Towards a Holy Grail (Part 1)

The new prototype of Invasion is ready to try out, modulo some color printing that I need to get out to OfficeMax for. So today I’ll pick up work on what I consider a Holy Grail design, Walsingham.

The Holy Grail I am questing for here is for a hidden-role deduction game where the hidden roles are the foundation of the game, not an add-on or just another piece of the puzzle. In other words, players are playing a basic game, one that probably seems very simple–but one or more of the players has a secret goal. The business of covering up and ferreting out secret goals needs to be the point of the game; otherwise, you’re just playing an ordinary game with different VP conditions.

The reason I call this a Holy Grail is that I believe it’s a very difficult goal to achieve, and one that has never really been done to my satisfaction yet:

  • If the only consequence for having your secret goal found out is that it’s somewhat easier to work against your goals, that’s not terribly interesting. I’m used to having my goals worked against. The good news is that you can still have a fine game; it’s just that the deduction isn’t an interesting part of it. Consider, for example, Lords of Waterdeep. Usually most players’ Lord cards are pretty obvious by the end; keeping them secret just helps to throw a little bit of uncertainty into the scoring.
  • By contrast, if the penalty for having your secret goal found out is devastating, it means that having goals revealed needs to be the climax of the game. Because information should ideally drip out slowly during the course of the game, I take this to mean that the Holy Grail game needs to be fairly short–30-40 minutes or so–so it doesn’t drag on past the climax.
  • Because of the physical nature of board games, it’s very difficult to achieve any kind of fog-of-war effect: to have information available to some players but not others. About all you can do is have cards or chits that are concealed and allow some players, but not others, to look at them. In all but the simplest situations this also introduces an element of memory, which I don’t particularly care for.
  • The game should not allow enough direct spying to deduce what player is what; that’s blunt and boring. (I think this is one of the main reasons Shadow Hunters falls a bit flat.) Rather, most of the clues should come from players’ actions in the base game: what resources or opportunities you value or ignore.
  • All players should have a reason to lie or otherwise not share information freely. This adds the element of mistrust and intrigue that makes the game compelling. Consider One Night Werewolf, where the secret swapping of roles makes originally non-Werewolf players need to lie to figure out what others know; or Two Rooms and a Boom, where a huge number of the advanced roles either reward, punish, require, or forbid sharing information in different ways.

I believe, by the way, that The Resistance, Two Rooms and a Boom, and One Night Werewolf are all fine games, but these games are driven by the team and social aspect. By contrast, my Grail is free-for-all where players might well choose either to lie (to throw others off the track and reap the rewards of successful deduction alone) or tell the truth (to catch a runaway leader that can’t be brought down any other way).

Next time I’ll talk about the history of Walsingham and some of my lessons and failures along the way.

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