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Designer Diary: Decrypto, or Coco Chanel – Anne Frank – Alan Turing

Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance
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I often like to compare the creation of a game to that of a living thing:

First, the mind of the game designer is inseminated by an idea, a feeling, a need; then, the idea gestates in the designer's head, and slowly but surely it's possible to discern a theme, a mechanism; eventually, provided there were no major problems during pregnancy, the designer gives birth to their idea as a prototype, not always beautiful but full of promise; much later, if the game survives childhood (the infant mortality rate of games is extremely high), it can finally be published and become an adult; finally, after some time, though unfortunately not that much in most cases, it dies, killed by neglect or lack of interest, and is buried in the stores' liquidation bins.

To continue the analogy, Decrypto's birthdate is pretty easy to determine: January 5, 2016. The final structure of the game suddenly materialized in my head as I walked on Jean-Talon Street, coming back from work, and an hour later the first prototype of the game was ready, the rules written. The game has changed relatively little since then.

As for the moment of conception, that I'm not so sure. The gestation of game concepts is often done over a long period of time in my head, and often unconsciously. It feels to me a bit like a watermill wheel that I would place over an invisible river. Sometimes I take control of the wheel, put it down in the water, and develop an idea consciously. However, when I take the wheel off the current and it leaves my consciousness, it continues nonetheless to spin for some time; each idea has its own inertia, which influences the persistence with which its wheel turns in the unconscious, and Decrypto's idea was particularly heavy.



Something like this...


I've always loved hidden messages and secret codes. My grandmother is a bridge enthusiast (the game, not the structure obviously), and I've always been fascinated by the stories of her games, especially when she spoke about the codes that could be sent between each partner during the auction phase. The basis for Decrypto's idea was the will to recreate part of that experience: to send coded messages to an ally without being intercepted.

There was at times the desire to do a more thematic game, with messages sent during a war of some kind, with a player who would attack regions on a board and another player who would try to relay information on the attacks to a third. I imagined different ways of communicating information — gestures, Dixit-like images, improv — but none of them satisfied me completely (at least in my mind, because I admit never having tried them). I even thought for a moment that players could send codes in the form of letters to their lovers.

And then the idea of the game's structure came gradually: We share a "key" with our teammates, allowing us to decode our messages, but the more we send messages, the more the opponent is informed on the nature of our key, until comes a time when they can intercept our codes. What made it all click in January 2016 was the simple realization that the key had to be words, and everything else fell into place quickly after that.



Your teammates may not always interpret codes as you do, even if they share your key...


As an aside, a game design element that I really appreciate, and that I tried to put in Decrypto, is what I call the presence of "natural" tensions, or "player" tensions. Players have a lot of freedom in Decrypto in terms of what they are allowed to communicate. They can say almost anything. However, in practice their communication is quite limited, not by the game, but by the other players because of the conflicting goals created by the scoring system. We want our teammates to understand us, but we do not want to be intercepted. It is the same kind of tension you'll find in games like Spyfall or Dixit, or in games with an auction mechanism (in the sense that auctions tend naturally towards an equilibrium that depends on the players).



First test of the game in January 2016 with my parents and my girlfriend;
at the time there were only three keywords but the digits on the code cards could be repeated, giving 27 combinations


Anyway, following the creation of the prototype, I quickly began to test the game with my family, my friends, and random people in board game cafés. Around mid-January 2016 — yes, less than two weeks after the creation of the first prototype as I was maybe a little too eager — I submitted my game by email to Christian Lemay of The Masked Scorpion. He refused, claiming that the game was too similar to Codenames. I decided to continue testing the game and presented it to other players, but also to other authors and other publishers.

Towards the end of February 2016, La Récréation, a board game café in Montreal, organized a prototype competition, which Decrypto won. The same weekend, during the Montreal Joue festival, I had the chance to present my prototype to a wider audience. Forgive me for erring into cheesiness (and for my wonky formulation), but I think that's when I understood what it looks like when people are genuinely excited by one of my games. I created three games before Decrypto, and although I think they were okay, it is clear, in retrospect, they did not produce the same "caliber" of feelings in players. During the first Decrypto tests, there was still a part of me that attributed the strong positive reactions of the testers to the fact that they were people I knew, that perhaps they were exaggerating their enthusiasm to please me.

But during the festival, observing the reactions of complete strangers, I realized that people were really interested in the game, that there was no room for doubt. This complete absence of doubt about the value of one of my creations, it's a feeling I think I had never experienced until then, and that had a great impact on me at the time.



Prototype, March 2016


Finally, in early March 2016, I contacted Christian Lemay to ask him to give a second chance to the game. I argued that the game had been very successful during the Montreal Joue festival and the Recreation's prototype contest (it was true), and that I had made several changes to the rules (mea culpa: it was mostly false). He agreed to reconsider and took a copy of the prototype to test.

During the month that followed, through countless email exchanges, we tried to find ways to improve the game. Christian had the great idea to go from three to four keywords and not have any repeating digits in the codes. This change slightly reduced the time to find clues (players theoretically need to prepare only four potential clues rather than nine), it improved the distribution of clues, and it added a bit of variety. The publishing contract was signed at the beginning of April 2016, and since then small additional improvements were brought by the Masked Scorpion team, particularly regarding the optimization of the action sequence, but also the components and the rules surrounding clues.



Final version of the game


So, that's pretty much everything. Well, at least the portion that may be put into words. Christian would obviously be able to add many lines to this text since he spent more time with the game than I did during the past year and would certainly have his own story to tell. I hope you enjoy the work that we did, and please let us know what you think!

Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance

•••


Editor's note: For those not familiar with Decrypto, check out this rules video from Scorpion Masqué, which is possibly the best rules video I've ever seen. In just over three minutes, you get a good feel for the game and are pretty much set to open the box and play. —WEM


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Mon Apr 16, 2018 1:00 pm
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