January 26, 2011

A broken version of Werewolf

(Wolves are AWESOME!)

I’ve been playing Werewolf rather much these last few months. It’s been fun and I’ve learned a lot about the game, but things have not always gone as smoothly as one would wish. I decided to write this to clear things up for myself on exactly how and why certain changes to the core mechanic lead to unbalanced rounds.

First of all, I won’t go into the details of the basic game mechanics. In a nutshell Werewolf (or Mafia as it’s often called) is a game about group dynamics, guessing, acting, bluffing, theorizing and, often, mass hysteria. Wikipedia has a good roundup of the basic rules and also lists some of the game’s multiple variations.

Basic Werewolf works well because it has very simple core rules which allow for a deep and elegant playing experience. Now, the games I’ve been playing lately are not vanilla Werewolf but instead are based on a card game called Lupus in Tabula. Lupus in Tabula itself is a very balanced game that works efficiently because it has clear instructions on the ratio of Villagers, Werewolves and special roles.*

The problem is, the variant I’ve been playing borrows the special roles from Lupus in Tabula (with some modifications thrown in with the mix) but not the distribution of the roles nor the other instructions given on how to run the game. The rest of the variant is pure homebrew Werewolf. That means the rounds become extremely unbalanced as no guidelines are used to control the amount of special roles. Everyone likes a special character, so why not give almost everyone some neat skill, right?

Um. Wrong. It breaks the game. It makes the Werewolves’ task nigh impossible, the best proof of which is that the Wolves have won, I think, only a few of the numerous rounds played. Far fewer than they would have in the standard Lupus in Tabula or Werewolf.

The reason the special roles break the game is they make bluffing and lying too difficult for the Wolves. Basically, the Wolves lose their hiding places when everyone is special. If the majority of players are Villagers, the Wolves can claim to be Villagers as well. But the more roles you have, the more complex things get and the more difficult it is for a Wolf to keep their cover story straight.

I’ve tried to address this problem to the other players but so far it’s been to no avail, the counterargument being that since no one knows for certain which role you are playing, the wolves can just lie, and their lies are all the more effective because there are a lot of roles for them to choose from. I disagree.
To address this problem, following is a list of all the roles used in the games I’ve played lately, and the impact they have on the game from the Wolves’ point of view. The number after the role indicates the usual number of the said role in play, and the text in italic tells how the characters work in this variant. In almost all the games I’ve played all of the roles below have been present.

Seer (1) Once every night the Seer can find out the role of one other player.

The key role, one could say. In vanilla Werewolf the Seer is without a question the most important role in the village, and its importance is not much diminished in the role-rich variant I’m discussing now.

The Seer accumulates a wealth of information about the other players as the game progresses. One role cleared per night is nothing to scoff at since it greatly limits the pool of possible hiding places for the Wolves. If a Wolf claims to be, for example, a Pimp, it’s trivial for a Seer to find out if they are telling the truth. And in the worst case the Seer already knows who the Pimp is, so the Wolf is immediately caught lying. Of course, as the counterargument goes, the Wolf can bluff and question the Seer’s authenticity. But a true Seer, who usually at that point knows a lot more about the village than anyone else, has very little difficulty in proving themselves.

Likewise, if the bluff works and the true Seer is lynched as a masquerading Wolf, the true Wolf is going to be having a hard time keeping their story straight: if the Wolf claims to be the Seer, the players will continue asking the Wolf to check the roles of specific people. The way out of that situation usually requires the Wolf to tell any one living player’s role, which in this version of the game is extremely difficult. In vanilla Werewolf it’s easy to say someone is a Villager since the Villagers are the vast majority. But in the role-rich variant it’s an absolute pain to guess the roles, and the longer you have to do it, the harder it becomes. And, of course, if the Wolf claims in their initial bluff that they are not the Seer themselves (so as to avoid all the hassle described above), well, there’s not really much to back the Wolf’s word up. Both the Wolf and the Seer will be cast under suspicion. The village kills either the Seer or the Wolf, but they will both be certainly killed if no clear resolution can be formed. Also, the Necromancer can easily verify the story in one round by checking the lynched person’s role.

