Hidden Identity in Table Top Games
One of my favorite table top gaming genres is hidden identity games. This is mainly because I like the idea of co-op games (where all players are on the same side) but hate the actual way those end up being played. In a co-op table top game, unless the rules dictate you cannot talk or mime, the game can easily devolve into a situation where the most experienced player can tell everyone what the smartest move is and games became fight against randomness/luck.
However, with hidden identity, these games become masterpieces. I like to think I'm a nice guy in real life but when I play games, I'm willing to do pretty much anything within the context of the game to win. I have (figuratively) backstabbed so many good friends so badly that I accidentally once even hurt that relationship outside the game (that was not a good thing and it made me sad).
Let's start with some definitions and I'll later discuss some of the games in the genre I really like and some that I don't like. Hidden Identity refers to games where players generally play together towards a shared goal but one or more players secretly know that their mission is to make the team fail (or they have a way to actively win). The key here is, that in a good hidden identity game, the "good" side has a way to win the game if they find out who are on the other side.
This mechanic immediately solves the problem I have with co-op games: you cannot trust the most experienced player so everyone has to make their own decisions. I think they also teach skills like argumentation, critical analysis of arguments and decision making with incomplete information. And the social aspect make them so much fun, especially with good games and large enough groups.
Let's talk about some of them! First, we'll take a look at three games that are mostly based on social bluffing, then two games with ever-changing hidden identities and last two games where gameplay actions are in the focus with some hidden identity obfuscating the decision making. Finally, we're gonna look at a collection of other games fitting the genre.
Werewolf / Mafia / Lupus in Tabula
Couldn't find any interesting video of the gameplay. Go experience it yourself.
My absolute favorite one has many names. Some call it Werewolf, some play it with a Mafia theme and at least one of the commercial versions runs by the name of Lupus in Tabula. This is a great game because you can play it with almost any size of a group you want and it adapts well. The BoardGameGeek site recommends 8 to 24 players, based on my experience of probably 100+ session, around 14 to 18 is my favorite. Another great thing is that you don't actually need to buy anything. You can make the cards from pieces of paper and other than your hidden identity, the game is based 100% on discussion.
Werewolf is a social bluffing game at its best. With large enough group, you have to remember dozens of rounds of arguments and lies and build connections between what people have said earlier and apply some very light game theory math to figure out the werewolves. And because the game is pretty much all about discussion, there are unlimited amount of strategies.
Nothing is more satisfying than telling about one of these strategies to the group casually before the games, then apply that strategy boldly during the game play and win. The higher risks you take, the bigger the personal satisfaction is if you succeed.
- Very simple gameplay
- Heavy emphasis on your ability to lie and detect lies
- Who can you trust?
- Needs a big playing group so it's very hard to play often (I miss my university gaming crew)
- If you're removed early, there's a lot of down time and not everyone enjoys following the game
To continue within the same realm of games, Secret Hitler is a controversially named and themed game where the majority of game play is still in discussions between people but it adds quite a lot of game play elements compared to Werewolf.
In addition to secret party affiliation and identities, there's voting, special actions taken by elected leaders at certain points of games and element of randomness. I think it's bit easier for newer players than Werewolf because you can always rely your lies a bit more on these elements and you don't have to come up with all the lies from thin air.
It's still a great game and can be played with a smaller group than Werewolf, which is why it's mostly taken the place in my gaming circles as the go-to social bluffing game. It can be played with 5 to 10 players, requires special cards, envelopes and game board but it was originally made as a print-and-play game so you are allowed to print your own pieces. There are also PnP re-themes in Star Wars and Harry Potter lore if you want to avoid the theme.
- Can be played with a smaller group
- Easier for beginners to get involved with the genre
- Mostly about your ability to bluff
- I don't like random elements in my bluffing games
- The theme is controversial and you might want to check with your group if people are ok with it
This social bluffing game is somewhere between the two previous ones. In Resistance, you belong to one of two teams and try to help your team win without giving away if you're in the "bad team". Gameplay is based on voting for members in scifi missions and then selected players decide to either succeed or fail the mission. If good team wins enough rounds, they win the game.
I used to like Resistance a lot because it was easy and fast to setup even with a small group of players. We often played it as a warm up while waiting for enough players to arrive for a full night of Werewolf. But the more I played it and the more I played other games in this list, the less I liked about it. I think the limitations in how the rounds and voting is structured limits the amount of good strategies.
Many times, regardless of your affiliation, you have to play the first few rounds as if you're on the good team but then the runway just runs out too fast and the final outcome of the game relies bit too much on who's turn it is to select the mission team.
In a 5-player game, there are 5 rounds and good team has to win 3/5. On the contrary, Secret Hitler for 5 players can go up to 10 rounds and since there's multiple levels of decision making (voting, president's selection & chancellor's selection) combined with randomness in SH, there are so many more strategies you can play.
