RogerBW's Blog

Social Deduction Games 13 September 2014

Quite a lot of games have some sort of hidden identity component: for example, Lords of Waterdeep and Discworld: Ankh-Morpork both deal each player a random role which then gives them a secret way of winning the game; Battlestar Galactica and Shadows over Camelot, while nominally cooperative, may assign a traitor role to one or more players; and the UFO faction in Illuminati can even covertly choose which victory condition to aspire to. But some games are entirely about the hidden roles and working out who's got which, and I seem to have been playing a lot of them lately.

In many ways the inspiration for a lot of these is Werewolf (also known as Mafia in some countries). Everyone is living in a village: there are a few werewolves and lots of villagers, one of whom is also a seer, and all these roles are assigned randomly and in secret. Each night, the villagers close their eyes and the werewolves (who know each other) collaborate to pick a villager to kill; he's out of the game. Then the seer picks a player to ask whether he's a werewolf. Then, during the day, the villagers vote on whom they're going to lynch, hoping he's a werewolf and not an innocent villager (they only find out once he's dead). Generally the game needs one player to step out and act as a moderator, taking silent signals from werewolves and seer so that they aren't identified.

That's about it. Villagers win if there are no werewolves left; werewolves win if there are as many werewolves left as villagers. The seer wants the villagers to follow his advice, but he can't openly identify himself because the werewolves will eat him. The werewolves and the villagers all want to be thought of as villagers so that they don't get lynched.

Various modifications to the game add new roles: for example, the suicidal Tanner wins the game immediately if he dies (by werewolf or lynching), the Doppelgänger takes over the role of a specified player when he dies, the Masons are villagers who can identify each other, and so on. Probably the most comprehensive collection of these is Ted Alspach's Ultimate Werewolf.

It's an enjoyable game, but has one huge problem, which is player elimination: if you're eaten on the first turn, well, thanks for playing, now go and make the tea. This can be acceptable with a small group, since games needn't take very long, or in a party context where there are other things happening. You generally need at least five players to make the game workable, but it can get much larger.

A clear descendant of the Werewolf family is Don Eskridge's The Resistance. Here the players are heroic resistance fighters who are going on secret missions to overthrow the despotic government… except that nearly half of them are actually spies for that government, and the spies know each other. Each of the five missions requires a specified number of players, more in later missions, and each player on the mission plays a "pass" or "fail" card, which are all shuffled together so that nobody knows who played which; one failure is usually enough to make the mission fail. Loyal rebels must always pass missions; spies may choose to pass or fail. If three of the five missions succeed, the rebels win; otherwise the spies do.

But the mission mechanic isn't the important part, though obviously it gives clues: the core of the game is voting on missions. One player proposes a team to go on the mission; everyone votes openly on whether the team should be sent. If the team's rejected, the next player proposes a team; the fifth team is sent automatically. (Actually, in the rules, rejection of a fifth team means an automatic spy win, but it's more interesting just to assume all rebels will vote for it in that case; there's no reason for them not to do so.) The way a player votes, and talks, determines what other players think of him. There's no player elimination here, though if someone ends up being generally regarded as a spy he doesn't have much chance of being sent on missions.

An optional rule is the use of "plot cards", which do things like forcing a player to vote first before other players make up their minds, forcing a passing mission vote to fail, or giving a player the leadership position to propose the next mission team. Generally they favour the rebel side.

The Resistance doesn't need a moderator, and games go by fairly quickly: half an hour or so. It does need a minimum of five players, which I've found to be a bit of a problem. There is a huge role-playing component to the game, which is both what makes it playable at all and what makes it more enjoyable than the raw rules would indicate.

You can watch The Resistance being played on TableTop, where they make the classic error of voting up missions they're not sure about.

For more sophistication, there's The Resistance: Avalon, which is essentially the same game but with an Arthurian theme: players are Loyal Knights or Minions of Mordred. Standard new roles are Merlin (who is loyal, and knows who the Minions are), and the Assassin, who can win the game for the Minions by correctly identifying Merlin once the Loyal Knights have passed their third mission (or, rather, quest); as with Werewolf and the seer, this gives Merlin a reason not to identify himself.

Another layer of complication is given with Morgana/Percival: Morgana is a Minion with no special powers, but Percival knows who both Merlin and Morgana are. Just not which of them is which. (Obviously the theme gets a bit shaky here: Morgana may use magical disguise, but really nobody should be in doubt about who Percival is.) One can also have Mordred, who's unknown to Merlin; and/or Oberon, a Minion who doesn't know who the other Minions are (and isn't known to them). The strangest variant role is Lancelot, who may end up changing sides as the game progresses. Each of these options gives the game a slight bias towards one side or the other.

