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#3 — JANUARY 21st, 2013

THIS WEEK: Cold War designs, border-crossing games and sci-fi reimaginings




The year is 1986. In the midst of the Cold War, two University of Moscow researchers are making games. They have never met, work in different disciplines, and have no idea that their side projects will spiral beyond their control, off campus and across the globe. One, a computer scientist trying to impress his friends and blow off steam, creates Tetris which becomes a household name and inspires generations of high-speed puzzle games.

The other, a young psych professor named Dimma Davidoff, makes games to engage his students with difficult subject matter. Fusing ideas from the 1920’s Soviet psychological school with the Turing Test, the game he comes up with is a fascinating, intense mindfuck. Players try to identify the "Mafia"... a secret cabal who work together to undermine the investigation. Davidoff describes it as the struggle of “an informed minority versus an uninformed majority”– and his students can’t stop playing it.

"J'accuse!"... but is the accuser an honest man? (photo credit: Lachlan Hardy)

Tight circles of Mafia players started cropping up in dorm rooms and around campfires. It spread through word of mouth, making a slow burn across Eastern Europe. As it passed from person to person it mutated, acquiring new roles (e.g. "the seer", "the healer"). In the late 90's an American called Zarf renames it Werewolf and posts a ruleset on the web, and before long it goes viral on the tech conference circuit.

At FooCamp or South by Southwest, you'd find games of 15 or 20 players cropping up as soon as the sun went down; sessions could last five hours or more. Werewolf/Mafia games can prove quite engrossing, exploring group psychology, nonverbal communication, logic and lying. I played or moderated many intense games around this time, and remember analyzing outcomes for days after the last werewolf bit the dust. But eventually, some attendees wondered if Werewolf was overshadowing these conferences entirely. Some just played so much that fatigue set in, and the games petered out. At my last SXSW, there was nary a howl to be heard.

A Challenger Appears

For those who've experienced the onset of Werewolf Fatigue, I'd prescribe a few games of The Resistance. While clearly a chip off of the old block, this 2009 release brings play time to 30 minutes and fixes a lot of little bugs you never realized the original Mafia/Werewolf had.

The Resistance takes Mafia/Werewolf mechanics and makes them new again.

For one thing, Werewolf makes you keep your mouth shut a lot more than you'd expect in a social game; once killed, players must remain silent. The Resistance does away with the "permadeath" aspect, as well as the need for a narrator. As a result, your whole group is in on the game until the very end.

In place of voting to murder a suspected wolf, the group votes on whether a few group members (nominated by the "leader", a rotating role) can be trusted to go on a highly dangerous mission. The folks so selected now have the opportunity to play one of two cards, concealed from all else. A good Resistance member will do their part and play the blue card, allowing the mission to pass. A Spy (the "informed minority" role) will tend to a red card to fail it, if they think they can do so without arousing suspicion. Generally, a single spy can fail the entire mission. After the outcome is revealed, the leader shifts, nominates a new team, and the next mission is attempted. Whichever team takes 3 out of 5 missions gets the win.

The mission-based, collective approach is a subtle but effective change. What would be an elimination in Werewolf is merely character assassination here; you may raise a lot of fear and doubt about fellow player's loyalties, but they get to keep voting (and talking). Designer Don Eskridge also transforms the supplemental roles of the original game into single-use action cards, allowing them to be deployed strategically and with an element of surprise.

Like the Soviet-era original, The Resistance is not for everyone. Some people find lying, or being put under suspicion for lying, incredibly stressful– and not without good reason. But if you enjoy the play of known and unknown information, fancy yourself a student of body language, or simply enjoy making wild accusations until somebody cracks, I heartily recommend giving this game a try.


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Made with love in San Francisco, California.