This article is about board games, how they are designed and played, but most importantly how they are talked about. My goal in writing it is to help people who give reviews of board games to give better ones. My thesis will be that games produce certain subjective qualities of experience, and that a good board game review should analyze and expose these subjective qualities in an objective way.
Since this article makes sweeping judgments on the nature of board games, you might wonder whether I’m the kind of person you should listen to about this sort of thing. I’m not so sure I am, but here are my qualifications. I’ve been an avid eurogamer (if that’s still a word) for about twenty years. I’ve designed a few games informally but never published one. Over that same period I’ve worked in video game development and designed or helped design many video games. You’ve probably heard of at least one of the titles I’ve worked on: Ultima Online, Brothers in Arms, Crush the Castle, and Doug dug are some of the more popular ones. I’ve also taught game development at the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University. I think it’s probably fair to say that I understand video game design and development well, but in the realm of board games I am merely a passionate amateur. Take my comments, therefore, for what they’re worth.
The Problem with Board Game Reviews
The problem with board game reviews is that they usually tell us almost nothing about whether we’ll enjoy a game.
Most current reviews boil down to, “I enjoyed it; therefore you probably will too,” or, “I was bored/frustrated by it; therefore you probably will be too.” Reviews usually include a summary of how to play game followed by a reflection on the player’s personal experience in playing it. These reflections are helpful as far as they go, but it’s usually difficult to assess how likely we will be to have the same kind of experience. There can be little doubt that negative reviews tend, generally speaking, to flow from players who lost the game and positive reviews from those who won. Perhaps not. But it’s impossible to tell, because there is usually too little substance in the critique of the review to decide whether the praise or complaints are objective—that is, whether they will often be experienced across different types of players and groups with both winners and losers.
Because reviews lack objective authority, a game’s popularity—it’s geek rating on boardgamegeek.com, for example—is not only our primary, but virtually our only way of deciding whether a game is any good. But this is a poor measure. I may enjoy a type of game most players dislike, or dislike what most players like. A game may earn popularity through marketing, or by being a sequel, or by coming from a well-known designer, or through sheer infectious hype, rather than through the merit of simply being a good game.
The problem with many board game reviews, then, is that they talk objectively only about rules—information we can gain from many sources—and talk about everything else with such subjectivity that it’s difficult to know what it all means for any other player.
This failure of critique is a problem not only for players but for designers. Designers learn to create better games by understanding the reactions of players. But if those reactions amount to “I didn’t like it” and “We had a blast”, how can designs improve?
Poor reviews, however, are not really the fault of the reviewers. Although board games have been around nearly as long as mankind has, we are still developing our understanding of games as a medium, as an artform. Collectively we lack the language to discuss games objectively.
What we need is a better understanding of what makes a game “good” or “bad” and a deeper vocabulary for expressing a game’s strengths and faults. This understanding must speak objectively while dealing with the subjective. That is, it must speak in a way that will help players of all varieties to interpret a review while embracing the fact that games, after all, are works of art that are first and foremost experienced in different ways by different individuals.
A full understanding and a complete vocabulary of game criticism is not only beyond the scope of this article but beyond this scope of this writer. But here are some initial thoughts that may help fuel better reviews.
What is a Board Game?
A board game is a set of objects and instructions intended to produce a certain experience for a group of people, an experience with certain mental, imaginative, social, physical, and emotional qualities.
It’s important to recognize that the function of a board game is to produce an experience. A board game encourages players to move things around, to imagine things, to feel things, to think things, and to relate to other players in certain ways. It shapes an hour or two of your life into something better than it might otherwise have been. “Better” often means “more enjoyable,” but it can also mean “more beneficial” (in the case of an educational game, for example) or even “more relational” (in the case of a romantic game, for example, or merely a game involving teamwork). We choose to spend an evening playing a game rather than watching television because we think that the game will bring us laughter, challenge, learning, or personal connection more than other options would. Games operate on people. The value of a board game is all to do with the experience it tends to produce in groups of people.
