Get out your antenna and humongous headphones: the other team is talking, and it’s time to intercept what they’re saying.
But what’s this? They’re speaking in code?! Well, you’ll have to put your deduction skills to the test. Because what they’re saying is too important to let slip by. Intercept two of their codes before the other team intercepts yours, and you win! But watch out: if you’re too sly, you might fail to communicate to your own teammates, which is even worse.
How It Works
Decrypto is a team clue-giving/deduction game for three to eight players. Each team works together to encrypt messages to their teammates without being intercepted by the opposing team. The first team to intercept two codes wins (or the first team to incorrectly guess their own code twice loses).
Decrypto set up for one team. Each team sits on one side and gets a deck of code cards, a team board (with their words corresponding to numbers), and a double-sided team sheet to record each team’s clues and guesses.
To begin, players divide into teams and sit so that all players can view the player board. Each team draws four word cards, placing one in each of the four spots of their team board (labeled 1, 2, 3, and 4). These words are the same for the whole game. Each team receives one recording sheet.
At the start of each round, each team chooses an “encryptor,” who will each secretly draw a code card. A code card shows three numbers, 1-4, and none of these numbers repeat. Both encryptors work simultaneously to devise three clues that correspond to each of the words represented by the code card. While each encryptor’s team can see their own four words clearly, they do not see the code card or the other team’s words.
The word cards and player board. The word cards are scrambled but you can view them through the player board’s decoder.
Once both encryptors come up with clues, beginning with the white team, the team’s encryptor reads the clues, and each team tries to deduce what the code is from the clues. (The opposing team doesn’t guess in the first round.) Once each team has a guess, they read their guesses aloud, and the encryptor reveals the correct code. If the encryptor’s team gets the code wrong, they take a miscommunication token. (Nothing happens if they get it right.) If the opposing team gets the code right, they take an interception token. (Nothing happens if they get it wrong.) This repeats for the black team.
If at the end of the round, one team has two interception tokens, that team wins. If a team has two miscommunication tokens, they lose. Otherwise the game continues. (There are tiebreaker rules if a team has both two interception tokens and two miscommunication tokens.)
Deduction games are making a comeback, especially large-group deduction games, and Decrypto is certainly in that tradition. Decrypto has a high concept–I didn’t really understand the game from seeing videos on it; I had to read the rules to get it–and it’s much more cerebral than other clue-giving games (and even more cerebral than party game darling Codenames). But once you get over the hump of initial understanding, Decrypto is delicious.
The interception and miscommunication tokens. These are the only means of keeping score in the game.
What makes Decrypto so much fun is that you have to dig into the web of meanings and connotations a word has in order to play well. I have played so many games of Codenames with my family where a player will give a clue that refers to a single word card. That’s boring. In Decrypto, even a simple clue can be effective because the other team doesn’t have access to your words.
But this changes as the game goes on. As more and more clues are given and codes are guessed, the meaning of a word crystallizes. It’s not necessary in Decrypto to guess the other team’s word–you’re just trying to intercept a code, so if you can relate the clues to the right cluster of previous clues, you can still be effective, even if you can’t pinpoint the original term. In one game, my team’s word was “orange.” We were trying to lead the other team away from this, so we gave the clue “acid” and “fruit.” (We had earlier given the clue “peach” for our word “pit,” and we rightfully thought the other team would be led astray by this.) But as the game went on and neither team had intercepted two codes, it became harder and harder to hide our word “orange” from the other team. One teammate used the clue “Agent” for orange, which the other team didn’t guess–a brilliant dodge! But in the next round, there was no more hiding: they knew our word was orange.
Each round, the encryptor will draw a code card and have to give clues to get the team to guess the numbers in sequence on the code card.
That’s the interesting thing here. Each round you will take a guess at the other team’s code, and even if you’re wrong, you get to hear what the correct code was, and the recording sheet has places for you to record which clues referred to which words. While a good clue like “agent” might lead the team away in the moment, hopefully allowing you to quickly snatch victory, as the opposing team gathers more information, as the clues are farther and farther afield, they’re able to triangulate the meanings and lock on to your coordinates. This makes the game tense but also exciting, especially once understanding dawns.
The team sheet from one of my games of Decrypto. We were too clever for our own good in this game.
Of course, there are also times where cleverness can be your downfall. In one game, one of my team’s words was “art,” and my team kept drawing code cards that included it, so we kept giving the other team information about this word. (Thankfully, “art” is a vague enough word that they had a hard time locking on to the meaning.) I thought I’d try being clever, so I used the word “morte,” hoping my team (of other editors, mind you) would think of Le Morte d’Arthur. (Yes, I recognize now that this was a Hail Mary pass and it involved more leaps of logic than is typical. I was more confident of my “perfect” clue in the moment.) Instead, my clue threw off both teams, and we took a miscommunication token. Later in the game, another teammate, trying to be clever, offered the clue “turtle” for art, but none of us put together that he was thinking of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, each of whom has a Renaissance artist namesake. We lost that game in shame.
