“Werewolf is a simple game for a large group of people (seven or more.) It requires no equipment besides some bits of paper; you can play it just sitting in a circle. I’d call it a party game, except that it’s a game of accusations, lying, bluffing, second-guessing, assassination, and mob hysteria.” – Andrew Plotkin, creator of Werewolf
Werewolf is based on the game Mafia, which was created in 1986 by Dimitry Davidoff, a psychology student in the USSR. In 1997 Andrew Plotkin added the Werewolf theme and documented the rules. Werewolf has gone on to become a staple of tech conferences and gaming conventions, and many players, including myself, consider it to be one of the most difficult and elegant games ever created. Read more…
Most reports credit Dimitry Davidoff with creating Mafia in 1986 as a teaching tool. He wrote, “I became curious whether I could make the learning process not rely on my own knowledge.” Davidoff would send a few students out of the room to agree on a topic, and then they’d return to start a classroom discussion, but there were flaws in his system. The students knew who among them knew about the special topic and who didn’t. “It struck me that people share many interests, but who exactly shares them is where the intrigue lies. This became the principle of the game of Mafia,” he said. Mafia left the USSR with postgrads traveling abroad, and gathered a following in London community theatre, Thai hostels, and Chinese nightclubs. This Game writes: “Tight circles of Mafia players started cropping up in dorm rooms and around campfires. It spread through word of mouth, making a slow burn across Eastern Europe.” By 1989, Mafia was being played at summer camps in Pennsylvania.
Mafia become Werewolf after author Andrew Plotkin became fascinated with it at the 1997 National Puzzlers’ League convention. Plotkin recalls his introduction to Mafia: “It was what poker would be if you didn’t play with a deck of cards, but bet solely on other people’s bets,” Plotkin said. “I thought the rules were brilliant, but the theme felt arbitrary. Mafia aren’t that big a cultural reference. I wanted to find a theme that fit hidden enemies who look normal during the day, but are murderous at night. Werewolves were the obvious choice.” Today the game is widely played a gaming and tech conventions, and studied by academics. Game designer Eric Zimmerman writes, “I teach game design classes at the NYU Game Center, and all of the students in Intro to Game Design play a basic game of Mafia as part of our social gameplay section of the class. Mafia is a great example of how narrative game identities can emerge from the rules of the game (rather than through pre-scripted dialog and content).
It’s the quintessential game that makes use of hidden information that is gradually revealed. It is a game in which the gameplay is almost 100% social and psychological – it’s an elegant example of how rich human-to-human interaction in a game can be. And even though it is a game of elimination (usually spelling boredom for eliminated players), the power dynamic of watching both night and day makes it entertaining even to those knocked out.”
The rules are simple. The moderator divides players into two secret teams – the werewolves and the villagers. The werewolves’ goal is to kill all of the villagers before being discovered. The villagers’ goal is to identify the werewolves and vote to lynch them.
The game cycles between day and night. During the night, everyone closes their eyes except the werewolves. The werewolves will silently decide which player they want to kill, and signal their choice to the moderator. Once they’ve made their choice, the moderator asks everyone to open their eyes, and announces who was killed. Then everyone is free to say or do anything to guess who the werewolves are, and vote to lynch someone they suspect. That player reveals their identity, and if there are any surviving werewolves, night begins again.
Werewolf works best with seven to twenty players and one moderator. It’s best to play with an odd number of players.
You’ll want to make some cards to assign players their roles. You can use the free cards above, or use any of the various free designs online like these by Danny Novo. There’s also a list of commercial versions of Werewolf and Mafia linked below, but one of the best parts of Werewolf is that you don’t need to buy anything special to play, including my cards. Matt Wolff notes that “At it’s base, this is the simplest game in existence. You don’t need anything to play – and that’s why it’s so popular.”
For most games, you’ll want your deck to have:
Shuffle the cards and pass them out. Everyone should look at their card and memorize their identity, but they must keep their identity secret. Two of the players are now secretly werewolves, and the rest are villagers.
Two villagers also have secret powers. Each night, the doctor can secretly protect one player from being killed by the werewolves, and each night, the seer can secretly investigate one player and find out if they’re a werewolf or not.
The game begins during the night, and everyone closes their eyes. The moderator says:
“Werewolves, open your eyes.”
At this point, the werewolves open their eyes and look around to see who their fellow werewolves are. The moderator says:
“Werewolves, who do you want to kill?”
Now the werewolves silently work together to determine who to kill. They can use hand gestures, mouth words, and point to make their choice, but they should make it quickly and silently. The moderator says:
“Werewolves, close your eyes… Doctor, open your eyes.”
The Doctor opens his eyes, and the moderator says:
“Doctor, who do you want to save?”
The Doctor points to any player (including himself) that he wants to protect. The Moderator says:
“Doctor, close your eyes… Seer, open your eyes.”
