Spy One

So, on the trip home from Erie, I found myself thinking about a game to play at my upcoming birthday party. Something similar to Mafia, but with a little more time to play and a little more than just simple social cues to work with.

This is what I came up with. I’d be interested in thoughts and feedback.

Spy One

At some point, I might write some flavor text here. But right now, I can’t be bothered.

You randomly and secretly distribute roles to the players.

One player is Spy One, the super-spy. He has a special passphrase that he must give to his handler.

One player is the Handler, who is trying to contact Spy One and get the passphrase from him.

One player is the Counter-Intelligence Agent. He is trying to trick Spy One into telling him the passphrase.

Everyone else is divided between Loyalist Citizens and Dissident Citizens. The Loyalist Citizens are on the Counter-Intelligence Agent’s team, and the Dissident Citizens are on the Spy team.

Once roles are distributed and Spy One has his passphrase, the game begins. Ideally, you play this game superimposed over another event, like a birthday party or something, where people have reasons to duck off into corners and have conversations.

For the Spy team (Spy One, the Handler, and the Dissidents) to win, the Handler must declare himself and state the passphrase correctly.

For the Counter-Intelligence team (the Counter-Intelligence Agent and the Loyalists) to win, either the event must end without a Spy team victory or the Counter-Intelligence Agent must declare himself and state the passphrase correctly.

Stating the passphrase incorrectly costs your team the game.

No, you’re not allowed to show the card with your role on it.


And that’s it!

One adjustment I’ve been contemplating is adding a role called the Bartender. He gets to know the role assignments for everyone. Each player can ask him the role assignment of one other player, and he has to answer truthfully. Additionally, each player can find out from him who asked about his role, and he has to answer truthfully.

I’m torn on the Bartender. It’s really more of a game moderator role, truth be told, and not everyone wants to be in that position. (On the other hand, some people like being above the fray.) On the other hand, it does provide a starting point for the players to try to make contact with other players, and it’s very much in theme to have a quiet conversation with the bartender before sitting down at a shadowy table in the corner….

So, thoughts?


8 responses to “Spy One

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Oh, right. The name “Spy One” is a nod to Ron Edward’s game Spione and one of his pet peeves about mispronouncing the game’s name.

  • James Lansberry

    I think it sounds fun! And I’d love to be the bartender, but I can understand your being torn on the character.

  • Raquel

    Oooh, oooh, I want to play! I’d be horrible at it, but I want to play!

    Officially you could make the Bartender an optional role, but for our group you can always find someone who’d rather play that role…so why not keep it?

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    My one concern currently is that there’s a great deal of risk involved with Spy One sticking his neck out and trying to figure out who to trust. The stakes are high, the risk is high, and I’m concerned that he doesn’t have the necessary tools to get started. That’s what the Bartender is supposed to fix, though I’m not sure if he works as written to address this problem.

    Some other thoughts I’ve had:

    1) Instead of revealing roles, the Bartender lets you pass messages to other players addressed by role. So, you can send a message to Spy One or the CI Agent through the Bartender. Of course, that might make things a bit too easy, then, as Spy One and the Handler could coordinate through this (relatively) secure method of communications.

    2) Give out little one-shot powers written on cards to people. Maybe saying things like, “Give this card to another player to force him to reveal his role to you” or “Give this card to another player to force him to give you all his other cards” or “Give this card to another player to force him to get you a drink”. Then, instead of a passphrase, Spy One is carrying a card that has to be given to the Handler. (Say it represents an encrypted SD RAM card or something.) This way, the SD RAM card can be lost….

    3) I’m wondering if the players need more to talk about, which would give additional opportunity for information to be spread. Though, what? I’ve been toying with giving special goals to Citizens in conjunction with those item cards (e.g. “You win if the Spy team wins and you hold the Priceless Ming Vase.”) This would provide additional bargaining opportunities and the like. (e.g. “Give me the Priceless Ming Vase, and I’ll tell you who the Handler is.”)

    Of course, the problem with these tweaks is that they add complexity to a game that I’d like to be fairly simple. Too many details, and it’ll be too complicated for a party game.

    So, I’m still thinking. Any thoughts from the rest of you?

  • matthew cramsie

    Have you seen the Looney Labs game Are You The Traitor?

    Everyone is dealt a card assigning them a role. You could be the Good Wizard, the Evil Wizard, the Traitor, the Key-Holder, or a Guard. The Traitor and the Guards know who the Key Holder is, but only the Wizards know which is Good and which is Evil. The game proceeds as an open discussion about who might be the Traitor, which Wizard is Evil, etc, until someone makes a move that ends the round. If something Good happens (such as a Guard grabbing the Traitor or the Good Wizard being given the Key) then the Good players win the round, whereas the Evil Wizard and the Traitor win if the Evil Wizard gets the Key (or the Good players make a bad call).

    After each round, everyone on the winning team gets a Treasure card, with values ranging from 0-5 points. As soon as someone gets 10 points, that player wins!

  • Seth Ben-Ezra


    Thanks for the comment! Someone in my gaming group has poked at getting that game to the table, but it hasn’t happened yet. Your description was intriguing enough that I did some research, and it does sound like a lot of fun! It also prompted some thoughts for Spy One, so we’ll see what happens.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Okay, tonight’s my birthday and we’re going to give this a go.

    We are using the Bartender with these rules:

    1) The Bartender is publicly revealed at the beginning of the game. (Tonight, I’m just going to assign the role.)

    2) Each player may ask the Bartender once per game for the list of all the people (and their roles) who have asked for the list. Um, that’s awkward phrasing that I can’t be bothered to fix right now. Here’s an example:

    Player A asks the Bartender for the list. Player A gets told “No one has asked for the list.” Player A (and Player A’s role) get added to the list.

    Player B asks the Bartender for the list. Player B gets told that Player A asked, and what Player A’s role is. Player B (and his role) get added to the list.

    And so on and so forth.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Hmm. Kind of a bust at the birthday party. Partly this was because everyone congregated in the one room instead of roaming. Poor social design on my part. Well, for a game. For a party, it worked just fine. 😉

    Also, I think that the players need more to talk about. Some sort of in-game chatter that matters to everyone. It might be easier for the Spies to do their thing if there are more people actively involved in trying to suss out something.

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