Although a board game invariably involves rules, a game is not its rules, and a well-designed game consists of more than “good rules.” A game’s rules serve the mental, social, and other qualities of the experience the game works to produce, but the rules are not alone in producing it. For many players, good artwork can amplify the experience and poor artwork likewise can diminish it. A design with water-tight rules can make so little sense thematically that players have a hard time caring. On the other hand, a game with loose, even flimsy rules can provide beautiful experiences because of the game’s imaginative force. (Once Upon a Time comes to mind as a potent example. Dungeons and Dragons might be another: would anyone play it merely on the strength of the mechanics if the imaginative aspects weren’t rich and immersive?) No one remembers Sheriff of Nottingham for its rules per se: you remember it for its social aspects, the laughter and lying and bluffing and banter those rules produce in your group. Rules are essential, but not the whole story.
The task of a designer, therefore, is not merely to create a coherent set of rules motivating meaningful choice, but to craft a human experience that is mentally, imaginatively, socially, physically, and emotionally satisfying. Coherent and well-crafted rules are the essential core of game design, but not the whole. They are necessary, but not sufficient. The goal of game design, therefore, is broader than players usually imagine. A game review should explain the rules but should also explain the game’s effect on the mind, the imagination, the social dynamics of groups, and so on.
It’s oddly easy to forget that board games merely influence, not control, players. Board gaming, like video gaming, is an “active” medium, by which we mean that it is an art form that requires the active involvement of the “audience”, the players. This is in contrast to passive entertainment like television and film. In these media the art itself does almost everything; the audience merely sits and receives, watching and listening. But in games, and most of all in board games, the player is active and the “piece”—the game itself—waits to be acted upon.
This is easy to forget because players tend to be so compliant to actually read and obey the game’s rules. Yet everything the players do they do by choice. The game does nothing. Without them it would be nothing more than a few bits of paper and wood and plastic slowly turning yellow in a silent coffin.
In a way there is no “board game”. There is a set of objects and written instructions that inspire players—or fail to—to engage by their own choice in an organized activity for an hour or so. It is the most passive of media, requiring the most active of audiences. This is its glory and its humility. The goodness or badness of a game is deeply bound up in its ability to motivate players to open the box, to encourage them to read and understand the rules, to teach them to engage in an enjoyable and edifying activity, and to provide them with pleasing and durable elements—tokens, cards, dice, boards, and so on—with which to pursue that activity.
A board game, then, is a set of objects and instructions that produces, or works to produce, an experience. A review of a board games should analyze and expose what kind of experience the game works to produce and how effective it is in doing so.
In order to critique board games well we need to understand what makes up an “experience” in the way I’ve been using the word, and how games produce these experiences.
The Qualities of an Experience
I find it helpful to analyze a board gaming experience in terms of five distinct but interrelated qualities: mental, imaginative, social, physical, and emotional. Each of these qualities answers the question, “What is the game like to play?” from a different aspect of human awareness. I am not here using the word “quality” to speak of a game’s goodness or badness—it’s quality as a product—but in the more philosophical sense of the word. A quality of a board game experience is simply something that marks that experience, something that makes it what it is. A game’s “quality” tells us what the game is like.
Here are the five qualities I find most useful.
The Mental Quality
The mental quality of an experience is perhaps the one we most readily associate with board games. What does the game do to our minds? What kinds of thoughts, analyses, calculations, or judgments does it elicit?
Abstract strategy games like go and chess tend to cultivate and reward deep analytical thinking. Power Grid or Modern Art, though not as analytical, call for some amount of mathematical calculation. Most European-style games invoke the kind of intuitive decisions that most players find more comfortable. Ticket to Ride invites us to intuitively analyze graphs of destinations and paths between them; Small World to decide the best moment to retire a dwindling army. A game’s design influences how we think for an hour or so, what we do with our brains. A good review should describe not only the rules that produce this influence, but the kind of thinking—analytical, mathematical, spatial, intuitive—that is produced.
The mental quality of the experience consists not only in the types of thinking involved but in the rhythm of thought, the overall activity of the mind. Take, for example, the contrast between Power Grid and Ticket to Ride. One of Power Grid’s most striking features is that the game consists of a repeated cycle between four fairly distinct sub-activities: auctioning, buying resources, claiming cities, and cashing in (“bureaucracy”). These sub-activities are sufficiently different that players experience a mental shift when moving from one to another. It’s common for new players to struggle to remember what activity comes next, or even, once reminded, how to do it. The mental juggling associated with moving between activities is a major aspect of the Power Grid experience, either a detraction or a benefit depending on whether a player enjoys that kind of juggling.