All of that translates to this: The Seer is a problem for a Wolf. Both because the role is powerful and because it’s hard to fake it in an environment where guessing an exact role of someone is difficult. It’s tough to outwit the real Seer since they have a drastically better grasp of the village’s situation and they don’t have the additional pressure of having to lie. A Wolf that lies has to play against the whole environment whereas a Seer can calmly keep to the facts.

Necromancer (1) Once every night the Necromancer can find out the role of any one dead player.

A lot of what I said about the Seer is true about the Necromancer as well. It’s a powerful role because it allows gathering infallible information about the situation. If the Necromancer and the Seer are both alive, the Village potentially learns two roles per turn. While the Necromancer and the Seer won’t of course reveal themselves right away (and might even be killed by the Wolves before they do), they nevertheless create constant pressure on the Wolves by diminishing the possible roles to hide behind. After two rounds a Wolf who is questioned about their role faces a situation where the village likely contains two characters who between them have the knowledge of up 4 roles. In a 10-player game that amount of knowledge is deadly to the Wolves.

Masquerading as the Necromancer is a little easier than trying to pass as a Seer since the dead targets won’t be able to catch you lying. However, since there are so many roles, it’s very possible that the Wolf guesses wrong and claims a dead person to have a role that’s still active in the game. Once again, the safer bet of claiming the dead person was a Villager won’t work as it would in a more balanced game. (Well, it isn’t a bad guess even in this variant, but it’s radically more risky than in the vanilla version). And if the Seer is still alive they might catch the Necromancer lying. The Seer can just ask the Wolf-Necromancer to reveal a role of someone dead whom the Seer has already checked when the role was still active. That situation is virtually impossible for the Wolf to escape, other than by questioning the Seer’s authenticity, which will lead to all kinds of terrible things as discussed above. Also, a Necromancer acting suspiciously (taking time to think before revealing roles) is a tempting target for a Seer to check. Again, the Wolf is screwed.

In some variants (and I think in some games we’ve played too) the Necromancer can only tell whether a dead person is a Wolf or not, instead of seeing the exact role. That’s a less powerful ability, granted, but knowing the exact amount of Wolves left, as well as being able to verify a dead character’s story (for example, a person claiming to be the Seer being lynched as a Wolf has a lot of posthumous credibility to back their story if the Necromancer finds out they weren’t a Wolf after all) are both things that pose nearly as big a threat to the Wolves as does knowing the exact roles.

Bodyguard (1) Once every night the Bodyguard can protect a single player, even themselves, and for that night the protected player is immune to the Wolves. If the Wolves try to eat a protected player no one dies that night. Also, if the Bodyguard is lynched during the day they get what’s called a “last shot”. They can avenge their death by killing any one player of their choosing before they die themselves.

A Bodyguard can protect the Seer (or Necromancer or whoever needs protection), making it a very effective role against a Wolf. But would they be a good role to masquerade as? Yes, if the original Bodyguard is dead. But the other option makes it extremely risky. Consider: if a Wolf claims to be the Bodyguard, the real Bodyguard can announce that they are the real deal and that the Wolf is a liar. No matter how the debate goes, one of the two will be lynched. If it was the Wolf, hooray. If it was the Bodyguard they get the “last shot” and will kill the Wolf anyway. And the “last shot” (or lack of it) informs the village whether the lynched person was telling the truth or not.

There is only one Bodyguard, so in that regard it’s a good choice for hiding late in the game: Chances are the real Bodyguard has been killed already. But since there is no reliable way of telling whether the Bodyguard is still active (see Werehamster), the “last shot” mechanic makes it a big gamble to try. Unlike with other roles, a Wolf who gets drawn into a debate against the real Bodyguard will perish before the night falls. Without exception. Removing the “last shot” would balance the role a little. As would not allowing the Bodyguard to protect themselves with their special ability.

Freemasons (2 to 3) The Freemasons identify each other on the first night.

