Games that pit players against their own ignorance and paranoia are exploding in popularity. Matt M. Casey finds our love of society and storytelling at the heart of the Social Deduction genre.

The seer has a problem. During the night, she had a vision: both the troublemaker and the robber are far from her village. Now, she stands in the meetinghouse with five others villagers. Two of her peers, she's nearly sure, are werewolves. Another of her fellow villagers works for the werewolves. In five minutes, the group will vote to kill one member. If she wants the village to survive, the seer must find the other humans in the room and cooperate with them to identify and shoot a werewolf; any other outcome means her own death.

Tales like this unfold every time a group sits down to a game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Guided by a few cards and a script, each player takes a role in a story that lasts just minutes, but might be talked about for days. The quick, compact game has been a breakout success for publisher Bezier Games, making it one of the most visible titles in the fast-growing genre of social deduction games.

Social deduction games differ from other games because play focuses almost entirely on how players scrutinize each other. Each player wants her team to win, but she may not know who her teammates are. In their purest form, players in social deduction games have no dice or cards to help them, just their wits, cunning and instincts.

Russian Origins

Every social deduction game on the market today draws at least some of its inspiration from a game called Mafia. Created by Moscow State University psychology student Dmitry Davidoff in 1986, Mafia pits a group of villagers against a smaller group of mafia within their midst. At the start of the game, each player takes a card that indicates their team. Then, everyone closes their eyes. While the group has its eyes closed, the mafia open their eyes and acknowledge each other.

Play then proceeds over a number of days in which the group as a whole votes to "lynch" someone. Then, the mafia secretly votess to kill a villager. Dead players leave the game, their voices silenced. To win, villagers must eliminate the mafia threat in their midst. If the mafia ever outnumber the villagers, the mafia wins.

After its creation, Davidoff's game spread and mutated like a virus. A loose network of geeks and nerds taught each other how to play at colleges, conferences and conventions. Sometimes they added new twists. At some point — probably in the mid to late 1990s — a few players decided to switch the game's theme from organized crime to werewolves. That choice began to solidify in 1997 when an interactive fiction enthusiast named Andrew Plotkin brought Werewolf back to his local game group. The group happened to include Looney Labs founder and game designer Andrew Looney. Four years later, Looney Labs produced custom art and cards for a small, promotional run of Are you a Werewolf. Soon after, the company began selling it.

Building on a Classic

While Werewolf's popularity continued to grow, some players grew impatient with aspects of it. The classic version requires at least one person to referee the game, which means that person can't participate. It also requires player elimination, which means that players killed in the first rounds have to watch the remaining action from the outside — which can take hours.

"We hated that our most fun games of Werewolf were the games where we were the last ones alive and that our least favorite games were the ones where we were the first ones to die," said Sean McCoy, co-founder of Tuesday Knight Games.

By 2009, game designers were willing to put money behind Werewolf variants that addressed those shortcomings. That year, Looney Labs published Are You The Traitor? and Indie Boards and Cards published The Resistance. Both functioned without moderators or player elimination.

The Resistance, the more successful of the two, casts players as members of a rebel movement. But some players secretly work for the government.

The game plays out over a series of votes and missions. One player picks a team, and the rest of the players vote on whether they approve of that team — which is a tricky proposition. If the team includes a traitor, he may sabotage the mission.

The game's dynamics nearly always lead to a final, dramatic moment when the leader reveals the mission's outcome. Members of the resistance lean forward anxiously, unsure if they chose the right people. The traitors, meanwhile, already know the outcome.

Very Meta

What separates the social deduction category is how much "meta" enters each game. In The Resistance, players agonize over precious little hard data. They know who went on each mission, that mission's outcome and who chose the team.

After that, things get fuzzy. Who voted to approve each team? Why? Is anyone acting unusually? Who do you trust?

"The social aspect of it should probably be underscored a few times," said game designer Ted Alspach, who founded Bezier Games in 2006. "Because of what you did yesterday or what you did the previous time, we're going to treat you differently."

Players therefore never engage in only the game they're currently playing. They're replaying past games in their heads and setting patterns for future games. Players on the "good" team don't want to be too good; it could make their job tougher the next time they draw a traitor role.

These meta elements become part of the game at lightning speed in Alspach and Akihisa Okui's One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Each player takes a role, which puts him on one of three teams. The group proceeds through one "night" phase in which the werewolves find each other, and some villagers gain slivers of information.

In the following "day" phase, players have mere minutes in which to discuss what they know and who they trust. Villagers try to suss out the monsters in their midst by assembling a bulwark of mutually-verified claims. But players' claims will conflict. Werewolves lie to protect themselves as they try to weave an atmosphere of unproductive suspcion. Villagers may lie to bait information out of others, but doing so may damage their credibility.

When the time runs out, every player points at another. The player with the most fingers pointed at them dies and reveals their role. If they were a werewolf, the villagers win. If were a villager, the werewolves win.

In a typical game of One Night, players begin setting up the next round within seconds of learning who won the last one. Helped by One Night's short duration, players tend to chain multiple games together — often continuing for an hour or two. Over the course of an evening, stories develop. Anyone who has played more than one game of One Night (or most other social deduction games, for that matter) will retell tales of games that went completely right. Or completely wrong.

The future

The social deduction genre is poised to explode. Alspach's company began selling a set called Ultimate Werewolf in 2008, and he said sales of the set have roughly doubled every year. He expects sales of One Night, which debuted early this year, to surpass sales of the original Ultimate Werewolf by early 2015.

Social deduction games are also migrating out of niche game shops and into mainstream stores. Mainstream retailer Target has stocked The Resistance since it was featured on Wil Wheaton's online television show, Tabletop. Barnes & Noble now stocks One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Alspach said he has gotten calls to ship the title to such unconventional outlets as drug stores.

And other creators are joining the fray. Board Game Geek lists a total of 18 game products with a 2014 publication date in the Werewolf / Mafia family. In 2012, game designers Sean McCoy and Alan Gerding started tinkering with a game they call Two Rooms and a Boom. This year, fans of the game on Kickstarter pledged more than $100,000 to see the game reach publication. Bezier Games, meanwhile, Kickstarted a One Night sequel called Daybreak to the tune of $150,000.

As social deduction games gain popularity, they'll pop up in unexpected places — like family gatherings and during halftime on football Sundays. Their compact size and low barrier to entry make them great impromptu distractions. And, regardless of who wins, everyone will have a story to tell.