Full disclosure: A preview copy of NewSpeak was provided by Inside the Box Board Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
I think I’m gonna try something new for a bit (while I can, which is basically two weeks) and just throw a couple games onto the review queue which are thematically / mechanically similar). Not really to say that one of them is more “worth buying” than another or something dangerously reductive, but just because I think it’s a bit easier to write reviews about games that have a lot in common, and I think Decrpyto and NewSpeak might not be a bad front to test that theory on. Either way, let’s dive in and find out.
NewSpeak is a new(ish) game hitting Kickstarter from ITB that presents you with a bit of an issue. You live in a world occupied by both Moderators, who seek to delude people and preserve the status quo through some aggressive augmented reality shenanigans, and Dissidents, who want to hack through that facade and expose the true dystopia underneath. No matter what, you’re going to have to choose a side, but which one will triumph?
Split into two teams – Moderators and Dissidents. If you’re playing at 3, the odd person out is the Moderator; the other two are the Dissidents. You should never have fewer than two Dissidents or more than two Moderators. Sit across from each other, and give the Moderators a Mod Sheet:
All players (Moderators included!) will then decide which Code Set to use:
You’ll have four in the base game. They get easier to more challenging, A to D, so start with A. Moderators should flip their Mod Sheet to the side matching that Code Set. The Code Sets also come with numbered cards; give each Dissident a set.
Dissidents keep these cards in their hand. Give them each a Targeting Dial, as well:
Now, build out the locations. Set out 9 of them:
And place the number tokens on them so that you have them indicated (rather than, say, relying on the numbers on the card:
There are timers for the Mods and the Dissidents; set those to the side, as well. I’m trying to make my 2019 resolution not to take pictures of generic sand timers, so, keeping to that so far.
Now, from the given code deck, the Lead Dissident (you can also do this by committee if you want, but that might take too long) should pick one Code Card; that’s the Code Card that the Dissidents will be using. Do not show the Moderators which card you picked from the deck. You should also ensure everyone has the same card and the same deck, otherwise the game will get very confusing.
You’re all ready to go!
Alright, so the core premise here is that you’re in a dystopia filled with disinformation. In the game, you’re also playing as characters in a dystopia, but theirs is veiled with AR to appear pleasing and run by Moderators who seek to make that reality “perfect”. The Dissidents, on the other hand, are trying to hack the AR units at different locations and expose the truth. Naturally, that puts these two groups at odds. The game is played over several rounds, broken up into three phases: Hack, Moderation, Resolution.
So, flip the Dissident timer, first thing. The Dissidents have 2 minutes to agree on a location to meet. Naturally, since the Moderators are, well, moderating, they can’t just say “hey let’s do up a crime at the supermarket”; they have to be secret. The Lead Dissident can initiate the conversation, but use the words on your code card to obfuscate the meaning of where you’re trying to meet. If you say:
“You know, I was reading a new book about that concept the other day; it was a lot more complex than I anticipated.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I found that sticking with it helped me better understand what was going on in class.”
Let’s say your code card maps new -> drink, day -> loud, and class -> party. These things together might indicate that you’re thinking of the Nightclub location. During this, Moderators can freely talk and take notes, but don’t talk over the Dissidents; that’s kind of rude. Once time runs out, the Dissidents must stop talking.
Now, Dissidents use their Targeting Dials to pick the number of the location they believe that they’ve agreed on. Keep your Targeting Dials private.
Standard etiquette applies to Dissident conversation, also:
- The Moderators must be able to hear (no whispering), see (no texting), and understand (agree on a language to play the game in prior to play) your conversation.
- Don’t point to stuff on cards or give clues based on word positioning.
- The rules say not to refer to conversations in previous rounds, but I’m a bit split on that one. Try both and see what works for you.
After you’ve done this, flip the Mod Timer. They now have a minute to decide a location where they think the Dissidents are headed. Once they do that, they place the Mod Timer on that location. Dissidents reveal what numbers they chose, and then the Moderation Phase begins.
During this phase, resolve the location.
- If more than half of the Dissidents targeted the same location and the Mod Timer is not on that location, the Dissidents successfully hack the location!
- If the Location is Moderated, flip it to its Hacked side.
- If the Location is Hacked, flip any other location to its Hacked side.
- The Lead Dissident may change their Code by 1 (this means they can reuse the old one, go one higher, or one lower [this wraps around; from 5 you could go to 4 or 1]).
- If more than half of the Dissidents did not target the same location and / or the Mod Timer is not on a location that at least one Dissident targeted, the Moderators prevent the Hack!
- If the Location is Moderated, remove it from play.
- If the Location is Hacked, remove any other location from play.
- The Lead Dissident must change their Code to any Code available (this means they can reuse the old one).
If either team has won three locations, that team wins! If not, pass the Lead Dissident token to another Dissident; they’re in charge, now.
Play until one team wins!
Player Count Differences
I mean, it’s gonna be similar to Codenames and Decrypto. I personally like to run a tight ship, so I’m not a big fan of these games as the player count expands. Unlike Codenames, which is kind of a mess at three, in my opinion, this has a nice feature at three, as one player can be the sole Moderator (and it makes the game a 1 vs. all variant, something that is painfully absent in a lot of board games. Either way, I’m not entirely convinced that having more players helps the Dissidents (since no matter what your player count you need two Dissidents at the same location to hack it), though the Moderators can only search one location, so maybe it does. Either way, my general preference is for 3 – 4 players, but it’s perfectly fine at 5 or 6, if you’re looking for games that support higher player counts.
