I watched a stream of the card game encryption the other day. Leshy, the mysterious game master, had just grabbed a mask from a grotesque fisherman. “You’re giving me a good fish,” he said menacingly before laying down a card in front of his opponent. With ominous music playing in the background, Leshy and the player pit their intricately designed cards against each other in a long battle until the player finally takes the win.
Except I wasn’t watching the encryption video game. Instead, two real people played the card game from the video game using real props and an elaborate streaming setup. And they are not alone; Just months after the game’s release in October 2021, there is already a growing community striving to bring the digital card game to life.
First a brief overview of encryption, or more precisely, his first act, which is what much of the IRL community is trying to replicate. You start the game in what appears to be a dimly lit wooden room. Leshy, who acts as a Dungeons and Dragons-as a game master, sits on the other side of the table, and most of the time you only see his eyes. He plays the game with you, weaves a story for your journey, lays out maps with branching paths, and even takes on the roles of various characters using masks. The game has a lot of strategy and once you get the hang of the rules, it’s quite fun. But it all has a dark undertone, because one of the main mechanics is sacrificing your cards so you can play with others.
The point is, there are some aspects of encryption that work best because it is a video game. The number representing health on each card taps down as the opponents attack, something you can’t easily do with a physical card. One item, a pair of pliers, gives you an extra point, but your character has to pull out a tooth. A dagger gives you even more points, but at the cost of cutting out an eye. (Your character even loses some of their eyesight.) And one of the game’s signature mechanics lets you create a card when you lose against Leshy – but it’s a card yours, the player, and it can show up for later runs of the game.
Those challenges haven’t stopped people from bringing the game to life in physical form, though. Hosted live with the blessing of game creator Daniel Mullins, Kevin McKayven and his brother encryption games at Love Burn, an event that describes itself as “the official Burning Man regional event in Miami, Florida.”
Redo Inscryptions cards, McKayven told me he can extract files directly from the… encryption game. One card in the game is made up of many individual elements, including things like the main image of the card, symbols on the cards, and the design on the backs of the cards, so he compiled those files to create cards that he could print. In a few places he even had to fill in gaps where he couldn’t find an asset and redraw them himself.
The first batch of cards took about three weeks to assemble, and they were ruined by a shine that didn’t dry and cause the cards to stick together. Sanding the cards didn’t work – they were still stuck – so McKayven had to reprint them all. The second batch was much easier to make, without the shine and rounded corners it added to the first batch.
As for playing the games itself at Love Burn, it was a lot of “rolling with the punches,” McKayven said. His brother had made masks to replicate the masks Leshy wears in the game, but they didn’t work. The two had been given a large tent to set up and play their games in, but their station was far enough away that they would have no pedestrians and had to improvise.
“We did some signage, but most people walked by,” McKayven said. “Most people didn’t recognize what the game was. They had no experience with it. But they were still intrigued. They walked by, they saw the candles burning, we had this big sign – we didn’t really call it encryptionwe used the game’s original name because I thought it was more evocative of the event, which is: Sacrifices must be made† (That game is available for free on Itch.io, although unfortunately it didn’t work on my Mac.)
He made some changes to adapt to playing with another human in the real world. One was customizing a mechanic in the video game where you sacrifice a card to take an aspect of it (called a sigil) and apply it to another card. While that happens at an altar in the video game, before the physical game, McKayven and his brother had players physically shred the cards they sacrificed in a paper shredder. “People seemed to really enjoy shredding the cards,” he said. “I think they expected it to just be passed on [the top of the box]† And then they realized it was actually destroyed by them.”
McKayven also had people make death cards. “They absolutely loved it. They really got into the whole death card thing. People [were] sit down and ask me if they could just make a death card.” He used an instant Polaroid camera to take the pictures and incorporated the death card into the lore of his game.
