“Don’t listen to her”, I yelled. “The two of them are in cahoots! It’s them! If you kill me, we lose. If we kill them, we win! It’s that simple! Don’t…”
“Okay”, intones another voice. “Let’s vote. Three…”
“You’re making a mistake!”,
There is a sound like a whip crack at the back of my head, and everything goes dark.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf (ONUW) is a social deduction game that teaches you how fundamentally untrustworthy your friends and family can be. It’s a game of bald-faced lies, half-truths, and shrouded information. It’s whippet-quick – individual games last around five minutes. It’s also mercilessly intense – you’ll feel every second of those five minutes. More too than any other game we’ve looked at on Meeple Like Us, ONUW is a game that will evolve the more you play it. The five minutes you’re yelling at each other is only part of the game – a brief sliver of interaction sliced from a moist, rich, and socially contextual cake of meta-game.
“I’m the seer”, I say. “And I looked at Pauline’s card. I know what she is. And I know she doesn’t want me to say what she is”.
“That’s funny”, says Roz. “Because I’m the Seer, and I looked at your card. So I know why you’re lying – you’re a werewolf”,
I look at her, aghast. The other players are busy sizing up Pauline. Roz gives me a cheerful ‘Now what are you going to do’ smile. knowing no-one else can see her. Oh god.
“Well, I don’t believe Michael”, says Pauline. “He’s lied before. And I know he’s killed before. Whenever he’s a werewolf, he claims to be something else so that…”
“But this time I am the Seer!”, I protest. “But you’re siding with Roz because I know you’re a werewolf!”
And then it dawns on me. So is Roz. They’re colluding. This is bullshit. There’s two of them, one of me, and I do indeed try to sow disharmony whenever I’m a werewolf. But I really am the seer this time I assure them.
“But the problem with that”, says Peter, “Is that I swapped Roz and Michael’s cards. So if he’s a werewolf, then Roz is that werewolf now”
From the mobile app in the centre, we hear the instructions. “Time’s up. Vote in three… two… one…”
Peter and I point at Roz. Pauline points at Roz. Roz points at me.
Two to one! I’m alive. Roz flips over her card. She’s the robber. I flip over mine. I’m a werewolf.
The seer, haha. God, they fell for it yet again. Werewolves win. Werewolves always win. Next time though, I might not be so lucky.
At the start of each round of Werewolf, a number of ‘role’ cards are randomly dealt out. These tell us what we’re going to be during the surprisingly intense night phase of play. Some people will be werewolves – it’s the job of (most) of the villagers to kill at least one of them. Their job is to escape detection. Everyone else will be some kind of villager – either a boring ‘do nothing’ generic villager, or one with a special power. Everyone takes a look at their card, and then the announcer works his or her way through the script. There’s a mobile app that does this, and I’d recommend it being used otherwise it’s a painfully awkward chore to remember the roles in play and the order in which they should be invoked.
The announcer begins. “Everyone. Close your eyes”
And we do. Everyone around the table. That’s how ONUW is played during the night phase – in the darkness of our own heads. The exact role and order of the speech changes depending on what cards are in play, but for the standard ‘recommended’ game it’ll follow a set pattern.
“Werewolves. Wake up and look for other werewolves”
There might be two werewolves in any given game. There might be one. Or there might be no werewolves. Nobody knows. If there’s only one werewolf, they get to look at one of the three undealt cards in the centre of the table. If they’re lucky, they’ll get some more role information to use. If they’re not, they’ll see the other unassigned werewolf. Werewolves must keep their identity hidden throughout the game – if a werewolf is killed, the villagers win even if there is collateral damage. The other knowing eyes that yours meet belong to the only ally you have at the table.
