The first game of Mafia was played in 1986 as a way for a teacher at Moscow University to combine his psychological research with the need to keep some high school students entertained. The rules were simple: Every person in a group is either a murderous criminal or an innocent. Every turn, the mafia members secretly pick a player to eliminate while the rest of the table votes on who they think should be kicked out of the group. The good guys have to use social deduction to figure out who’s not on their side before they’re outnumbered.
As the game spread throughout the campus and beyond, it picked up new names. You might know it as Werewolf and Witch Hunt. New versions expanded on the basic two roles, giving players special abilities or victory conditions. But the basic appeal remained the same — no matter what it’s called, a hidden role game lets you figure out how good you and your friends are at lying to each other.
You don’t need any special equipment to play the original folk games, but three new versions appearing at this year’s Gen Con offer novel twists on the formula.
When I Dream
I was first drawn to the table where Asmodee's When I Dream was being demoed by the sight of a player wearing a heavy sleep mask as a blindfold. I watched as players took turns calling out contradictory words to her and silently glaring each other. Each was trying to guide the blindfolded Dreamer in their own way.
One group, playing Fairies, wanted to help her correctly guess what word was printed on each of the beautifully illustrated cards in the bed-shaped deck box sitting in the middle of the table. The others were Boogeymen, and they earned points every time they could trick her into making a wrong guess. The most perplexing role was the Sandman, sometimes helpful and sometimes deceptive because he benefitted by having an even distribution of right and wrong guesses at the end of the two minutes each Dreamer is allotted.
The game can be played by up to 10 people, with all the roles changing at the end of the Dreamer’s turn. Stepping in, I found that the Fairies have it easiest. They work together as a kind of helpful chorus, and are only ever put on the spot when they have to think of a synonym. Duplicate words aren’t allowed at the table.
Deceiving the Dreamer, though, requires real skill. Players going too far afield of the good advice of the Fairies will just be entirely ignored, so you want to provide clues that are plausible but lead the Dreamer down unhelpful paths. A group of Boogeymen working together can be particularly successful by providing chains of bad clues that seem to be hinting at a theme.
The biggest challenge all around seemed to be avoiding cheering when the Dreamer guessed the way you wanted, since that would tip him off to what side you’re on. The demo ended just one turn before I had my chance under the blindfold, so I’ll have to wait to test my own deductive skills.
“I think all the Soviets should just go ahead and announce themselves now,” one player said early in a game of Red Scare, earning him some very dubious looks. Not that all of those looks could be properly seen as half of the group of 10 players were wearing decoder glasses hung with red film.
Set in the Cold War, Pandasaurus’ game of extreme paranoia splits the group into loyal U.S. citizens and Soviet spies and gives them the seemingly simple task of playing cards from their hand to their faction. But there’s a problem. Half the game’s cards can only be read by those wearing the decoder glasses, and those wearing the decoder glasses are unable to read the other half.
But it gets harder: You’re not allowed to play a card if you can read it.
Elaborate chains of confirmation formed around the table, with players trying to get multiple people to verify what’s on their cards in order to figure out who they could trust. But because no one knows who’s on their side, people will sometimes lie to their own unwitting detriment. That happened to one unfortunate Soviet player who was pretty surprised during the final scoring. It’s also easy to start overthinking things and get paralyzed by indecision, which is why the optional rule to put a timer on each player’s action is helpful, especially in larger games.
Once a few rounds have passed, one player can also choose to end the game by trying to identify everyone's allegiance, which is particularly beneficial if you think you’ve got a good read on the situation and think your team might be lagging behind.
Red Scare is confusing and chaotic, and the glasses can hurt your eyes if you're wearing them for too long. But it's also great at capturing its theme.
“I won’t tell you the identity of my alien overlord. You’re all going to die on this rock!” I cackled, when another player discovered that I’d been infected by an extraterrestrial virus and was working against my fellow astronauts. After a little gene alteration, I was back to myself again and revealed the identity of the secret alien. But it was already too late.
Braine Games' Alien Entity is closest to the original rules of Mafia, but distinguishes itself by being smaller scale, played by just three to five people, and making it possible for the monster in your midst to win even after they've been outed. A very creepy enclosed comic book shares the story of the space horror game, which makes one player an alien trying to infect everyone else as the desperate humans try to kill the extraterrestrial menace or assemble the satellite array needed to call for help.
I started the game by passing the player next to me a card asking him to team up. His response was to pass me an infection card. I’d seen him pass cards to others, but were they also infected or was he just keeping up appearances by spreading around useful items? He was the only one with perfect information.
Once I revealed his identity, I’d assumed the game would end quickly with his defeat. But killing an alien requires more than just a vote from the other players, making Alien Entity feels more like a horror story than a social experiment. After rounds of sabotage, some of which I was responsible for, we didn’t have the pieces we needed to build our satellite. Paranoid astronauts held onto their gun or ammo cards instead of combining them to actually be capable of killing the invader. Within a round I was infected again, and then so was everyone else at the table.
If you’re in the mood for a hidden role game and find yourself short on players, Alien Entity comes highly recommended.