Werewolf is one of the most popular social deduction board games in the world. Under the special situation of social distancing caused by COVID-19, people are even more into online board games than ever. During the first week of the virus outbreak in China, there were 4 apps featuring online Werewolf games in the top 100 free iOS apps, the best of which ranked no.9 on the list¹. Some of my friends invited me to join their online Werewolf games, but I didn’t play with them. I don’t like playing werewolf because I think there are several design flaws in the game that impair the player experience.
Werewolf has many variants in which many interesting roles are added and the one I am going to talk about the most popular version in China that plays as follows:
- 4 × Werewolves: they can kill a player together at night, and win when all villagers or all other good people are dead.
- 8 × good people:
- 4 × Villagers: they have no special power and don’t wake up at night.
- 1× Seer: s/he can discover the real identity of a player at night
- 1 × Witch: s/he has two potions, one to save the victim and the other one to poison a player, and s/he cannot use both potions in the same night.
- 1 × Hunter: s/he must kill a player in the day if killed or eliminated by vote.
- 1 × Guard: s/he can protect a player from being killed every night, but s/he cannot protect the same person twice in a row.
* 1 × sheriff: the sheriff is a special role who has 1.5 votes.
- Game flow:
- Night: players open their eyes, take their actions and close their eyes in the following order: Werewolves, the Seer, the Guard, the Witch
- Day: If it’s the first day, players will raise their hands if they want to run for the Sheriff. Candidates take turns to canvass non-candidates and they can quit anytime before voting. GM will announce the name(s) of the players who have been killed last night (and they have last words only if it was the first night). If the Sheriff is dead then s/he can either decide who is the next sheriff or abolish the role of Sheriff. Then the survivors take turns to say who they think are werewolves (starting from the dead’s next player) and vote to eliminate one player.
- Winning conditions:
- Werewolves win when all villagers or all other good people are dead.
- Good people win when all werewolves are dead.
- Game flow:
First off, Werewolf’s game mechanics make the game less fun for some of the players. If you get killed on the first night, you can leave your last words, but that’s your full game experience. For the rest of the game (nearly an hour) all you can do is watch. Even if you are alive, you don’t have any additional information from the night and thus cannot really do much in the day if you are a villager without any skills or power. (If you are an active villager who wants to prove your existence and pretend to be a seer, you are not sticking to the routines which I will explain in the next paragraph.) Therefore, good game experience is not guaranteed if you are not one of the lucky living werewolves or good people with superpowers.
Secondly, it is not a game where newbies can play along well with the veterans. The strategy space of Werewolf is not large enough. By this I mean if you play enough Werewolf games, you will either learn from the veterans or find out yourself that there are some routines (i.e. optimal strategies) for different roles. For example, if you are a seer, you must run for the sheriff (who gets a more elimination vote and decides the speaking order in the day). These routines are not part of the rules, but if you don’t know or don’t follow them, you won’t be able to gain trust from your allies and will be seen as a bad player. The fact that optimal strategies are easy to find out and nearly become the unspoken rules discourages new players from playing and drives the players who want more freedom away because not following these unspoken rules equals bad sportsmanship.
The routines and small strategy space disqualify the game from being a heavy strategy one. If you want to play this game with your friends at a party, people who are eliminated early in the game won’t enjoy it, and in fact it’s easier to tell whether someone is lying if you know him/her well, which make the game even more unfair and boring. Werewolf is doomed to be in an awkward position between a serious strategy and deduction game and casual party game due to the two flaws mentioned above.
There is another famous variant of Werewolf called One Night Ultimate Werewolf that I have played with my friends before. As its name suggests, the game contains only one “night” and one “day” (an up to 20-min long discussion). No one will be killed and all the actions happen in the night will just be recognizing your partners or switching players’ role cards. When the day comes, all players need to discuss and debate in order to lynch a werewolf in the end.
ONUW does fix the issues Werewolf has by adding new roles and modifying the rules. No more killing and player elimination means ONUW means everyone can enjoy the entire game. The tricky fact that you won’t be 100% sure what role you are in the day unless you are Insomniac makes sure that even if you get a seemingly boring role like Villager, you still need to carefully listen, get as much information as possible to deduce your camp and apply different strategies accordingly. The game experience is interesting and engaging for every player, which is better than Werewolf.
The core fun of ONUW is the changing nature of players’ roles, and it’s also what enlarges the strategy space of the game. Information is the key to social deduction games. The strategy is always to gain more information you don’t know with the information you claim you know, be it the truth or logical lies. New roles like Troublemaker (who switches two players’ role cards) and Drunk (who exchanges his card with a card from three extra role cards in the center) create much more possibilities and complex situations for this game and make it difficult to find routines. Also, when players know they can be a Werewolf even though their initial role is a good one, they have to be more flexible and less aggressive about others’ lies so that they don’t burn any bridges before they confirm their current identity. According to my experience, more tolerance for lies and bold claims not only originates amazing deception and plot twists in game, but also encourages new players to join the game.
ONUW seems to solve the problems in the original Werewolf game, but is it a perfect social deduction game? Of course not. Changes of roles is a double-sided sword. If a werewolf knows s/he has been switched with a good person, s/he may immediately betray the werewolf camp and sell the person out. It happened several times before and I really felt my experience was ruined and it’s ethically wrong. Some of my friends claim that it’s sheer bad luck and betrayals actually bring much laughter. I am still torn on this question now and I guess this is another reason why I don’t like and I am not good at social deduction games like Werewolf though I do like the game mechanics of ONUW very much — I feel uncomfortable lying or betraying, even in games.