Social Deduction games really covers a large range of games. Most of them involve hidden roles and perhaps even hidden team or hidden traitor mechanisms, but usually they all require some amount of bluffing. And I like bluffing in games. Why do I like bluffing games? I don't know. You see, I am a terrible liar. I am absolutely miserable at it.
Aha! I fooled you. I am actually quite a good liar. That was proof right there.
But anyhow, my wife is amazing at deduction. Logic games are her forte and she'll suss a logical deduction problem before I've even really parsed the question. But, when the human element is added, it becomes something completely different. I love social deduction and bluffing and trying to determine who is lying.
Social Deduction games tend to be able to be grouped into two different types. The first are large games with many mechanisms and moving parts. There is gameplay there beyond simply trying to determine teams and roles and who the traitor is. With a slight bit of tuning, these games could become pure cooperative games. Games like the excellent Battlestar Galactica (reviewed here) and Shadows Over Camelot fit into these categories.
However, the second type of game strip away most of the mechanisms and the game is really how players interact and determine information. These are the purest of bluffing and social deduction and, currently, among my favorite games.
Werewolf is probably the most well-known of the pure social deduction games. Everyone sits around as one person moderates the game and gives everyone a random role, which also assigns you to a team. There are two basic teams in the game: the Werewolves and the Villagers. The moderator passes the rounds in the game by moving the game from night to day. During the Night everyone closes their eyes and only the Werewolves open them. They choose one Villager to kill in their sleep. When the moderator moves it to the day phase, everyone opens their eyes and that player is revealed to have been killed and is eliminated from the game. Now everyone still alive engages in a discussion to determine who to lynch during the day.
The Villagers win by lynching all of the Werewolves, while the Werewolves win if ever there are more Werewolves alive than Villagers in the game. The Villagers, however, also have a Seer. Each night, the Seer can point to one player and the moderator lets them know if they are a Werewolf or not. However, the Seer cannot reveal information too bluntly, since then the Werewolves will simply kill him during the next night.
With newer versions of the game, more and more roles have been added to the game, giving it a lot of diversity. Werewolf is one of the most pure social deduction games, as there really is little to go on other than following conversations and relying on hunches and hoping someone's words or even body language reveals information. I love Werewolf even though I have never actually played it. Each and every time it's been played, I've been the Moderator and, frankly, I love the role. It is such a fun game to watch, which is part of the reason why player elimination is not so bad.
Games are usually short, but if there is a downside to it, it is the fact that it requires a lot of people for a really interesting game. I would not play it with less than about twelve players. However, the positive side of that is that there are plenty of other social deduction games that span a smaller range of players.
Werewolf is a classic game that is deserving of its status. There is a reason why it is a classic. This is a game that can be introduced to non-gamers and it creates situations and circumstances that are very fun and memorable. Five years ago, at my daughter's second birthday party, we entertained the adults with a game of Werewolf. It was a group that was mainly made up of non-gamers. We still talk about those half dozen games to this day. However, to keep the game fresh, I would highly suggest using one of the Ultimate Werewolf editions since they offer such a variety of roles.
The Resistance is another pure social deduction and bluffing game, though it plays with only 5-10 players and runs in about 20-30 minutes. In this game, players are either members of the resistance or they are secretly spies working against them. The Spies know one another, but the game revolves around the each round's leader choosing teams to go onto missions. If there is a Spy on the mission, he can sabotage it secretly and the mission will fail. There are five missions in total, and if 3 of the 5 succeed, the resistance team wins. If 3 of the 5 fail, the spies win. There are really no special roles in the game and it is pretty pure.
After my first plays of the Resistance, I was not impressed. However, I warmed up to the game and played it more and enjoyed it. But, I've reached a peak with the game and I've stopped enjoying it.
Because of the lack of roles, there is little variation and our games follow a bit of a script now. Mission 1: Pass whether there are spies on it or now. Mission 2: Include the members of the first mission and add another one. It should likely fail now. Mission 3: Slight variation to the team to test members. Essentially, I could flow chart out how each game would play. Part of this is that I play this with the same three groups of players, so we have developed patterns to "solve" the game. However, this exists because of the lack of variation in the game.
The game desperately needs more roles and special powers to create a more dynamic feel after many games. It is a decent game, but ultimately one that is surpassed by a number of other social deduction games that have come out since.
The Resistance: Avalon
Avalon is a little more than a reskinning of the Resistance theme to a King Arthur setting, though that is what it primarily does. The gameplay remains essentially unchanged, but the game has introduced a few roles to the teams. Most of the roles are basic, but it has given enough of a dynamic feel to the play that I would not go back to playing the Resistance if Avalon was an option instead. The problem is that the game doesn't have enough roles and variation to fully push on past the flowchart feel, but it does still create situations where something dynamic can occur and throw people for a loop.