- Nice for small groups
- Since voting is public, you must learn to justify your decisions
- Too limited amount of effective strategies
- Too short to build good cons
If discussion-based bluffing is not your thing, another hidden identity sub genre are games with changing identities with abilities that allow you to take actions. First of them is Coup in which you have multiple hidden identities and you take turns performing actions enabled by the cards.
What makes it hidden identity & bluffing game is that you can choose to pose as any character and use their abilities as long as you can convince others that you are not bluffing. A major difference to three games above is that in Coup (and later in Love Letter), everyone plays for themselves and there's no co-op element in the game (technically, there is in the expansion but that's also not set to stone).
While Werewolf, Secret Hitler and Resistance are mostly about trying to find out who's your ally and convincing others that you're on the good side, Coup is all about bluffing about your actions. I feel like it adds a level of guessing, which is not great in my opinion in this genre of games because you can constantly change who you claim to be and calling someone's bluff is often based on "they have been getting away too far, someone has to try to stop them" and occasionally on "I have two out of three of those cards so it's statistically unlikely that they are who they claim". This means it's much less about building convincing and long-term cons, which is not necessarily a bad thing but makes a big difference to previous ones.
Coup is a really nice small game that is nice to play if you only have a few people (2-6 players), for example when waiting for others to join or between longer games. The extension brings some new characters (which to be honest don't feel like making too much of a difference) and a concept of factions (which improves the game a lot but takes away from the bluffing side).
- Easy to learn, easy to play
- Fast games
- Factions in expansion are a nice addition
- Bit too much guessing and not about revealing lies
In the same sub genre of games than Coup is Love Letter. It's a small game for 2-4 players (best with 4, I have never played with 2) with a small handful of cards and fast-paced action. Similar to Coup, your secret role changes every turn and your aim is to remove other players from the game by mostly guessing which card they are holding at the moment (it's bit more complex and fun than it sounds).
A single round only takes a few minutes and it's more on the side of deduction than bluffing, especially with your identity changing (or at least, potentially changing) every turn. I love it especially because it's a great gateway game for people who don't think they like board games. There's basically zero setup (shuffle deck) and you can explain the rules in a few minutes and after a round or two, everyone knows the rules.
- Great gateway game for new players
- Fast-paced gameplay
- Lightweight bluffing
- I don't know really. It's a great game
- In this list, maybe not so much about secret identities.
From mostly bluffing to ever-changing identities to big box games with a hint of hidden identity: Battlestar Galactica (and its expansions). I absolutely love this game. In BSG (based on a TV series of the same name), your job is to escape from evil Cylon's who are chasing you. The game has multiple characters with abilities and actions (these are public) and two hidden factions (humans and Cylons) and most of the game is a more traditional table top gaming with taking actions, playing cards and trying to beat the game itself.
The twist comes from the fact that Cylons are trying to sabotage humans' mission but they cannot let humans know too early. So at the same time, your focus is often on playing against the game but you always also have to remember what others are doing and since it's a fairly complex game with many options, it's never obvious if a single action is malicious or just sub-optimal.
A single game lasts from 2 to 3 hours and with some expansions (my favorite is the Pegasus expansion), there are so much well designed game play action that the time flies. Players absolutely must play together from the very beginning and there's not much room for doubt and accusations while at the same time, you absolutely have to keep them in mind all the time.
While the social bluffing games at the beginning of the list are mostly just about finding out who's in the bad team, in BSG, that's just not enough. You still have to beat a very difficult game that is constantly throwing problems at your face. And the Cylon players have an option to reveal themselves which gives them extra tools to make human players' mission even harder.
It's a wonderful game and if you have been playing complex board games before, I highly recommend checking it out.
- It's amazing
- It's a full-on board game
- Actions are very rarely clearly malicious so it's hard to figure out who's who
- It makes me want to watch BSG all over again and there's only so little time
Shadows over Camelot
Second game in a similar genre than BSG (big box game, co-op with a traitor) is Shadows over Camelot which pits the players to fight as the knights of the round table to protect Camelot.
I have to admit, I don't like the game so much. I think the way its parts are organized, makes it way too easy for the traitor to mess up good team's attempts. Even without a traitor, the game is quite difficult to beat and I think it's too easy to do malicious actions without being caught that it's not fun enough for the traitor role.
In this game, players mostly play alone towards a common goal which decreases the amount of interaction between players which I think is crucial in this genre to make it fun.
- It's a quite nice game for beginners of the genre
- King Arthur is such a great lore
- It's cool to be a Knight of the Round Table
- Not enough interaction between players
- Too easy to be the evil player
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Werewolf became such a popular game that it has inspired multiple variants. One of the most popular ones is One Night Ultimate Werewolf which only requires 3 to 10 players and lasts one round. I wanted to add it to this list, not because I think it's a great game (many like, I think it's rather bad) but because it allows me to discuss the mechanics of these games that I really like.
