Review: The Chameleon

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Length
Designer: Rikki Tahta
Artists: Ben Drummond, Zoe Lee
Publisher: Big Potato
Category: Bluffing, Party Game
Player Count: 3-8
Price: $19.99 (Exclusively at Target)
 
For several years now, the “social deduction” genre of games—usually where some players know more or less information than others—has exploded. You can trace it back to The Resistance, Dixit, or even Werewolf / Mafia, but there’s no denying its growth, with influential games like Mysterium, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, Spyfall, and Coup. Speaking of Coup, its designer, Rikki Tahta, is back with a brand new social deduction game, The Chameleon. Taking cues from Spyfall and Codenames, this game is a fast, simple game of identifying the player trying to “blend in” without knowing what everyone else does. It’s also exclusive to Target—is it worth the trip? Let’s find out!

Content Guide

You could argue that playing this game requires one player to lie or be deceptive, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. To me, the positives of learning just how nuanced our language is outweigh that concern. Unlike other games like The Resistance, you are very unlikely to ever have someone angry during this game; its goal is instead to generate laughs.

Review

The premise of The Chameleon is very simple. Each player is given a key card with codes corresponding to 16 words on a central topic card (e.g. “Presidents”) that everyone can see. After rolling two dice, players know from their key card which word is the secret word for the round. Everyone, that is, except for the chameleon, who was given a card with no key. That player has to fake it! Each player takes a few minutes to come up with a single word describing the secret word, and the chameleon just has to make something up.
Here’s the rub, though. Everyone is trying to figure out who the chameleon is, but the chameleon is trying to figure out the secret word. After players rattle off their one-word clues, people vote on who the chameleon is. If the majority vote is wrong, the chameleon defeats everyone else. If the chameleon is caught, he can still win by guessing the secret word correctly. So you have to be vague with your clues, but not too vague, or you’ll arouse incorrect suspicion. It’s the same premise that’s been used to strong effect in Dixit, Spyfall, and A Fake Artist in New York. In fact, you could even use these rules in Spyfall if you wanted.
So what separates The Chameleon from Spyfall, then? The brilliance of The Chameleon is in its extreme accessibility. There are no weird timing rules, minimal off-the-cuff creativity is required (you can only say one word), and the game plays lightning fast. I’ve had a lot of social deduction games go over poorly simply because of slightly convoluted rules or complex scoring—even Dixit has the scoring issue. The Chameleon is crystal clear. If there’s an accessibility issue, it’s the somewhat convoluted key card system, but that was not the barrier I thought it would be. I also worried that I would memorize the keys, but the upcoming companion app from Big Potato assuaged that fear.
The Chameleon is also cheap (just under $20), it’s widely available at a large retail chain (Target), and its components are great. The topic cards are very large, and the box grabs your attention right away. Also, since it includes two different key card sets, you could really have two groups of up to 8 playing simultaneously (e.g. in a youth activity setting). I also love that the game includes a dry-erase board and marker to make your own topics, as this could be a great way to engage students. For example, we do a “get to know you” event with our freshmen, and I was thinking after some discussion we could write all the freshmen names on the dry erase board and play this game, where they have to describe each other in clever and silly ways.
And I’m considering that not only because of the included dry-erase board, but because of the game’s extreme accessibility. However, that accessibility comes at a bit of a price. We certainly laughed some while playing, but not uproariously. The rub is that because The Chameleon is so quick and simple, it has no narrative arc, even if you play it several times in a row. A game of Spyfall, with its ticking 8-minute clock and bizarre lines of inquiry, lead to moments of building tension cut by absolutely ridiculous comments. I’ve cried tears of laughter in games of Spyfall, and I can’t see that happening in The Chameleon.
That’s not to dismiss The Chameleon as inferior, however. I think this game works as a wonderful stepping stone for gamers who are not deep into the social deduction genre, or think it’s all about angry arguments over who the spy is. It’s also placed perfectly, as I believe someone can buy this game at Target blind and have a very good time with it. I’ve just agreed to start helping with our youth group, and I definitely think this is a game that will get used over and over again in that context. I often feel that gamers undervalue the effort it takes to streamline a game or system and keep it fun, and The Chameleon has done an excellent job creating a first-step social deduction game.
 
Thank you to Big Potato for providing a review copy of The Chameleon.

The Bottom Line

 

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Author: Derek Thompson


I’ve been a board game reviewer on Geeks Under Grace since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.