What Are Social Deduction Games?

What are Social Deduction Games?

As we eagerly count down the days to the highly-anticipated Season Two of Blood on the Clocktower, NRB’s very own Laurie Blake invites you to embark on a journey into the fascinating world of social deduction games. These gripping tabletop experiences have captivated players for generations, and as Blood on the Clocktower continues to redefine the genre, Laurie delves into the rich history and thrilling evolution of these mind-bending games. Join us as we explore the intricate web of deception, strategy, and deduction that defines this captivating genre.

What is lying?

Lying is the art of not telling the truth. Saying a statement believed to be false in the hopes of deceiving someone, a liar is usually signalled by their pants being on fire.

But there’s a knack to it that not everyone has, and for our purposes on No Rolls Barred there is a whole branch of board gaming that has made a plaything of telling porkies, they’re called Social Deduction games, so in that case what do you do if you’re just no good at lying?

As a seasoned liar, little secret my name isn’t even Laurie, here is some helpful advice:

Don’t go too big or too fantastical:
“Yeah Oli, I can’t come to work today because I’m dead”
“I have a sponsorship deal with LoReal shampoo for long luscious hair”
“I have lost my virginity actually”

And make sure you say and sell everything like it’s the truth:
“We’ll definitely cook a nice meal and not order a pizza” (wink)
“Of course I think your family is great” (shakes head)

Right so now we’re limbered up for a lie, come roll with me as I Explain Social Deduction games.

What Is A Social Deduction Game?

In its simplest form, social deduction is trying to work out which of your friends is a secret bastard.

Social deduction has been around for ages, going as far back as parlour games like Wink Murder and Murder In The Dark. Combining death, deception and betrayal in a sanitized social setting has always been thrilling. The lights go out, an unknown figure slips a note into your pocket, you open it up and it reveals that you have been slaughtered by being *opens piece of paper*…. crushed by wangs.

The most popular form of a social deduction game is a large group of people, often more than 5, some of whom have a secret role or agenda, and who work against the rest of the players in an attempt to sabotage their goals or simply survive undetected.

Most of the time there’s fewer “evil” players than good and most of the time they know who each other are, with the “good” players primary goal being to work out who amongst them is a big old f**ker and stop them.

Because of their high player numbers and simple us vs them gameplay goals, social deduction games have crossed over into the arena of party games. Games like Secret Hitler and Two Rooms and A Boom have both become popular in party settings, with Secret Hitler playing up to 10 players and Two Rooms and Boom capable of being played with a whopping 30 people. WHO THE HELL KNOWS 30 PEOPLE? WHO CAN EVEN REMEMBER WHAT 30 PEOPLE LOOKS LIKE?
The godfather of social deduction games Dimitry Davidoff describes it best. At their simplest form, social deductions games are an “Informed Minority against an Uninformed Majority”

And we’re going to jump STRAIGHT to the Example You’ve Heard Of section of the video because, to truly understand the social psychology of social deduction, you need to understand Mafia

THE EXAMPLE YOU’VE HEARD OF

Mafia was created in the olden days of 1986 by Dimitry Davidoff who was working at the Psychological Department of the Moscow State University, and it was primarily used as a teaching aid when examining ‘Visual psychodiagnostics’ or the interpretation of body language and non verbal cues.

There have been whole academic papers published about the strategies of how to play Mafia and its lycanthropic follow-on Werewolf, with entire studies based on tactics guilty and non guilty players use to defend themselves. In the case of my friendship group it is one friend shouting at the top of his voice “that, that is bulls**t” over and over again, when usually he’s the one lying through his pearly whites.

After all, from an academic foundation, Mafia was created to put a microscope over humanity and ask ‘how do you lie?’

Ten years later Mafia was reskinned by Alexander Plotkin with a different theme, and it may be the version of the game you know. That game is called Werewolf. They both function the same way and they’re both in the public domain so creators have free license to flood the market with as many werewolf/mafia games as they want, and they have.

The rules of Mafia have been added to over the years, with extra roles having extra powers, but these are the rules at their simplest.

