Buzzworthiness: WitchHunt

Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing a review copy of this game.

Happy Halloween!  Today’s review is of a social deduction game very much in the tradition of Mafia and Werewolf, called

image by BGG user Chocolate Pi
image by BGG user Chocolate Pi

WitchHunt is a game designed by Kyle Brockman that was Kickstarted last year by Chocolate Pi Games.  They have been joined in the project by Level 99 Games as a distribution partner.  The game is for 7-22 players and takes 30-90 minutes.  The basic theme is that you’re in a village that has been invaded by witches.  As a villager, it’s your job to hunt them down and kill them.  As a witch, it’s your job to kill everyone else.

I will start the explanation here with the caveat that if you’ve ever played Werewolf, this is going to sound VERY familiar to you.  Stick with it – there are some critical differences.

The game comes with 22 poker-sized character cards and 22 poker sized team cards, with a jumbo-sized identical counterpart for each.  Additionally, there are 8 jumbo-sized rule cards, 6 jumbo-sized moderator script cards, and a notepad for the moderator.  Choose one player to be the moderator.  They are not going to be involved in the game, other than to keep it running.  The moderator will select the characters to be used (there is a suggested set for each player count up to 12 in the rules).  Shuffle up the poker-sized character cards for these and deal them out, pairing each with a Villager card or a Witch card.  This is all done secretly, with no one by the moderator knowing which is which (and which witch is which).  After noting the combos down on his notepad, the moderator distributes each pair to the players.  The jumbo cards are used for in-game reference.

The game starts with a prologue.  All non-moderator players go to sleep (not really – just shut your eyes).  The moderator has different characters wake up and perform a task before falling asleep again.  If the character is not in the game, the step is skipped.  The order is Acolyte, Witches, Peeping Tom, Oracle, Apprentice, Gambler, Bomber, and Fortune Teller.  I’ll go into more detail for the characters later, but do know that this is the chance for the Witches to identify each other.  They’ll also find out what characters each has, as revealed by the moderator.

After the Prologue, everyone wakes up and the first Day begins.  During the day, players have 5-8 minutes (moderator’s choice) to choose someone to hang as a witch.  Voting can happen throughout, and you need a true majority to be able to hang a witch – more than half of the living players.  If time runs out and a true majority is not reached, players all go to sleep and the Judge decides if he wants to hang someone on his own.  If a true majority IS reached, the person is hanged unless they have some sort of protection in the form of an extra life or another power.  That’s right – there is the opportunity to earn extra lives.  If you die, you either become and Angel or Demon, depending on if you’re a Villager or a Witch.  You never reveal your cards, so no one else knows if they killed someone on the right team or what you have now become.

Once everyone has gone to sleep, it is Night.  The moderator wakes people up to perform their tasks in this order – Gravedigger, Demons, Angels, Witches, Priest, Inquisitor, Bomber, Hunter (after the first survival), and Watchman (first night only).  Again, I’ll get into specifics momentarily, but here’s the pertinent information.

Demons (dead Witches) meddle with two character.  This means that if the Priest checks either one of them, he’ll be told they are on the other team.  Angels (dead Villagers) can then protect one person from one kill that Night.  And Witches, who don’t know any of this, wake up to kill someone.  Or not, if they so choose.  Demons and Angels never fall asleep, so they can see all of the proceedings.  They cannot communicate with the living at all.

Once the Night is over, everyone wakes up and the moderator reveals who died (if anyone) and who survived (if anyone).  The game continues until either all of the Witches are dead, or all of the Villagers, or until the moderator determines that one side cannot win.

image by BGG user Chocolate Pi
image by BGG user Chocolate Pi

OK, I’ve been teasing it, so here are the characters:

