Dale Yu: Review of Decipher


  • Designers: Bill Eberle, Greg Olotka, Peter Olotka
  • Publisher: HeidelBÄR Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Times played: 2 with review copy provided by Asmodee NA (who distributes here for HeidelBÄR)

Decipher is the second game in the Letter Piece series which reimplements one of my favorite old-time games, Runes, from EON.  The main concept behind these Letter Piece games is that all of the 26 letters in the alphabet can be constructed using some combination of four different basic shapes (the red long straight, the yellow small straight, the blue half moon and the green tight curve).

In this word deduction game, players take turns being the puzzle master or the Word Seeker.  A game lasts for as many rounds as players – each player will get the chance to be the puzzle master once.  Before the game starts, the group must agree on the length of word to be used in the game (3 to 6 letters, inclusive) and then the box is set up for that number.  There is a board with letter zones on it – this is what the Word Seekers will see.  Behind a screen, the Puzzle Master will construct and hide the target word.  There are a bunch of little letter tiles which are used for this purpose.

Once the game master has chosen the word, he takes all the letter pieces that go into making that word and places them into the secret compartment (which is also hidden by the screen which hides the letter tiles).   The word board goes over the rest of the box bottom so that no one can see which bits you did not use in setup.  At the bottom of this board, three bonus tokens and a decipher token are laid.

Players get three guess tokens per round.  Play starts to the left of the Puzzle Maker, and that player is the current Word Seeker.  The Puzzle Master chooses one of the Letter Piece pieces from the secret compartment and gives it to the current Word Seeker.  The Word Seeker now chooses one of the letter zones and asks if it goes there.  If it does, the piece is placed in that letter zone.  If it does not, that piece shape in that zone is marked with a “no!” token, and the Word Seeker must try to place it in another letter zone – this continues until the piece is successfully placed in a valid zone.  Players can use the sides of the box as a reference to see what shapes go into making all the letters.

At any point in the turn, ANY Word Seeker can use one of his three Guess tokens to try to guess the word (spelling it out).  If correct, the round ends.  The correct Word Seeker takes the Decipher Token and any Bonus Tokens left on the board.  If the Word Seeker is wrong, the current turn continues.  If the Letter Piece had not yet been placed, it is given to the next Word Seeker.

If there are only three letter pieces left in the compartment, the Puzzle Maker announces the start of Bonus Mode.  Now, as each Word Seeker’s turn comes up, the Puzzle Maker only hands a Letter Piece to the Guesser if the letter piece is requested.  When any of the last three letter pieces is given, the Puzzle Master gets to pick up one of the 2pt Bonus Tokens.

The round ends when either someone has guessed the word correctly, the Guessers are out of Guess Tokens, OR the Guesses choose to not guess any further.   Whenever the round ends, the hidden word is revealed and scoring occurs.

  • Each Word Seeker gets points for any Guess Tokens they have left over
  • If a Word Seeker correctly deciphered the word, that player scores the 5VP Decipher Token as well as and 2Vp Bonus Tokens left on the board
  • The Puzzle Master scores 1VP per No Token placed on the board, 1VP for each Guess Token collected during the round, 2VP for each Bonus Token left, and the 5VP Decipher Token if the word was not guessed.

All the scores are marked down on the score sheet.  At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins.  There is no tiebreaker.

My thoughts on the game

I have always been a fan of Runes, and this game takes the basic building/guessing concept from Runes but puts it in a more straightforward manner.   If you are unfamiliar with the original game, I would refer you to a succinct review from a good friend, Steffan O’Sullivan – https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/154687/review-sos

In Decipher, you cannot string together long turns; you only get a single piece added on each turn, and this makes the timing an important aspect of the game.  As you can only guess on your turn, you need to weigh the risks/benefits from guessing early or hoping to wait an entire cycle around the board before getting another chance to guess.

Here, you generally want to place a piece in the right letter box as soon as possible lest you give the Puzzle Maker a bunch of points.  In any event, the letter piece is going to get placed each round, so there’s no benefit in not doing this as quickly as possible.  I’m pretty sure that there is some sort of great strategy in picking words and knowing which order to give out the pieces, but thus far, I don’t really have a great reliable strategy as the Puzzle Maker.

The game itself has a slow start and then it rapidly escalates.  For me, it all turns on whether someone can figure out the word prior to the announcement on the Bonus round.  Sometimes it’s worth it to make a guess when you feel like it’s getting close because once the Bonus round is announced – the deduction gets a lot easier.  Once the solvers know there are exactly three pieces left to go, then you can really sit down and try to solve the puzzle.  In our games, more often than not, the player who happens to be in the right random place in player order to get the Bonus Round announcement is the one who solves the word.  Maybe it’s just happenstance, but the solving certainly gets easier when you know exactly how many letter pieces are remaining in the word.

The box and components are neat.  I like the way that you use the board as a screen while you make your word and fish out the pieces, and the little foldable screen to hide your word works perfectly. The sides of the box give everyone an easy reference for the ways to make the different letters.   The custom vac tray holds everything nicely, both for use in the game as well as for storage.

Decipher is an interesting variant to Runes, and I am interested in seeing more games in the Letter Piece series.  Word Smith looks to be more like the original game, and I believe there might be more games coming down the pipeline in the future.

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2020, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Decipher

  1. Peter Olotka says:

    Hi Dale, Please correct these errors. The term is Word Seeker not Word Guesser and not solver. Critically, everyone who is not the Puzzle Maker is a Word Seeker. This is a critical error in your review.
    GUESSING: At any time during the Round any Word Seeker can try to guess the secret word. Your games all missed that tension of ANY Word Seeker can guess!!!


    • Dale Yu says:

      Ah, thanks for the update Peter. I guess that we were obviously unclear on that rule from reading it ourselves. We’re going to try it again soon – thanks for the input and thanks for designing a fun game!

      • ccog says:

        Thanks – appreciate the attention. During design we were sorting through a zillion endings – from timers, to the most points, to who knows. It became clear that the game needed a way for any of the Word Seekers to guess – but not jut willy nilly. So we finally got to the limit of 3 guesses per Word Seeker solution – with no fixed time frame, If I wanted to hazard a guess at any time I could make it. And of course the Puzzle Maker gets rich off the bad guesses.

        The fun is when you are near the end and there some possibilities – but you don’t want to take the first shot :) Or do you?

  2. Bill Eberle says:

    On page 3 under the GUESSING heading it says “At any time during the round, any Word Seeker can try to guess the secret word.”

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