Around 8 months ago I was introduced to a new game that I immediately wanted to write about for this site. It’s taken awhile, but here it is. You see, it’s not all digital and mobile phone games here at ExLT, this time we are looking at a board game – well, actually a card game. Teachers in search of a new extremely fun idea for speaking classes, meet Spyfall.
“Loose lips sink ships” is a saying that dates back to the days of WWII. It also represents a vital wartime principle. There were lots of things that could give spies away — rust-free staples in their documents, square-headed nails in the soles of their boots, and so on… This game offers everyone an opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of both a spy who’s close to having their cover blown and the special agent who’s hot on the spy’s heels.
The above comes from the instructions for the game Spyfall, originally a 2014 Russian-created card game now distributed by Cryptozoic. It’s one of those games that is super easy to grasp, and very quick to set up, but still has enough depth for it to be worth replaying many times. Most importantly, it’s a game that really depends on everyone asking questions and talking, which is why English teachers could find it interesting.
The game is played in rounds. At the start of each round, players receive a secret card letting them know where they are. There are 30 different possible locations – a casino, space station, pirate ship, circus and more. All players receive the same location card, except one player receives the SPY card instead of the location. The Spy doesn’t know where the location is, but wins the round if she can figure it out before the others guess who the spy is! Players then start talking during the intense 8-minute rounds.
How do you learn who is who? Everyone asks questions, the favourite grammar of the conversation class teacher. On your turn, you can ask one question of any other player. Try to ask a question that would be difficult for the spy to answer without revealing her ignorance. For example, if the game is set in a primary school you could ask: “Who is picking you up today?” If the other person says, “My husband” that might be a red flag.
At the same time, the spy should ask questions that will provide her hints about the game’s setting without being too obvious about it. For example, “Are you worried about anything around here?”
Non-Spy players want to ask questions and give answers that prove to the other players that they know where they are. But here’s the thing! If your questions and answers are too specific, the Spy will easily guess the location and win, so you need to practice a bit of subtlety. If you are the Spy, you need to listen carefully to the other players, and hope you’ll be able to come up with a plausible question or answer.
This game is part of a popular new genre of games, called ‘hidden role’ games. If anybody here has heard of Mafia, or Werewolves, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. The hidden role mechanic of these games means that players have to talk and listen carefully to find out who is lying. It makes for a good information gap too, and provides a reason to communicate.
I’ve played Spyfall a couple of times and really enjoyed it. I’m planning on trying it out with a class, once I have a group that is B1 level or higher (my current A2 students might struggle with this). The other thing that I really like about SpyFall is that once you know the rules of the game, it’s probably easy enough to make your own version if you don’t want to spring for the whole thing. You can find a handy pdf of the rules at the official site here.There is even an informal digital version that’s free to play! I haven’t tried it yet, but you can see it here https://github.com/evanbrumley/spyfall. You’ll need to nose around a bit to get an idea of how to set up a digital version, the instructions aren’t very clear.
Spyfall is a game for 3-8 players, but I can see myself stretching it to 10 players if need be. So it’s best for your small conversation classes. Or for a games night with fellow language teachers (why not?). So, get your trench coats and best evening wear out. The game’s afoot!