In 2014 publisher Crypozoic released a little game called Spyfall from designer Alexandr Ushan. A modestly-priced little box featuring garish, almost caricature-ish cover art, it was something that I carefully avoided for no good reason for years. It wasn’t until the public and critical acclaim reached a fever pitch that I finally bit the bullet and bought a copy and promptly had to eat crow. It was not only one of the best, simplest games of social deduction I had ever played, but it quickly vaulted into my top 10 all-time favorite games to play, despite its relative simplicity.
Now, after 4 years and one sequel (Spyfall 2), Cryptozoic is back with DC Spyfall, which isn’t exactly a sequel or a re-skin. Aimed at ages 13 and up, the game brings the world of DC comics to the framework of Spyfall. Best with 5-8 players (though playable with as few as three) the game plays in 30-40 minutes and brings some new wrinkles to the old formula.
What’s in the Box?
Much like its predecessors, DC Spyfall is a modest game in a modest box. Its contents are 196 different cards, broken down into 20 location decks, 1 Joker deck, 2 multiverse decks, and 1 ability deck. Not to be confusing, “deck” here means about 8 cards each.
While there’s really not a lot to the contents of the game, it is nevertheless eminently satisfying to have so many sealed bags of decks, each marking a separate mystery and adventure. It’s especially fun as a fan of the original two Spyfalls because, in a game where knowledge of your surroundings is key and familiarity can be unfair, more is always better.
How to Play DC (or regular!) Spyfall
For all my love of a robust, head-scratching puzzle of a game, I find myself inexorably drawn to games that prioritize elegance. Games that, instead of asking “Can we add more?”, ask “Where can we simplify it?” Spyfall succeeds largely because of its incredibly straightforward take on its hidden-role premise. One player is a spy, the remaining players are not. Those other players know what location they are at, the spy does not. That’s the setup.
The nutshell version of the game is exactly that. One player is the spy, trying desperately to identify which of the myriad locations (in the classic version of the game places like a grocery store or a beach) they are at. Meanwhile, the remaining players all know this information already and are trying to identify who the spy is. The beauty of the game is that it doesn’t lock you into much framework beyond that.
On their turn, a player will choose another player to ask any question they want, like “What kind of shoes are you wearing today?” That player, then, has to do their best to answer. The spy wants to not be found out, while other players want to drop subtle hints that they’re beyond reproach so they can move on to identifying the spy. So, if at a grocery store, you might coyly answer the above questions with “Oh, just my loafers.” To the spy, this tells you nothing. To a player who knows you’re already at a grocery store, it should tell them that you know the location as well.
DC Spyfall functions the same way, replacing the Spy with the Joker, and replacing your everyday locations with DC comics hotspots like the Fortress of Solitude and the JLA Watchtower. On top of the new DC comics coat of paint, the game adds in a few wrinkles in the form of alternate “modules” that you can play with or not.
First is the Harley Helper Module, in which The Joker has a helper in the form of Harley Quinn. Each of the location decks includes one location card featuring a Harley Quinn icon. The player who received this card, while they know their location, actually has the alternate goal of helping The Joker figure out where they are. However, they don’t want to get caught. So, in addition to trying to identify The Joker, players are additionally on edge trying to figure out if someone who may be giving away too much information could actually be Harley Quinn trying to tip off her boss.
The second module is the Joker’s Jest module, which is a “location deck” that, instead of featuring any locations at all, is actually made up entirely of Joker cards. The winner of this module, since everyone is The Joker, is the first player to realize and identify that everyone is The Joker.
Third, there’s the Multiverse Madness module which has a similarly-meta win condition. This deck is made up of all different locations, so no two players are in the same spot. Any player who identifies that they are in the Multiverse wins the round or, if they called it incorrectly, then The Joker wins the round.
And finally, there’s the Powered Up module, which features a 12-card “ability” deck that is shuffled and dealt out to all players along with their location cards at the start of each round. This gives players unique abilities related to different facets of the game, like accusing The Joker and forcing votes.
Is There a Place in Your Collection for DC Spyfall?
I adore Spyfall. It is not only my favorite party game of all time (or at least tied for that honor with Mysterium) but it’s just an overall great game. It never fails to leave players with lots to talk and joke about both during and after the fact, with inside jokes springing up every round and persisting not only through the night, but often into the next time you play Spyfall.
But as much as I love it, it is something of a niche game. Even players who take to it quickly do so slowly (yes, you read that right). The first few times you play Spyfall are awkward and stilted. You don’t know what to ask or how to answer, and if you have the poor luck to be dealt the Spy in your first games then it’s over almost immediately, which doesn’t engender a lot of good feelings towards the game.
Some, usually with the encouragement of the group, will muscle through, learn how to balance cryptic with informative, and will discover a new favorite game. Others never will. They’ll either stop playing right away or, in some cases, will never find that fine line between coy and obvious. Spyfall isn’t just a lying/bluffing game, but it tests your ability to deliver subtle information, to encode meaning in answers that shouldn’t normally have meaning, and that’s actually a lot harder than it sounds.
Some players shrink under the pressure of being on the spot to ask a good question or deliver a good answer, and as a game that hinges on that ability, Spyfall isn’t especially kind to those who don’t already have some proficiency in that realm. All of which is my way of saying that DC Spyfall takes all of that and simply adds one more barrier to entry.
Because not only do you have to like this sort of game and be comfortable improvising and winging it and lying and being on the spot, but now you also have to know at least a little about DC comics, which is only going to shrink the pool of potential players (or, possibly, lead to people buying it because they like DC and then being disappointed when they discover the game isn’t for them at all).
While all of us have points of reference for the locations offered by the first game (a bank, an airplane, etc), if you don’t have some knowledge of the world these locations are set in then your already limited ability to speak freely is just going to be further curtailed. If you know nothing about DC comics then a location called Mogo doesn’t give you a lot to work with.
Which isn’t to say that DC Spyfall is bad. It’s not. 3 of the 4 modules are big winners (I don’t especially care for the power-up module) and add a lot of extra depth and intrigue to the standard Spyfall format. That said, I couldn’t help thinking as I played it that I would like even more—and it would see much, much more play—if the new modules and modes were added into classic Spyfall.
So if you like social deduction and lying and semantics and you also like DC comics, then you’ll be hard pressed to find something you enjoy more. And if the previous sentence describes you minus the last part, then the good news is there’s always Spyfall and Spyfall 2 and you can go buy those instead!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.