Decrypto Board Game Review


Year Published: 2018

Players: 3-8

Playing Time: 15-45 Minutes

A Divergence on Storytelling

I talk about narrative arcs in board games a lot. I see them everywhere. Or, when I don’t, I lament their absence.

Games should tell a story. Not a literal story, but certainly a conceptual one. Often, it’s a story told in rising and falling emotions.

Think about your basic plot structure. In some models, you have the Three Act Play. Each Act opens and closes distinctly, and transitions the viewer from one to the next.

Other models are broken into exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action. Still others break those into sub-categories, or add slightly to them.

Regardless, story is important to the human condition. Pixar teaches storytelling courses that people have applied to everything from games, movies and TV, to self-improvement and business.

Decrypto – A “Narrative” Review

Decrypto tells a story, albeit one that is told in very few words. On the other hand, it’s explicitly told in words.

The reason I say this is that you can sense the rising actions, climax(es), and falling actions. And usually, they tell a good story.

But before I get into this high-minded stuff, I should probably explain the game in brief. Decrypto is a deduction word game played in teams. You have a series of words that only your team knows, and you rotate being the clue-giver, wherein you have to give clues that correspond to three of your four words. Easy enough for your team, and hard for the other team to guess (which they’ll be doing). But as the game progresses, if your clues all fall into similar categories, the opposing team can begin to guess which clue corresponds to which word. So you have to walk the line 

Both teams do this until your own team guesses incorrectly enough times, or the other team guesses yours enough times.

RELATED: How To Play Decrypto

The Ascent

Early rounds aren’t free of nervousness, but they’re comparatively low-stakes. Sure, they set up later rounds for success or failure, but in and of themselves, the first round or two should be smooth for most teams in most sessions of Decrypto.

But each successive round gets trickier. The clues become more nebulous and unrelated, and thus riskier. Or you give up the farm on a particular number to make sure your group gets it, and save the “tougher” clues for other numbers.

The Climax and Descent

I would argue that the climax of Decrypto is not the end, but the first time a team flubs their own clues or the first time the opposite team correctly guesses the opposition’s pattern.

Then it’s on.

The tension might last a while past this point, so the climax isn’t a single point in time. But the creeping sense of doom (the descent from the mountain of the story) is omnipresent past this point.

It’s only a matter of time before one team comes crashing down. You can peer over the edge, and all it would take is a little push…

Defeat comes swiftly. You always have a chance…until you have none. As such, there’s never a single moment where you’re playing without hope.

The Catharsis

Win or lose, when I play a game that has a massive buildup of tension, followed by a sudden, climactic release, there’s almost invariably a contented sigh at the end of the game. My adrenaline is flowing just a little bit more, and I’m a bit more likely to remember it.

Compare this to the many “let’s count up our points and see who wins” games, or those where there may be catchup mechanics, but the game is often settled by the last couple turns. Those games are often fun – there’s no judgment here – but they don’t hold tension throughout the experience in the same way. The payoff is no less real, but it’s more cerebral than visceral, whereas Decrypto will usually end with agonized screams or fist-pumping celebrations.

A Comparison to Codenames

I adore both Codenames and Decrypto, so this isn’t a better/worse comparison. But I see some differences among what I hope are obvious similarities:

  • Codenames has a lower barrier to entry. You’re generally only playing to get your words right, not ALSO to confuse the opposition. In Decrypto, you’re asked to do both.
  • There’s only a clue-giving burden on one person in Codenames. While anyone can be the clue-giver, pressure-averse players will enjoy it less. Decrypto shares this terror across all participants. Some will revel in it, others will squirm.
  • Related to both of the above, the cognitive load will be heavier in Decrypto. It’s not that there’s more depth (I think there’s plenty of potential depth in both). But Codenames can be played and enjoyed both as a brain-burner or as a silly filler where you guess semi-randomly. Decrypto will be trickier to enjoy if you just turn your mind off and go along for the ride.

The end result is that Codenames will be more universally enjoyed. Decrypto arguably has the higher ceiling for emotional impact, and asks more of the players to get the most out of it.

To say I prefer one or the other would be worthless. Both serve an appropriate function at different times. But knowing what those differences are should help many decide which is for them, and when.

Decoding Fun

Simple structure, infinite variance, consistently mounting tension throughout sessions, and satisfying payoffs. This game does a lot with a little. If it seems up your alley, it’s worth it to check out.

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