Spyfall: A game of suspicion and sangfroid

My wife and I met through online dating. The hardest part about online dating is writing your profile. I wrote and rewrote mine dozens of times until I had something I was satisfied with. In the end, it turned out to be intriguing enough that women, including my future wife, actually contacted me first.

I’d share the secret formula for writing an intriguing online dating profile, except—of course—there isn’t one. Every person has to tap into what makes them unique. (Also, if I had a secret formula for anything, I would probably keep it a secret so I could bestow it on to my children as a sort of powerful dynastic birthright—like, I’m sorry, I don’t have a ring of power to pass down to you and we’re not wizards or anything, but I can show you how to get a date online so we can hopefully keep this thing rolling for another generation.)

I still remember statements I read on profiles of women from back when I was online dating. A lot of what people write is trite and you forget it. “I just moved here, and I just want to see who’s out there, and I like TV or whatever.” The things that I remember the most are the things that seemed the most shocking, the red flags indicating fundamental incompatibilities. One woman sent me a message and then I saw on her profile that she was looking to date single dads—which, as a non-dad, was confusing.

I remember one woman who asserted that she used her student ID to get discounts on as many things as possible, even though she’d graduated years ago. I know… that’s not objectively shocking. It’s actually a great profile statement. It’s charmingly hipster and one of those fun things that shows you have a personality.

Of course, it’s also pretty unethical. Which enabled me to quickly decide to move on to the next person.

There are basically two kinds of profile statements: statements about who you are and statements about who you’re looking for. When writing an online dating profile, a truculent pronouncement of exactly who you aren’t interested in is extremely helpful to your readers.

For example, I remember another woman who wrote, if your idea of fun is sitting around a table playing board games, don’t contact me.

That was back before I really owned any board games, when I was a lonely single man working from home and going to my cousin’s for a game of Catan was one of the few times I really got out of the house and socialized. I distinctly remember feeling a little sad for the woman who wrote that. Not because I think she was wrong to say it, but because, bless her heart, in spite of how clear it was, she probably had to spend a lot of time deleting messages from men saying, “Board games are actually fun.”

Board games aren’t for everyone—for quite a few reasons. There are a lot of people who’d rather be outside doing something more active. There are a lot of people with health issues that make it difficult to participate in certain games. Also, board gaming can be expensive. You see people on Epic Shelfie posting pictures of their massive board game collections and it’s a reminder that, like fox hunting, marathon running, and donning the mantle of the Batman, board gaming is only accessible to the at-least-sort-of affluent.

On the other hand, of course part of me feels like people don’t know what they’re talking about if they diss board gaming as not fun. Board games are literally designed with the express purpose of entertaining the human mind. When people say board gaming isn’t for them, it’s probably just because they haven’t played a board game that’s for them.

There are many, many different kinds of board games. Some board games allow you to just sit around and relax and have a good time. Some board games require intense logic and math. And some board games can literally send you into a cold sweat of terror. Case in point: Spyfall—quite possibly the most heart-racing experience you can have while sitting around a table. If you want to feel your whole body tense up and your flight or fight response kick in like you’re in a real life version of the tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds, this is the game you’ve been looking for.


First of all, you have to be prepared for people to make a lot of jokes about Skyfall.

Spyfall is a game from Hobby World and Cryptozoic Entertainment about sitting around a table and finding the spy in your midst. At the start, each player gets a card, which they look at secretly. One of the cards just says “spy.” All of the rest of the cards have a location (for example, everyone else will have a card that says “hotel” on it). The players attempt to suss out who has the spy card by taking turns asking each other questions. Questions can be literally anything (for example, “how much did it cost to get in here?” or “what’s your favorite thing to eat here?”). At any time, anyone can accuse another player of being the spy; if there is unanimous agreement, and that player is actually be the spy, then the non-spies win. Alternatively, at any time, the spy can reveal themself and, if they can correctly guess the location, then they win. After a eight minutes, if the game hasn’t already ended and the non-spies cannot agree on the spy, then the spy wins.

Many board games are based on taking a difficult task and making it fun, like how Pictionary makes a game out of drawing. Spyfall is based on the difficulty of innuendo—saying something that shows you know what a secret is without actually giving away that secret. Basically, it’s all about asking and answering questions to find out who doesn’t know the location without giving the location away.

As a spy, the game is nail-bitingly tense as you try to blend into the background, give out ambiguous answers, and add up the characteristics of the location. On the other hand, as a non-spy, the game creates an atmosphere of suspense as you try to mentally check off which players have said enough to show that you can trust them.

Sometimes the game ends in about two questions because the spy gets asked a direct question, says the wrong thing, and everyone bursts out laughing. (For example, if the location is police station and the question is “do you want to spend the night here” and the spy says “yes.”)

