Werewolf (also known as Mafia) is perhaps the simplest, oldest, and most well-known social deduction game. Every player has a hidden identity: villager or werewolf. In each round, the werewolves silently deliberate and, while the villagers close their eyes, secretly vote on a villager to kill (i.e., remove from the game). Then, all players open their eyes and vote on a second player to kill. This repeats until one team remains; that team wins.
Logistically, how do the players know who the werewolves have killed? The game solves this issue by designating one person as “God”: rather than playing the game, this person observes the werewolves and announces their decision without revealing their identities.
But being God is boring. God can’t deduce, bluff, or accuse anyone of anything. God can’t even participate in any conversations. God’s only task is to recount who died, and remind dead people that they can’t talk. In other words, God is just a narrator.
So are there games like this without a “God”? My favorite example is The Resistance: Avalon. Each player is either a “servant” or a “minion.” As before, the servants want to identify the minions, and the minions want to hide from the servants.
Also, there’s no God! Instead, one of the servants is “Merlin.” This player knows the identities of the minions, but nobody (but Merlin) knows the identity of Merlin.
Since the servants want to identify the minions, one strategy for Merlin is to simply announce, “Hi all, I’m Merlin — John, Mike, and Sue are minions.” But there are a couple of problems with this tactic:
- Anybody could claim to be Merlin, but nobody can prove that they’re Merlin.
- More crucially: If the servants win, the minions have a chance to steal the victory by correctly guessing the identity of Merlin.
So Merlin has a tough task: help the servants identify the minions without getting caught by those same minions. In my experience, this can be stressful, but I think it’s also much more interesting than being God in Werewolf.
Multiple Merlins: One generalization of the “Merlin mechanism” is the following: “reveal some hidden information without revealing ‘too much’.” In this case, we can also include games like A Fake Artist Goes to New York and Spyfall.
In both of these games, one player is a spy and all other players are Merlins, but in a different sense. They don’t know the identity of the spy, but they do know a secret that’s hidden from the spy. So in order for the Merlins to identify the spy, they must first reveal themselves to each other by alluding to the secret. If the spy discovers the secret from the allusions, then all of the Merlins lose.
Replacing God: Anyway, back to the title of this post: Can we replace God (in Werewolf) with a Merlin? In theory, I think it’s possible (with minor rule adjustments), but I’ve never seen it played out (or even discussed). Hopefully I can convince a group to try it one day.
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