Originally distributed as part of the Wolves of Mercia developer blog, I explore some of the issues I've encountered in some of my favorite social deduction games. It has been reproduced below, with minor edits.
I love social deduction games. Pound for pound, I have played The Resistance: Avalon more than nearly any game in my collection. Love Letter is not far behind it. Most of my other favorites require a ton of what I’ll call “social gaming,” where you can’t always coast by on pure strategy. In games like Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones, and Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery, in order to win you will you need to be able to influence the strategies of others — to band together against a player who might run away with the game, or to form an uneasy alliance as you carve out a power bloc. In other words, to complement strong strategy with a certain element of social politicking.
There’s a common saying in the poker world. “Don’t play your cards, play the guy across the table.” But there’s a balance that has to be struck in order to produce a satisfying strategic and tactical experience, lest things slide the other way and become simple contests of charisma and social power. All this is compounded by a common feature of social deduction games, something in the Brybelly Games office we call “the villager problem.”
A lot of games, including the classics Mafia and Werewolf, feature two factions: the werewolves (with perfect information) and the villagers, who make up the majority but don’t have any information beyond the knowledge that they're "good guys." The villagers are more or less harmless unless working in concert, and getting them to harmonize often boils down to a complicated logic puzzle. There are few (if any) tactical actions a villager player can take, and in the end their ability to win or lose usually has less to do with making the right tactical move than listening to the right person.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this game design — after all, it has decades’ worth of game theory behind it. Games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf elaborate on this formula and are widely loved for it. And rightfully so!
But in my own experience with games like these, I often feel helpless and passive when playing as a Villager, like I’m a lamb just sitting at the door to the slaughterhouse, waiting to be taken in. On the other hand, I always relish the chance to play the werewolf. To take the flow of the game into my own hands and strike out in pursuit of an objective. With this in mind, the first thing I decided when it came to Wolves of Mercia, is that every player has the means to work toward an individualized objective.
In other words, Mercia is a city of wolves.