Other times the game ends in about two questions because someone says something that makes it obvious to the spy what the location is.

Usually, the game lasts well into the time limit, though. At the start of a round, the spy is in an extremely difficult position. However, as the game goes on, it becomes easier and easier for the spy to give convincing answers or guess the location because they’ve heard more and more information. It also becomes more and more difficult for the other players to ask and answer questions without giving the whole thing away.


Spyfall rulebook locations
When I’m the spy, my favorite thing to do is figure out the location and then not reveal myself and answer questions perfectly to sow dissension in the group.

The game contains just the right mix of locations to keep things interesting. There are locations you would typically associate with espionage or spycraft (embassy, military base, submarine), mundane locations (bank, supermarket, school), and really bizarre locations (pirate ship, space station, crusader army).

As an extra quirk, many of the locations lend themselves to different interpretations. For example, does “carnival” mean only the type of Carnival masquerade festival pictured on the card or is it any type of carnival? Does “passenger train” encompass subways and light rail? Is a “service station” a place to get your car fixed or a place to buy gas? This ambiguity contributes to the sense of paranoia in the game. Other players might be giving answers that sound completely wrong to you, not because they are the spy, but because of a genuine disagreement about what exactly the location is.

Every location card also states a unique role. For example, the airplane location cards have pilot, passenger, and flight attendant roles. For a more complex game, you can require players to answer from the perspective of their role. The roles can also help struggling players get into the right mindset to come up with a question or answer.

Number of players

The game supports from three to eight players. However, generally speaking, you need at least five people for Spyfall, especially if you have new players. Technically you can play with less, but it’s virtually impossible for the spy to win.


Basically, Spyfall is a box full of bags of cards.
Basically, Spyfall is a box full of bags of cards.

Even though there are relatively few rules, there are a few logistical issues to consider with Spyfall. First of all, you need a timer, so someone’s probably going to have to pull out their smartphone and be in charge of timekeeping. Because each round of the game revolves completely around keeping a single piece of information secret, it is very important to prevent that secrecy from being accidentally compromised. The game comes with a bag for each deck of location cards. You have to be careful to store the decks in the bags in such a way that you can separate out the correct number of cards for the players without seeing what the location is (always storing the spy card on the bottom of each deck works pretty well). Also, any nick or mark could spoil the game, so it is a good idea to use card sleeves.

Many reviews have noted that Spyfall does not include player aid cards listing all of the possible locations. While I wouldn’t turn down player aids, I also haven’t found the lack of them to be a barrier. During games, we pass around the rulebook so everyone can see the page with all of the locations. This is superior to a player aid card because the rulebook has room to show each location’s picture, not just the name (and occasionally players will reference specifics of the artwork, even though it is discouraged). Unless the person asking for the rulebook is clawing for it while dripping in sweat, you can’t really infer that they are the spy; non-spies often just want to see it so they can craft a question or answer without revealing too much.

Final thoughts

I love Spyfall, but I’m a chill cookie and I’ve played it enough times—and been the spy enough times—that I find it more exciting than frightening.

Spyfall is not for everyone. Being the spy is extremely stressful… as in, your body’s stress response literally triggers, your heart kicks into high gear, and your stomach knots up. Sure, you’re just sitting around a table with your friends, holding a card, but it’s not like most other games where you might have a secret role. As the spy, you start with nothing. You have zero information and everyone else has all of the information. You have no choice but to lie your pants off and one wrong glance, strange intonation, or answer that isn’t exactly the right amount of vague could give you away.

I’ve played the game with people who haven’t enjoyed it. When you’re the spy, it can feel like you’re under the gun in a way that isn’t necessarily consistent with the fun, happy-go-lucky experience you might be looking for in a casual evening of board games. If you’re uncomfortable answering questions under pressure (and laughing along if you get caught giving a ridiculous answer), this may not be the right game for you.

I don’t mean to just focus on how draining the spy role can be, either. The game is pretty tough for non-spies, too. You have to be able to think of relatively creative questions and relatively subtle answers. If you take too long to formulate something, other players may get frustrated (or start to think you’re the spy).

But Spyfall is worth experiencing. Spyfall is enjoyable because it’s a holistic challenge. Once it starts, every word and gesture is part of the game and you have to use the full extent of your perceptive faculties to either find the spy or keep yourself hidden. Most of us want to believe that we’re clever raconteurs, skilled at witty comebacks and cunning wordplay, able to drop hints that will go completely over others’ heads and quickly detect when people are lying to our face. Spyfall lets you put that belief to the test, and you’ll probably end up laughing harder than you’ve ever expected.