Between the Resistance and Avalon, I feel that Avalon is the better game between the two, but it still didn't quite solve its own problems. I wouldn't turn down a game of Avalon if offered, but I would be less likely to suggest it knowing that other short social deduction games without player elimination exist in my collection.
Two Rooms and a Boom
I did a full review of Two Rooms and a Boom here. I've now played the game with as few as six players and as many as thirty-eight. The game is surprisingly resilient. However, the game is still best with more than ten players. While I am a fan of the game, there are certain limitations that it imposes. First of all, the game requires more space to play it in and having at least two rooms really is optimal. Next, the game offers so much variety in roles with such a range of powers that it really takes an experienced player to figure out which roles work best with others and which roles negate other roles' powers. The game can be played without a moderator, but I still prefer moderating it. It really is a fun game to simply watch. In a lot of ways, this has replaced my suggesting Werewolf to be played when I am at a large gathering. However, space is key, so Werewolf can still end up being the more advantageous play. The other downside is the theme. With some players and non-gamers, it is hard to convince them that playing a game where someone is a suicide bomber trying to murder the President is a fun activity. I've also probably been placed on many watchlists for reviewing the game now.
Still, Two Rooms and a Boom is a lot of fun. However, this is one of the few social deduction games where you can blatantly show your card to another player. So, to be honest, it is less a social deduction game and more of a social negotiation game. However, it still has the elements of bluff and hidden roles and pure lying that endears it to me.
Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition
Inquisition fits in nicely for the Werewolf theme if you don't have the twelve players I would prefer to play the game with. It plays 3-12 and plays in about 30-60 minutes depending on the number of players. Unlike most social deduction games here, Inquisition actually has a bit more of a set up. Players are either on the Werewolves' team or the Villagers' team and are sent to a village to try to find out who the werewolves are. In this case, the villagers are represented by face down cards. Players take turns using locations in the village to either peek at the cards, move them around, or amass vote cubes which will be laid at the end of each day to determine who the players lynch. Then, during the night, one column of cards is chosen by the leader player and is passed between players with their eyes closed and the werewolf players may open their eyes to change their order. Once the stack of cards has made it around the group, everyone opens their eyes and the bottom card in the stack is killed and removed from play. Werewolves will be trying to put villagers down the bottom, but they are in a bad position if the column only contained werewolves and had to kill one of their own.
For a social deduction game, it is rather fiddly. It is a slightly awkward and convoluted set up and passing the stack of cards with your eyes closed is awkward. The game works best when each player helps the game by holding the stack for a few moments, whether they are werewolf or villager, in order to create tension and suspicion. But ultimately, I've still played with players who quickly pass the stack to the next player as fast as possible while loudly declaring, "Here," so that everyone knows that they did not mess with the stack order.
The other oddity of the game is that even if you are determined to be a werewolf, the other players cannot stop you. They simply don't trust your word anymore when you peek at a card. But a team out outted werewolves can still win by good choices and blocking options of the other players to stop them. The game then becomes one of determining how to best manipulate the mechanisms to win, rather than figuring out who is on which side.
Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition isn't a bad game, but it the hidden roles can be less important than determining which mechanisms work most to your benefit. It's like getting a handjob from a really good looking girl. You can't really argue that it isn't fun, but at the same time all of the elements of something much better are present and you'd rather being doing that instead. I'd rather be playing Werewolf or one of the other social deductions games instead.
Mascarade is another odd social deduction game, because often your own role is hidden from you. At the start of the game, everyone is given a role, face-up so that everyone can see who you are. Everyone begins with 6 coins and the first to get 13 coins win. Now, some roles give you powers such as collecting 2 or 3 coins from the bank. Other roles let you steal coins from your neighbors or take 2 coins from the person with the most coins. One role lets you get the coins amassed in the Courthouse (more on that in a bit). Another role lets you switch your coin stack with another player's stack. There are other roles as well that let you change roles of other players or peek at them or so forth. Now, once everyone has looked at their role and everyone else's, the cards are flipped face down. And during the first round, you take your card and any other player's card and hold them under the table and switch them... or not. You then place one card back in front of you and one in front of the player you took it from. They have no clue if they have their start card or your card now. And you, hopefully, know who has what.
Once the swapping round is completed, players take one action on their turn. They may a) Peek at their card and see what it is, b) They may swap cards (or not) under the table once as they did in the set up round, or c) Declare their role.
