08 November 2018
Kids solving mysteries in a small town? Stranger Things have happened…
Whether it’s Scooby-Doo or Stranger Things, pop culture has long proved that young people just have a knack for solving mysteries. Spy Club’s wonderfully whimsical world of small-town whodunits will soon have you wanting to drag your Chopper out of the garage and become a meddling kid once again.
First, you’ll need some clues. Like any good mystery, these are in abundance: it’s up to the players to sift through the red herrings by building a matching set of cards in the centre, revealing one of five crucial details – suspect, object, location, motive or the crime itself – needed to completely crack the case. Straightforward actions and free teamwork bonuses open up room for a buoyant reliance on co-operation between members of the club, gaining, swapping and discarding cards to uncover the truth as they race against the suspect, who attempts to escape throughout.
Nailing the feel of the young detective genre, the game makes its relatively trivial mysteries (potential misdemeanours include ‘prank’ and ‘eavesdropping’, never getting more serious than ‘theft’) feel important and delights in the unison of friends solving a mystery together, rather than falling into the trap of each player feeling like a lone wolf investigator.
This is captured best by the Carmen Sandiego-like suspect, who is ever on the move around the group’s circle of cards, triggering negative effects as they land on clues – making hoarding a particular set potentially risky and requiring the group to plan ahead and collaborate to minimise the risk of escape. Naturally, they can always be temporarily diverted with distractions like homework or chores…
A big part of Spy Club’s charm is that even when you’ve discovered the answers, it’s still up to you to join the dots. Solving a case offers up a sometimes logical, often bizarre combination of five key aspects that the players are free to connect as they see fit: “Well, of course the dog was jealous over the cake and ended up bullying someone at the school.” The entertaining diversity of the clues (each of which is double-sided) has the emergent group story-generation feel of a game like Deception, but with bright childhood whimsy and innocence in place of the instantly gritty Murder in Hong Kong.
The freedom of being able to decide how the pieces fit together yourself is given more lasting power by Spy Club’s ingenious integration of its legacy-lite campaign, dubbed the ‘mosaic’ system. A branching deck of cards provides the backbone for a connected five-game story, with each solved case contributing one element (the players’ choice, to some degree) of the overall mystery and often bringing other aspects forward to tie the whole thing together. Importantly, while there’s some application of stickers, it’s all fully replayable. The evergreen setup means that the reveals and gameplay changes never get as shocking or wild as one-and-done legacy games, but there’s plenty to leave you smiling and anticipating the next gentle twist during the handful of hours required to complete a full playthrough. The possible number of combinations and things to see is frankly staggering, providing more than enough reason to dive right back in.
Like its fresh-faced heroes, Spy Club wrings every drop of creativity and inventiveness out of what appears at first to be relatively mundane. It attaches welcoming gameplay to a surprisingly remarkable flair for creating distinctive and memorable stories out of the everyday. You might have to invest some of your own imagination to truly get the most out of its modest charms, but Spy Club will meet you more than halfway with a quietly revolutionary take on interactive mysteries, legacy games and emergent storytelling. There’s more to this unassuming character that meets the eye…
If you’re willing to join some of the dots for yourself, Spy Club will reward you with a charming world full of near-endless mysteries that are well worth investigating.
Designer: Randy Hoyt, Jason D. Kingsley
Artist: Kordowski, Kwiatkowska, Zhu
Time: 45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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