Ticket to Ride, on the other hand, is a game of unbroken focus. Turns are designed to move quickly, normally just a few seconds per turn. The complexity of the map and the interplay between the colors of cards and the routes available provide a perpetual tableau for analysis and decision-making. Consequentially, Ticket to Ride players may often be found huddled around the board, staring intently, utterly consumed in the choices before them, in an unbroken meditation, and this mental immersion gives the game its appeal for those kinds of players. Yet players who dislike that degree of focus, or this homogeneity of play, or players who are simply distracted easily, can disengage from the game and cause distraction to the other players. The game’s mental quality depends on turns moving rapidly; when a player takes a minute or more to play, the effect is destroyed and the game’s appeal is diminished. The mental quality of the Ticket to Ride experience, therefore, is one of mental focus and immersion. Any review of Ticket to Ride should describe that effect and evaluate how successful the game is in producing and sustaining it.
The mental quality of the experience produced by a game, then, is how the game feels to play—”feels” not emotionally, but mentally. It is what the game does to our minds.
The Imaginative Experience
Game designers and reviewers often talk about a game’s “thematic” elements, by which we mean its setting, story, mood, and artwork. The game’s theme is what gives the game a grip on your imagination. Any game can be boiled down to abstract tokens and counters; its theme connects these symbols to elements in your memory—whether realistic or fantastical—that help give meaning to the mechanics and amplify the game’s appeal. Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, for example, is generally well loved; but who would play it if the players weren’t invited to imagine themselves as hobbits adventuring under the ominous shadow of Sauron? Lewis and Clark’s or Francis Drake’s historical attachments are surely part of their appeal.
The imaginative experience provided by a game is usually captured sufficiently by its marketing text. Reviews need not dwell on this aspect other than to point out unusual successes or failures in achieving the desired imaginative effect. Players tend to be highly tolerant of thematic failures. What, for example, are players really doing in Ticket to Ride when they lay out train cars, and in what sense are they using “tickets” to reach “destinations” (both words invoking the language of tourism rather than of industry)? The imaginative effects of a game are often best left unanalyzed. Yet sometimes a game’s thematic peculiarities are significant to the overall quality of the experience. Hardly anyone can emerge from Spyfall, for instance, without asking why a spy of all people is so blind, deaf, and ignorant as to not be able to recognize his current location. Therefore designers, reviewers, and critics should be mindful of a game’s imaginative quality; but this is one quality of experience that is already recognized as an important aspect of game design.
The Social Experience
The effect a game has on any particular group of people tends to be varied and unpredictable. Individuals are complex; when they mix, their complexity multiplies. A game—say, Pit—that is uproarious good fun among cheerful, extraverted, perhaps tipsy old friends may produce nervous caution and hurt feelings amongst unfamiliar introverts. Yet game designers are, if nothing else, responsible for crafting games in such a way that the game lures diverse groups into a more or less common experience. When we talk about games, we must think carefully about what the game does to shape the social experience of the players and consider what types of individuals and groups are likely to accept, enjoy, reject, or dislike that experience.
Part of Sheriff of Nottingham’s charm is its remarkable success in inspiring a particular kind of social quality in diverse groups of people. The success begins, frankly, with the artwork. The image on the box, echoed in the standee, of a fat, smug, contemptuous, appraising Sheriff invites the player assuming that role to take on that demeanor. The thematic elements merge with the core game mechanics to thrust players into their appropriate roles: obsequious, or defiant, or poker-faced merchants slipping past a powerful (yet manipulable) authority. Many groups enjoy the social experience, the play-acting, banter, bluffing, and bargaining that results from this imaginative and mental foundation.
One interesting aspect of Ticket to Ride is that it produces fairly diverse play. Some groups prefer a milder form of play in which direct blocking—playing a route for no other purpose than to interrupt another player’s progress—is discouraged as annoying or ungentlemanly. Others consider blocking essential and the frustration it causes as a necessary price to pay. The fact that the game mechanics neither discourage nor encourage direct blocking gives Ticket to Ride a diverse social quality. Whether this is a good trait or a bad one is unclear to me.