  • Acolyte: Wakes up at the start of the game to learn the identity of the Priest.
  • Apprentice: At the start of the game, choose the Gravedigger or Judge.  If that character dies, you take their job over.
  • Assassin: Once per game, during the Day, you can reveal your character and identify someone else as a certain character.  If you’re right, they die.  If you’re wrong, you die.
  • Benevolent Old Dame: When you die, you may give an extra life to another player.
  • Bomber: At the start of the game, select someone to hold the Bomb.  At the end of each Day, the bomb may be passed.  At Night, you can decide whether or not to detonate it, killing the holder.
  • Dirty Old Bastard: When you die, you can kill someone else too.
  • Emissary: You are protected from all kills by other players on the first three Days and Nights.
  • Fanatic: When the Priest checks you, you are secretly notified and gain an extra life.
  • Fortune Teller: At the start of the game, pick a character.  The moderator will notify you through the use of a preselected codeword if that character dies in the Night.
  • Gambler: At the start of the game, choose even or odd.  You’ll be protected from a kill on those Nights (not Days).
  • Gravedigger: If anyone died during the Day, you learn their cards at the start of the Night.
  • Hunter: The first time a player survives a kill, you can kill someone the following Night.
  • Inquisitor: Each Night, you may check the category of a target’s character – Offense, Defense, Holy, or Information.  These are indicated on the cards.
  • Judge: If the players do not select a target to hang during the Day, you can wake up just after everyone goes to sleep and kill someone on your own.  This is technically not a Night kill.
  • Loose Cannon: Before the end of any Day, you may reveal this card and hang someone.  Unfortunately, you will also lose a life here.
  • Nurse: Once a game, you may reveal yourself and name any non-Holy character.  If they are still alive, they gain an extra life.
  • Oracle: At the start of the game, you learn the identity of a random Village Peasant.  So, not a Witch, Priest or Acolyte.
  • Peeping Tom: Once per game, you may wake up at the same time as another character (non-Holy).  If that character is dead, you make decisions in their place.
  • Priest: Each Night, you check to see if a target is a Witch or not.
  • Spiritualist: Once per game before a Day is over, reveal yourself and name a dead player.  You learn their cards.
  • Survivalist: You start the game with an extra life.
  • Watchman: At the end of the first Night, you learn the identity of a random Village Peasant who did not wake up.
image by BGG user hrc333
image by BGG user hrc333

Before I start the review, let me get my bias out of the way.  I don’t like Werewolf.  Heresy to some, I know – I walked by lots of people playing in the hallway after the exhibit halls closed at Gen Con, and just couldn’t imagine why I’d want to waste my time doing that.  I know a lot of people really enjoy the social aspect, but to me, it’s just a lot of random guessing and a virtual purgatory for the first people to get eliminated.  I like the idea of the game, but I hate hate HATE the execution.  It’s not just the player elimination (which is awful), and the random shots in the dark you have to take because there’s no meaningful way to get information.  It’s also the fact that there are just plain Villagers in the game who don’t get to do anything cool.  There are a lot of roles, but there are always a few useless Villagers sprinkled in.

All this to say I felt a bit apprehensive when I first opened the rulebook and started reading about WitchHunt.  However, it promised to have perfected the social deduction game, and did seem to fix several of the problems I had with Werewolf.  Did WitchHunt live up to those expectations?  We’ll see.

COMPONENTS: The cards are well illustrated and contain sufficient text so you’ll be able to know what each one does.  However, that text can sometimes be confusing.  The rulebook does come with an extensive FAQ detailing exactly what each rules means (in a fairly humorous manner), but for the first couple of games, there will probably be a lot of questions.  It’s nice that there are poker-sized cards for the players and jumbo-sized cards for reference, but I do wish there was some sort of one-card cheat sheet summarizing all of the roles.  It’s awkward to flip through the cards to see what different roles do.  I do appreciate that they included some jumbo-sized cards to act as a script for the moderator, which definitely yeps with remembering who to call out and when.  There’s also a moderator app forthcoming, but I don’t think it’s ready yet.

Having two cards per player is also a little awkward in terms of setup, as the moderator has to make sure all cards are paired appropriately (the Priest and Acolyte always have the Village Clergy cards), and you’ll need to have noted them all down.  I don’t know what they could have done to make that easier.  The notepad is nice to have as well, though there’s only a place for the name, role, and team of the player – no spots for extra lives or any other notes.

Overall, the components work well.  I appreciate the various touches they made to make things easier to understand.