But the fact that the game’s framework actively encourages this kind of leap, out of fear that the opposing team will guess your clues, shows that the game is doing something right. Even when you lose, there is tension and excitement in closing in on the other team’s codes and in trying to evade their code-breakers. And it’s fun even when you lose.
This record’s the black team’s clues from the same game as above. They won, obviously.
What I’ve described as tension and excitement is, for the most part, cerebral. Games of Decrypto are not loud or raucous affairs. They are usually quiet, even as teams discuss clues and try to break codes, because they don’t want their discussion to give anything away to the opposing team. There are often numbers flashed beneath the table, quiet gestures, and frantic whispers. This doesn’t make the game less good, but it might make it less interesting for some groups. Time’s Up! this is not.
And because the game is cerebral, there is often downtime as encryptors come up with clues. The game comes with a timer, which I encourage using. In Codenames, especially in casual groups, I usually leave the timer in the box; it’s okay for a player to take their time, and I don’t want to add pressure to an already stressful job. Decrypto, for whatever reason, feels like a higher-stakes game (probably because if another player on your team gave an amazing clue, you feel the weight of expectation to do the same), so there is definitely potential for players to overthink their clues. I recommend enforcing some kind of time limit to keep the game moving, especially because there is little for the other players to do while the encryptor is devising the clues. (Although even here, you’re among friends! It’s a decent time to get to know the other players better while still participating in a structured activity.) The Decrypto box says games should take 30 minutes, and while that’s mostly true, one game I played took an hour because we were lax on the time limits. All of this to say, know what you’re getting into.
Each team has the same deck of 24 code cards, or all the code possibilities.
Decrypto is also a high concept game, which means it can be difficult for players to understand at first and to understand their role in the game. It usually clicks after two rounds, but Decrypto is not a super easy game to teach, mostly because it’s quite different from other games that occupy this space.
The back of the rules provides a small player aid. This is helpful.
Speaking of which, inevitably Decrypto will be compared to Codenames. Both are cerebral team clue-giving and -guessing games. But there are some key differences here. For one thing, Decrypto is more open in terms of acceptable clues. Encryptors aren’t limited to one word; rather, they can give a word, a sentence, a sound, a song–most things are acceptable as long as they don’t include a form of the word or relate to unfair inside jokes. (I always explain this as the “Bilbo rule”: none of that “What’s in my pocket?” nonsense.) Similarly, teams aren’t working from a single puzzle and trying to figure out their words; teams know their words. This inside information gives the game a new slant as teams have to walk a fine line of being obscure enough to throw off the opposing team but clear enough to communicate to their teammates. And while both games are about meaning clusters, this is more pronounced in Decrypto. You have to venture into new territory or the other team will guess your code early and easily. Of course, the other team gains more information each time you do so, and by the end of the game, it’s exciting when either you have the other team’s number or they have yours. The role of encryptor rotates in Decrypto, as opposed to the spymaster role in Codenames, so all players get their chance in the hot seat, even in a short game. In Codenames’ favor is its approachability: rules are simple, easily explained, and the concept is intuitive. Decrypto benefits from its extra layers, but it’s also a less welcoming game because of them.
The insert. Communicate safely!
The components of Decrypto are outstanding, especially considering that the game doesn’t need to look as good as it does. The old-school code interception conceit is borne out on every component. The team board looks like old computer screens, and the unscrambling word cards hearkens back to the code-breaking toys of my youth. The codes are on cards that look like floppy disks, and I love the cartoony computer that serves as the mascot for the game. Even the inside of the Decrypto box is printed with the logo, which is unnecessary but nice. The game comes with four hundred words (each of the 100 word cards in the box has four words on it), and especially since words, codes, and players change, this should provide nigh limitless replayability. This is an outstanding package for the price ($20 MSRP). The only thing that is a bummer is that the game comes with just 50 sheets of the code paper, meaning there is 25 games’ worth in the box. That’s still not a bad value, but this is the kind of game that you will likely want to play over and over, so more paper would have been nice. (You can print more sheets yourself. I ended up laminating four sheets and using dry erase markers.) The words look harder to read in the photos than in person, but in low light, this could be a problem. (But you can definitely write out words for teammates who are having a hard time seeing.)
The back of the box. The look of this game is consistent in every included component. Outstanding.
Decrypto is an outstanding entry into the word-game category. It’s not quite as raucous as a party game, it’s harder to teach and grasp than some others in the genre, and it can be fragile if players aren’t of the same skill or mind-set, so it’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking for a step up from Codenames, or if you’re just trying to get your family to play something other than Codenames, Decrypto scratches a similar itch while offering even more opportunities for cleverness. I doubt Decrypto will have as wide of appeal as Codenames, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those who do like it like it more. I think I might.
This review originally appeared on iSlaytheDragon.com. We were provided a copy of the game for review.
For me, Decrypto has pretty much replaced Codenames (I got my hands on an early copy), for one very specific reason: it places a lot less pressure on the "Encryptor/Codemaster" to come up with clever clues. You're not pressured to go to lengths to find the perfect "Cloud 5" clue.
That makes the game as a whole a lot more enjoyable for my group.