The Good and Bad of Social Deduction Board Games

"I'm pretty sure you're the killer. I'm going to guess rope and spider."

"No."

"Damn it! Well, I'm still sure it's her. Guess rope and soap."

"No."

"Are you all going to keep burning guesses on my rope?"

"What do you mean 'you all'?"

"Yeah, if you weren't the murderer, you would have said WE, not YOU ALL!"

"That doesn't even make sense!"

One of my favorite games is Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, but a playthrough with the wrong crowd can give a good idea of why some people absolutely hate social deduction games. Personally, I love some social deduction games (Deception, The Resistance, Secret Hitler), but I hate others (The Donner Dinner Party, The Thing). The former are true deduction games, while the latter are something that I call lynch mob games.

What is a Lynch Mob Game?

A lynch mob game is a deception game in which there are very few ways (if any) to logically deduce who is lying and who is telling the truth. These games are party games that are designed to get people interacting with each other, and for many they are fun precisely because they lead to chaotic, nonsensical arguments and a feeling of constant paranoia. 

But there's a difference between a game like Avalon: The Resistance and a game like Donner Dinner Party. In Avalon players are given specific information, from which they are able to make a number of deductions. Players are able to work with both solid facts (which way the party members voted) and also social insights (how the players are acting).

Games like Donner Dinner Party are far more chaotic. Though players are given some functional information, it's not enough to make any logical conclusions. It's possible that someone is a cannibal, but it's also possible that they simply got bad luck. This type of game encourages illogical thinking

I'll go back to Avalon because it's a classic game that I really enjoy. In Avalon, you can send a group of three out and they will pass the mission. And then you'll send another group of four and they will fail.You know that the person added could easily have been the failure point... but realistically why would they cast doubt so obviously on themselves? In reality, it's more likely that one of the first three was evil but biding their time. 

Compare this to a game like Donner Dinner Party, in which all players begin by putting something into the hunting party. There are a roughly equal number of good or bad items, so from the start a good player could have a reasonable chance of sending in something bad. In addition to this, there is one completely random item that no one knows about. From the start you have no idea whether someone was intentionally causing sabotage or got unlucky.

It's too random; it's geared towards creating group disagreements. 

A lynch mob game creates a simulation in which players are turning on each other for completely arbitrary reasons and, I can't help but feel, that the things we do shape the people that we are. It's not like you're roleplaying a character in a lynch mob game; you're actively deciding whether you trust people for shallow reasons. And I've noticed something very strange -- in lynch mob games, especially with groups who are relative strangers, it is the minorities who are almost always voted out first.

This isn't racism or sexism. It's just that when you have absolutely no solid information to go on, and you're really just guessing, you end up picking on the people who are most different to you. These games sort of encourage this type of arbitrary suspicion; it is is part of what is intended to make it exciting. 

Rewarding the Validity of Illogical Thought

"Don't talk to me, I know you're The Thing."

"i'm not -- "

"Shut up. No one listen to her. She's infected. I know it. No one else would be able to pass all of their missions so far."

"What does that even -- "

"SHUT UP!"

The Thing is a well-built game; it's well-designed, well-themed, and I absolutely hated playing it. The premise is that The Thing is slowly taking over everyone, and anyone could be infected. The only way people can survive is by successfully accusing the others. Like Donner Dinner Party, though, there's very little to go on; even players who want to succeed will occasionally have to sabotage a mission (or will even choose to do so). Since the game deck is stacked against the players (unlike in Avalon, where players have complete control over what they choose to do), you never know the difference between suspicion and luck. 

When I first played The Thing, I had the misfortune to play it with a player who had an instant dislike to me. Within the first round, they fingered me as being the one "infected." They were so loud and so adamant that the entire group simply took it for gospel; every single thing I did, which was consistently positive, was questioned. "Of course it's positive," they said. "You'll do positive things when you know someone's onto you."

This was incredibly stressful and unpleasant, but that isn't the problem. Eventually I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about the situation, as every few words of my mouth were just shouted down. The actual problem was that in the very final round, I got infected -- not unusual because towards the end, nearly all of the players are infected. But that means by the end of the game, I was The Thing. All of the poor logic that had been used against me from the start was immediately validated.

Even explaining, out of the game, that I hadn't even been The Thing for 90 percent of the game did not help, and the suspicion carried over into the next game we played. The player who had been suspicious of me the whole time was now completely assured that his logic had been correct, and probably remains assured of it.

The "Lynch Mob" Isn't Just a Metaphor

"So, you really want to send me over there for no reason?" 

"Yeah, I'm the bouncer, I can move people over at will."

"You're sure you wanna do that."

"Yes."

"You have any idea what my role is."

"No."

"Alright. So, I'm just going to point out right now, that what we've actually done over the course of this game is put the only non-whites in a room by themselves."

"...shit."

One of my favorite games is Two Rooms and a Boom. It's a replayable game that can be played with large numbers. And, at one point in time, we were playing it at an event with about two dozen people, mostly strangers. Towards the end of the game I looked up and realized: yes, we had, in fact, successfully segregated all the non-white people into their own room. This was something that both the whites and non-whites had, of course, subconsciously collaborated on, and it's not something easy to do. Because hostage exchanges are fair trades, in order to do it, you also had to use a combination of special role cards.

In Two Rooms and a Boom, it was harmless. In other games...

I wasn't joking when I said that these types of games tend to vote out minorities fast, and it's not intentional in the slightest. There are a few things going on here. When you're truly a minority in an area -- as in, you're in a rare demographic -- you tend to either be shy and retreating until you get to know other people better, or you tend to be loud and boisterous to compensate. Either way, in lynch mob games, you stick out because you're different.

Either being a woman or being non-white often means that you're one of the first targets in these games. And it's funny, because the first couple rounds of any deduction or social deception game is usually blind firing. You'll hear the following excuses:

  • Well, I have to vote for someone, so it's you.
  • I can't put my finger on it, but I feel like you're suspicious.
  • You're really quiet, so I'm pretty sure you're evil.

And it isn't just about being a different race. Being a different nationality can also hurt you; if you're from a more reserved country, for instance, you'll constantly encounter suspicion. Women are often quieter in these games, so either they'll get voted out immediately, or they'll be ignored throughout. 

At the core of it, I don't like lynch mob games because I think they encourage a type of harmful, lazy thinking. Though they're fun and exciting to play, most of these lynch mob style games lead to one or two men taking control and shouting everyone else down. That's what happens when there truly isn't enough evidence to make logical decisions; people make their own logic. If they win, they are encouraged by it; they now think they can tell if someone is "suspicious" or not. If they lose, they simply blame the game.