Learning the Mystery Behind Spy Club

Learning the Mystery Behind Spy Club

July 17, 2018 0 By Ryan Sanders

The Inquisitive Meeple catches up with Randy Hoyt and Jason D. Kingsley, the designers behind the card game, Spy Club to learn some of the mysteries behind the game. For 2-4 players, “In Spy Club, players work together as young detectives to solve neighborhood mysteries. It includes a replayable campaign format, with variable unlocking content, for playing a series of 5 games connected together to tell a larger story.”

First off, let me say thank you to both Jason and Randy. I am sure you guys are busy with con-season upon us, so thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Let me start by asking, what games have been hitting your game tables lately?

Jason: Just recently, I introduced one of my boys to Dominion, which has remained my favorite deck builder over the years. He really enjoyed his first game and has asked to play almost every day since! We’ve also had The Magic Labyrinth out on the table a lot — the kids have loved exploring the invisible mazes.

Randy: I backed the second edition of The 7th Continent, and my oldest son (11YO) and I have been slowly working our way through a scenario of that. It’s been out on the table all month! I also ordered a copy of The Mind from Germany, and I’m really enjoying playing that one with many different groups. It’s a really fascinating game, a very different experience than most games I enjoy.

Besides any Foxtrot games, are there any games that are coming out this year that have caught your eyes?

Jason: I’ve had great experiences with friends and family with escape room style games, so I was excited to see new Unlock! and Exit games coming out. And while not technically 2018 games, I’m also very much looking forward to getting in some of my favorite ‘18 Spiel nominees soon, like Azul, The Mind, and Heaven and Ale.

Randy: I’m really looking forward to the additional content coming out for some of my favorite game systems: Exit: The Game, Unlock!, and T.I.M.E Stories. Beyond those, I have backed a handful of projects that are solo gamebooks of various kinds that I’m excited and intrigued to check out: the two roll-and-write books from Spielpress, Tramway’s Engineer Workbook by AV Studio Games, and the Graphic Novel Adventures from Van Ryder Games.  

As readers may have easily deduced, we are here today to talk Spy Club. Could you tell us a little bit about how the basic game of Spy Club is played?

Jason: For sure! In Spy Club, players take on the role of young detectives working together to solve neighborhood mysteries. Each player has double-sided clue cards in front of them. On your turn, you use actions to flip, draw, and trade clue cards, gain ideas, and confirm clue cards as evidence. There are 5 types of clue cards relevant to the case: the Motive (red), Suspect (purple), Location (green), Crime (blue), and Object (yellow). The players work together to collect 5 clues of the same type to solve that part of the case. So, for example, you might find and confirm 5 blue cards, which will reveal what crime took place. As you discover more and more of the solution, a story starts to emerge, and players can pause and enjoy discussing what may have happened. Perhaps your neighbor stole something from the ice cream shop, but what? And why? To crack the case, you need to find the solution to all 5 parts before the suspect escapes or you run out of clues.

An exciting part of the game is the ‘mosaic’ campaign, which includes 40 modules. Could you tell us how this works and how is it different from legacy games?

Randy: Like legacy or other campaign-style games, Spy Club includes new rules, components, and story elements that get unlocked and change the game over multiple game sessions. But there are a few key differences that set it apart from these other systems:

  • The order the modules get unlocked is not linear or scripted. There are 40 different modules, and any one of them could get unlocked at the end of Game 1.
  • Campaigns are short (5 games, roughly 4-5 hours across multiple sessions), and you unlock only a fraction of the total content in one campaign.
  • All the components can be fully reset, and you can start over from the beginning unlocking a different combination of modules each time.
  • All of the modules are individually replayable; none of them have “solutions” that would be spoiled on future plays. Even after you played 10 full campaigns over 40-50 hours, you can still reset and play them all again.

To accomplish this, Spy Club includes a large 174-card campaign deck that contains 40 different modules. We call it the “mosaic” format because each module stands alone, but a larger picture emerges each campaign depending on which modules get combined together, just like in a mosaic. Every campaign will be a unique and personal experience.

Could you share the story behind how Spy Club was created and what inspired the theme?

Jason: Spy Club started off as an experiment with double-sided cards. I was intrigued by the idea of using both sides of a card in a very direct, functional way, and I wanted to design a co-op. I started with a loose elemental theme and some colors on index cards. For example, the red cards represented fire, the blue cards represented water, and so on.

