Games with a traitor element are a lot of fun; the mystery, the tension, the cat and mouse. Practicing your lying and deception skills can also come in handy in real-life situations like your job, family gatherings, or explaining where the last chocolate doughnut went. These types of game aren’t for everyone. Some people just aren’t good at bluffing, and if they’re holding something back it tends to be written all over their face. Hopefully not literally, unless they are exceptionally poor at keeping secrets and compulsively scrawl biros over themselves.
Some people really dislike games like this. For some, they like everyone’s goals to be out in the open – either the players are competing, or they are working together, with no muddying of the waters. Others just don’t like the backstabbing. Others can take it personally, and hold grudges, or have a tendency to sulk. But find the right people, and you’ll have a great time.
If you’re looking for something simple to introduce you to the idea of unknown back-stabbers lurking in your midst, you can try the game known both as Werewolf and Mafia. Originally invented by Dmitry Davidoff in the Psychology Department at Moscow University, players are secretly handed cards showing whether they a werewolf or a villager (or in the Mafia version, a civilian or Mafioso).
All players close their eyes, and the werewolves open their eyes, so they know each other. The game is played in ‘day’ and ‘night’ sections. In the day, the townsfolk discuss who the werewolf or werewolves might be, and vote on who should be ‘put to death’. Assuming there is still at least one werewolf still alive, at night, they choose a villager to kill. The game goes on until either all the werewolves have been killed, or until the werewolves outnumber the villagers (or in some variants, where the numbers are even). Those players who have been eliminated cannot vote in the day section, but can usually still speak (ghostly voices) and try and influence the remaining players. Loyalty cards are not revealed even after deaths. There are various optional roles. Usually, a ‘seer’ (or ‘detective’) is included, who, during the night phase, can indicate another player and see whether they are a villager or werewolf.
Werewolf works best as a party game, as it doesn’t take long, is reasonably social, and best of all, it’s free. All you need is some people, a pencil and paper. For 5-6 players, have 1 werewolf, for 7-8 have 2, for 9-12 have 3, and so forth. It works better with larger numbers. The drawbacks with the basic game is that someone has to be the narrator/referee, which isn’t a great deal of fun, and that it involves player elimination. Some versions of the game deal with these problems. In Werewolf Ultimate edition: one night, roles are swapped around, and there is only a single round.
An interesting variant is where a single traitor can spread their treachery like a virus – a ‘vampire’ who can turn the villagers into other vampires at night, rather than kill them, winning when a certain number have been converted. A similar game, without any player elimination or the need for a narrator, is The Resistance, which works on very similar lines to Werewolf. It features a dystopian future sci-fi theme, is again a great party game, and takes about half an hour. You can get a copy for between £15-20 and it is well worth having in your collection. More involved games featuring one or more snakes in the grass include Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica.
In Shadows, the players are knights of the round table, looking to complete quests like recovering Excalibur, finding the Holy Grail, defeating a dragon, and various other suitably Arthurian goals. They do this with various cards, which are held in secret. One of the knights could be a traitor, looking to throw a spanner in the works (or should that be an arrow in the horse’s backside?) and cause the knights to fail quests. If enough quests are won, the Knights succeed, but if the traitor is not unmasked by the end of the game, the tables can quickly be turned.
The strong theme of Shadows, the manageable playing time, and the good-looking artwork, board and components are all good reasons to play. The traitor – and the fact that there might not be one at all – keeps the game exciting. Some things irk a bit, like how it’s possible for King Arthur himself to be the traitor or the time it takes to explain the rules to newcomers, but on the whole, it’s a solid effort.
The main difficulty is that a player unfamiliar with the game might be the traitor, and both has to understand how to play and, secretly, also learn how to subtly sabotage the other’s efforts. It’s not one to play with those who don’t play board games very often. The game advises you to play through without a traitor in this case, but doing so removes the main source of excitement in the game.
Shadows also advises you to speak in Olde English; ‘Good sir, verily foresooth, that Black Knight’s in for a good thrashing and no mistake,” or that sort of thing. The reason for this is to prevent players from sharing too much information about what cards they have, as secret information is essential to the traitor mechanic. You’ll have a good excuse to play songs from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and take the silliness up to 11, but not everyone is up for that. On the whole, Shadows is a great game, minor nit-picks aside.
Battlestar Galactica, especially for fans of the TV show, is often upheld as the king of co-op traitor games. As the game progresses, more players ‘realise’ (as new loyalty cards are handed out) that they are Cylons, robots baddies who sabotage things from within to prevail, meaning the situation gets tougher for the humans as the game goes on. The problem is that with an average 3 ½ hour playing time, this monster isn’t playable in less than a whole evening. Also, those who haven’t seen the show will feel like they are missing out, as the theme won’t mean that much to them, although it is still a good looking sci-fi game which can be played just for its own sake.
Both Shadows and Battlestar feature special abilities, in that each knight or crew member is best at doing a particular thing, like fighting, carrying extra items, being a fighter pilot, etc. and so everyone has the opportunity to play to their strengths and feel like they are important and matter. In games like this, where success or failure often hangs on a knife edge, your actions really do count. Both of these games take the traitor element and incorporate it into a larger world, where flushing out the enemy within is only one aspect, although an important and intriguing one.
Escape from Aliens in Outer Space features two factions, but which players are in which faction is at first unknown. The aliens have to hunt down the humans, and the humans have to try and escape. Movement is secret (players write down where they are going to) and so begins a cat and mouse where you have to work out both where and what the other players are. It’s quick, enjoyable, and a free print-and-play, so well worth a go.
By adding in secret player objectives, traitor games build on the cooperative game formula by adding suspicion and paranoia, which makes for drama and whodunit-style entertainment, elements that are sadly lacking from games like Cluedo (Clue in the USA), which have no real mystery or deception to solve.
If you’re new to the idea, try a co-op like Pandemic or Flashpoint: Fire Rescue first, then give one of these a try. Being the traitor can be a strangely satisfying experience, especially once you pull off your mask at just the right moment, Scooby-Doo style, to reveal your dastardly plans. Bwahahaha.