They have no flashy active skills but they do have something else: they have information about the village, which in Werewolf is the scarcest commodity of all. A Freemason knows for sure at least one (or two if there are three of them in total) other player who is not a Wolf. This not only helps them in finding out who the Wolves are but also works for them if they are accused of being a Wolf (via, perhaps, a Wolf who is trying to pass as a Seer, or an aggressive player, or just pure chance when the village needs to lynch someone). They always have someone to vouch for them. Unless the other one is dead, of course. But even then the information is solid. A Necromancer or a Seer could very well still confirm the story of a Freemason by reading (or having read) the role of the deceased Freemason. And if the Freemasons have outed themselves, confirming one’s story is enough to lend credibility for the rest.

For obvious reasons they are extremely difficult for a Wolf to pass as. Two Wolves could make an interesting scenario in a game where everyone knew there are two Freemasons. But even then they would be on the kill list anyway, once the real Freemasons challenged them. And, of course, the Seer and Necromancer could blow through their lies easily.

Werehamster (1) The Wolves cannot kill the Werehamster. If they try, no one dies that night.

Werehamsters confuse Wolves. If a Wolf tries to kill a Werehamster the effect is exactly the same as when the Wolves try to kill a person protected by a Bodyguard. The Werehamster complicates things for the Wolves who have a lot on their plates as it is.

The Werehamster is a good role to masquerade as. At least in theory. There’s a good explanation for why a ‘hamster isn’t killed by Wolves even in the endgame (“I’m not a Wolf, I’m a Werehamster, so of course I’m still alive!“) and there is no way to prove one’s hamsterness, so the village cannot demand the liar to prove themselves. The Seer and Necromancer are of course a problem as always, but other than that, Werehamster is a decent hiding role.

Except if you’re playing in a group that has played several games together before. I don’t know how many of the other players have noticed it, but more often than not in our games a Wolf who is asked to reveal their role (or be lynched) will try the Werehamster defence. They claim to be the Werehamster and hope the real hamster has been lynched already. It’s a sound strategy for the reasons I listed above, but if the same response becomes a recurring thing in games it’s instantly suspicious and will draw the attention of the Seer and the Necromancer. Or the attention of a player like me who then alerts the S & N. And as I said, the Werehamster is a good hiding role because its player cannot prove it in any way, and thus cannot be forced to do so. But the villagers will know this and regard the role with suspicion for the exact same reason. Checking out an outed Werehamster’s identity is often a top priority, leading to a quick death for a Wolf.

And, of course, there’s always the risk that the original Werehamster is still around since they tend to have a longer lifespan than the rest of the villagers due to their wolfproofness. All in all, Werehamster would be a good role for a Wolf if everyone and their grandmother hadn’t tried it already.

Lovers (2) The Lovers identify each other on the first night. They cannot vote to lynch one another and if either is a Wolf, they cannot kill their loved one. Lovers are an extra role, which means that a player is a Wolf/Seer/Villager/Whatever AND a Lover at the same time. The Lovers do not know each others’ primary role. If one of the Lovers dies for whatever reason, so does the other.

Pimp (1) On the first night the Pimp marks two players who become Lovers.

The Pimp has no special abilities once the game proper begins. But just like with Freemasons, the Pimp has hard data. If questioned about their role, they have a method of proving who they are: they can tell who the Lovers are and so prove themselves. Of course, they rarely do so because spilling the beans on the Lovers will cost the villagers dearly the next night: The Wolves can target either of the Lovers and take out two villagers in one go. (Then again, if either of the Lovers is a Wolf, the Lovers will not get eaten. Which alerts the villagers to the fact that by killing either of the Lovers, at least one Wolf will also be killed. Again, not good for Wolves.)

But even if the Pimp won’t easily reveal the identities of the Lovers, they still have the information and can use it to their advantage. In one game I was the Pimp, and when I was under suspicion of being a Wolf masquerading as a Pimp I spoke passionately about how I couldn’t prove my story because I didn’t want to endanger the Lovers’ life, and while doing that looked at the two Lovers long and hard, focusing my gaze on their eyes. After the game I asked if they had picked it. They had, and no one else hadn’t. And I was saved from the lynching.

Also, a Wolf claiming to be the Pimp faces difficulties during the day phase, when voting who to lynch. When the village accidentally lynches a Lover and loses two villagers, people will start to raise questions about a Pimp who would vote so badly. And that’s going to be a problem.

