A board game is more than a collection of cards, dice and tokens. Often it is more about the interaction between the players that creates the game space than the components themselves. One genre that relies almost entirely upon interaction is the Social Deduction genre. These are games where the main gameplay is reading your opponents actions and words, while carefully monitoring your own.A card that defines your role in the game is the only required component. One might say they aren’t games at all, but more social experiments, and they would not be far from the truth of the origin of these games of deception.
Dmitry Davidof, the creator of the first social deduction game Mafia, originally created the game to combine his psychology research with his job as a high school teacher. The basic gist of the game is a group of players are assigned secret identity cards, either mafia, or innocent. The mafia know who are on their team, but the innocents only know how many mafia are in the game. The game has a night phase and a day phase. During the night phase, the mafia kills one of the innocents. During the day phase the innocents argue over who is a member of the mafia, and vote for a player to be killed (hopefully a member of the mafia, but collateral damage is inevitable). The mafia win if they outnumber the innocents, and the innocents win if they manage to kill off all of the mafia.
The fun of the game comes in the discussions during the day about what just happened. As innocents die off, the web of possible suspects narrows, but the risk of losing grows. Players must question each other, evaluate the words and body language of friends, and soon accusations are flying as the simple setup of the game creates genuine paranoia on the part of the innocents To add some additional dimension to this core conceit. The game also has several special roles that players can be assigned. These roles allow players to bend the core rules a bit, from a detective that can review one other player’s identity to a doctor who can protect a player from being killed each night. Even more confusion and paranoia emerges as players try to convince each other of their supposed actions during the night phase.
In 1997 Andrew Plotkin gave the game a Werewolf theme, which fit the normal by day evil by night nature of the game perfectly and became one of the most popular themes for the game. Both Werewolf and Mafia have countless iterations and spin offs still being played to this day. A key strength of the game is that it can be played with almost any number of people with one of the most popular versions, Ultimate Werewolf, boasting that it can be played with up to 75 players. However, with this many players, and all the secret happenings during the night phase the game require an impartial moderator to keep things running smoothly. This is one reason why it has become a popular game on web forums, with games happening over the course of hours or days, and forum moderators handling player’s secret actions.
Above all other games that I have covered so far on this blog, this genre relies on the player group to create the fun. I have played rounds of Werewolf where the telltale paranoia was absent, and the accusations half-hearted. And thus, boiled down to it’s basics, it became a random guessing game. I have also played social deduction games where round after round the claims of innocence and the despair of betrayal are as real as can be. The game is entirely improvisation outside of a few cards and rules. Another downside is the player elimination factor. If you are killed you are considered a ghost, and all there is to do is watch the game play out. While it can be interesting to watch the conspiracy and betrayal unfold, you are still out of the game, which can be frustrating, especially if it’s during an early turn.
Social deduction is one of the hottest genres in board games today, and each new game has a twist that differentiates it from its experimental ancestor. Some of my favorites are:
- One Night Werewolf: Takes all of the drama and compacts it down into a single 15 minute round. It also removes the need for a moderator by providing a slick smartphone app that reads through the steps for each role.
- The Resistance: Removes both the moderator and the player elimination from werewolf, ensuring that players aren’t sitting out on the sidelines, and swaps out the Day/Night phase with the concept of missions that the good guys are trying to pass, and the spies are trying to foil.
New Salem: Takes the concepts of Werewolf and combines it with a simple card drafting game where players build a village. Buildings consist of three cards and must be completed to be scored. However each building may have Good or Evil aspects, leading to a literal Witch hunt as players accuse each other of building for nefarious purposes. Adding another layer of gameplay to the core social deduction has the benefit of giving players a tangible goal to chase in addition to the classic arguments about each player’s’ loyalty.
Spyfall: Takes the one of the core concepts of Werewolf and turns it on its head. Instead of a few knowing werewolves vs a bunch of clueless villagers, in Spyfall everyone is given a location card (Cruise, Auto Shop, Airplane etc) except for one player, the spy. Players must ask each other questions, and try to suss out who among them is clueless about where they are without giving away too much. If they spy player figures out what the location is, they can claim victory for themselves.
While many of these games are light on rules and components, they can create fantastic gameplay through player interaction. They are not for everyone as their very nature inspires a lot of lying, accusations, and yelling. Some folks would, understandably ,rather puzzle out moves in a more strategic, low key game. But with the right crowd social deduction games are a blast and can create stories that live on long after game night is over.