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Game Preview: Decrypto, or Tricky Clues for the Clueless

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Sometimes a game is more challenging to explain than it is to play. When learning such a game, you hear the explanation and all the words make sense, but you can't understand what you're supposed to do until you're staring at the components and the penny drops, which is a real challenge for publishers since they need to convince people to just throw themselves into the game before they fully comprehend what they're doing. Learning such games from experienced players would be ideal, of course, but that's often not possible.

I incorrectly conveyed the nature of such a game in April 2017 when I first wrote about Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance's Decrypto, which will be released by Le Scorpion Masqué in early 2018, with IELLO distributing the game in France and the U.S. and Asmodee distributing it in Germany.

Adam Kunsemiller, who demos games at Gen Con with the BGG crew, played a non-final version of Decrypto at a convention in early 2017, and he liked the game so much that he mocked up his own copy in order to teach others at BGG.CON 2017. I played the game three times at that show, and now I can right previous wrongs. While I correctly described Decrypto's gameplay, my description was off in one critical area, so let me give it another go now:

Players compete in two teams in Decrypto, with each trying to correctly interpret the coded messages presented to them by their teammates while cracking the codes they intercept from the opposing team.

In more detail, each team has their own screen, and in this screen they tuck four cards in pockets numbered 1-4, letting everyone on the same team see the words on these cards while hiding the words from the opposing team. In the first round, each team does the following: One team member takes a code card that shows three of the digits 1-4 in some order, e.g., 4-2-1. They then give a coded message that their teammates must use to guess this code. For example, if my team's four words are "pig", "candy", "tent", and "son", then I might say "Sam-striped-pink" and hope that my teammates can correctly map those words to 4-2-1. If they guess correctly, great; if not, we receive a black mark of failure.

Starting in the second round, a member of each team must again give a clue about their words to match a numbered code. If I get 2-4-3, I might now say, "sucker-prince-stake". The other team then attempts to guess our numbered code. If they're correct, they receive a white mark of success; if not, then my team must guess the number correctly or take a black mark of failure. (Guessing correctly does nothing except avoid failure and give the opposing team information about what our hidden words might be.)

The rounds continue until a team collects either its second white mark (winning the game) or its second black mark (losing the game). Games typically last between 4-7 rounds. If neither team has won after eight rounds, then each team must attempt to guess the other team's words; whichever team guesses more words correctly wins.

My error in the first write-up was that I gave bad clues for the hidden words, specifically "finger" for "son". The clue "finger" won't work for the other three words, so the only correct choice is "son", but that clue works only by exclusion, not inclusion. As Adam commented in my initial write-up, "Our classic example was cluing 'broccoli' to get someone to pick 'chocolate' because it was the only food in the list of four keywords. It doesn't refer to chocolate nearly as much as it refers against the other three choices, which aren't food."

Adam elaborated on this description at BGG.CON, saying that once the game ends and the other team learns what your hidden words are and they look at your clues once again, you want them to nod and go "Oh!", not screw up their nose and go "Enh?" (A video of Adam doing this should be part of the publisher's game presentation.) I was still learning that lesson in our first game, when I gave "unicorn" as a clue for "cycle":

Mock-up components at BGG.CON 2017

Bad choice, Eric! I was thinking of how "unicorn" could lead Adam to imagine "unicycle" (and from there "cycle"), and he correctly guessed the code, but that was a bummer clue in retrospect. Thankfully I did not follow up that clue with "bifrost" and "tripod" as I had originally planned to do, but instead gave legit clues in later rounds.

The appeal of Decrypto is much the same as the appeal of Codenames, the components of which were raided for this mock-up: You are challenged to be clever when giving clues to your teammates. In Codenames, you can simply give a clue that allows your team to guess one of your hidden words, but that strategy isn't likely to win you the game. You need to think of a clue that ties together two or more of your hidden words; you're finding, exploiting, or creating connections between those words, then hoping your teammates can make the same leap that you did.

The clues in Decrypto need to work a bit differently since you're clueing each word on its own. In Codewords, you're linking words by a connection; in Decrypto, you're imagining the hidden word as a hub, with you trying to find multiple spokes off that hub that don't seem related to one another. Your teammates will be staring at the hub, so ideally those spokes will lead them to the correctly numbered hub, while the opposing team is left with a collection of disparate clues that lead them only in circles. I used "inch" as a clue for "grass" since that's how you measure the ideal height for a lawn. ("Inches" would have been better and more accurate.) Later clues for "grass" from me and Adam included "stained", "blunt", and "your ass". Individually those clues all got us to the correct number, while doing nothing for the opposing team.

An interesting element of Decrypto's gameplay is that you don't have to guess the other team's words exactly in order to figure out their code. For "cloak", we gave clues like "hooded" and "undercover"; the other team guessed (to themselves) that our word was "spy" or "secret agent" or something along those lines, and while they weren't correct, I think they always guessed #4 correctly in our code as our clues for "cloak" fell in the same trough as those that would work for "spy". In a later game, our team guessed that one of the opponent's words was "poker" or "Las Vegas"; the actual word was "casino", but that didn't matter since we were in the right ballpark and could associate a clue like "pit" or "blind" with the correct number.

The opposing team doesn't guess in the first round because they'd be swinging blindly. If they did randomly connect, they'd have a huge leg up on the way to victory. We saw something like this happen in the game depicted above, when the opponents guessed our code correctly in round 2, then did so again in round 3. Quickest victory possible! As we realized only after the fact, we goofed by having "heart" and "harp" both be clues for "organ". The opposing team connected them with the word "strings" and locked in on #1 while hitting #4 due to the spatial/mathematical terms and #3 by chance. If we had clued "lung" or "stomach" in round 2 or "trumpet" in round 3, then we might have been fine. Alas, we were not.

I have no idea what the word mix might be like in the published version of Decrypto, so please keep that in mind when reading this overview of the gameplay. As for the presentation of the final components, at SPIEL '17 the game featured fancy 100% authentic spy-like card holders that allow your team to see the hidden word underneath the red nonsense on the card. We'll figure out what the final published game has to offer in early 2018!

Demo game at SPIEL '17; original uncropped image by bwort110
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