Let’s say this is a 15 person game. 5 of them are Mafiosi who know each other, 10 are ordinary citizens, who don’t know anything. There’s also one moderator who isn’t on either team and helps run the game.

There are two phases. Day then Night. At night everyone closes their eyes, the Mafiosi open their eyes and silently decide on which citizen they kill. Then during the day, everyone opens their eyes, the moderator explains who has been killed and then everyone discusses who they think is evil. It’s the guy saying “that is bulls**t” trust me.

So yeah, during the day all players throw around accusations, protest their innocence and come up with one person to be killed, which is decided by a vote. When someone dies, their good or bad allegiance is made public knowledge and a team wins when the other team has all been killed. Simple.

It spread like wildfire, with the Hungarian branch of Mensa even putting together a task force with the purpose of teaching the game around the world. Official Mafia clubs were set up in China, late-night clubs with electronic scoreboards and loud music blaring out to cover up any audible clues given away during the “night” phase of the game. Don’t be a table banger see.

The game also became one of the first large social games to fully take advantage of internet forums, or email, with players messaging each other in secret and a moderator keeping track of votes and phases.

Even now, the game is popular online, there are apps like Werewolf Online as werewolf has become the default version of the game in much of the world – and even a VR version where players sit around a campfire and depending which role they are, can see players as humans, or werewolves.

And one of the sleeper streaming hits of 2020 Among Us takes this concept and adds in video game components where a team of Crewmates aboard a spaceship or planet base try to carry out routine tasks while a team of Imposters attempt to sabotage them – if either team kill the other they win, but if the Imposters manage a sabotage that the crew don’t fix in time chalk one up to the aliens.

But the real tie to Mafia and Werewolf is the ability to call meetings – woo, strap in Call of Duty kids you’re gonna love this – to discuss who is an Imposter. To help in the decision they can do things like review security camera footage or check door-logs and generally argue over who saw what when “that, that is bulls**t” – and after all that whoever is voted out is ejected from the map and dies.

Werewolf also became a HUGE hit in the tech industry, becoming a staple of conventions like South by Southwest, ETech and the Game Developers Conference with games developer Frank Lantz saying “It sanctions a lot of titillating social behaviour — flirtation, confrontation, betrayal. Even the way it condones bold eye contact and the frank scrutiny of others’ behaviour is hot, especially if you don’t get a lot of those things in your regular social diet.”

There’s also the intoxicating appeal of power, and specifically knowledge as power. Knowing something that no one else knows and using it to your advantage is right at the core of what makes Mafia and Werewolf such delicious and addictive games to play. As Werewolf has developed, extra roles for the good team were added, which give even more knowledge, like the Seer who can learn a different player’s allegiance once per night as long as the werewolves don’t work out who they are and kill them.

But it goes beyond even that; it’s not just the knowledge of whether or not you’re an evil player in a single particular game, it’s the knowledge of the people that you’re playing with. If you know another player better than other players know them, if you know their tics, whether they are a good liar or not, that’s knowledge you can trade like a broker, which means even if you’re a vanilla good character, social deduction games still have levels of appealing power dynamics that get deeper, and more tangled the more you play.

What if that player knows that you know them, what if they decide to game what you know about them without you knowing it, what if they play on your emotions, and use what you know about them to convince you and suddenly BECAUSE YOU KNOW THEM you’re pleading their innocence to the group and you knew they were trouble when they walked in, and now you’re lying on the cold hard ground.

INDUSTRY CONTEXT

Which is not to say that Social Deduction games don’t have some red flags to talk about, the most prominent, as mentioned by some of our guests is that things can get a little… heated.

It’s all too common for games of werewolf to start off with the social veneer of role play, people making accusations with a smile, joking about others stabbing them in the back, saying “oop you shouldn’t trust Sandra” but things have a way of taking a turn, and that’s not just an assumption. That’s science.