Fairly early on, I knew I wanted to push the design by exploring a new theme. I’ve always loved reading mysteries like The Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes, and my oldest child was buried neck-deep in Encyclopedia Brown, A-Z Mysteries, and other kid-detective stories at the time. Once I pushed through to the idea that the colors on the cards could be more representative of something, the mystery theme just clicked into place. I tested converting the colors of the main clue deck into overarching categories: blue “water” cards became crimes, red “fire” cards became motives, and so on. But more than that, some blue cards turned into specific crimes like “theft” or “bullying” and certain red cards changed into things like “money” or “revenge”. All of a sudden, I found myself with a game that was offering pieces of a story as you played it. It was was a magical moment, and I knew there was something special there.

Randy, as not only the designer but also the publisher (Foxtrot Games) of Spy Club, was there any fear that the theme would make it seem like this was only a game for families or kids — that adult-only groups wouldn’t like it?

Randy: As a publisher, I worry about all kinds of things! There’s definitely a risk that people will mistakenly assume the game is only for kids and families because of the theme. From a game design perspective, the theme meshes really well with our design goals. It creates a light-hearted, playful atmosphere that really enhances the collaboration in the problem solving and the creativity in the emergent storytelling. We watched a lot of playtests (in person and on video recordings), and it was just such a joy to watch the game sing with groups of adults. We’re hopeful that the innovative campaign system, the positive reviews that are coming in, and the familiarity and nostalgia of neighborhood detective stories will encourage people to give it a look.

Is Spy Club the first co-op game that either of you designed? How have you found designing co-op games different than designing competitive games?

Randy: I had done a little development work on a couple of cooperative games before this, but this is the first cooperative game for either of us that has been released. We’ve both played many great cooperative games, which provided some inspiration and good direction when we were getting started.

Jason: There were definite differences from the start. For one, solo playtesting was a much smoother process — I played two full games by myself the day I made the original prototype. And while playtesting at every player count with different groups of people was essential to balancing the game difficulty, Randy and I continued to test and iterate on our own at different times throughout development and the creation of campaign content.

There was also a strong sense early on that there were two clear competitors — the game acting as the adversary and the players working together as the heroes. Seeing the game itself as a participant that would either enhance or detract from the overall experience was very different. It was a good challenge and presented a clear goal, and I’m very pleased with where we ended up.

Randy: I think the mosaic campaign format (with its many different permutations of modules) was much more manageable because the game was cooperative. We didn’t have to worry about a runaway leader or balance between players like we would if it was competitive. Some modules are more difficult than other modules, and some groups figure out the strategy of a module more quickly than other groups do, but the fact that the players are tackling the modules together gives us a little more freedom. If this mosaic format resonates with players the way we hope it will, I’d love a chance to explore what it would look like in a competitive game — even though I know it will be a very different kind of challenge!

From a Kickstarter update, Jason tells us, “My wife and I were in the middle of an old movie stint during the design of Spy Club. We had just finished watching Charade (1963) with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. As a result, stamps became one of the clues you can discover during your investigation in the game. One of our main goals with the illustrations was to broaden the potential for storytelling of each card as wide as possible, so for this card we included multiple types of stamps on the card.”

Will there be an ability to join or drop out during the campaign? If I played the first game 2-players, will I be able to play the 2nd game 3-players?

Randy: Absolutely. There is nothing in the mechanisms that would require the same number of players from game to game. It might be a lot to learn for someone who has never played Spy Club to join a campaign in Game 5; it would feel about the same as learning any other game with an expansion at the same time. I like how adding characters mimics the episodic feel of a detective book series, where a friend or a cousin may be visiting to help with just one case.

As a co-op, is there a way to make the game more difficult or do you feel that it it is difficult enough?

Randy: It was a challenge to figure out how often people should complete the objective to solve all 5 aspects of the case. On the one hand, we want the game to be challenging so that players can get better the more they play. On the other hand, the emerging story element is more interesting the more aspects you solve. We watched how playtesters reacted to different outcomes, and we found the following to work well:

  • We tuned the numbers until most first-time players were solving 3-4 of the 5 aspects.
  • We give players a score at the end of each game, whether they solve all 5 aspects or not. (Scoring 17 out of 20 points for solving 4 aspects felt much better to players than simply losing.)
  • You progress to the next game in the campaign whether you solve all 5 aspects or not.
  • Even if you never solve all 5 aspects of one case, you can still complete the overall campaign objective to solve the master crime with all 5 elements for the story.

This appeals to players who simply want to have a fun story to tell, as well as players who want an objective measure of how well they did so that they can improve in future campaigns.

The game ships with two difficulty modes, a Standard mode, and an Advanced mode. As a team, we’ve played the game hundreds of times and always (nearly always?) win on Standard mode. So we created the Advanced mode for ourselves, which makes the escape track shorter and some of the events harsher. I expect the Standard mode will provide the most fun experience overall for most players, but I’m glad we have the Advanced mode for those who prefer a challenge.

