Werewolf is, quite, simply, one of the best games ever invented. However, that's because it depends very much on what you, as a player, bring to it. Rule-wise, it's very simple but it creates a framework around which your own personal psychology creates layers upon layers of depth. In this regard it's similar to Poker or Diplomacy, games which are enjoyable not because of the rules of play but the psychological double-thinking that goes on. Okay, but what is the game actually about?
Werewolf (which is also commonly known as Mafia or Foreign Spy) is a simple "hidden identities" game. At the start each player is secretly assigned a role by the moderator (who runs the proceedings). In a standard game there will be two werewolves, one seer and everyone else will be a simple villager. Each round is played as follows: The moderator instructs all players to close their eyes. Then she will call for the werewolves to open their eyes and (quietly) select one of the villagers to kill. The werewolves then close their eyes and the seer is allowed to open his eyes and select another player. The moderator will then silently indicate whether this player is a villager or a werewolf. Then all players open their eyes and the victim is announced. (This player is then out of the game.) Shocked at discovering the evidence of werewolves in their village the townspeople discuss the issue and will ultimately decide to lynch someone whom they suspect of lycanthropy. Having done so, they reveal the hapless victim's true identity and night falls again...
Very simple and this description of play might not lead you to think that the game is much fun at all but it can be absolutely fantastic in the right circumstances. The fun part of the game is in the discussion period where people voice their theories and suspicions about their fellow players. At the start there's not much to go on but as the game progresses a distinct air of paranoia and persecution arises. People start to blame each other for (ungrounded) accusations and express bewilderment that they (of all people!) could possibly be a werewolf. This then leads to secondary levels of suspicion: "Hmm, Bob sure seems quick to point out other people. Perhaps that's because he's actually the werewolf!" Further, since most people will weigh in on whether they think a particular person is (or isn't) a werewolf a further confusion of true motives develops. "Why is Frank so sure that Cathy isn't a werewolf? Maybe he's the seer and looked at her card? Wait a minute! Maybe it's because they're both werewolves and he's trying to protect her!" It's this type of thinking that propels the game and it's amazing how quickly the game can suck you in. Suddenly every little thing you do or say is seen by others as some sort of slip-up which naturally reveals your guilt. "Gee, Gary didn't cheer when we successfully lynched a werewolf yesterday, he must be the other one!" or "Sure Gary cheered yesterday but he was obviously trying to disguise his true feelings."
It's that last bit that I love in the game. Logic and reason are often thrown out the window and this creates an atmosphere that no "normal" game can ever hope to match. Usually you play a boardgame, with Werewolf, you're in one. Invariably someone will suggest that a certain player has been acting exactly as an innocent villager would act. This, of course, can only be explained by the fact that they're "covering up" the fact that they're a werewolf! Trust me, this can and does happen in games. (And can often be the correct assessment!) This sort of double-thinking is made all the greater because people are imperfect creatures and what appears to be perfectly sane and logical arguments can appear confused and nonsensical to others, particularly when certain players know things that other don't. For example, the seer often knows a fair bit about the other players. However, she can't simply announce this fact to everyone otherwise the werewolves will be sure to kill her the following night. Further, even if she does announce this fact, how are the other players to know that she's telling the truth? Perhaps she's actually a werewolf and is trying to convince everyone to lynch an innocent villager?
Clearly, I love this game but I do admit that it's not for everyone. You really do need to play with a group of like-minded individuals, people who are going to get into the spirit of the game and who like to talk, debate and present theories. If played with people who are not keen on presenting their points of view (no matter how faulty) then the game becomes pointless. Imagine a game of Poker in which no one raises a bet or bluffs. A game of Diplomacy where no alliances are formed, no deals struck. The game is simply a framework for allowing people to make accusations and form defenses, if you're unwilling to do this then give Werewolf a wide berth. There's also the matter of requiring a large group. Personally, I find that 14-18 people (plus a moderator) works best. If you play with too few then the game ends before it gets really interesting, conversely, if you play with too many then it drags on far too long.
It's believed that the game has its origins in Russia (with a foreign spy theme) and can easily be played with a deck of cards. (Use Jacks for the werewolves, a Queen for the seer and number cards for the villagers.) I've also played the game with a selection of Magic: The Gathering cards that I modified to indicate roles. However, there are a number of commercial versions that are also easily available. Most of these include extra characters that can be used to spice up the game.
Werewolves of Miller's Hollow - This version uses square cards with stylized graphics (see picture above) and can handle up to 18 players. Special characters include the Little Girl, Cupid, a Thief, Hunter and the Witch. The short rules also give some very good advice on how the moderator should run a session.
Are You a Werewolf? - Looney Labs version includes only the standard characters and can handle up to 15 players. The rules are available online here. They also include the excellent suggestion that daytime negotiations be time-limited so that the game does not last forever.
Lupus in Tabula - This version by daVinci Games includes a standard-sized deck of cards and can handle up to 23 players. An interesting change is that when the players lynch someone that character is not revealed! I have not played with this particular variant but it would be an interesting change of events to be sure. Special characters include a Medium (who knows whether the last victim was human or werewolf), Possessed (a human that plays on the side of the werewolves), the bodyguard (who protects a player each night), the Freemasons (villagers who each know the others identity) and a Werehamster (who is invulnerable to the werewolves among other things).
Whether or not you buy one of these commercial decks or create your own I highly recommend trying the game should the opportunity present itself. This is no guarantee that you will like Werewolf but if you do, it may very well be one of the best game experiences you will have.
- Greg Aleknevicus