Some board games are all about strategic, skilful play. Others teach you the value of jolly cooperation. And then there are hidden role and social deduction games - the ones that encourage you to lie through your teeth to your family and friends.
As tactics go that might not seem so pleasant, but social deduction games, in which one or more players secretly work against the rest, have been a major hit ever since the genre got going. Tense and unpredictable, they’re packed with little moments of excitement. There’s that thrill as you nod to your newly-discovered team mate while the rest of the table have their eyes shut, that desperation as the net tightens and the finger of suspicion starts to point your way. With the right group, hidden role games can be both tense and funny - a killer combo.
You’ll not only need the right group of course, but also the right game. So step this way and we’ll take a look at some of the very best social deduction games of all time. Unless… Wait one moment… You’re not a traitor, are you?
- Spyfall 2: Catch an imposter through subtly-worded questions.
- The Resistance: Avalon: Complete the quest in this Arthurian take on the game that made hidden roles huge.
- One Night Ultimate Werewolf: The essence of a decades-old classic in a very small package.
- Secret Hitler: Uphold or undermine democracy in this nail-biting game of lies and accusation.
- Deception: Murder in Hong Kong: A quick to set up, endlessly replayable murder mystery in a box.
- The Chameleon: A short, silly party game of exposing the odd one out.
- Bang! The Dice Game: Need a break from the tension? Try an all-out shootout.
- Werewords: A word game and social deduction game rolled into one brilliant brainteaser.
- A Fake Artist Goes to New York: Can you convince your friends of your artistic genius?
- Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game: In this sci-fi classic the Cylons aren’t the worst of your worries.
Ask the right questions to catch the imposter
Spyfall 2 is one of those games that’s easy to learn but hard to master. The premise is simple: the players are all colleagues in a shared location, except one, who’s actually a filthy spy and doesn’t have a clue where everyone is. Through a series of probing questions like “How’s the weather today?” the other players must ascertain each other’s innocence and track down the imposter. It should be easy, but both questions and answers need to be cryptic: once the spy twigs the location, it’s game over.
If you’ve ever been in a situation, be it at a new job or an unusual ceremony, where everyone else seems to know what’s going on and you’re left playing catch-up, you’ll have some idea of what life is like for Spyfall’s spy. Being the baddie in a hidden role game is always tense and exciting, but in Spyfall 2 it’s uniquely stressful - especially if you’re picked upon first.
The game’s incredibly entertaining. When a spy makes a bold play and gets it spectacularly wrong, or a non-spy gives a bizarre answer that no one can make head or tail of, hilarity is sure to ensue.
The Resistance: Avalon
Complete fantastical quests and root out the traitors
Hailing from the heady days of 2010, The Resistance is an absolute classic of the social deduction genre. Its Avalon variant, released a few years later, gave both the theme and the gameplay a nice twist.
Players are brave knights loyal to King Arthur and his cool table. Each turn, a group is sent out on a quest, but some of them are secretly traitors with the power to sabotage the mission. If three missions fail, the day is lost. New to Avalon is the powerful wizard Merlin, who can gaze into his crystal ball and learn the wrongdoers’ identities, but loses the game if they correctly name him at the end.
The Resistance: Avalon is a devious game - arguably the social deduction genre at its purest. It’s all about persuading your friends that you can deliver them the win, before immediately throwing that trust back in their faces. It is ruthless.
While Avalon is superior to the original Resistance, the latter’s Hidden Agenda expansion makes the two games functionally identical by adding the Commander, a re-skinned Merlin. So it’s really down to what floats your boat: spies and bow ties or grails and women in ponds?
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
A single turn of hidden role action that’s a howling good time
One Night Ultimate Werewolf distils the original social deduction experience of classic Werewolf (also known as Mafia) into a fast and fun 10-minute game that doesn’t need a large group. By condensing the action into just one round, the game removes the need for either a referee or player elimination, meaning no-one has to miss out on the action.
This bite-sized variant features less bloodthirsty lycanthropes than the original, as the werewolves’ aim is simply to win by lying low. During the night phase, players take it in turns to perform actions, depending on their roles. A seer has the power to look at someone’s role card, but other characters like the robber and troublemaker can switch these around during the night.
This is one of the few social deduction games where no-one is quite sure of their own position. Even if you start out as an innocent villager, it’s seldom a good idea to be completely open and honest. Don’t you just love when a game has a good moral?
Uphold or undermine democracy, while dodging assassination
In Secret Hitler players embody the 1920s Weimar Republic, a fragile government teetering on the brink of disaster. Two factions - one liberal, one fascist - vie for control and Secret Hitler (portrayed as a lizard for some reason) stands poised to make a bid for power. Similar to The Resistance on a surface level, in Secret Hitler governments take the place of missions, and liberal and fascist policies replace successes and failures.
While it wears its inspiration on its sleeve, Secret Hitler has plenty of unique, paranoia-producing features that make it well worth picking up. Alternate win conditions for each side, like assassinating Secret Hitler or electing them at just the right moment, mean that players on the same side might still be working towards different goals. Adding to the mayhem are powerful abilities unlocked by passing fascist policies that can lead even a liberal president down a dark path “for the greater good”.
The theme might raise a few eyebrows, especially coming from one of the makers of the much-maligned Cards Against Humanity, but, while it’s hardly profound satire, Secret Hitler handles its subject matter very successfully.