“Werewolves, close your eyes. Seer, wake up. You may look at another player’s card, or two of the centre cards’
The seer, if they’re in play, has a tricky choice – the value of their actions depends on what other roles are likely in the game. The drunk for example takes a centre card and swaps it for their own, without looking. Knowing what two thirds of the undealt cards were can be pretty important. Or, if you know someone is claiming to be a role they can’t be, it’s nice to know. On the other hand, it’s also good to know if someone is an ally or an enemy. But decide quickly, because you only get a few seconds to pick your action and pull it off in a way that ensures nobody knows your role. Sometimes ONUW is as much a game of physical stealth as it is careful social deduction.
“Seer, close your eyes. Robber, wake up. You may exchange your card with another player’s card, and then view your new card”
Imagine you’re the robber. You’ve got your game plan all worked out. You pick up someone else’s card. They’re a werewolf. Fuuu…
See, you don’t get the same information when you’re the robber. The werewolves already exchanged meaningful eye glances. You can’t say ‘I’m a werewolf now, late to the party! Can other werewolves let me know who they are?’. You’re just going to have to work out if you’re the lone werewolf, or one of a pair. And if you’re one of two, the other werewolf isn’t going to trust you. Oh god.
“Robber, close your eyes. Troublemaker, wake up. You may exchange cards between two other players”
Note the may in these instructions – you often don’t have to perform your special role. Why would you even do this? It’s not just to sow confusion, it’s to tease out crucial game information. If you can convince others that you are the troublemaker, and you switched the cards you said you did, then you can learn a lot by watching how they react. ‘Oh! I was actually a werewolf, so if you swapped my card then I’m on TEAM VILLAGER BABY, and it was definitely Pauline I saw when I opened my eyes during that phase’. Boys becoming men, men becoming wolves. And then werewolves becoming girls, and girls becoming seers, and so on. It’s so delicious.
“Troublemaker, close your eyes. Everyone… wake up!”
And this is the day phase. This is where the arguing begins… because unless you were permitted to do so by your role instructions, nobody is allowed to look at their cards again once they’ve been dealt out. Are you the same thing you were when you started? Nobody knows, and you can’t necessarily trust what anyone has to say about what went bump in the night.
“Right, I know I lied last time, but I’m going to tell you right now – I was a werewolf”, says Michael. Everyone stares at him.
“What do you mean, was?”, asks Pauline suspiciously.
“I heard someone switch my card during the troublemaker phase”, he replies.
Everyone is quiet for a moment. The app plays background music, and a clever group will fake noises throughout the entire speech to make sure information remains hidden. That doesn’t mean though that you don’t pick up some information.
“Well, I’m the troublemaker”, says Roz. “But I didn’t switch your cards. I swapped Peter and Pauline”.
“Oh”, says Michael. “It could have been during the robber phase?”
“I’m the robber”, says Pauline. “And I didn’t swap your card”
Everyone stares around. Statistically, what are the chances Michael is a werewolf again? Every piece of information you give away in ONUW is a tool for werewolves to exploit. Why would he claim to be a werewolf if he wasn’t? To deflect attention to someone else? If the robber did take a werewolf card, they’d definitely want to keep that quiet. What has the troublemaker to gain though? Could Michael have just mixed up the phases?
Peter shrugs. “Just an ordinary villager, me”.
That’s… a good way to avoid attention. Just the kind of thing a werewolf might say, in fact. But is Roz a troublemaker? There’s no requirement for anyone to be honest. She might be a werewolf herself! Michael would know that, but no-one else would. That is, if he is honest that he was a werewolf. But why would he lie?
Time’s up. Vote in three.
I don’t know.
I have no idea.
Individual games of ONUW are intense, but not very skillful. There’s only so much information you can tease out, and only so much you can do to read state out of a fundamentally unknowable setup. There will be people that are what they claim to be. There will be others that don’t even know they’re not what they started off as. Nobody can check their cards. All you can do is try to narrow down the window of probability. Everyone is looking for logical holes in the argument, or looking to turn lies to their own advantage. ‘Look, if I’m telling the truth Roz is a werewolf, because I’m telling you I was a seer and looked at her card. If she’s telling the truth, she is still a werewolf because she says she was a robber and took Peter’s card, and he has outed himself as a werewolf’. But everyone is trying to do it with a different set of clues, and with different motivations, and with wildly modulated levels of trust in the information they are receiving. Everyone is arguing, and you only have a few minutes. You rarely even have time to meaningfully make use of the tokens available – the one supposed to let you eliminate possibilities through mutual consent.