In Davidoff’s own words, and this coming from a psychology teacher, remember, when people are accused of being a mafiosa or a werewolf they tend to employ quote “objection rather than shock, as it’s psychologically very difficult to mimic emotion. So emotion turns into aggression, as that is one of the easiest things to fake”

So yeah, people get angry, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. Which is not to say that heated discussion isn’t part of the fun, but if you’re not a fan of yelling, it’s something to keep in mind. Also, social deduction games can lead to fights, proper ones, because people have different principles about what can be used as collateral in proving a point. If someone swears on their pet’s life, and they’re lying, sure it’s only a game but… man… you love that hamster…

Some people also just fundamentally hate lying, either because they’re bad at it (which is a good quality, remember) or because it’s stressful to keep track of everything that they or other people have said as excuses pile on top of excuses and voices get louder as the noose tightens.

Also, we don’t like to admit this aspect of it, but we’re a species that has evolved to look for pattern recognition as a means of social survival. If someone is a convincing liar, maybe that’s just good tactics, maybe it’s a perfectly healthy outlet for deception that they wouldn’t otherwise indulge in, but maybe you start to draw parallels to other parts of their social life.

Basically, what makes social deduction games such a thrill also makes them a bit of an emotional minefield, something to be aware of if you’re looking to play more of them.

Because social deduction is addictive, deception is a thrill, so much so that social deduction has bled into other forms of games. For example, something called the traitor mechanic in otherwise Co-Op games.

Games like Dead of Winter, a brilliant game where you work together to survive during a zombie apocalypse but one of you might be a traitor. However, it’s not guaranteed that you ARE playing with a traitor and everyone’s got their own private goals, creating a layer of wintery suspicion and side-eye that hasn’t been as palpable since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Speaking of which there’s a Thing boardgame: Infection At Outpost 31 which has creatures infiltrate your team working against you as you explore the outpost gathering vital equipment you need in order to escape. The amazing thing here is you know they’re there sabotaging you but proving it is another thing entirely.

Or there’s Betrayal At House on The Hill where players work together to explore a dilapidated manor room tile by room tile until the title is actualised and one player turns on the rest usually with the help of otherworldly powers and every one panics, usually dies, or clubs together to defeat the traitor and escape the mansion.

But when it comes to pure social deduction, and getting the most werewolf for your buck, gamers love this one – Avalon.

THE EXAMPLE THAT HOBBY GAMERS LOVE

Set in Arthurian legend, Avalon is very similar to the standard werewolf/mafia model. Two teams, good knights, and bad knights, who know who each other are. Good knights want to succeed on missions, bad knights want to fail them. Missions succeed or fail based on which of the players goes on each one, who get to secretly vote with cards to pass or fail them.

Avalon is actually a sequel to another game called The Resistance, which is the same game with spies instead of knights, but with one key distinction, a game mode which makes Avalon sing. In Avalon, one of the good players is Merlin, and he knows who the bad players are. This is a huge deal, but if you’re wondering, why doesn’t Merlin just say “he’s evil, she’s evil” and make the game easy to win, if the good team wins, but the bad team can identify which of the good players is Merlin, THE BAD PLAYERS AUTOMATICALLY WIN INSTEAD.

Which means you’ve got Merlin in there, not known by the good players, not known by the bad players, knowing who EVERYONE is, but not being able to draw attention to themselves for fear of throwing the game. It’s like you take the moderator from Mafia and Werewolf and make them a hidden player in the game. It is so simple, and so clever and adds that brilliant second layer of deduction which made Avalon beloved amongst hobby gamers who wanted a little more spice in their werewolf.

CONCLUSION

Social deduction games are a dark little genre in boardgaming. Some people love them because like so many things deception in real life is bad, and therefore thrilling to do in a world without consequences to that deception.

Just make sure that your gaming group are able to deal with deception without automatically creating consequences, be it stress, unease, unwanted aggression, social deduction games ARE NOT for everyone, but when they work they’re fascinating, not just because of the giddiness of power felt by having a secret, but also getting to put on your best Poirot moustaches, exercise your ‘little grey cells’ and root out the evildoers in your midst.

With NRB’s launch of season two of Blood on The Clocktower, arguably the greatest social deduction game ever made, it won’t be long before you’ll be able to see much of what’s contained in this article put into glorious (and gore-rious) action.