The Cunning Game of Werewolf

It is one of the most culturally significant games that you’ve never heard of. It goes by many names, but I’ve come to know it as Werewolf. It’s a party game played with a group of people using a simple deck of cards. It sounds benign, but it is a ruthless game created in the psych department at Moscow State University in the late eighties. It favors deception and cunning, and it leaves many players reeling with anger and frustration.

The author playing werewolf at Techstars Cloud.

The goal of the game depends on your perspective. If you are a villager, your goal is to kill the wolves. If you are a wolf, your goal is to kill the villagers. When there are equal numbers of wolves and villagers, the wolves win. If all the wolves are dead, the villagers win. It’s a simple concept, but this game is far from simple.

You start by having each person select a card to inform them secretly of what role they will play. The cards are gathered up and put away for the rest of the game.

Werewolf cards showing the werewolf, spell caster and apprentice seer.

The game progresses day by day with a moderator calling the time. Each day one person can be lynched and each night the wolves can eat one person. During the day, there is a group discussion with everyone about who to lynch. Everyone appears to be a villager, so the challenge is to figure out who are the wolves. The smallest tell, a misstatement or an abnormal movement can give away a wolf. When you suspect that someone is a wolf you accuse them and try to build enough community support to lynch them.

The moderator gives the accused a few moments to defend themselves. The accused get to deliver a logical argument for why they are a villager. A vote occurs and if there is a majority that person is lynched removing them from the game. They are now a spectator, and the moderator calls night-time, and everyone goes to sleep.

During the night, everyone puts their head down and makes noise with their hands. During this commotion which helps remove ambient noises that would otherwise give away characters in the game, the moderator wakes up the wolves. The wolves lift their head silently acknowledging each other taking note of who is a wolf and who is a villager. The wolves nod to each other and vote on which villager to kill. They motion to the moderator who then instructs them to go to sleep. Now the moderator wakes everyone up for daytime.

Players with their heads down during the night.

The moderator now informs the group that the wolves have killed a villager, and they remove that person from the game and they become a spectator. The process goes on again until either the wolves or villagers win.

I learned Werewolf one night at Techstars Austin in the summer of 2013. It’s a game played every Wednesday night during an active cohort. It’s a ritual, a right of passage for the startup founders and it is taken very seriously.

One of the interesting aspects of the game is that you need to be good at deception to play well. Wolves are naturally nervous during the daytime while the villagers are searching for them. They have to lie to stay alive and in many cases pretend to hunt for other wolves. Sometimes they have to kill other wolves to stay alive. Killing another wolf builds confidence among the villagers so that they believe that you are likely a villager too.

Only the wolves know who is a wolf. They do not know who the other players are. If the game is played with just villagers and wolves, then the wolves know through deduction that all people who aren’t wolves are villagers.

Selecting who to kill is the key to winning this game. If you correctly kill the right folks, then you win the game. The problem is that you don’t know who is who so you often kill the wrong person. You have to wait until you are killed, or the game is over to find out who is who. It is easy to build false assumptions based on kills that you’ve done early in the game. This regularly leads to disastrous endings.

Werewolf drives people mad. The game gets under your skin quickly. It requires significant mental effort, and that raises the stakes. You have to keep several layers of metadata about each person as the game unfolds. You also have to lie and deceive the other players. This takes an enormous amount of effort. Werewolf players can’t wait for the game to end to replay their favorite moments in the game.

Werewolf is interesting because it teaches skills that are useful in business. These are skills that you aren’t likely to learn elsewhere. I suspect this is why it is so popular at Techstars. To be successful at Werewolf, you need to be good at reading people. Is this person lying to me? Are they a wolf or a villager? If you play often you can get good at looking for tells, the little mannerisms that reveal that a person is lying. Is their face flush? Are they looking away when they talk to me? Did they make a logical error in their reasoning?

There is another interesting aspect of the game. From a social perspective, the game reveals your popularity within the community. If those playing the game like you, they are more likely to either kill you in the first night or keep you for the long haul. It’s a measure of both good and bad. If you are hated, you will be killed quickly so that others don’t have to interact with you for the duration of the game. If you are a good player, you are also killed quickly so that your deception and cunning are put to a stop asap.

Werewolf is fun even for the spectators. Once you are kicked out of the game and after you, experience your first night you will know who everyone is and it’s fun watching them duke it out. You get a sense of people’s personalities when forced into situations where they have to lie and cheat their way to winning. Hopefully, Werewolf will satisfy those cravings so that the folks who play don’t feel the need to lie and cheat in the real world.

By joshkerr

Josh is an 8x startup founder and angel investor.

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