|Medium Light [1.80]
|Player Count (recommended)
It’s sometimes said that St James Park in London is so rife with spies meeting other spies that even the ducks around the Tin and Stone Bridge quack in code. While that’s almost certainly not true unless everyone is working from a uniquely monosyllabic decryption table, it’s certainly something with which I can empathize. Playing Decrypto, on occasion, is like being a bemused waterfowl trying to extract meaning from a statement that may as well for all the world be the first transmissions from an alien species. It’s like confused extraterrestrials took the script of an episode of Eastenders, put it through a universal translator, and then tried to build a meaningful message to the world using only the ongoing domestic crises of Albert Square.
It’s fair to say I was instantly enamoured with Decrypto – a smart, sexy implementation of word-based deduction overlaid with a healthy wallop of 80s retro-chic. You may remember this site’s distinctly lukewarm opinions on Codenames. For those that don’t, basically they sum up to ‘I won’t kick up a fuss if other people want to play but I don’t really know why they would’. It’s a view considerably at odds with the broad consensus within the hobby but that’s not particularly unusual and now it doesn’t even really matter… whenever anyone says ‘Want to play Codenames’ I can simply ask in return ‘Sure, but have you ever played Decrypto? It’s really good!’
I can say that because Decrypto, you see, is really good.
It works like this. You’ll all be on ideally evenly balanced teams, except in the three player mode in which case one player will be focused only on codebreaking. Each team has a board that is configured with four keywords only they can see. Every round, someone takes on the mantle of cluegiver and draws one of their combination cards. They then attempt to give a series of clues that would direct their team to the correct combination. The ordering of the words in the board maps on to numbers, and we need to direct people to clues in the right order. For example you might have to provide the code 4.2.1 which means you need to lead your teammates to the fourth keyword, the second keyword, and then first keyword one after another. They only ever give you the combination, so clarity is important here. They never give you back the words – why would they, you all have that information available at all times anyway.
In our board above we have FOREST, CENTAUR, GIFT and LABYRINTH. We might give the clues… ‘Bowie’, ‘Umbridge’ and ‘Where they took her’. Our team mates confer quietly before writing on their notes sheet what they think the solution will be before they hand it…
NO, NOT SO FAST.
DID YOU HEAR SOMETHING?
It sounded like… it sounded like a bug on the line. Check the lightbulbs… I think someone is trying to overhear our conversation…
There are going to be two teams here, and each gets a stab at the answer. Your opposing team is going to be trying to work out your combination, using the same clues, but without reference to your keyword board. Once both teams have made their guess as to the correct combination, the other team gets a chance to intercept by making an semi-educated stab as to where they think their opposing team will have guessed. Each successful intercept gains an intercept token, each failed combination within a team earns a miscommunication token. Two interceptions will win the team the game, and two miscommunications will likewise lose the team the game.
The things that make this such an enjoyable exercise are multifold. There are only four words and you get three clues to impart three bits of information. The possibility space is large but not so overwhelming that you are forced to drown in choice paralysis. It’s a comfortably sized zone in which to explore. Everyone can rapidly give sensible, meaningful clues to their team. There’s no need to puzzle out complex connections. However, you also need to be creative with this because the more obvious your clues are the more likely it becomes that the other team will intercept and discover your code. The thing that really gels all this together is that the four codewords you get at the start of the game are the only codewords you ever get. You never change them, and as such you want to very carefully preserve what you can of their mystery.
But the real genius thing about all of this is that nobody needs to guess the words – they just need to guess the semantic orbit within which each word falls. Someone might have the word HOSPITAL as their first word in the board and give the clues DOCTOR, MEDICINE, SURGERY. All you as a codebreaker need do is work out whether the next clue (say… NURSE) is more likely to orbit the first word than it is any other that has been used so far. You’d probably never work out the exact word, but you can equally probably make a pretty good guess that that whenever a medical term is employed they’re trying to direct their team towards their first keyword. That in turn forces each cluegiver to explore rarer and more disquieting parts of their lexicon. They’ll be forced to employ synonyms of antonyms and alternate definitions. They’ll want to make their clues unintuitive. They’ll want to be awkward so as to hide meaning from the codebreakers. Unfortunately what this usually does is hide meaning equally well from their teammates.
The result of this is that you become genuinely cagey with what you say to an extent that you might very well simply leave everyone to wallow in bafflement. That’s even though everyone on your team can see the locus of your clues – they can see the well of gravity around which each of your clues will orbit. I genuinely did use ‘Umbridge’ as a clue for Centaur in a game with my mother – the woman who regularly harassed me into reading the Harry Potter books. I made the mistake of thinking that she’d both remember the character and her peculiar and troubling relationship to centaurs. It was a good clue I thought – sophisticated enough to benefit from the situational knowledge of the board, but obscure enough that it wouldn’t do much to reveal to Mrs Meeple, acting as codebreaker, its relationship to the other clues that would eventually follow.
