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.
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.