The Seer opens his eyes, and the moderator says:
“Seer, who do you want to investigate?”
The Seer points to a player that he wants to investigate. If that player is a werewolf, the moderator will nod his head “yes.” If that player isn’t a werewolf, the moderator will nod his head “no.” Then the moderator says:
“Seer, close your eyes… everyone, open your eyes.”
Now the moderator will tell everyone what happened overnight:
“During the night, the werewolves tore John limb from limb (feel free to embellish these details).”
In the rare case that the doctor saved the player that the werewolves killed, the moderator adds:
“…but the doctor saved him, and nobody died!”
If something goes wrong with this script during the night, it can throw off the entire game – there’s a lot of technical issues to consider. Technical details…
Unless they’re very familiar with the game, Andrew Plotkin writes that “the moderator should stick to the script to avoid mistakes or clues. If he says ‘Open your eyes, werewolves‘ instead of ‘Werewolves, open your eyes,‘ a player may misconstrue the command before the last word.” The moderator should read the seer and doctor phases (and pause for their answers) even if those players have already been killed – that way players never know if the seer and doctor are dead or alive.
There’s also a question of how much you want accidental noises made during the night to factor in to the game. Plotkin feels that these noises “pollute the pure brain-ness of the game,” but I think they’re an important part of the strategy. During the day, players can argue over who they heard rustling during the night, and of course werewolves can falsely claim to have heard noise from a villager. I think that listening intensely for noise during the night adds a lot of excitement and tension to the game as well. If you want to completely block out noise during the night (which many people advocate), you can ask everyone to hum or tap on the table. I prefer a hybrid between everyone making noise and nobody making noise, and I play some ambient music during the night. Radiohead’s Treefingers is my gold standard for night music.
It’s also important that the moderator is aware of where they’re projecting their voice. If they always speak to one area of the room during the werewolf phase of night, the players will be able to figure out where the werewolves are sitting. I recommend that during the night, the moderator slowly walk in circles around the players and speak to the center of the group.
This is where Werewolf gets really cool. During the day, players can say or do anything (including lying, making alliances, claiming to be a role they aren’t, etc.) in their attempts to convince one another that they are innocent and the people they suspect are werewolves. The only thing you can’t do is reveal your card to another player.
Each day typically starts with a discussion of what happened overnight. By the end of the day, players will have to nominate someone they suspect of being a werewolf and vote to lynch them.
As soon as a majority of players vote to lynch someone, the moderator turns to that player and says:
“You’re dead. If you’re a werewolf, reveal your card.”
If the lynched player reveals their card as a werewolf, the villagers can breath a sigh of relief – they’re one werewolf closer to surviving and winning the game. If the lynched player doesn’t reveal their card, that means that a villager has been wrongly killed – and they might have been the doctor or seer!
The moment a player is declared dead (i.e. the moment the moderator says, “You’re dead”), they can no longer speak for the remainder of the game. They don’t get any dying accusations or speeches, and they can’t reveal any information (i.e. if they’re the seer, who they investigated).
Day is less complicated than night, but there are still a number of important details to get right. Technical details…
There’s a lot of different ways to handle the accusation and voting. At conventions with hundreds of people playing in a single game, players can vote at any time by raising one arm and pointing their other arm at the person they’re voting for. When a majority of players are agreed, the Moderator makes the call. When I moderate, I prefer a more formal voting system. After a good amount of player discussion, I ask for nominations, and players can formally accuse one another of being a werewolf. Then I give each accused player a chance to speak in their defense, and ask for votes. If no accused player has a majority of the votes, you can ask accused players to make another speech, or resort to more drastic measures like threatening to kill the quietest player (which usually gets things going).
Daytime play is dramatically improved if you have an odd number of players. Andrew Plotkin writes, “There are several reasons to have an odd number of players (including the moderator): There will be an odd number of living players during each day, which prevents tie votes on lynchings; and the game will always end with a lynching. If there are an even number of players, you can get ties, and the game will end with a nighttime murder – which is anticlimactic, because everyone knows when the sun goes down that the game will end at dawn – because the werewolves are certain to kill a human and win.”
Different versions of Werewolf also handle revealing the roles of killed players differently. In versions, players never reveal their roles, even if they’re a werewolf. In others, killed players always reveal their roles, even if they’re the seer or doctor. I like the hybrid version I described above because it gives villagers some feedback as to whether they’re voting well or not without letting too much tension out of the game. Remember: If you use my version of the rules and villagers never reveal their roles, the moderator has to pretend to wake up the doctor and seer every night and pause for their responses, even if they’re dead. Otherwise everyone will know that they were lynched or killed.
As Andrew Plotkin writes, “Once a player is lynched, night falls and the cycle repeats. Everyone closes their eyes, the werewolves (or werewolf) secretly select someone to kill, the seer (if alive) secretly learns another player’s status; then the sun rises, one player is found dead, and the remaining players begin to discuss another lynching. Repeat until one side wins.”