***EDIT: After posting this review, designer Kyle Brockman contacted me with the following comments:

I’m glad you mentioned the annoyance of giving people two cards. A few years ago after we moved to the two-card format, I sat down one day and came up with an origami card-sleeve pattern to easily hand people two concealed cards in a little book. While we can’t include such a thing in the printed product (without tripling the cost of the game), we do offer the PDF for people who are interested:
http://chocolatepi.net/files/witchhunt_cardsleeve_single.pdf
Additionally, the webapp prototype is here. (The final version is getting uploading to Level 99’s site this week)
http://chocolatepi.net/old/modapp.html

THEME: In WitchHunt, you are all members of a village trying to figure out who is a witch and who is not.  It’s the same basic theme as Werewolf, except with witches.  The fact that no one ever reveals their cards means that you never know if you actually got a Witch until the end when all is revealed.  The theme works fine, and you can get into it by adding story on top of the action.

MECHANICS: WitchHunt is a social deduction game, and the easiest way to talk about the mechanics is to compare it to Werewolf.  So, here we go:

  • Both games have a Moderator.  I know a lot of social deduction games loudly proclaim that they don’t need a Moderator, but that doesn’t bother me.  I actually think it’s kind of fun to be the Moderator (which I’ve never done in Werewolf).  It’s also quite difficult to do – because of the amount of roles, there’s a lot of information to keep straight.
  • Both games have special roles.  WitchHunt, however, has special roles for everyone instead of having generic Villager roles.  That is a welcome improvement – I hate being a Villager.  It’s boring.  The roles in WitchHunt are all fairly interesting.  The Oracle and Watchman are kind of similar, but everything else has some pretty unique ways to approach the game.
  • Both games divide players into two teams, but in WitchHunt, a character’s team can be different from game to game.  In Werewolf, if you see someone acting like a certain role, you can guess they’re a Villager.  However, in WitchHunt, just because you figure out someone’s role does NOT mean you know what their team is.  It does give you another avenue to try to figure things out.
  • Both games have a Day and a Night phase.  These are pretty similar between the two games, with a big difference being that players freely vote in WitchHunt rather than take nominations and formally vote, as in Werewolf.  The Night phases proceed similarly, with different powers activating at different times.
  • When a player dies in Werewolf, they are out of the game and everyone knows who they were.  When a player dies in WitchHunt, they become an Angel or a Demon, and they do not reveal (unless a special power causes them to do so).  This means that an eliminated player can still participate, rather than silently observe the rest of the game as in Werewolf.  Not revealing adds to the intrigue of the game.

Even though the games play similarly, WitchHunt did a very good job of cutting out the bad parts of the Werewolf experience and adding its own twists.

STRATEGY LEVEL: One of my problems with social deduction games is that they are often heavy on the social and light on the deduction.  Werewolf is the classic example – you can randomly choose someone to hang every time and have about the same chance as if you try to deduce the teams.  With all of the different roles in WitchHunt, there’s much more of a chance to be able to figure out who is playing which character.  The team might be difficult, and clever Witches will learn how to hide.  But I think the deductive side of this social deduction game is much greater than in most.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is one place where I think Werewolf has the advantage.  That game is very simple, and is good at getting people playing quickly.  WitchHunt is more complex with a lot more moving pieces.  It’s probably not a game to play with the family.  At the same time, it will appeal to gamers like me who dislike Werewolf because it fixes the problems as previously mentioned.  I’m not sure if Werewolf fans will take to it quite as well, but they might.

REPLAYABILITY: With 22 roles in the box, as well as different teams for each character, there is a lot of replayability here.  Plus, there are some advanced variants included.  But that’s Level 99 for you – they never seem to be satisfied unless their games are infinitely replayable.

SCALABILITY: It’s a 7-22 player game.  I haven’t played with all of those player counts, but I imagine that more is better.  The rules recommend 12 for the first game, and an ideal number of 9-18. I can buy that.

INTERACTION: This game is pure interaction.  You have to communicate, and you have to be able to logically present arguments for why your position is correct.  If you don’t interact, you’re probably going to get hung pretty quickly.

FOOTPRINT: You don’t really need a table for this, but you do need space for all of the people who are playing, which will vary with this large group.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  I have said in the past that I don’t want to play Werewolf anymore, and now I have what I feel to be is a viable alternative.  I’m not sure it’s a perfected social deduction game, but it is definitely many steps in the right direction.

Thanks again to Level 99 for providing a review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

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