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Verbal games

The Secret Agents’ Masked Ball

You might remember last year I posted here about a game idea, Resistance Is Useless. That proved a fun diversion for a slightly tispy evening — but, as commenters predicted, it lacked the ‘gamishness’ for real replay value. The conversational elements were not sufficiently exchange-y, and it worked best when people went off on unstructured rambles in character.

So I was thinking about it again just the other night, and thought it might do better if turned into explicitly a storytelling game. I know lots of (possibly, most) people detest storytelling games — so if you are in that category, please bear with me, or move on to the next item on your friends’ page. I rather like them, and hopefully there’ll be at least one other person out there who also does and can let me know what they think…

OK, the game is now called The Secret Agents’ Masked Ball, and it’s set at the as-yet-unnamed town which lies on the border of four nations: Borduria, Syldavia, San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico. All four maintain large and active secret agencies, to support or undermine their ever-shifting pattern of alliances and enmities, but their hard-working staff are annually granted the opportunity to relax together at the titular event. Of course, they do so under cover, concealing their real identities and affiliations.

The game is for four people, although I think it would work OK with three. The playing materials are two decks of cards, plus pens and paper for voting / scoring. It takes place over a series of rounds, maybe as few as one, or until the players get bored.

The first deck of cards is the cover identities. Each card depicts a person, their name, their job (or whatever), and their characteristics / interests. So, for example, “Colonel Juan Oloroso, San Theodoran army officer, corrupt, boastful, alcoholic, a keen huntsman”. Each player is dealt one of these cards at random (face-down) at the start of the round.

The second deck is in groups of four, colour-coded on their backs. Each round, a group of four is taken from the deck, and one is dealt (face-down) to each player. These cards contain the real identities. A real identity consists of: the name of the country for which you are an agent; which country is currently its ally, and which its enemy. It also contains your own codephrase (eg. “the biggest carp I’ve ever seen”), the subject of your ally’s codephrase (eg. “it’s something to do with horses”) and the theme of your enemy’s codephrase (eg. “it’s about an ironic disappointment”).

So the way the game works is: each player in turn, in the character of their cover identity, tells a brief story about their doings, something that interests them, or whatever. You have to include your codephrase (exactly as written) in your own story, and listen out for what might be other people’s codephrases in their stories.

After everyone’s told their story, each player writes down which other player they think is the agent of their ally, which their enemy, and which is from the remaining (neutral) country. (In a three-player game, when one of the four cards in the set will be unused, players would write down if they think their ally or enemy is absent.) Then everyone reveals their true identity, and scores +2 points for correctly identifying their enemy and ally, +1 for being identified by their ally, and -1 for being identified by ther enemy. That concludes a round.

So the skill of the game is to tell an entertaining story and include your codephrase in such a way that your listening ally will spot it from its subject, but your listening enemy won’t spot it from its theme. And, of course, to spot others’ codephrases accordingly. Each group of four real identities is only really usable once, as once the codephrases are known it becomes too easy. But there would be quite a few in the deck, and maybe others available if you play it so much that you use all those up.

Does that all make sense as an explanation, and does it sound playable a a game?

17 replies on “The Secret Agents’ Masked Ball”

It makes good sense.

I don’t much like the rule: “you have to include your codephrase (exactly as written)” for two reasons.

* First, it eliminates much of the strategy from the game as both ally and enemy will manage a near 100% detection rate with only false positives from other players providing scoring variation.
* The scoring system you have strongly motivates each player to favour secrecy over clarity. This being the case, the rule is going to need actual enforcing, which is awkward unless you videotape everything (and even then, that’s too formal for a fun game).

I think that rule wants removing.

I’d also be inclined to up the scoring for being identified by your ally to +2, then add an additional +1 bonus for each player who wrongly identifies you as an ally (in-game rationale: they might pass you juicy secrets!). This encourages people to use their exact codephrase voluntarily, but also encourages them to introduce all kinds of wild elaboration into their stories in an effort to try to gather bonus points!

Another problem you may well not care about it that I think this game would replay quite badly. Knowing the other code phrases in the deck would basically spoil the gameplay.

These concerns aside it does sound like it would be fun!

Hmm… even more expensive now I give it further thought.

You’d only be interesting in acquiring a new, sealed pack if you knew it was one you’d not seen before. So either every single pack has to be unique, or you’d need an external signifier to differentiate one sealed packet from another.

Mm. Maybe it would be better to just trust people not to peek through the deck. After all, if they do so, they’ll have trouble finding people who will play their beloved game with them more than once. “You’re only spoiling it for yourself”, as my mum used to say.

My hope is that your ally and enemy will also be experiencing false positives when listening to the other players. So you include your codephrase as above, but if what your ally knows about your codephrase is that “it’s about fish”, then any other player’s story which also happens to mention fish will cause doubt. So I see the identification process as being along the lines of “Hmm, well, players A and B both talked about fish so might be my ally, but both A and C could be said to have been ‘using wild exaggeration’ so one of them must be my enemy…”

What I want to aim for is an approx 70% detection rate from your ally, and approx 30% from your enemy. Of course this will depend on how well chosen the theme / subject clues are, and on how elaborated the stories tend to be. From that point of view I like your +2 / +1 for false identification as ally, that’s great!

People might cheat by not using the phrase properly, true, but I tend not to consider that when I’m designing games to play with friends. It would be different if it was for the general public… Even so though I guess it would need a brave cheat to persistently claim to have included the phrase exactly, when the others all fail to remember you doing so.

Mm, there is no replay value. I think you’d have to get a supplementary deck once you’d been through it once. Money-spinning opportunity!

Because that seemed to me the only way of guaranteeing that it included both the correct subject and the correct theme as expected on the ally / enemy cards.

I thought that allowing the speaker to improvise around it would open up accusations like “my card said it would be about an ironic disappointment, but what you said wasn’t like that at all…”

I might have misjudged this, though, so I’m certainly not ruling out your suggestion of ditching the reqt. I suspect playtesting will tell.

It’s not that I think you’ve misjudged it, I’m just trying to get a feel for the mechanic.

The balance seems to be between excessive flexibility leaving nobody able to pick up anything and excessive restriction leaving nobody missing anything.

Mm, that’s right — my hope is that careful choice of wording on the cards will help strike the right point of that balance.

But it may be that it’s very sensitive to types of player… which would be harder to deal with.

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