spyfall, each player receives a card indicating a location the group is at – all but one, who instead receives the Spy card. By asking questions of other players, you attempt to simultaneously convey that you are “in the know” (and therefore not the spy) as well as to out whoever doesn’t give answers that match up with the location on the cards.
This can be an entertaining exercise – even loyal players will sometimes prove too vague or too unhelpful, provoking natural suspicion – but Spyfall suffers from a common issue with games of this type: the creativity tax. Simply put, there are times when you will feel tired, hungry, hot, cold, itchy, scratchy or otherwise unfocused and incapable of providing the required cunning necessary to even concoct a simple question. I have not once managed to play a round without the struggle to invent something to ask another player.
Compounding this issue is the fact that there is, of course, a fixed pool of possibilities, which the Spy must know to draw from. There is only one copy of the location list (the center of the rulebook) meaning either the Spy has to have sufficient context that the location could be guessed without a pool, the Spy has to be sufficiently familiar with the pool that the rulebook doesn’t need to be checked, or every player being asked a question must take some time to stare at the location pool before giving an answer. Needless to say, early rounds can see the Spy outed simply by not knowing the available range of deceptions.
In our recent game, for instance, the first clue I received involved “drilling,” and the second involved “sights/sites.” I was reasonably confident that we were at a mine shaft, but there was one small complication – I hadn’t yet been asked a question, and thus couldn’t discreetly get the rulebook in front of me to confirm that “mine shaft” was a possibility. Lo and behold, it was not – we were on a military base.
With so much of the actual “game” existing entirely in the creative capabilities of its players, Spyfall is little more than a tool used to engage same. It probably works if everyone is in the zone, but I’ve had a hard time getting people to keep playing for more than a couple of short rounds, and found myself low on motivation to really try. For anything Spyfall does, there are quite simply many games that do that thing better. It’s not a terrible filler game, it’s just outclassed by its tepid contribution to its own ambitions.