Now if I declare that I am the King (who gets 3 coins as his action) and no one challenges my assertion, then I do not flip over my card (I might not be the King--I may not even know what I am) and I collect 3 coins. However, if anyone else challenges me and claims that they are the King, we will have to reveal. In fact, several people at the table might claim that they are the King. It is even possible that everyone will. But anyone who has declared themselves the role in question then flips over their card. Whoever was the King, gets three coins, even if it was not their turn or action. Everyone who revealed and found out that they were not the King as they declared has to pay 1 coin from their stock to the Courthouse. However, they have flipped their card and now know what they are--unless someone swaps with them before their turn arrives.
Mascarade seems like such a random game--and it is--but it also has such discrete and clever mechanisms to it that you don't even observe as you play. For example, the games will never go on to long because the Judge's power is to claim all of the coins in the Courthouse. So, as more and more people incorrectly claim a role, the Courthouse becomes richer and richer and eventually the Judge will be able to win. Other roles add money to the game and make it competitive.
Unlike most social deduction games, however, this is a game not of pure bluff and strategy, but rather lying and chaos. Personally, I do not think that this is a bad thing. I have a lot of fun with chaos and lying, but any attempts at long term strategic manipulation are thrown right out the window the second someone grabs your card and pulls a possible switch under the table and you are left as helpless as any other player.
I like Mascarade a lot. It is very accessible to new players and it also levels the playing field between them. I may have 100 games of Mascarade under my belt, but the moment the rookie potentially swaps my card, I've lost all of my knowledge and they have more power over me because they know which card they gave to each player. Mascarade is a wonderful and fun game and while not a pure in the social deduction as most of the other games here, it is still a marvelous time. I also highly recommend the promotional character of "The Damned". When someone reveals their card and they are The Damned, they are eliminated from the game. This adds a level of tension and strategy to the game and I really wish the role was included in the base set for how much it changes the play and makes the game more interesting.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
One Night Ultimate Werewolf tries to bring in the tension of the last rounds of a game of Werewolf and condense it into a ten minute game experience. To me, it doesn't quite do this. The last rounds of Werewolf are full of paranoia and hunches and really a lot of luck. It is quite fun and quite tense, but One Night creates a different experience.
Here, players have perfect knowledge of what occurs, but it is just a matter of who is going to share what.
With One Night, players are given their roles and there is a team of Werewolves and a team of Villagers. There is only one lynching round. If a Werewolf is lynched, the Villagers win. If a Villager is lynched, the Werewolves win.
Everyone receives their hidden role and three extra roles are placed face down in the center of the table. The game begins with the Night Phase. Everyone closes their eyes. The Werewolves open their eyes and spot one another. If there is no other werewolf player, a lone wolf may peek at one of three cards in the center. This is important because he can bluff to be that role since no one else will be it. The Seer then looks at one other player's role or two of the face down cards in the center. The Robber then takes one other player's role card and gives them the Robber. The Robber looks at the new role and they are now on that team. This means that if the Robber stole a Werewolf's card, the player who was the werewolf (whose eyes were closed) still thinks that they are a werewolf, but are instead now a villager and the Robber is now secretly a Werewolf. The Troublemaker then switches any two players' roles without looking at them. If you are a generic Villager, you keep your eyes closed the entire time. Players then all open their eyes and try to figure out who to lynch.
My first games of One Night were difficult. None of us were certain on how much information to share. My first game, I took the lead and as the Seer, I knew who a Werewolf was. I declared it openly and as we all declared our roles, I found out that the Troublemaker swapped my card with the Werewolf player's card and I had now adamantly proven to the group that I was the Werewolf and should be lynched.
It took a few games to learn how much to lie and hold back and see if you can catch other players in their lies. Because of this, it has a little bit of a learning curve. If everyone is honest, the game has perfect information for you to track back and figure out who is who at the end. However, this perfect information can be to your detriment because you begin uncertain if you are still on the team you began on. I've been a Werewolf and lied that I was a Villager. Once someone claimed to be the Troublemaker and swapped my card with another player, I immediately said I was the Werewolf and that they now were. I would have been screwed, however, if it turns out that someone was bluffing as the Troublemaker to see if they could get more information.
While the game isn't easy to "master", I love it. It is simple and despite the elements of perfect information being present, it really is one that relies upon bluff and trust more than most of the other games listed here. Making the game even easier to run is the fact that there is a free app that will walk you through the night phase in the beginning.
Scaling from 3-10 players, One Night Ultimate Werewolf is probably going to be my go to social deduction game for 5-10 players. I have about a dozen or so games of it under my belt now and I am still learning how to lie in this game. Numerous roles exist beyond the basic ones I mentioned as well to offer a large amount of variety without creating opportunities to "solve" it.