Small World’s social quality is also remarkable. Everything about the game, from its title to its tagline (“It’s a World of Slaughter after All”) to its player-versus-player mechanics would suggest that it will be a highly vindictive dog-eat-dog slugging match. And there’s no question that direct competition between players is a major aspect of play. Yet on the whole Small World avoids the direct, I-win-you-lose warfare of comparable games— say, Risk. The competition between players tends to feel more liquid and “pushy” rather than vicious and “stabby”, giving the game something of a Judo feel rather than Jiu Jitsu. This is achieved by moving the game’s key currency off the board into “points” which can be lost and acquired in a variety of ways; by keeping them a secret until the end of the game; by allowing a player to retain most of his soldiers after a defeat; by detaching players emotionally from their units by sending the units into decline, such that many defeated units are “already on their way out”; and by making expansion (which is under a player’s control), rather than defeat (which is not), the main cause of diminishing power. The result is a game that cultivates the entertaining pretext of vicious competition while dulling its fine edge into something most players find more comfortable. (As a rule, the most opinionated players in board gaming tend to be highly competitive; the average player is less vocal and less competitive.)
Here’s a more subtle example of social quality. Card games are generally competitive but the game of “Idiot“, simply by virtue of its name, implies (with tongue in cheek, hopefully) a social vindictiveness, a sneering abusiveness, a one-up-manship that the mechanics themselves lack. If the game were called something more socially neutral— say, “Palace”—the social quality would be milder and the game would feel different. It would not be a better game necessarily (it might be a worse one), but it would be different, because its social quality would change.
I believe there is still much to be discovered in this area, but when talking about a game’s social quality I think we can answer at least four questions.
- What kind of social dynamics has the game actually produced in the groups you’ve played it with? Does it inspire your friends to be more gentle or more vindictive? Does the game inspire laughter and cheerfulness or is it a cooler, more calculated experience? How do people interact when they play it?
- Now think outside of your own groups to the world at large. What is it that the game does to encourage certain social qualities of experience?
- How effective is the game at producing the kind of social quality or qualities it seems to want to produce? If the game seems to encourage gentle, non-vindictive play, for example, will many groups nonetheless turn it into a bloodbath?
- What kinds of groups are likely to enjoy or dislike this kind of social play? Should extraverts avoid this game? Introverts? Highly competitive people? Highly sensitive people? Groups that enjoy laughter and hilarity? Groups that enjoy intense contemplation? How can I judge whether my gaming group will enjoy this game or not, given their social character and the social qualities encouraged by the game?
These kinds of questions help uncover in an objective way the subjective social experience a game tends to engender.
The Physical Experience
Gamers and reviewers describe some games as “fiddly”. Sometimes this is praise: the game is full of objects that are pleasing to hold and manipulate, a lot of manipulation is required, and there is perhaps a Zen-like or OCD pleasure in moving pieces around. Sometimes it’s a complaint: the game has too many objects that are constantly falling over, are difficult to manipulate, and we spend a lot of time moving things around.
Whatever “fiddly” means, it’s clear from these comments that the physical sensations of interacting with the components of a game form part of the play experience.
In a few games the physical experience virtually defines the nature of the game. Terror in Meeply City (Rampage) is a recent game in which players fling, flick, and shake the game components to simulate a Godzilla-like attack on a hapless city. Crokinole, a sort of household shuffleboard, has remained on Boardgamegeek’s top 100 list since time immemorial.
In most games the physical experience of play is less obvious. Arguably it is an assumed value of game design that the physical experience should be as transparent, as unnoticeable, as possible. Whether or not it is right for us to uphold this value, in practice it is never achieved: a game in fact feels like something to play it; our fingers and arms and minds (at least) notice it. The physical nature of a board game is inalienable.
Anyone who has ever restocked the resources of Power Grid knows the truth of this. There is both tedium and pleasure in restocking. Whether you enjoy it or not you’ll agree it’s a significant aspect of the game. Often two or three players will join in the effort, making this physical quality part of the game’s social experience as well.