If the Lovers are dead (which is easy to tell), the Pimp is a moderately good hiding place for a Wolf. At least if the original Pimp won’t challenge the Wolf. If they do, it’s game over again. And on the negative side, a Pimp is not valuable to the village so they will get lynched without much remorse, and due to the role being easy for the Wolves to slip into, it suffers from the same problems as the Werehamster does. A pimp is suspicious by default.

Villagers (2-3) Have no special skills whatsoever.

A splendid role to blend into! If it weren’t for the little problem that when the Villagers are so scarce, they sort of become a special role as well.

Villagers have no value. They contribute nothing to the village in terms of special abilities, and they cannot prove themselves the same way Freemasons, and to certain extent the Pimp, can. However, if everyone knows there are only two or three villagers, when anyone claims to be a villager the other one(s) can just announce themselves. And then it’s off with their heads until a Wolf is found or they are all dead. One lynching per day and one or two role checks a night makes it a quick process to find out who is telling the truth and who is lying. In the role-rich variant a Wolf claiming to be a Villager has yielded the best results from a bluff, admittedly. But even at best that has meant that the Wolf has survived a couple more rounds, which has not been enough to threaten the village in any significant way.

Still, probably the safest bet even in the role-rich variant.

Werewolves (2) Know each other and mutually decide who dies during the night.

The Wolves are in deep trouble. Not only do they have to deal with the pressure of the Village closing in on them, they have very limited hiding places and have to keep extremely careful track of everything in the game, lest they talk themselves to a dead end. It’s not easy playing the Wolf, and an environment where the odds are so starkly against them makes it all the more difficult.

Simply put, (assuming people are willing to reveal their roles, which they seem to be, once it starts getting obvious there’s a chance of catching a Wolf) a Wolf’s lie creates a situation where people know one player out of two, three or four is not telling the truth. (Someone claims to be a Villager, followed by three other people claiming the same thing. Which means one of them is lying.) The obvious solution is to keep killing the suspects until they’re all dead or the Seer/Necromancer has pinpointed the Wolf among them.

A convincing lie has to be well-constructed (which is difficult in a setting as stressful and hectic as this), but it also requires that the village won’t have a wide array of methods for digging out reliable information. A lie will not take hold amidst well-informed people. Also, since there are two Werewolves, it’s not enough for the one to find cover. The other one needs a place to hide as well. So, if the other Wolf lies, it effectively crosses out one option from the other Wolf. And in a role-rich game the Wolves can remain without lying about their role for only so long. The silent players are often lynched very quickly, after all, as they contribute nothing to the village’s pool of shared information. One Wolf could bluff their way to endgame but two Wolves... Not a chance. And almost without exception one Wolf in endgame has not been enough.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to lie in the role-rich variant. I’ve seen it done, certainly. But it’s difficult, and it leads to problems a lot faster than in the vanilla version. Many of the roles have a mechanic that specifically makes them harder for a Wolf to play as. The last shot of a Bodyguard, the Freemasons’ strength in numbers, the Werehamster’s longer lifespan, the Pimp’s knowledge of the Lovers, and of course the Seer’s/Necromancer’s knowledge of roles are all examples of game mechanics that are fun to play but a total pain to fake. If the concentration of those special roles is too high, it leaves very little room for the Wolves to manoeuvre and is, in the end, what causes the game to break.

I was told the role-rich variant is no more difficult for the Wolves than the regular version. I think I’ve shown this is not the case. Lying is an option in both game types, yet in one it’s drastically more difficult than in the other. The thing is, this ratio of common Villagers versus special roles (plus a low number of Wolves) greatly affects the game: not once when playing as a villager have I had the tingling feeling of death closing in on me, or the sense of my reasoning’s futility against a vastly more informed opponent - the feelings that I usually experience when playing as a villager. On the contrary, those feelings were present only when playing as a Werewolf. So, what the rule-rich variant does is it turns the basic function of the game around. The Wolves become the hunted and the Villagers become the hunters. There is fun to be found in that, sure (at least for the villagers), but to say the role-rich version doesn’t affect the Wolves’ chances of winning is pure balderdash.