- Don’t use too many code words. If you do, as a Dissident, it gives the Moderator much more signal as to what place you’re referring to and helps them more quickly pick the correct Clue Card. The thing you never want is to have the Moderator know exactly which Clue Card you’re using.
- Using the unmapped words can occasionally be helpful if you’re trying to throw the Moderator off. Remember, you only need to trick them three times in order to win, if you play perfectly. So try to! The unmapped words might be able to be used in conjunction with other words to try and make the Moderators think you’re using a different card.
- You don’t necessarily have to use the words directly. You can combine them, sure (“bigger” is legal if the word is “big”), but you can also use synonyms and antonyms to try and increase the cognitive load (or references) for the Moderators, which is good. Your goal is to increase their uncertainty, so do whatever you can (within the rules) to make sure that happens.
- Double back to the same location / Clue Card occasionally. Most people I’ve seen fail to do this; they always keep moving, and so that eliminates one option. At least float the possibility of coming back around in order to keep that option open for the Moderator.
- Remember that if the Dissidents meet up, they can only move up to 1 Clue Card. This means that you can usually safely eliminate a few potential Clue Cards, which lowers the space that you have to consider as a Moderator to determine whether or not the card you’re looking at is the correct Clue Card. Eliminating options is good!
- Watch for patterns. Players can sometimes fall into a pattern where they use the same combination of hints to mean a specific location, which might mean that they actually use the same words (or use a triple of “party”, “loud”, and “drink” across different cards). If you can recognize this pattern, it’s possible that you’ll be able to notice it on cards and potentially nab them, especially if they double back to a location again.
- The more pressure you apply, the more likely they’ll make a mistake. If the Dissidents get worried, they’re more likely to potentially underclue, meaning that the other Dissidents won’t actually know where to go. This gives you an opportunity to catch them. Usually, I recommend going with your gut, location-wise, since if there isn’t enough information the Dissidents will have to do the same, so you may happen upon one.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Neat theme. Maybe a bit too on-the-nose given the recent political climate, but, I mean, it uses AR, so that’s fine. Almost seems like it would have made a good Black Mirror game (EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t watch Black Mirror and the quote “what if phones but too much” is my only reference point for it). Don’t use this as an opportunity to talk to me about Black Mirror.
- Asymmetric roles make the game feel interesting and different from either side. Unlike Decrypto (my major point of comparison for this game since they’re both kind of about the same thing), you act purely as the encrypting team or the decrypting team during a game. Personally, I slightly prefer that, since it lets you focus on one task and being good at it instead of trying to be good at multiple distinct tasks. It also gives the game some additional replay value in that you can say “hey, let’s switch roles and try again” instead of just moving around team members.
- Very nice art. It’s bright and colorful, which I always appreciate — the happiest dystopias end up being the most unsettling, in my opinion.
- It’s pretty challenging! It’s a good kind of challenging, though; one that rewards teamwork without aggressively punishing mistakes. The new fixes to the rules (I played an older version a while ago) are definitely anti-frustration features for the Dissidents. Initially, it was pretty hard for them to come out ahead over the Moderators without some serious work, but that appears to have been addressed and rebalanced.
- Seems pretty expandable. I could see even themed Code Decks being usable, which could be a lot of fun, or even more locations being added. These kinds of highly-modular games are pretty perfect for Kickstarter, since so much more can be added after the fact.
- You’ll want to mention to players that they can go to the same location more than once. It’s not necessarily the fault of the game, but it’s a supremely unintuitive rule (especially since it gets flipped over once it gets Hacked). It’s more a Meh than anything else specifically because it is mentioned in the rules, but, similar to Rallying in Animal Kingdoms or Declining in Nessos, a lot of players just won’t do it on principle.
- Similar to Decrypto, this has a pretty significant language dependence. If you’re playing with someone who doesn’t get a lot of idioms or pop culture references, you can pretty easily box them out, which makes the game kind of unfun for them. Try to make sure you’re being inclusive when you play and feel free to add house rules to limit the types of conversations that can be held during the game if you think it’s a problem. Unlike Decrypto, however, if too much information leaks out it’s a bit more recoverable.
- Bit on the longer side for these kinds of games. It can take up to an hour if you’re having a tight game, which is fine, but definitely makes it a bit more difficult to get to the table as a “Party Game” since most of the games in that category are very rapid and round-based, and therefore much shorter. Or you can drop in more easily.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think NewSpeak is pretty great! It’s a solid successor to the Codenames-style games, so if you’re looking for a more challenging and strategic variant for that I’d definitely recommend this or Decrypto. Neither are bad. Thematically, I like this a bit more than Decrypto, as it’s got a really bright and upbeat dystopia vibe going for it. The asymmetry is also more pronounced, and I think I gravitate towards that a bit more (but not much). The game’s also got a good amount of expandability, as you can pretty easily add more locations, code card sets, or what have you to keep the game fresh for a while, yet. Plus, it’s a challenging team-based deduction game; what’s not to like? Either way you slice it, I’m a pretty big fan of NewSpeak, and I’m looking forward to trying the full version. If you’re looking for a cool strategic game of deduction and encryption, then you’ll hopefully enjoy NewSpeak as much as I have, too!