Monthly game profile: Werewolf (aka Mafia, Assassin)

For our fourth-week-of-the-month series we thought we’d give people some introductory notes to some important games and game types of the modern day. Our first is the social deduction game, epitomised (and instigated) by Werewolf.

Although it’s a relatively modern game, invented in 1986, Werewolf is a folk game. By that we mean that (like other folk art) it spreads via direct, person-to-person communication at least as much as it does as through more formal published works, and that although it has a core concept and structure it is immensely variable within those loose parameters, in the same way that a folk tale or song will vary with each performance.

Play

The core concept is very simple: a group has to work out which of its members are secretly working against everyone else. At the start of each game, the moderator (who will not play, but who runs the game) gives each player a piece of paper that tells them whether they are a werewolf or a villager. The game alternates between “day” and “night” phases. At night, everyone’s eyes are closed; the werewolves then open their eyes and silently select a target, who is “killed” – eliminated from the game. (Obviously, once you are dead, you cannot interact with the game any longer – but you get to watch everything that’s going on, which can be every bit as entertaining!)

Once the “night” is over, the “day” begins – everyone opens their eyes, the group finds out who is dead, and then the group argues about which of them are werewolves. The “day” lasts until one of the villagers is lynched – also eliminating them – at which point it is nighttime again and everyone closes their eyes.

The game continues until either all the werewolves are dead (in which case the villagers win) or there are an equal number of werewolves and non-werewolves (in which case the werewolves win). You win if your team wins, but most people also play to stay alive.

The piece of paper at the start of the game is the only “piece” of the game – the rest of the gameplay is just people talking and trying to work out who’s deceiving whom and why. No board, no pieces, no dice – just pure game. You can buy commercially pre-printed cards with the various roles on them, but they are not necessary.

The game can feature a number of special roles. Almost every game will have a “seer” or “fortune teller” who each night gets to open their eyes before the werewolves go on the hunt, point at one person, and get a silent signal from the moderator to say whether that person is a werewolf or not. Of course, immediately accusing that person of being a werewolf the following “morning” is a recipe for being eaten by the werewolves the following night, while not telling anyone could mean you die before you can help anyone – so deciding how to use that information becomes a game in itself.

Other roles include members of a secret society who know each other to be innocent, a Hunter who can take someone with her when she dies, a Tanner whose job is so awful that he only wins if he gets killed, a Henchman who counts as a human but is secretly working with the werewolves and wins with them, and many more.

History

The game originates with Dimitry Davidoff, a psychology student at the University of Moscow who was not only doing two years’ worth of the degree at once but tutoring secondary psych students as well. In his original concept, the game was called Mafia. As befitted his original purpose in devising the game – to explore different ways of understanding time – his original rules are slightly different to the more commonly-used folk rules outlined above : the “villagers” could lynch as many people as they liked, and the day ended only when they decided to stop, at which point they discovered whether they had succeeded.

The game was a huge hit, spreading through the academic community in Russia and other Soviet bloc countries, and then through international conferences (it’s a great icebreaker for such events, by the way) to the rest of the world. Like all good folk art, it evolved as it traveled.

The most visible such evolution happened in 1997 when Andrew Plotkin came across it at a National Puzzler’s League convention and suggested the “werewolf” theme as a better fit for the night/day cycle. The new theme stuck. Thus, the same basic game is more commonly known as “Mafia” in Europe (especially eastern Europe), “Werewolf” in the West, and “Assassin” in Asia, though any given individual may of course know it by any of these names or another altogether.

For more information, and notes and variants of play, see Andrew Plotkin’s Werewolf page. It’s also worth checking out the various versions on BoardGameGeek.

If you know Werewolf (by whatever name) and are interested in other games with a similar social deduction basis, check out The Resistance (or its variant, The Resistance: Avalon), Shadows Over Camelot, or the Battlestar: Galactica boardgames. The games are listed in order of complexity and typical length of play: later games have a greater degree of formal game mechanics – things you do within the game other than try to identify the traitors – but all are well-loved.

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