Caverna, likewise, is to great extent an exercise in the scattering and gathering of little objects. Again this is often a social effort: one player distributes wood, another rubies, another animals. It is tedious, yet after a while becomes almost ceremonial. Meditative players quote Ecclesiastes (or the Byrds) while preparing for the round:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
Some games—large ones, often military ones—invite standing and wandering around the board. Thoughtful games bring players’ elbows onto tables and hands to beards and earlobes. Laughter makes people spread out, lean back, and turn toward each other. A board game is a physical experience, and an observant critic will take the game’s physical effects into account when preparing a review.
The Emotional Experience
It may be a fault in my own constitution that leads me to relegate emotion to the last place in this list. But I can see no way around it: of all the effects a board game produces in players, emotion seems to me the most subjective, varied, unpredictable and, frankly, meager. Board games often elicit the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but apart from these direct reactions to the gameplay itself they are strangely unemotional beasts. When has a board game ever made you cry? Movies have; books may have; video games, even, may have. I’ve never heard of anyone crying because of a board game, unless it was because they lost.
Games produce laughter. Often this is tightly connected to the social experience. It is not normally the laughter of comedy as such, at least not the comedy of the board game itself. Usually it’s the comedy of the players.
Some games can give a certain sense of pathos, mild contact with loss or bereavement. My family enjoys Zooloretto, but we never feel well-settled when we have to execute an animal. Likewise Agricola. There is always an apology forming somewhere in the back of my mind when I have to feed a newborn lamb to my starving family. The whole tone of that game is “pathetic” in the old, Latin sense: pitiful, tragic, what we would now call dystopian.
Many games have a strong undercurrent of emotional tone that goes beyond mere “theme.” There is a quality of desperation—of hope against hope—that makes up the better part of the shadowiness of Shadows over Camelot. I think you like this game or dislike it almost in proportion to how well you can weather its mood of dreary near-futility, near-inevitable collapse. Games like Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill cultivate creepy imagery. I doubt many players feel actually frightened by these games, but they do convey an emotional tone.
But these are whispers, mere hints of emotion as compared with the deluge we receive from films and novels. Emotion is an element, but not the domain, of boardgames.
Therefore when you recall and report to others the emotions that a game produced in you, be careful to separate the extrinsic and purely subjective experiences of triumph and failure from the emotions intrinsic to the design of the game. Someone has to feel these emotions each time we play, but the fact that they feel them tells us nothing about the game. These strong emotions are vivid to us but useless to others. Instead, the underlying emotions that are connected either to the theme or to the mechanics in association with the theme will be far more subtle and more difficult to pinpoint, but far more useful to other players.
How to Write a Good Review
How, then, do we critique board games well?
First, recognize that board games influence, rather than control, players. If a board game is delightful, it may be that you, rather than the game, produced that effect. Likewise if you find the game dreary or even “broken”, could this have been you or your group rather than something that most players will discover? When you talk about what a board game is like, recognize that your personal assessment is always uncertain and preliminary. What you’ve experienced with the game from your own perspective within your own gaming group may or may not be expressive of what others will experience. You must do more than report what you experienced; you must analyze what about the board game is objectively true across many players and groups.
This will never be a perfect assessment. It is usually very difficult to separate our experience from the game’s objective qualities. I believe that as designers and players continue to develop a shared understanding and vocabulary not only of game mechanics but of qualities of experience, we will get better at figuring out why a game made us feel the way it did, predicting how it will make others feel, and explaining those predictions in the form of good reviews.
Think through the five qualities of experience I described above: the mental, imaginative, social, physical, and emotional qualities. Briefly:
- What kind of thinking does the game encourage?
- What kind of setting does the game portray? How vividly does it portray it?
- What kind of relationships does the game encourage? Is it highly competitive or gentler? Hilarious and cheerful or contemplative and quiet? Is backstabbing and deception a major element or is competition more straightforward?
- How does the game feel (physically) to play? How do your hands and arms like it?
- What emotional mood or tone, if any, does the game invoke?
Once you’ve analyzed the game in this way, turn your attention to the many different kinds of players out there. What kind of player is most likely to like or dislike these particular mental traits, or imaginative, or social, or physical, or emotional? Help your readers or watchers (or just your friends!) see themselves in your review, so that they can make an assessment as to whether it’s a game worth pursuing.