The problem was that my mother had never actually read Order of the Phoenix. In fact, she’d only read the first three books in the series. I may as well have mumbled an ancient Mesopotamian curse for all the information it conveyed her way.
We got a miscommunication token for that. She thought I meant FOREST.
You see here though how the nature of the game forces you to play against your own best interests of clear communication. The net around the definitional neighbourhood of your word tightens alarmingly. There’s nothing quite so chilling as someone intercepting your immaculately designed code with a guess that is alarmingly close to being right. That almost certainly means, short of a lucky guess, that they’ve got you. They’ve got you dead in their sights. It’s not like you can burn your codebook and start again – you’re stuck with what you have and as such every bit of data you bleed out to an opponent is a wound to your safety that isn’t ever going to heal. The message needs to get out though so clarity of expression has to be the first casualty of communication.
Decrypto then is a game that replaces downtime with a kind of hungry silence. Once the clues have been read out, every single thing the other team does becomes potential information. In a two player team, with a silent and anxious encryptor waiting for their team-mate to divine the truth from the telling, you scan the faces of both. You search for micro-clues that might help you disambiguiate between uncertain pieces of information. You look at the eyes. You stare at the eyes. With larger teams, you’re going to focus on how the discussion goes – not so much what is said but what is deliberately unsaid. One of the problems I had with Codenames was that there was rarely any great need to worry about giving clues that were good to an opponent. It was a tactical mistake but only rarely did it enable more than the opponent spymaster was going to do with their own clue. As such, it wasn’t very interesting to be a spectator because it wasn’t a sport with much audience participation and even less perceivable action.
Decrypto though makes it vitally important that you pay close attention to the other team because nobody wins the game by successfully decoding their own messages. That’s just expected. Your opportunities for winning are on the other side of the table and that creates a game that is intensely interactive even if you’d never really believe it from the rules. It doesn’t feel like an abstract word game like Codenames when it’s at its most mediocre. It genuinely feels like you are playing a cat and mouse game with an opponent that is always edging closer to your zones of safety even as you begin to skirt theirs. It feels like a game where mistakes have heft and as such you need to carefully tiptoe around the contours of language in an oddly engaging way.
For all of this though there are a few weaknesses in the design that are surprising blunders given how tight and clever the rest of the game is. There are only twenty four possible combinations and that means that there’s a 4% chance of getting a code simply by guessing and that seems unreasonably high. I say that because I’ve seen it happen, right on the first attempt, just from someone randomly writing down a sequence of numbers. Having someone slowly level a sniper rifle through your metaphorical window is amazing when it’s a result of an accretion of your own mistakes but it’s profoundly unsatisfying when it’s just because someone got lucky with the combination lock to the safe containing the address of your headquarters. The intercept token that someone gets as a result of this feels deeply unfair as a result.
The other issue is in the nature of winning, which is based on making mistakes – either in revealing too much information to an opponent or too little to your colleagues. If both teams play well, the game defaults to a tiebreaker. I’m of the opinion that people should need to look up how to break a tie in the rulebook because it’s sufficiently niche information that you shouldn’t have internalised it. It’s basically an expected outcome in Decrypto and it’s never going to be satisfying to end a game of cat and mouse with them shaking paws and calculating a points victory. Seriously, there are ties all the way down here. If both teams play well, you need to decide victory by checking down a list:
- An interception token is worth a point, a miscommunication token is worth -1 points. The team with the best score wins.
- If that doesn’t work, each team tries to guess the opposing team’s keywords. Most correct guesses win.
- If that doesn’t work, hey everyone is a winner!
It’s such an anti-climatic and non-thematic way to end and it takes the shine off the game when it happens. It would have been so much better to have something more dramatic as a final denouement in the base game. Personally I’d recommend letting any team, at any point, make a grand play to guess all four keywords of the opponent and giving them a win if they do. Either that or have a win decided by who can most quickly sink a poisoned umbrella into the thigh of someone else at the table.
Still, leaving this aside Decrypto is a marvelous game that instantly ejected Codenames from my game shelves. I still have Codenames Pictures but I can’t imagine a circumstance in which I’d play vanilla Codenames over Decrypto. It’s a little less elegant, a little more complicated, but neither of those facts are true enough to make it a difficult game to learn even for novices. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s an easier game to master than Codenames, because the four keywords you have available powerfully constrain just how fanciful you can be with clue giving. There’s a certain intuitive element that goes along with strategy in Decrypto that greatly softens the learning curve while also mitigating some of the more forcefully ostentatious aspects of ‘big plays’ in Codenames. The gap between novice and veteran here closes quickly and that’s appealing in a game of this nature. It lowers the burden on being a spymaster and dials up the fun of being a spectator. It’s a great game and I’d recommend you give this one some attention if it passes by your way at some point.