There are very few parts to Werewolf, so changing any of them can have a dramatic effect. The simplest thing to change is the balance of players in the game, but even that can have a major effect.
To get a better sense of how Werewolf is balanced, I asked Patrick Ewing and Fred Benenson to help me model the game and run some simulations. Our model and data is available on GitHub available under an MIT license.
Andrew Plotkin thinks that for a randomly modeled game (like this one) you want to give the humans a 23% to 29% chance of winning – that will translate to about a 50% chance of winning for real people (who are much better than random) and lead to the most fun game. To see how changing the roles and number of players in the game effects those odds, try changing the numbers underlined with dotted lines below (drag them left or right). How this works…
We created a random model of the game to show how the odds and the game length change in response to the number of players and what their roles are, but this isn’t an accurate representation of a real werewolf game, so you should take this data with a grain of salt. In our model, each night the werewolves kill a random villager and each day the humans lynch a random player. If the doctor is added, he randomly saves a player each night, and if the seer is added, he randomly investigates a player each night (but remembers who he investigated).
We’ve already seen some interesting things in the data. For example, sometimes an extra villager can actually wind up helping the werewolves, if adding that player makes the number of rounds odd. It also looks like you if you’re playing with a doctor and a seer, you might want to add a third werewolf with as few as eight players and a fourth with as few as ten.
This is based on some statistics compiled by Andrew Plotkin, but we’ve added a few more pieces of data (like the length of the game) and accounted for the seer and the doctor.
Let’s say you’re playing with people, and werewolves.
Of the people who are actually villagers, none are seersone is a seer and none are healersone is a healer.
The villagers in this scenario, playing more or less randomly, have a % chance of beating the werewolves, with games lasting an average of days and nights.
Aside from the number of players in the game, there are some other rules you might want to experiment with changing. The rules…
Do you tell the players how many werewolves there are in the game? I always make sure every player knows which cards are in the deck and how many werewolves there are. I think that withholding basic information on how to win the game takes away the villagers’ ability to make meaningful choices – without knowing how many werewolves there are, the villagers never really know their odds or how many rounds they have left.
Can a majority of werewolves vote to kill another werewolf at night? Very rarely, in order to spread confusion and suspicion, a majority of werewolves will vote to kill another werewolf at night. This is usually a pretty desperate maneuver and I do allow werewolves to do this.
Can the doctor save themselves at night? I usually let the doctor choose to save themselves at night – once the seer comes forward with information or there’s a clear human leader, the doctor’s choice of who to save will become difficult all on it’s own.
Additional roles are assigned when there are many players in a game of Werewolf. There are lots of special roles, some of which can be secondary, like the village drunk. These roles give players advantages or handicaps, stirring up the traditional dynamic of the informed minority versus the uninformed majority.
The Witch: This villager has two potions: the first is a healing potion, which can be used to resurrect a player killed by a Werewolf at night. The second is a poison, used during the day to assassinate one player at any time. Each potion can only be used once per game. The witch can’t save herself after she’s been killed, and she probably has no reason to poison herself.
The Little Girl: This role is a limited version of the seer. Every night the little girl can secretly peek as the werewolves choose their victim; but if the werewolves catch her, they can point her out to the moderator and the little girl dies of fright. When there is a little girl role in play, all players must show their faces while sleeping.
Traitor: The traitor is a villager with a secret alliance for the werewolves; the traitor does not wake up at night with the werewolves and isn’t identified as a werewolf if investigated by the seer. The traitor works to protect the werwolves during the day and wins only if the werewolves win.
Lycan: The lycan is a villager who appears as a werewolf if investigated by the seer.
The Village Drunk: This may be a secondary role, taken in addition to the assigned role. The village drunk has a handicap – they are only allowed to communicate using noises and gestures. You might also require the village drunk to take a shot each time she attempts to communicate anything to the group.
A game of werewolf can be made or undone by the quality of the moderator. Lupus in Tabula’s rules say, “[The moderator's] role is fundamental: the ambiance of the game depends entirely on your skill. Do not hesitate to create a spine-tingling atmosphere. Draw out the suspense when you reveal the victims of the werewolves. Rekindle the debates when they die down.”
My most important advice would be to make sure players notice you as little as possible, and to only get involved in the game when it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve seen great games ruined by moderators who made it all about themselves, by giving strategy tips to the players, getting involved in debates, etc.
Andrew Plotkin writes, “It is really important that dead players not speak, and the moderator not speak outside his official capacity — even to correct a blatant misstatement about a matter of record. (I’ve seen a game where one player – a werewolf – recited the history of the game up to that point: ‘X was murdered, then we lynched Y, then Z was murdered…’ And he swapped two names, a night-murder and a day-lynching, to confuse matters. It would be unfair for a dead player to say ‘Hey, that’s not right, I was lynched!’)”
