We’ve made it into 2019! While we’re all tired of those 2000+ sequels, there is reason to hope for things picking up, so that’s something. 2018 wound down for me exactly the way I didn’t want it: namely not playing board games. In fact, the only thing I managed to do was snag the role of moderator in three games of Werewolf that our New Year’s eve hosts decided to play with all guests.
I do not like Werewolf. I’m going to take a stand and say it’s a bad game.
It’s not hard to find flaws in Werewolf (or Mafia or Lynching: the Game). Even during your first round the gaps in its design become apparent. If you play it with people you don’t know that well, the game offers few opportunities to make informed decisions. You literally have no way of knowing who to accuse or who to defend. There are exactly two, somewhat arbitrary, sources on which to rely during the game. You can listen to any sounds made during the game’s night phase. Which turns communicating your decision who to kill to the moderator during that phase into a dexterity challenge. This adds a somewhat unsatisfying mini-game to the internationally beloved party game. The other option, and the one many Werewolf fans prefer, puts an emphasis on body language and player behavior. You observe those things and then try to deduce who is and who isn’t on your side. Admittedly, this can be quite engaging and interesting to play. The Mind even manages to take that approach and turn it into a fully cooperative game. But to actually work, Werewolf would need structure. Players need to have a reason to act in one way or another. When the game doesn’t really give you enough reason to do something, it’s hard to deduce why people do anything. A game like The Resistance for example adds an entire new voting phase to give you some clue as to where a player’s loyalties lie.
Werewolf doesn’t do anything like that. You have to fall back on underlying and unspoken group dynamics to make a decision. This can be used positively. As a way to work out some interpersonal tension for example. But the game itself only leads you into play-acting a lynch mob. One player is arbitrarily chosen to be removed from the group and silently watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. You could, of course, read all kinds of awful impulses subconsciously driving players into this. But for the most part these games remain games, and the people involved recognize that. This is not the reason why I don’t like Werewolf.
What’s far more interesting, though, are the reasons why non-gamers like it so much. They are far more taken with this game than any hobbyist gamers I’ve met. When our group seemed to veer towards a game of Werewolf I valiantly attempted to steer them towards One Night Ultimate Werewolf instead. As the “gaming nerd” of the group I managed to keep their attention for a moment, but once I suggested we’d have to clear the table to play most players feared a lengthy and complicated rules explanation and rejected my alternative.
This remains one of the biggest hurdles in getting non-gamers to the table. Learning rules, internalizing them and using them cleverly or run the risk of making a fool of yourself is exactly what keeps many from joining in. It’s no help that even among experienced gamers I often run into people who like to mock other people’s “mistakes”. In its more subtle variant success is deemed the just reward for great strategic skill, or even indicative of intellectual prowess. Both types of behavior primarily signal to players that victory and defeat will be directly correlated to their reputation within the group. As if a game isn’t played for its own sake, but to earn other people’s envy.
Werewolf swiftly avoids this issue by entirely abandoning questions of player “skill”. Previous experience has little to no effect on your chances of success. So even a newcomer can stand up to a veteran player. Knowing the group well only provides few advantages, as soon as new faces join in and invalidate any attempts to calculate who will be lynched next.
One of the reasons why Werewolf is so popular lies in its accessibility. It gains this quality by trading in depth. Even with up to four additional roles, the rules and mechanisms of the game are easily grasped. In my case, the group’s hard limit had been reached after including one role, the Witch. Which is not to say a game’s depth is the same as its rules density. There are many games with few, simple rules, that still allow for great depth in play. Instead Werewolf expresses its lack of depth by only being bearable, if you are not invested in the game.
The ambition to win must not exceed a certain threshold, or you will end up making the worst possible mistake when it comes to playing Werewolf: you’ll take it seriously.
Now this phrase is very loaded, both within the hobby as well as outside of it. It conjures up images of grown men expanding the experience through pugnacious play and emotional outbursts. It makes people think of gamers who are “sore losers”, and who react to setbacks in a childish manner. I’ve written before how we keep board gaming in a state of arrested development by marginalizing emotions during play. Here I’d like to squeeze a more precise and sensible meaning from this phrase, which will hopefully prove useful.
Film, TV series and books engage their audience, because that audience has learned to treat the shown events and people as real. Despite knowing that we are dealing with fiction, we are willing to suspend our disbelief and consider aspects of the narrative as truthful and authentic. We are willing to empathise with non-existent people. We fear for them, when they might fail. We cheer them on, when they succeed against all odds. We need to take the characters and the events of the story seriously, because otherwise we can’t experience the story on an emotional level. We put our trust in the narrator(s) and with well-made movies and episodes, we are repaid by being taken on an emotional journey that culminates in catharsis. We take the things presented to us seriously, and are rewarded with emotion.
Werewolf, on the other hand, can’t be taken seriously. It musn’t be taken seriously. In the words of our hostess: “That would be pure psychological terror. Absolutely out of the question!”. It seems, that this is the key to explain what draws people to the game. But if you can’t take Werewolf seriously as a game, how do you explain its great emotionality during play? Why isn’t Werewolf a dull slog to its fans?
At this point, it makes sense to differentiate between activity and game. Not in the sense, that the two are opposite ends on a scale and games should be counted towards one category or another. It’s the other way around. Every game is built around an activity. It’s based on a certain action, you repeat multiple times; or a role you slip into or even a certain set of individual actions that provide the framework around which we experience the game. In Pandemic it’s verbally coordinating your actions with other players. In Dominion it’s buying cards. With Werewolf it’s the quick courtroom drama that plays out after each accusation.
Thanks to Werewolf’s loose structure the activity takes center stage. You take on (social) roles, which allow you to act outside of familiar and acceptable ways. You get to agitate, stir up trouble and be purposefully hostile. You get to move beyond the limits of tolerable behavior and be a “bad guy”. Who else would scheme against friends and family? Who else would float half-truths and badmouth others? Within the consequence-free boundaries of the game, acting this way is harmless. It’s liberating and exhilarating. Or as it’s commonly called: fun!
But it’s not the game, but the activity within it that manages to do that. This is neither unusual within this hobby, nor is it a bad thing. A great number of party games follow in Werewolf’s footsteps in this regard: Concept, Ugh-tect or even thrift shop fillers like Therapy. These are all games, in which the game fades into the background (more or less), and it’s the activity itself that provides entertainment. Concept in particular is known for having players routinely ignore the points or winning condition.
Werewolf is a good example why fun is an insufficient metric to apply to a game. It shouldn’t be about whether a game is fun, but how and why. Werewolf thrives on people arguing loudly and passionately about absolutely nothing. If this does not appeal to you, you will likely find little to entertain you here.