This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
It is the far and distant future. Long after the Conservative Party has burned down the last vestiges of modern civilization, four machines stumble through the ruins of mankind’s cultural Mekka (or possibly Des Moines) to pick up random bits of rubbish, convinced that this thing.. or maybe that thing… or maybe that other thing is an important artifact of human civilization. Unfortunately, nobody knows for sure. Everyone only knows 2/8ths of the truth – conveniently printed on cards – and it will take some clever deduction and reading of other players to figure things out. Or simply being first in turn order and placing your action marker on the appropriate action to let you peek at another player’s secret card. After an alarmingly quick five turns, the jig is, as they say, up. Or down. Or possibly sideways, because only then will you know for sure what will or won’t get you victory points.
That sounds a bit confusing. So let’s try again. 5 turns (usually). 4 players. 3 actions per turn. 2 secret VP conditions per player. 1 clever and engaging game that thumbs its nose at the po-faced silence that accompanies so-called “pure” deduction games.
Code of Nine is a Japanese design by BakaFire, who I am sure has a traditionally Japanese-sounding name to our Western ears, but I have great respect for anybody who both dismisses the need for a surname and proper capitalization. As with many Japanese designs there is something remarkably refreshing about the whole-hearted embrace of randomness. Think of Love Letter, One Night Werewolf, Machi Koro. All games that feature a heavy dose of luck and randomness, but still provide enough robust gameplay to engage you, without letting competition distract you from the game you play. These games are designed to be played, and not to provide an alternative to juvenile belching contests over bragging rights.
And yet, despite Code of Nine engaging in the fickle dance of luck, it also promises that if you choose your actions wisely, you will end up victorious. If you put the clues together just right, you will establish yourself as the supreme future archeologist that you are destined to be. (Will have been? Will-an been have-ata?) People might call Code of Nine a deduction game. And it certainly shares all the outside markers for one. There is secret information, vital to the game’s end. There are numerous ways to both acquire as well as protect the secret bits of information entrusted to you. But the clever thing about this game, is that when it gets going Code of Nine is played in your mind. And not just your analytical, probability-calculating mind, but the part that deals with empathy, creativity, imagination or, you know, bluffing. And counter-bluffing. And counter-counter-bluffing. And… well you get the idea. Code of Nine is as much a deduction game, as it is an exercise in bluffing and subterfuge.
Many games incorporate large heaps of metagaming, but they usually require multiple plays, come with a huge stack of variables for you to memorize (I’m not naming any names, but Netrunner. I’m totally talking about Netrunner) and expect you to put in a lot of work to get to the metagamey goodness. Not so in Code of Nine. By the halfway point – which is about 7 actions per player in – it becomes apparent that each action a player takes tells you a lot about what they’re going for. And by extension, which cards they may hold. Before you even realise what’s happening, your cranial gears have gone into overdrive. “Why did she do that?” “Why did he get mad?” “Who shot J.R.?”
Making a sneaky move that only you and the affected player understand the consequences of, and leaving the rest of the table dumbfounded, is one of the joys of this game. Code of Nine is a deduction game that makes you feel clever not for solving the mystery, but for leveraging said solution for victory points. When an unexpected action leads to sudden outbursts of cursing and/or laughter, Code of Nine reveals its full potential. It’s a sizzling cocktail of mindgames ready to burst at any moment.
But with all that said, there are things about the game that feel somewhat clunky. Like that fairly long, yet very specific list of VP goals. You don’t need to have them all memorised, but you do find yourself looking at them over and over again as players take their turn. The VP calculation can be a little convoluted, since there are 8 distinct effects in play every game and some significantly affect one another. Some of the VP effects leave just a little bit too much room for interpretation, so a strongly competitive bunch is bound to have some rules argument at the end of the game.
All those things, though, are small blemishes on an otherwise strikingly unique game, that refuses to give players an easy way out. In Code of Nine there is always the risk of misreading an opponent and getting disqualified in the final turn because you have too many or too few of some resource. This either makes you pull a face in disgust, or giggle as you imagine one of your friends apoplectic with rage as you reveal the VP card that kicks them out of the top spot.
If you’re the type who giggled, you should pick up this game.