It’s true that some games are simply bad: mechanically broken, with a dull or incoherent theme, tending to promote social strife, having too many fiddly (in the bad sense) components, emotionally depressing. And it’s true that some games are simply good: well-loved by a wide range of people over a long term of play. But you should assume that most of the games you play are somewhere in the middle. Most games are decent, they deserve to be played by someone, they will be adored by some and hated by others and met with indifference by most. Your task in reviewing games is to help your friends and fellow games identify whether this is a game that they, personally, within their unique game groups, are likely to love or hate or view with indifference. Show them the kind of experience the game works to offer and show it to them in such a way that they can find themselves in the mix and decide whether it will be a good game for them.
An Example Review
As an example of the principles I’ve outlined above, let me offer this brief review of Spyfall. The review consists of three sections: the essentials, which outlines the facts of the game, its publication information, description, and a brief synopsis of the rules; what it’s like to play, which uses the five qualities of experience to analyze the game’s objective strengths and weaknesses; and who will love and hate it, which uses this analysis to identify different types of players who will respond well or poorly to Spyfall.
Spyfall is a 2014 game for 3 to 8 players by Alexandr Ushan, published by Hobby World (among others). It is a card game with strongly social elements, almost a party game. A round takes up to 15 minutes.
To begin each round you randomly choose a packet of cards from a set of 30 distinct packets. Each packet lists a distinct location, from a casino to a military base to—oddly—a Crusader army.
Deal the cards from the chosen packet to each player, one per player. Most of the players receive a card that show the same location as other players. Exactly one player will receive the “Spy” card, which tells him nothing about the location. All the cards are kept secret, so no one but the Spy knows who he is.
Players then take turns choosing another player and asking him or her a question. The questions can be very open-ended, anything you like. A player may respond however he likes and then becomes the new questioner. Play continues until either the Spy wins or everyone else does.
The Spy wins if he is able to identify the location before the other players identify him. If he attempts to guess it but is wrong, he loses. He can make this attempt at any time, but once he does so the game is over. The other players may, at any time, unanimously agree to accuse a player of being the Spy. If they’re right, they win; if not, the Spy wins.
Out of these simple mechanics a game with rich social dynamics emerges.
What It’s Like to Play
The non-Spy players’ experience is very different from the Spy’s.
For the non-Spy players the goal is to detect the Spy. The key to doing so is to identify who among the group seems not to know what the location is. If the location is a restaurant you might ask, “What does it sound like here?” and expect an answer like, “I hear sounds of metal and glass.” A player who answers, “I hear the wind blowing loudly,” may not know he’s in a restaurant, and one who answers, “Oh, you know, the usual sorts of sounds,” maybe trying to disguise his ignorance.
You might think that the best strategy would be to be as explicit as possible. “Do people eat food here?” “Oh, sure, that’s its whole purpose.” But of course the Spy wins as soon as he correctly guesses the location. Talking explicitly about the location makes it clear you’re not the Spy but also gives away the location to the Spy. The genius of the game design is that it makes the one thing you most want to do (expose your knowledge of the location) the one thing you must not do (give away the location).
Therefore when non-Spy players pause and scratch their heads, they’re working to formulate questions and answers that are meaningful to those “in the know” but cryptic to the Spy. The mental quality of the experience is one of picturing the location, remembering what’s already been said, considering a question or answer, and judging how it will be taken by the Spy and by other players.
The social experience among non-Spies also involves voting on when to make an accusation. Players must convince each other to accuse; a single hold-out who refuses to accuse may give the Spy time to discover the location and invoke the wrath of the other players. This banter around accusation is part of the game’s social quality.
The Spy’s experience is very different. Any game that asks one player to stay hidden among the group tends to put that player in a nerve-wracking pinch (an emotional quality). In Spyfall this tension is amplified because the Spy lacks the crucial information that the other players possess—lacks, in fact, any information. The nervous, furtive quality of being the odd man out, therefore, is amplified by a sense of blindness, of grasping at straws.
The social challenge for the Spy is to keep a poker face and avoid being discovered. The mental challenge is to identify the location by interpreting the questions and answers of other players. This is very difficult.