Deception: Murder in Hong Kong
Solve a crime and catch the killer in your midst
Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a beautifully-designed board game - in terms of both art and gameplay - full of clever roles and interesting puzzle-solving. A group of detectives are tracking down a murder suspect, but whoops! By a strange twist of fate, it seems the murderer has hidden among the investigators themselves.
At the start of the game, each player is assigned several Cluedo-like means-of-murder cards and clue cards, before the secretly-selected murderer picks one of each to be the ‘true answer’. One player, the forensic scientist, watches this and must try to reveal the wrongdoer’s identity, not by speaking, but through silently linking the crime scene to those chosen cards by placing bullet-shaped tokens on hints.
This may be the toughest case yet for even the most grizzled of noir-ish detectives. There’s scant information to work with and, what’s worse, the murderer (with an optional accomplice) is trying to lead the other investigators astray. Deception really puts the ‘deduction’ into social deduction, with every player devising their own theory, leading up to a dramatic moment where they ‘bet their badge’ on an answer, coming away feeling like a fool or a genius, depending on the result.
A social deduction game that’s short but sweet
Designed by Rikki Tahta, the maker of Coup, and continuing his spree of bluffing-based board games, The Chameleon is a brilliant party game. At the start of a round, players all receive the same secret word, except for one who becomes the titular chameleon. Going around the table, everyone gives a vague one-word clue related to the secret answer. The chameleon must try to blend in, figuring out the hidden word while giving their own clue and avoiding being unmasked as a cold-blooded, fly-eating imposter.
With its colour-changing scales and 360-degree vision, the chameleon is the spy of the animal kingdom, so it makes sense that The Chameleon board game takes its cues from Spyfall. However, with the roleplaying and questions stripped away, The Chameleon feels less like an interrogation - and is therefore less stressful than many titles on this list. It’s also a very quick experience, with rounds only lasting 10 minutes at most. These qualities make it great for casual play and the ideal gateway social deduction game to get your friends hooked on telling fibs.
Bang! The Dice Game
Shoot first and ask questions later in this rapid-fire duelling dice game
One of the few games in the genre to indulge in some good, old-fashioned dice-rolling, Bang! The Dice Game puts players in the shoes (or boots, I should say) of a bunch of rootin’ tootin’ cowboys ready to duel.
More pitched battle than tense showdown, Bang! The Dice Game is a fast-paced fighting game where the outcome is never certain. Players are constantly rolling dice, taking pot-shots at one another, chugging miraculously curative beers and accidentally dropping dynamite at their own feet. Special abilities add some variety to the action, while the option to re-roll encourages players to keep pushing their luck.
Three teams are competing for the title of fastest gun in the West: a sheriff with deputies, outlaws who want to bring down the sheriff and ruthless renegades who just want to be the last one standing. Only the sheriff is known at the start of the game, leading to unpredictable fights straight out of a western, with players teaming up then double-crossing one another.
A surprising direction for the Werewolf series, but it works
While it comes from (One Night) Ultimate Werewolf designer Ted Alspach, the theme here is a little incongruous: there’s really nothing that were-y or wolf-y going on. To put it plainly, Werewords is 20 Questions with a traitor. A treacherous werewolf player knows the secret word the villagers are trying to get out of the mayor and must lead them astray, whether by clever reasoning, ambiguous question-asking, or just feigned incompetence. If they’re caught at the end they lose, however, so they must pretend to be assisting the team.
Though the concept is simple, Werewords is a unique take on the hidden role genre that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Not only do you get that juicy social deduction goodness, there’s extra fun to be had from the mayor’s frustration as the guessers fall prey to leaps of logic and wild goose chases. Best of all, you have the option to customise the wordpool for themed games and endless replayability.
A Fake Artist Goes to New York
A party game of deceitful drawings
A Fake Artist Goes to New York takes the imposter-hunting formula and spices things up with a splash of Pictionary, resulting in an easy-to-learn game of deception that’s more family-friendly than most.
Players take it in turns to add to a piece of art, gradually building up a picture of a secret answer pen-stroke by pen-stroke. The catch is that one of them must play along, but has no idea what they’re supposed to be drawing.The visual element of the game encourages players to think outside the box and creates extra space for ridiculous misunderstandings.
Another point in A Fake Artist’s favour is that it’s one of the only drawing games where being bad at art is a clear advantage; you can get away with scrawling a misshapen blob and throwing up your hands with a “Well, what did you expect?”
Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game
Cylons to the brig!
Many tabletop TV and movie tie-ins are lacklustre (though you can find plenty that aren’t right here) but Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is the perfect melding of gameplay and theme. The players are crewing a spaceship and must handle a never-ending series of crises, from food shortages to enemy ships in hot pursuit, all while hidden Cylons work to sabotage their efforts. It’s challenging enough even without the treachery, though the heroes do have some recourse: suspicious players can be kept out of trouble in the ship’s brig.
The majority of social deduction games are short, to prevent the action dragging if the traitors get busted early. Battlestar Galactica is one of the exceptions that works very well, despite being a several-hour experience. One reason for this is the implementation of double agents: players that start out on the straight and narrow but are revealed halfway through to be secret cylons - just like on the show!
One of the greatest hidden role games of all time, Battlestar doesn’t see much play nowadays only because it’s been out of print for years and requires forking out a truckload of cash to pick up second-hand - though fan-made mods do exist for the game on Tabletop Simulator.