The art by Bartłomiej Kordowski is gorgeous; it really seems to nail the theme. Do you have a favorite piece of art in the game?

Jason: It was amazing working with Bartłomiej (Bartholomew). The work he did on the clue cards — all of the little details and references — is stunning. I hope people will take time to look at them closely! But I can’t pick one favorite card, so I’m going to go with the kids on the cover.

As we concepted each character, Bartłomiej named them so that we could easily discuss them individually. I feel just as attached to them as if they were kids in a story with their own unique personalities, quirks, and talents. There are only four characters on the cover, but there are eight to choose from when you start playing. And, best of all, you get to name them at the beginning of your campaign!

Randy: If I had to pick a favorite, I would say the Love motive card. As I look through all the clue cards right now, I can’t help but smile as I recall the long process and history of how these came to be. Before we started the artwork, I was really worried about the Motive cards. How exactly would you illustrate something abstract like a motive? And could they hint at different variations of the motive to give as wide a range of storytelling options as possible? Bartłomiej came up with this first-person view of various desks as if you were looking where the suspect had planned the crime. I loved that. Bartłomiej came up with the papercraft heart, and we asked him to add a friendship bracelet and a baby rattle to hint at other types of love than just romantic love.

(As it turns out, the motive cards weren’t as challenging as I expected; the crime cards proved the most difficult. It was hard to illustrate a crime without it looking overly specific and without it looking like a location or a suspect. Lying is my favorite crime card; the wide variety of objects, from the Pinocchio-like toy to the book labeled “Orwell,” provide some great storytelling prompts.)

What was the most difficult part of designing Spy Club?

Jason: There was a period of time when Spy Club was transitioning from a standalone game to the incredible campaign experience it offers today. The team pushed the core game through a hundred different molds to not only make it the best game it could be, but also to ensure it could provide the best possible foundation for a replayable, non-linear campaign system. It was not simple or quick, and it would not have been possible without Randy’s strong vision for the mosaic format and the tireless support of the Foxtrot development team.

Randy: Spy Club was an ambitious project, and it required an insane amount of effort sustained over a long period of time. As the game producer, I had a tough time keeping all the details together to make sure that everyone and everything was moving in parallel at the right pace. There were a couple times during the 2-2½ year development process when I didn’t think it was all going to come together.

What was the biggest lesson you learned working on it?

Randy: I have always had a hard time as a leader delegating tasks and trusting other people to do them well. Because this project was so big, I really had to do that more than ever. I assembled the biggest team I’ve ever led, and I grew a lot as leader: knowing which tasks to delegate, how to give feedback, when to give people time to rest, how and when to inspire people with a strong vision, etc. There’s a well-known quote on leadership that resonated with me during this project: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Together we all achieved so much more than any of us could have on our own.

Jason: Collaboration definitely made Spy Club what it is today, which is apt for a cooperative game! As we sent the final pre-press files to the game manufacturer, I was struck by how important it is to enjoy the journey of making a game. No matter how many people buy your game and play it once it’s released, there’s a huge span of time full of decisions and obstacles and triumphs… There’s the work. And I was fortunate enough to continue working alongside Foxtrot Games in art direction and other capacities beyond the original licensing of the game. Spy Club gave me a fresh appreciation for all that goes into making a game and what can be accomplished with teamwork.

As we come to a close, what is something you think that readers would find interesting about Spy Club that we haven’t covered today?

Randy: We have so many other great stories and memories from the time we spent working on this game — way too much to share here. If you see us at a convention, we’d be more than happy to talk about how the different elements of the game evolved: how we tested the clue card graphic design before we had the artwork, the different iterations of the movement deck mechanisms, what is in the reflection in the mirror on the School card, and so many other details. It was a wonderful project, and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

Thanks to both Randy and Jason for taking time out to do this interview. Spy Club is currently shipping out to Kickstarter backers and should be in stores this summer. 

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Ryan Sanders is the founder, owner, and editor-at-large of Adventures in Gameschooling. He’s also the guy behind its social media accounts. God has blessed Ryan and his wife Mary, with five children, which he homeschools. As a Christian, he believes that he should not only look out for your own interests but other peoples too (Philippians 2:4) and this is one of his guiding principles for Adventures in Gameschooling. Ryan’s expertise is informed by almost two decades of experience as a stay-at-home father and from the running The Inquisitive Meeple where he performed over 300 written and podcast interviews within the board game industry.