This was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
Hoax (2nd edition) is a card-based social bluffing game, that took a mere 30-odd years to return to our shelves after its first edition. Designed by Bill Eberle, Edward Horn Jr, Jack Kittridge and Peter Olotka. Names that might be familiar to you, as some of them are the same people who gave the gaming world the gift of Cosmic Encounter and Dune (currently only available as its retheme called Rex – Last Days of an Empire). In Hoax you will deduce other player’s secret identity and unmask them or lie about who you are so outrageously, that the rest of the table can’t help but challenge. If it then turns out you have actually told the truth, you will have won the game. Hoax is a fast-paced, deduction-heavy bluffing game that’s over in anything from 1-20 minutes.
If that sounds vaguely similar to games like Mascarade or Coup, there is a reason for it. Hoax was possibly one of the first games that introduced the idea of bald-faced lying as a rules mechanic – as opposed to a reason not to get invited to game night again – and admittedly merged it with a bunch of clunky, somewhat needlessly complicated rules and exceptions. It was the 80s; people thought roll-and-move and player attrition were unwavering columns of game design.
But then a meager 30 years later, Coup came along, took the game’s core idea, scrubbed off any excess components and broke the game down to its quintessential elements. Quick and dirty player elimination by way of verbal Russian roulette. You get caught in a lie, you’re half-dead. You throw around a wrong accusation, you’re half-dead. You let somebody collect too much money as the game goes on, you’re half-dead. It played fast, the reprint by Indie Board and Cards was shiny and stylish… and the game went over in my gaming group like a wet fart during mass. After a dozen plays, I finally gave up and traded it away.
You will notice that I never wrote a review about Coup, but I am writing a review about Hoax. The reason for this is fairly simple:
HOAX IS DA BOMB, YO! (NOT JUST IN PHANTOMS.)
In Hoax you are dealt a secret identity at the start of the game, and will claim to be any one of the seven available during your turn in order to get the benefit of the role’s associated privilege. If you’re challenged the entire table will deliberate over whether you’re telling the truth or not. If you’re caught in a lie, you may not re-claim that role for the rest of the game. If you’re called out but actually did tell the truth, you win the game. The psychological effect of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Calling out another player always risks giving them the game. It’s silly and funny the first few times, but then the mind games begin. The delicious little mind games.
To be fair, if you like and enjoy Coup, chances are its strengths are right up your alley and its weaknesses do little to diminish your enjoyment of the game. If that is the case, Hoax might just be a slightly different, a little gamier flavour of the Coup’s main idea. I’d agree with that assessment as well. The two games clearly share some DNA – and in a feat of cross-fertilization – some ideas about streamlining and interplay between roles seem to have helped this new edition of Hoax immensely.
Hoax succeeds in part because the game’s setting. Greedy, two-faced “relatives” competing to be the benefactor of late Hector Vargas’ last will. It invites silly roleplay and improvisation. This aids the experience in two ways. First – it takes a lot of the sting out of being eliminated, as people are laughing and making silly jokes about their own greed and untrustworthiness all the time. But second and more importantly, it gets people talking. Any bluffing game, any social deduction game is only as good as the group’s ability to chatter, chit-chat and babble during play.
In an inclusion that feels gamier, but actually just makes the game far more robust, deduction is not entirely based on reading people and social manipulation. There’s that as well, obviously, but the game also provides you with ways to gather information about the other players’ secret identity. You use role privileges to collect resources, and if you have one of each type you can spend it to investigate a player. They must then give you four identity cards (one corresponding to their own, three randomly chosen) and hand them to you. In addition to specific roles that they might have already be barred from claiming, this can easily and quickly lead to you finding out who that player really is. Then it’s only a question of sliding over the right identity card to eliminate that player from the game. If you end up being wrong, though, you’ll spend the rest of the game watching from the sidelines.
Hoax succeeds as a game, because at any given moment the optimal move is not obvious. Tell the truth or tell a lie. It almost always comes down to the state of the meta-game and every claim that has been made before your turn. Everything you do will betray something about who you really are. The key to playing this game well lies in controlling what people learn about you. What ultimately brings this cauldron of psychological warfare to boil is the ever-present danger of being found out or giving somebody the game due to making the wrong accusation.
Hoax is a game of subterfuge wrapped in misdirection, which is itself couched in mind games and double-bluffs. Telling the truth can both win you the game, as well as paints a giant bullseye on your back. It comes in a tiny, explosive package and just as one game suddenly comes to an end, I find myself re-shuffling and dealing out cards again. This time I know exactly how to lie.