Other than running a smooth night phase, your most important job as moderator is to find the right time during the day to bring things to a vote. If things are moving slowly or people are just repeating themselves, that’s usually a good time to call for nominations. You may also have to get involved in the voting if there’s gridlock or a tie that can’t be broken. If this is the case, I try to let it play out on its own (because that’s a great moment with a lot of tension). If the tie can’t be broken, you can choose to have the villagers not kill anyone or you can threaten to kill the quietest player if they don’t decide in five minutes.
Werewolf is a social game, and bad behavior can make it less fun. There are three ways to ruin the game: cheating, being a douche, and metagaming.
Cheating would include looking at another player’s card, speaking to dead players, speaking or otherwise communicating with players once you’re dead, showing your role card while you’re still alive, or opening your eyes at night. Everyone will know it if you cheat, and they’ll hate you for it.
Being a douche would include quitting before the end of the game, going out disgracefully by revealing your role when you’re not supposed to, or voting to lynch players based on personal grudges.
Metagaming is brining things from outside the game into play. This can range from annoying (accusing players based on a “tell,” or their level of play experience) to toxic (guessing identities based on the moderators habits or lynching people based on their roles in previous game). Other kinds of metagaming include:
“In Werewolf, your character doesn’t have any ‘stats.’ You don’t roll for intelligence or charisma. All you have are your own capacities. Deception, intuition, and perception are your only friends.” – Matt Wolff, Werewolf expert
Werewolf strategy involves a combination of deduction and deception, and the most important skills you can have are paying attention to details, knowing who you can trust, and lying with confidence. The most important thing that has been written about Werewolf strategy is Jane McGonigal’s optimal villager strategy, and it’s a great starting place for learning about the strategic depth of the game. I’ve broken the strategy section in this guide down by role.
Playing a villager is the most difficult role in the game. Unlike the werewolves or seer, you have no information at all. Read more…
As a villager, you’re part of a mob. Villagers have very little information to base their decisions on, and that means they have to be careful not to put all of their bets on tenuous evidence like movement overheard at night, advice from another player, or pressure from a voting block of players. Matt Wolff says that “to play as a villager is to be eternally suspicious.” If a player is quiet, that’s suspicious. If a player shows leadership, especially to push the game forward, that’s suspicious. Players who make accusations as suspicious, as well as players who don’t.
The most important tactic for villagers is to talk to their neighbors. Even if they’re werewolves, villagers should learn everything they can – throughout the game, your neighbors will be the people you interact with the most. Villagers should questions, get opinions, ask everyone, “what do you think?” and pay constant attention to the answers, because that’s the only information they’re going to get. It a player isn’t paying attention, that’s probably a werewolf. Matt Wolff says, “As a villager you will be used, deceived, and betrayed. You have to accept that, and you can’t carry that into the next game. Sometime that’s the hardest part.”
There are also som advanced (and risky) strategies that villagers might try. It’s important that villagers don’t rely on a leader, and identify and disrupt voting blocks. Matt Wolff says when you see a voting block, “nine times out of ten there’s a wolf in there.” Villagers also need to protect the seer, their most important player. If the seer privately reveals himself to you, that means you might need to act as a proxy and claim to be the seer yourself. You can similarly attract suspicion to yourself to see who piles on (werewolves love to pile on). If you do this, you should tell someone next to you (so they can save you if you’re about to be lynched).
The Seer is the single most important role in the village. Being the Seer can also be a thankless job – you can play it perfectly and still get lynched. Read more…
The Seer’s most difficult decision is when to reveal themselves – you have to pay attention to the numbers and know exactly when to come forward. Since the Seer will become the Werewolves’ main target, they should be cautious about when they come forward. If it starts getting close to the end of the game or if the game is looking hopeless for the villagers, the time is right. It’s also necessary to come forward if another player falsely claims to be the Seer.
Matt Wolff suggests checking left and right first and getting to know your neighbors. “You have to be able to trust them. You have to have a contingency plan – if you know your neighbor you can tell them you’re the seer and tell them what you know.” Matt also suggests waiting until people are distracted by a vote to confide in them.
An advanced strategy for the Seer is to befriend werewolves they discover, instead of publicly revealing them. Matt Wolf calls this “Making a wolf your pet.” They’ll keep you alive because you keep agreeing with them, and meanwhile you can gather information about their behavior.
Commercial versions of Werewolf and Werewolf-like games:
Everything on this page that I wrote or created is available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share-alike license. That means that you can use and remix everything here for free, but you can’t sell it.
The Werewolf simulation and simulation data is released under an MIT license and available on GitHub.
This page was last updated on October 9, 2013. If you'd like to be notified when I make updates, you can follow me on Twitter.