I prefer the play of Avalon, but the theme of The Resistance, so the new Hostile Intent expansion for the latter (which brings in all the special Avalon rules) will probably replace Avalon in my gaming. In particular, The Resistance seems to tie its themes to a role you have rather than someone you are, so it's easier for me to conceptualise in combination with anonymity: "you can get access to the spies' computer records", say, rather than "you are the wizard Merlin".

You can watch Avalon being played on Shut Up and Sit Down. Over on BoardGameGeek, there's a group of people playing The Resistance and Avalon by forum: obviously you get no vocal tone or body language, but you do have a complete voting record available for study. It's an interesting and enjoyable variant.

The current edition of Rikki Tahta's Coup is branded as being in the world of The Resistance, but doesn't have any game-play link to it; the original version is set in an Italian city-state. The basic idea is that you are a faction secretly influencing the leaders of the state; once someone is known to be "your man", he's no longer useful.

You start with two cards, each of which has a specific role. On your turn, you can either take an action available to everyone (such as taking money from the treasury), or claim that you have a particular role and do the action associated with it (such as taking more money, stealing coins from another player, or even assassinating someone); other players may allow it, or claim that they have a different role which is able to block that action.

Any claim can be met with a challenge ("I don't believe you really have the Duke"): if the challenged player can show the card, the challenger turns one of his own cards face-up, but otherwise the challenged player turns up one of his. (Face-up cards can't be used any more; they're left visible so that players can work out what's still in the deck.) If a challenge is passed, that card is discarded and a new one is drawn face-down, so you never know for certain what cards your opponents hold. The last player with face-down cards left wins the game.

While I normally dislike player elimination, Coup goes by so fast (I don't think I've ever known a game take more than ten minutes) that I don't mind it as much here. In particular, note that if you try to bluff when blocking an assassination you can lose one card from the failed challenge and another from the actual assassination, which knocks you out of the game at once. This is an extremely vicious game, so you shouldn't play it with people who get upset when they lose (but I prefer not to play with people like that anyway). Coup supports 2-6 players.

A bigger and longer implementation of broadly the same ideas as Coup is Bruno Faidutti's Mascarade. You have just one card this time, and most of the time you'll have no idea even of what your own card is, because the cards move quickly and randomly around the table, and looking at your card consumes your turn. There are more possible actions to keep track of, and at least for me the game just has too much stuff happening and too little one can do to affect it: most of the time one has no idea whether or not one is bluffing, either with an action or with a challenge, and I prefer to be able to make the decision for myself. There's no player elimination (you always have a card), but I still don't enjoy this one as much as Coup. I should note that I've generally played with eight or more players, and I'd like to try a smaller game some time to see if it's more workable.

One attempt to remedy the player-elimination problem in Werewolf is One Night Werewolf by Ted Alspach and Akihisa Okui, which reduces the Werewolf game to a single night – but with lots of roles and special abilities, particularly ones that involve changing someone else's role, so you may well end up having no idea of who you actually are for a while. A game lasts no more than fifteen minutes, and of course one can play several in a row. It's all pretty manic, and can sometimes get a little frustrating, but when that happens at least each round is over quickly and you can go on to a less-frustrating next round.

The last of these games I've tried is Seiji Kanai's Love Letter, which I suppose could be put broadly in the Coup/Mascarade family, but without the bluffing element. The theme is that each player is a suitor for the hand of the princess, trying to get his love letters to her by suborning the various people in the palace. You have one card in your hand; on your turn, you draw another, and play either of them. They will do things like force another player to swap hands with you, allow you to ignore any effects played on you until your next turn, or let you guess the character a target player is holding and knock him out of the round if you're correct. There are also passive cards, which can knock you out of the round if you ever discard them, or if you draw another card with a high enough value. All played cards, and unplayed cards from players who are knocked out, are left face-up.

If there's more than one player left by the time you get to the end of the small deck, the one with the highest-ranked card wins the round; generally play is until someone's won a set number of rounds. It's a lightweight game that's easy to pick up; sometimes the luck of the cards will knock you out quickly, but rounds go by fast enough that the game remains fun.

I enjoy this family of games, even if they tend to take more players than I can readily get to come to my place in Darkest Wycombe. The Resistance/Avalon is my favourite of them for a medium-length game, and Coup for a quick one. I'm not aware of a game in this class which lasts for a long time; there the mechanic tends to be blended with other things.

[Buy Ultimate Werewolf at Amazon] [Buy The Resistance at Amazon] [Buy Avalon at Amazon] [Buy Coup at Amazon] [Buy Mascarade at Amazon] [Buy One Night Ultimate Werewolf at Amazon] [Buy Love Letter at Amazon] and help support the blog.

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