There are thirty locations possible. Although the game rules encourage players to study the list of locations before the game starts, thirty is far too many to hold in your mind. In our group we pass the list of locations around and require each player, when he asks a question, to spend some time looking at it. This gives the Spy a cover by which to safely recall the possibilities. But these glances at the list come rarely. The Spy spends most of his time listening to questions and answers without a clear strategy for recalling what location they might suggest.
Experience seems to be the key. More experienced Spies have the best chance to recall the possible locations and guess them from the clues.
This leads to the first of the game’s real flaws. Socially, the game can have a victimizing quality. The Spy tends to become not only the odd-man out but the laughing stock of the other players. Even gentle groups in which no one intends to hurt anyone’s feelings can do so without wishing to. Spies are recognizable by their ignorance—an ignorance disguised by bluffing and lies. When this ignorance becomes obvious players naturally laugh. For the Spy, losing the game at the same moment that a group of your friends laughs at you for not being “in the know”, when you are caught in a failed lie, can be a deeply unpleasant experience. In our group, no one has been really disturbed by this—it’s all in good fun, after all, all part of the rules, all make-believe—but no one wants to be the Spy more than once or twice in a row, either.
A helpful contrast here is with Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. In Deception the odd-man out is a Murderer working to stay hidden among Investigators. It’s a very similar set up. The difference is that in Deception the odd-man out is working from a position of advantage—the Murderer knows more than the other players—while in Spyfall the Spy knows nothing. The emotional and social reaction at the end of a game of Deception tends to be, “Amazing! You sly dog! You were bluffing the whole time!” while in Spyfall it tends to be, “Ha! Boy do you look like an idiot. You’re asking questions about the ocean inside a casino?”
This problem of not being able tell that you’re in a casino (or on a beach, or in a medieval army) points to the second flaw in the game. Imaginatively, the idea of being a hidden spy is attractive to many people. But the mechanics of the game simply don’t fit this theme. This spy, rather than being cleverer or slicker or more nimble than other players, is so blind and deaf and brain-addled that he cannot determine his present location. That, put simply, makes no thematic sense.
Players can put up with a lot of nonsense in a theme, but Spyfall’s inconsistency has raised comments from many players. Arguably it makes the game harder to learn: the game art shows a debonaire James Bond-type, but as you learn to understand the rules you realize that you won’t be spying, won’t use gadgets, won’t be weaving in and out of crowds with a privileged non-chalance. In fact you’ll be more like the new kid in school, feeling foolish and out-of-the-know and being hunted down by the others. The imaginative quality of the game is one of confusion.
Presumably the designers chose the theme of “Spies” because it meshes with the idea of staying hidden and gleaning information, and attempts to bestow some attractiveness upon the odd-man-out role. Another theme might do these jobs better. If the spy were an Alien trying to remain hidden among humans in a given locale, this might explain better why he can’t figure out what sort of place he’s in (and whether it’s the 12th or the 21st century). A Doctor Who license for this theme might work, I suppose.
Wedding Crasher would be another option: you are chatting with wedding attenders with whom you have no connection, recalling family vacations you supposedly remember but in fact have no knowledge of.
In any case, I tend to doubt whether a game’s theme ever truly makes or breaks it; I don’t think anyone is substantially less likely to play Spyfall because its theme doesn’t match its mechanics. But the disconnect is bigger than in most games, and should be food for thought for designers even if not for potential players.
Who Will Love and Hate It
Personally I enjoy Spyfall. I’ve played perhaps a dozen rounds and would happily play many more. But there are individuals and groups who will love it and some who should probably avoid it.
If you are especially sensitive in social situations, avoid Spyfall. If you don’t like feeling stupid, lying to cover your stupidity, or having people laugh at you when your lies fail, you should avoid this game. To enjoy the role of the Spy you must put on thicker skin, detach yourself from the pressure of the role, and remember that it’s all in good fun.
Some game groups won’t let it be all in good fun. They would turn it into jabs and ridicule, amping up laughter against the Spy when he loses. A sensitive Spy with a highly competitive group would be a bad combination.
Overall I would recommend this game for groups looking for lightweight fun, who enjoy social banter and close observation of other players, and who have the social grace to treat losing Spies gently.