Werewolf, from the antagonistic perspective of the Werewolves, is a game about lying, bluffing and manipulating. It takes away some of the game’s elegance and charm to encumber it with mechanics numerous enough to transform the game into a wolf-hunt. The game is fun in a way when played like that, I admit, but the beauty of the original game is, if not lost, at least thoroughly changed. The game turns upside down and loses something that made it so special to begin with.

* It should be noted that I’ve seen two very prominent playing styles in Werewolf, the other more common in homebrew and vanilla games and the other in Lupus in Tabula. The two styles are, for lack of better terms, the roleplaying style and the analytical style. And they are, of course, not mutually exclusive, though I’ve rarely seen combinations.

The roleplaying style emphasises, well, roleplaying. The narrator spins epic yarn about the proceedings in the village and the players act accordingly, coming up with personalities, accusing others with made-up claims (“I heard noises from her house the other night! Suspicious!”) and accusing based on, for example, hair colour. There’s very little analysis of the situation going on, and the game leans more on the mob mechanics, convincing rhetoric and laid-back storytelling. It very much carries the air of mutual storytelling and friendly improvisation.

The analytical style is more calculating and methodical. Players search for tells, try to construct theories and test them, and in all conceivable ways lure the Wolves into making a mistake and revealing themselves. It’s common for this playing style to put emphasis on utilitarian moves over emotional ones (“Well, whether or not he really is a mere villager like he claims he is, we should kill him anyway. If he is a villager we lose no valuable special roles in killing him. And if he was a Wolf in hiding, we win. It’s a win-win scenario.”) The players are not really participating in a story or making things up. It’s more like an exercise in logic and reasoning.

I enjoy both styles but the games I’ve been playing lately have been pretty much on the analytical side.


  1. A very thorough analysis, and well written again. Having only played the laid-back version and enjoyed it precisely for the simplicity, randomness and amusing chaos, I can't imagine having much fun or seeing much point in trying to cope with that multi-role hassle, be it on the Wolves' side or on the village's.

  2. After some pondering I think I too prefer the laid-back version. It has more emphasis on the elements that intrigue me in Werewolf anyway: Social interaction with all the back-and-forth accusations, rampant paranoia and struggles for dominance by rhetoric. And of course big part of the enjoyment comes from the fun situations that roleplaying creates.

    It's also easy to spice up the laid-back vanilla version with minor rule variations (without breaking the core mechanic and without losing the roleplaying) if you want to take the game a bit more towards the analytical approach. It's very versatile and can offer benefits from both styles.

    The role-heavy version cannot really be played as anything but a social puzzle. There's no space for roleplay since the focus is on the special roles and discovering how they are distributed (and lynching all anomalies). That is, the special roles and rules tend to fill the gap the laid-back version fills with roleplaying and good atmosphere.

  3. I once found some online Mafia web pages (the only difference between Mafia and Werewolf is the names of the roles) and they do indeed talk about this problem: too many roles shift power in favor of the villagers, leading to Follow the Cop style play.

  4. Thank you for the link! I didn't know there's a whole wiki devoted to Mafia. Now I know what I'll be reading for the whole evening :D

  5. Thoughtful analysis. Well done.

    I'm not a spammer, but just wanted to say that we play here and have a good time:


    We are always looking for this kind of thinking and do our best to make games very playable. Anyone is invited.

    One basic foundation is to have enough places for the mafia/WW to hide - which means a decent supply of villager roles. Too many specials can expose wolves just by being unique (not even counting the powers). Sometimes we have games in which there are few/no villagers, but the roles in the game are not known so the "evil" team usually gets by using made-up good roles.

    Was just killing time on twitter with a search when I found the tweet and was led here.


    1. Thank you for the comment! That Werewolf forum looks really fun. Maybe I'll join!

      It'd be nice to see other playing styles and rule variants as the amount of rounds I get to play WW is limited and is usually only with a relatively small group of players.

      And yes I totally agree with the wolves's need for places to hide. And furthermore, if the game at its core is about a minority that knows things versus a majority that doesn't know things, peppering the village with roles that have various amounts of investigative powers only waters the experience down.

      Playing a special role is fun, but the whole game is more fun if the basic rules work as intended.

      Nice call using special roles without players knowing what roles are in play. I might suggest that the next time I get to play this homebrew WW discussed above.