At the end of the furious disagreement, there’s the vote.
You might all agree as a group to vote a particular way, but when that final countdown ends, there’s nothing to stop you changing your mind. If there are no werewolves, the villagers win if everyone receives a single vote. If you’re a werewolf and have convinced everyone you’re a villager, then you can sneakily vote for someone else at the end and win the round. They’ll remember – oh god, they’ll remember, and that’s how games of ONUW evolve.
The second round of ONUW is a different beast, because you all start off with more information – not about the round you’re about to play, but about how everyone behaved in the last one. Strategies that work well become briefly popular, until their very popularity makes them less viable. It’s very effective for a werewolf to let someone else reveal themselves as a seer first, and then claim that they’re actually a seer themselves. It sows discord. It makes people doubtful, and if enough information has been revealed you might even be very convincing. Pointing to someone and saying ‘Okay, I know you’re safe because I’m a seer and saw you are a villager’ exudes confidence and whether you’re right or not they’ll back you up. Werewolves will be happy for the cover (sometimes), and villagers will be happy for the confirmation. It’s an extended game of cold reading.
But the more you rely on something, the less useful it becomes. People become inoculated – they become suspicious. That conveniently late declaration of Seer status – that Forer statement that everyone can agree with. Suddenly that which worked a few times, through novelty, is a tired cliché. That werewolf cover which was welcome once or twice can become a liability – instead of outing themselves, they ratted you out too.
So the werewolf begins with a strident declaration of being the seer before anyone else. And if they were the only werewolf and looked at a card from the centre, they might know they are the only seer. But isn’t that dangerous? Isn’t that risky? It can be! But it can also be very powerful. ‘I looked at the centre card, and there’s at most one single werewolf here’. Over time, these negotiation feints, gambits, counter-gambits, bluffs and double-bluffs will become part of the vocabulary of play.
ONUW is a game that more than any other will mould itself around your gaming group, and become a different experience with different group composition. Everyone playing ONUW shares the same basic game, but the meta-game will be unique to you. Playing it with just one different person, or one regular missing, will give everything a new frisson of novelty. As you add in roles and people, and as the metagame twists and turns, you’ll find there’s a lot to keep you coming back. Playing the game with the insomniac (who gets to see their card again before the day begins) creates a different texture to play than if you’re making use of the hunter (if they are killed, they also kill the person they are pointing at). The tanner is on a team of their own. ‘Team Tanner’. They’re so depressed by life that they win if they are selected for death. All of these change the social dynamics of play, because each one offers more group levers, more intrigue, and more opportunities for mutual negotiated destruction.
That though leads to the most significant reservation I have about ONUW, and about all social deductive games – group composition is absolutely critical to fun gameplay. If players aren’t getting into the swing of it, it’s going to land with the dull thump of a lynched wolf being cut from the gallows. That puts a lot of pressure onto a game that has little mechanical structure to bear it. It’s a risky proposition for a games night. If it works, it’ll work very well. If it doesn’t, well… at least it’s short enough that you can find something else to play and still salvage the evening.
“I’m just a villager”, says Bill.
“I’m a seer and saw that Bill is a villager”, says Fred.
“I’m a troublemaker and swapped Bill and Fred’s cards”, says Emily.
“I believe you all”, says Fiona, “And I’m the robber, but I didn’t swap any cards”
“Best friends forever”, says Bill.
“Is there anything else we can play”, asks Fred?
Let that be your guiding principle here – can you rely on your friends to take this simple, potentially intense formula and squeeze the juice out of it? You won’t regret buying One Night Ultimate Werewolf if you can. If you can’t, there just aren’t enough mechanical hooks to compensate. It creates an interesting social context and then says ‘Go!’. From that point on, it’s up to you.
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