“I’ve added a little flavor to it: ‘Now that you’ve played our game, a little bit of your soul will have to stay here forever as part of it,'” he said. “And when they found my death card in the game, I explained that I’d played more than once and wrapped enough bits of my soul into the game that I was now being instructed to host it.” He also allowed players who won a round to take a death card with them, thus “freeing” one of the souls trapped in the game so that the person could potentially reunite it with its original owner.
McKayven even had a creative alternative to Inscryptions in-game pliers and knife items. “Obviously we wouldn’t do either one,” McKayven said. Instead, he made the ‘blood needle’. If people with a real needle put a drop of their own blood in a bowl, they could play with each of the creatures in their hand. One person was able to make a comeback after using it, McKayven said.
If you’d like to see McKayven’s photo essay on the experience, check out his Imgur album.
There is an entire Discord server with over 500 people committed to the idea of physical encryption games, where people share tips, ideas, photos of their cards and props, and more. I spoke to the person who runs the server. His real name is Scott St. Onge, but in the community he goes by LeshyIRL, and not only does he run the Discord, but he also livestreams physical games from encryption on Twitch on Friday and Sunday. (His stream was the one I was watching in my story at the beginning of my article.)
The arrangement of St. Onge is impressive. Players call in so they can participate in real time. He arranges almost everything for them: he has a board on which he places the cards, a way to put cards upright so that the person playing (and all viewers) can see their “hand”, and he even switches camera angles to a hand-drawn one. map for people to select where they want to go. And just like Leshy de encryption game character, St. Onge takes on different personalities as needed to make the game more immersive.
“Ultimately, my goal as a dungeon master is to give the player a good experience,” said St. Onge. “I don’t try to beat them in my streams. I try not to throw the hardest cards. I try to give them the best experience possible, which I think matches what Leshy was trying to do in the game. †
Like McKayven, St. Onge has also made changes to how encryption plays. For example, he removed totems, a video game mechanic that lets you make major changes to a single type of map, replacing them with potions, which can have more elaborate effects. “I felt like totems in the game were out of balance, and also physically it would be difficult to recreate each individual totem.” He has used dice for things like trying to sneak past an encounter. He even introduced his own knowledge and story, which he says people are very interested in.
Part of his goal is to keep the community involved as much as possible. The first stream I watched did this in a clever way. encryption is usually played by just one person and Leshy/the dungeon master, but St. Onge had two players play as one person’s ghost, and they had to work together to make decisions about how to proceed.
“I noticed a lot when I was doing these streams that besides the lore, the one thing everyone loves is that I involve them directly in the game. Even if it’s as simple as the challenger asking Twitch chat for advice.” On the Discord server, he put out a call to people who might want to play when there were about 100 people, and “I immediately got 15 applications to play my game,” he said. And that’s when the server was much smaller.” I can’t imagine what it would be like if I were doing that form now.”
I asked if St. Onge would like to do it? encryption working full time, and while he says he has no intention of quitting his day job, he wants to give the project the time and attention it deserves. “I love working with everyone in this community so it’s not hard for me to spend a lot of time and money doing this outside of my normal job because it’s been such a rewarding experience,” he said in a Discord post.
If you want to make your own cards encryption game, you may not have to go as far as McKayven and St. Onge as someone has a whole downloadable collection of maps from Inscryptions first and second act that you can print for free. “The idea is that someone with just a printer could print this and have something they can play with,” creator Vladimirs Nordholm told me about the collection. You can also join the Discord, where St. Onge tells me the server is starting to put more emphasis on custom map designs. And I would also recommend checking out some of the links, artists and projects on a website made by people from the encryption IRL Discord server.
I asked the creator of encryption, Daniel Mullins, what he thought of people working to bring his game to the real world. “I love seeing IRL versions of” encryption† Mullins said in an email. “With these projects, and fan art in general, the most exciting thing for me is to see my work reflected through the filter of another artist. It is very gratifying to know that my playing can inspire such efforts, especially from such talented people.”