Designer: Bill Eberle, Greg Olotka, Peter Olotka
Artist: Kwanchai Moriya
Publisher: Heidelbär Games
2-4 players 30 minutes ages 10+ MSRP $30
Time to teach & learn: 3 minutes
Decipher is a clever but simple call and response word guessing game. Using your powers of deduction and construction, can you build a word from small letter fragments offered up by a puzzle Maker each round? Decipher the clues the quickest and you’ll score well. Stump the players with a tricky word and you’ll rake in the points.
Decipher is the second game in the Letter Piece series from German publisher Heidelbär Games. Each game in the series features 4 brightly colored plastic letter pieces. The pieces fall in to two categories – sticks and curves. There’s a long red stick and a short yellow stick. There’s a wide blue curve and a tight green curve (a U-shape).
Along with these pieces is a construction template showing how each letter in the alphabet can be built using these four shapes. The letter R, for instance, is made using a red stick, a yellow stick and a green curve.
In addition to these letter pieces, there are letter tiles A-Z, one letter per tile. Each tile depicts a letter using its proper construction layout.
These word tiles will be placed in to a Word Rack, a sort of cardboard wallet that can be folded and flipped over. More on this later.
There are tokens for guessing, and scoring bonuses, “No” tokens for the Puzzle Maker, plus a large game board / screen and a score pad.
The most notable and amazing component in Decipher, though, is the box insert. For such a simple game, Decipher has one of the most elaborate game box inserts I have ever seen!
The game is played using the box. There are special areas for each letter piece, larger ones for the letter tiles, and a space for the puzzle Maker’s NO tokens.
The insert serves two functions. It has a slot for the cardboard screen so the puzzle Maker can select a mystery word for the round and collect the needed tiles and letter pieces.
Once selected, the screen lays flat across the storage compartments and becomes the game board. There are separate spaces cleared marked on the board where each letter of the word will be built as you play. Last but not least, the insert as a special angled area for the Word Rack which will face the Puzzle Maker.
Each round in Decipher one player will be the Puzzle Maker and the rest of the players serve as Word Seekers. The Puzzle Maker comes up with a mystery word. Word Seekers will have opportunities to guess the word as each letter in the word is built piece by piece on the board. After each player has played as the Puzzle Maker, the player with the most points wins the game.
A brief word about the Word Rack.
The Word Rack is a simple but ingenious gizmo that helps facilitate the game. The Puzzle Maker selects a word and spells it out placing the correct letter tiles into the word rack. Once selected, the word rack is folded up and closed like a wallet, flipped over and then placed into its special cubby hole in the box insert.
This makes the Word Rack visible only to the Puzzle Maker and the mystery word is now lined up with the spaces marked out on the game board.
Here’s why this is both important and cool.
Each turn, the Puzzle Maker will offer a single letter piece to one Word Seeker. The Word Seeker will then take a guess as to where this letter piece belongs in the word by placing the letter piece on a space on the board. The Puzzle Maker will respond YES or NO. Yes meaning, the piece belongs in that space and is part of a letter ; no meaning it isn’t.
The Word Rack is a constant and important visual reminder of what letter pieces go with each space on the board. With the mystery word, lined up in its shielded cubby hole, the Puzzle Maker can respond quickly and confidently as each Word Seeker makes a guess.
If the Word Seeker is correct on the first guess, huzzah for the Seekers! You now have some information about what that letter could be. If the first guess receives a NO from the Puzzle Maker, that space on the board will receive a NO token which will cover that shape letter piece on that space on the board and the Seeker must guess again. Eventually, the letter piece will find a home on the board since the Puzzle Maker may only give you pieces that are part of the word. The goal for Seekers is to place pieces with as few NOs as possible since each NO will give the Puzzle Maker points at the end of the round.
As the game progresses more of the mystery word will appear on the board and Seekers may want to solve the puzzle and guess the word. Each Seeker may make only three guesses to solve the puzzle each round. If you solve the puzzle and guess the mystery word, wahoo! The round ends and we move on to scoring. If you are incorrect, the Puzzle Maker will take one of your guess tokens and score it at the end of the round.
If the word is a tricky one and only three letter pieces remain in the Puzzle Maker’s supply, we move into Bonus Mode for the round. With so much information available to the Seekers, each turn becomes a little more deliberate. The Word Seeker who is up must ask the Puzzle Maker for a letter piece. In doing so, the Puzzle Maker will receive a bonus token for extra points at the end of the round. Why so deliberate? Forcing the Seeker to ask for a piece allows players to make guesses at the mystery word before handing bonus points to the Puzzle Maker.
Eventually the round will end with one Seeker guessing correctly or all Seekers running out of guesses.
If a Seeker guesses correctly, they collect the Decipher token for 5 points plus 2 points for each left over Bonus token. The Puzzle Maker receives the Decipher token for 5 points if no one guesses the word. The Puzzle Maker also scores 1 point for each NO token on the board, 1 point for each guess token collected, and 2 points for any bonus tokens. Word Seekers who did not guess the word can also score a few points – one point for each unused guess token.
A new round begins with another player becoming the Puzzle Maker. When all players have had a turn as Puzzle Maker, tally the final score and the player with the most points wins!
Decipher is the spiritual successor to parlor game classics like Hangman / Wheel of Fortune. In adding deductive and semi-cooperative elements, Decipher reinvents these timeworn classics for a modern audience.
It might not be obvious at first, but as the game progresses, the Seekers can begin to make important deductions about each letter in the word as the Puzzle Maker places NO tokens on the board (not unlike another classic – Mastermind). Because each letter must be built using a specific set of pieces, even a single NO begins to eliminate some letters from contention altogether. Likewise, when a letter piece eventually finds its home on the board, Seekers can begin to narrow down possible letters based on a single shape.
If the Puzzle Maker hands you a wide blue curve piece, for instance, you know that it must be part of a C, D, G, O or Q since these are the only letters in the game that use that specific letter piece!
As the Puzzle Maker, the challenge is to dole out the pieces in such a way that will keep the range of letters as open as possible. This will generate more NO tokens and possibly allow you to reach bonus mode for the round.
While there is an individual winner, teamwork among Seekers can help insure the Puzzle Maker never gets to the bonus round. This tacit nudge toward cooperation makes the game feel like a communal effort. It also makes the game more accessible to players who might normally be intimidated by word games. Even though one Seeker may net the big points for a round, most likely there will be a cheer amongst the Seekers when the word is revealed.
In Hangman, pressure in the game is provided by time. Only so many turns before the poor stick figure meets an unfortunate end. In Wheel of Fortune, pressure in the game is provided by the other players. Someone more clever (or more fortunate) might line up the letters before you.
Decipher combines both these elements into a single experience while adding a third source of pressure – the Puzzle Maker! It is not a guarantee the Seekers will solve every word, but it is very likely, given that all the letter pieces will eventually be revealed. The added challenge to each round in Decipher is to solve the puzzle quickly because the Puzzle Maker stands to gain in many different ways the longer it takes to discover the word.
Simple in concept. Elegant as an object of play. Adaptable to the needs of different players. Puzzle Makers can create longer words for experienced wordsmiths or shorter words for neophytes. Have a large group? Play in teams. Put simply, Decipher is built for Major Fun.
Written by: Stephen Conway