There are two major elements that make me a big fan of these games: deductive reasoning and long-term bluffs. This game kinda lacks both and its biggest design flaw is how limited the information is. Catching someone from lying is only fun if they had a proper opportunity to lie. And same goes for convincing your fellow players that you're on their side or bluffing them.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf doesn't give players nearly enough information to make it more than a mere guessing game with slightly elevated odds. Werewolves still know who they are and who's on their team but most of the other actions are done in isolation and there's no way to confirm any actions on a following night.
Let's look at an example: in original Werewolf game (with enough players), you have two characters on human side that have a great synergy. Seer can pick a player during a night phase and know if they are a werewolf or not. Medium gets to see if a villager who was voted to kill was a werewolf or not. This enables a flow where Seer can accuse someone from being a werewolf, players vote to kill them and then Medium can confirm it on the following round.
What makes it even better is that when you have a dozen rounds, there are so many decisions to make with these roles. When is it safe to let werewolves know you are one of the most powerful human roles? If you're bluffing, can you remember your lies throughout the game and be consistent? What happens if multiple players claim to be the Seer?
One Night Ultimate Werewolf doesn't allow any of that. The Seer just sees one player's identity and that's it. They can try to convince others they are who they say but nobody really has a way to verify it.
And because of the other roles, namely Robber and Troublemaker unique to this version, even players themselves don't know at the end who they are which makes all lying and convincing eventually meaningless. You may start as a Seer and become Werewolf without you knowing so there's a very high probability you end up playing the wrong role and winning isn't in your hands anymore.
It's not about convincing others about some secrets that you know because you don't know them anymore not even about yourself. And that reduces the game into an unsatisfying guessing game. Where's the fun of trying to convince others of something if at the end, it's kinda a coin flip if you're even right.
I understand the appeal that this game has and a lot of people seem to like it for some reason unknown to me. So if you're into this kind of genre and are looking for something less serious, maybe check it out. I just think its design and mechanics work against all the good that this game and genre have to offer.
Push the Button
Finally, a game I ran into very lately but which seems really fun. I haven't played it enough to yet know where it falls into the scale of "I'm in control of lies and if people believe me, I win" and "The game mechanics drive the winning condition too much". On my limited experience so far, it's quite nicely on the first end.
Push the Button is part of Jackbox Party Games which already is a sign of quality gaming. It's included in the Party Pack 6.
In the game (for 4 to 10 players), some players are aliens and others humans in a spaceship with a countdown timer. You have a short time (< 20 mins) to figure out who's human and who's an alien and at the end, unanimously vote correctly to win. To find out who's who, the Captain (a role that moves from one player to another every turn) can choose a test from a few possibilities and select 2 to 3 players to participate in the test.
Players are given different kind of prompts to which they have to answer: in one game you have to make a drawing with your mobile phone, in another you give your opinion on a likert scale, in a third you have to provide an answer to a question and so on.
The twist is that the alien receives a slightly altered prompt. Something that might end up with a very similar answer than the humans do but most likely not quite. Using a series of these tests and picking your test subjects smartly you try to deduce who's alien and who's not. The aliens have an ace in the sleeve too: they have a limited amount of hacks which allow them to change those prompts. They can send a human player the alien prompt and vice versa to confuse players.
The time limit and the creativeness of the tests make it a really fun game. It's a well built digital game (like all the Jackbox Party Games are) and so much fun in parties and works nicely even via a video call on times when you can't gather together with your gaming crew. There's enough information to make educated guesses and enough twists to balance the opportunities for both sides.
- Jackbox Party Games are so well made
- Nice balance with twists and unanimous voting
- I wish I had more friends to play this with
Betrayal at the House on the Hill
This game is a unique twist to the genre. It starts as any co-op game where players explore a house on the hill, collect items and try to stay sane. What makes it interesting, is that the traitor role is revealed in the middle of the game and then the game turns into a match between good and evil. This forces players to play together but with caution because nobody knows who will end up being a traitor.
It completely lacks the social bluffing aspect because the identities are hidden from everyone and revealed at once to everyone. But since it is technically a hidden identity game, I wanted to add it to the list.
This mechanic solves the main issue I talked about at the beginning of this post: you can't simply follow a single player's advice because everyone should be making a bit selfish decisions (or at least decisions that are never negative to them while benefiting the group) rather than helping the group to win.
- You have to balance individual and group improvement when making decisions
- Lacks social bluffing
- Not enough difference between runs even though there are a lot of different haunts
Hidden identity games are one of the most fun table top game genres. They can be bit intimidating to begin with and if you go overboard with your cons, they can really hurt relationships. So remember, gaming is just gaming.
One downside with all these games is that they can be challenging for beginners of the genre because sometimes not talking enough can be seen as suspicious and people can lose their interest in the genre because they are always outed in the beginning due to not knowing what to say and how much. So be nice to new players when introducing them to these games and sometimes give them a benefit of doubt when they are not playing perfectly – but not too long because staying under the radar is a wonderful strategy to win games.