The mechanics of common and secret knowledge among players creates the basis for so many games we play. A game like chess has everything set on the board for everyone to see, and it is only a player’s skill and strategy that remains secret until revealed in a series of successive moves of action and reaction.
More typically games involve some level of secrecy either in cards hidden in a player’s hand or pieces set on a game board ready to be revealed at specific moments during play. Deduction, reason, probability, informed guesses, manipulation through bluffing and revelation of information drives much of the action of these games.
Almost 30 years ago, Mafia was created by a psychologist at Moscow University. In the game, two players act as the mafia with their identity known to each other but not the other players. The non-mafia participants take on a variety of other roles, each with select knowledge of the other players and abilities to effect other player roles. With starting roles assigned, the game enters a “night phase” with all players shutting their eyes. A non-player game moderator bears witness as the mafia players and any accomplices kill off other players in secret. Next, all players open their eyes for a “day phase” and changes in the situation of the game is revealed. Players still alive in the game discuss the new conditions of the game, and attempt to discern the mafia players among them in subsequent night and day phases.
As Mafia spread outside of the former Soviet Union in the mid-1990s, it took on a horror-themed variant known as Werewolf. In the new version, players act as werewolves or villagers attempting to identify and kill off each other in night and day phases. Once players have an understanding of the basics of Mafia or Werewolf, neither game really requires any special equipment. This had made these games popular as pick-up party games with hardcore and casual gamers alike (my wife recently played Werewolf on a company retreat as a team-building exercise).
In the past two weeks, I had a chance to play two of the more popular modern versions of these games at Metropolitan Wargamers and Brooklyn Game Lab. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is the latest riff on the classic game from Bezier Games with werewolf players hiding among villagers with a variety of roles. These include colorful characters like the Minion who knows the werewolves and only wins if they survive, the Seer who secretly knows identities of other players and the Tanner who has a death wish and wants to be killed before the werewolves are found out. Along with the cartoon artwork on the heavy-carded playing pieces, this version of Werewolf comes with a free app which acts as a game moderator and timekeeper.
The Resistance: Avalon is a the sequel to the sci-fi-themed The Resistance from four years ago from Indie Boards & Cards. Players of Avalon take on good and evil roles from Arthurian legend and set out on a series of quests to root out the opposition. After roles are set, a king is selected each round to select other players to participate in a quest. All players vote to approve or deny the selected party on their quest, and then players on the quest vote for the quest to succeed or fail. The evil players win if more quests fail than succeed, so each quest round is the chance to reveal who may be working alone or in concert to win the game for the evil side. Like the more traditional, Mafia game, Avalon involves a non-playing moderator.
With all these games, the colorful pieces and cards are just jumping-off points for the real action which takes place among the players. Accusations are slung, theories are posited and alliances are built and then dissolve in minutes. In the games I played recently, people spent a lot of time just staring into other people’s eyes, looking for a glint of deception or a sly twinkle of acknowledgement. What has made all these games in their various names and variations so enduring is that human nature itself becomes the mechanic of the game. Whether the game is Mafia, Werewolf, Resistance or Avalon, the only real equipment needed isn’t in a cardstock box but in what each player brings with them to the table.