Vlaada Chvatl’s Codenames, published by Czech Games Edition (CGE), has been a runaway success since it was first published three years ago. There’s a thin thematic spy catcher veneer but, scrape that away, and Codenames is a word game where players give one-word clues to their team based on word association. From the clue, players have to try to pick out the words on a 5 x 5 grid that their clue-giver is referring to. Don’t worry, I’m not reviewing the wrong game here, I’ll come to Decrypto in a moment.
I’ve described Codenames because anyone who plays Decrypto will immediately want to compare it with the earlier CGE game. For starters, Decrypto has a similar thinly veneered theme. Okay, it isn’t specifically referring to spies but theme has players as rival encryptors and codebreakers. Like Codenames, Decrypto is also a game that’s about word association. That said, Decrypto plays somewhat differently…
Designed by Thomas Dagenais-Lesperance and published by Le Scorpion Masque, in Decrypto each team has its own board displaying four words. All the members of the team can see those words but they mustn’t have sight of the (different) four words that the opposite team have in front of them: this is a game where you really need to have teams sitting on opposite sides of a table.
On each team, one player is the ‘encryptor’. He draws a card giving a three digit number that uses the numbers 1 to 4 (eg: 321, 413, 241 etc). The rest of the team don’t see the number card. It’s the job of the encryptor to give verbal clues to the words whose position on the board correspond to the numbers on his card. Unlike Codenames, the encryptor isn’t limited to one-word clues. So, for example, if the team have in their display: DOG, BLOOD, NECKLACE, NIGHTMARE and the encryptor has drawn the code sequence 412, he might give the clues ‘Elm Street’, ‘Pet’, ‘Red’. The rest of the team would be pretty much certain to deduce from these clues the sequence 412.
Clues and misdirection
If that’s all there was to Decrypto, it wouldn’t be much of game. Fear not. There’s more. You see, in addition to working out their own code, the opposing team will hear your clues too. They don’t know what four words your team has in front of them but they will begin to build an idea of what those words might be from the clues they get over subsequent rounds. Teams write down the clues their opponents have been given and the numbers those clues referred to. Obviously in the first round they have nothing to go on but in subsequent rounds they can use the information they have to attempt to ‘intercept’ the clue (ie: guess their opponents’ sequence). In my example, ‘Elm Street’ might have been easy for my team to identify with ‘Nightmare’ but the association is so strong that the opposing team are likely to pinpoint any words I later give like ‘horror’, ‘sleep’ or ‘dream’ as associated with position 4.
Encryptors therefore need to think up clues that are less direct. If they rely on associations that are too obscure than their own team will fail to correctly guess the sequence. If their clues are too easy and direct, there’s every likelihood that the opposing team will ‘intercept’. A team gets an Interception token for correctly guessing the other team’s sequence. A Miscommunication token is awarded if a team fails to correctly deduce its own sequence. A game is lost if a team gets two Miscommunication tokens; it is won if a team gets two Interception tokens.
Easier to demonstrate than describe
It has to be said, the rules make heavy weather of explaining what is actually quite a simple and straightforward game. To be fair, however, Decrypto is a game that is much easier to explain through demonstration than it is to describe. The subtlety of giving clues that hit the right note between obvious and obscure make this a game that may be considered a step up in difficulty from Codenames, so maybe less of a gateway game. Nevertheless, once demonstrated, it’s a game that can be quickly picked up, played and enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike. If playing with less experienced games players, or teams of mixed age and experience, however, it’s probably best not to follow the instruction in the rules to switch the encryptor for each round. It may make for a more fluid game to play each game through keeping the same encryptor.
Decrypto isn’t a Codenames killer. Despite their overlapping elements they play very differently but Decrypto does scratch one of the CGE game’s irritant itches. Often in Codenames, teams find it frustrating that they have no opportunity or outlet for guessing an opponent’s clues. In Decrypto, they are positively encouraged to take a stab at them. The downside of this is that players have two sets of unrelated clues to process and keep track of (their own and their opponents). This makes this a game that demands pencil and paper to record the clues your opponents have had each round and what number they related to. The game comes with a pad of record sheets for this, though, as with the rules, this seems to make things unnecessarily complicated: do you really need to record all the details of your own team’s clues and answers? Surely all you need to record is what your opponents’ clues are and, as each round is resolved, what number each clue referred to.
The game box describes Decrypto as a game for 3–8 players. There are specific rules for three but you won’t get the most out of this game with that number. Decrypto seems to be at its best with 4–6 players but the only upper limit is the physical practicality of gathering more than four people along one side of a table. If you’ve got a big enough table, or the ingenuity to devise other ways of gathering two larger groups around displays that their opponents cannot see, then there’s no reason why this game shouldn’t be playable with more than eight.
I’ve not yet mentioned Decrypto’s design and production… The publishers have really gone to town with the production of this game. For no other reason than it’s in keeping with the theme, the words for Decrypto are printed so that they can only be viewed through a red filter. That means the word cards (shaped like old-fashioned computer key cards) have to be slotted into position behind transparent red screens. You might conclude from this that the game is overproduced and the concealed word cards an overly elaborate unnecessary conceit. As Francis Urquhart used to say in the original (BBC) version of House of Cards, you might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment. Nevertheless, you’ll welcome the fact that there are 440 different words because this is a game that you’re likely to play repeatedly.
Decrypto is highly interactive, somewhat addictive and functions surprisingly well as a party game. You’ll suffer fewer prolonged silent pauses between clues than you are likely to experience playing Codenames (although a seemingly obligatory 30-second sand timer is included in the box just in case). Certainly, Decrypto is a game you could readily break out at a dinner party; perhaps playing rounds between courses. You’ve probably already decoded the fact that I like the game. In fact, I give Decrypto a very creditable 8/10. If you enjoy playing Codenames, or if you’re looking for a more interactive game that takes word association in a slightly different direction, this is definitely one to check out, especially given its very competitive price.
The following two tabs change content below.
Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.