At the risk of repeating ourselves, one of our main jobs here at Best Play is to make sure everyone feels welcome, and that people of all backgrounds can get a comfortable introduction to the joy of board games.
One such genre that seems to manifest itself an awful lot are the ‘hidden role’ games. Another word we’ve heard is ‘deception’. Either way, we find ourselves recommending such games with such frequency that it’s probably worth a quick run-through of the best games in the space and offering a spot of advice for anyone looking to find out more.
The main nub of hidden role games is that players will have to take the mantle of a particular character or role. This is rarely a chosen thing, and almost always something that is randomly determined at the start of any game.
The trick, of course, is that some of the players will be allocated a role that may not have the best intentions in mind. Usually this means trying to subvert the objectives of the rest of the players, or otherwise having nefarious plans to ruin any kind of collaboration.
Any group playing one of these games will be collaborating in some way or other, at least in theory. Those assigned a ‘bad guy’ role will be simultaneously attempting to convince everyone else that they’re just another one of the good guys, while also doing their utmost to sabotage the mission.
These kinds of games invite bickering, arguments and wild accusations. Often it’s the people you expect least to be secretly conspiring against the group, and tensions can rise very quickly. They tend to be an extremely popular choice of game, partly because they are usually very simple to learn, but also because they don’t really require many rules or pieces and so are among the first to be chosen for portable play sessions. Finally, they’re short and sweet, for the most part, making them a perfect aperitif or palette cleanser during longer games nights.
That’s all there really is to know about hidden role games. You’re either a good guy, or you’re lying and pretending to be one. A perfect setup to any conversation among friends.
Here’s a look at the best hidden role games available on the market, split into three categories: introductory, intermediate and advanced games that all feature the hidden role mechanic.
Having featured it in our inaugural podcast episode, including One Night Ultimate Werewolf (Amazon link) in this list is a no-brainer. It also featured high up on our all-time list of best games for everyone. The game pits villagers against werewolves in a timed debate to uncover the rogue participants. You’ll have just five minutes to weed out the monsters, so expect repeated suggestions for ‘just one more round’.
Another high quality introduction to hidden role games is Resistance (Amazon link), a futuristic game of rebellion and espionage. Again, players are randomly and secretly given roles, and only spies are informed about which other players may not be as well-intentioned as they seem.
The group must collectively decide which players to take on missions to topple the government, the success of which can then be used to build trust (and distrust) for future missions. Spies win if three missions fail, and the resistance wins if three succeed.
Another game, Avalon (Amazon link), features an almost identical dynamic to Resistance, but is set in the olden days with Merlin and knights for gamers that are that way inclined.
Finally there’s Spyfall (Amazon link), a silly but addictive game in which every player except one is given information about where you all supposedly are. This might be an arctic research station, a transatlantic cruise ship or even a zoo. Through a series of subtly worded and elusively answered questions, it becomes a race between the spy to work out where he is, and the rest of the players to uncover who the spy might be.
How do you follow up a game like Cards Against Humanity? It’s the game that most board gamers have an deep love-hate relationship with, but few would deny the impact it has had on bringing people to board games, which can only be a good thing.
Well, you follow it up by basing a game on Nazi Germany. The creators at CAH released their second title, Secret Hitler, on Kickstarter back at the end of 2015. In a similar vein to Werewolf, players are fundamentally just trying to root out which players are fascists, rather than the good-guy liberals. One of the fascists is actually Hitler too, making for some pretty intense accusations. The aim of the game for liberals is to pass progressive agendas, while secret fascists will be trying to pass, well, fascist ones.
Keeping an eye on the agendas that players choose to pass when it’s their turn as chancellor will give clues about their true nature, though the interesting twist is that even liberals may sometimes be faced with no option but to pass fascist agendas.
The other slightly more sophisticated hidden role game we want to recommend is Coup (Amazon link), which casts players as members of a galactic court. Each of them are assigned two different characters from a pool of five options, which all come with a range of special powers. You can either use the powers of the characters you’ve been given, or you can lie and claim to be other people. By lying, you’ll have access to a wider range of skills, but it carries the risk that someone will call you bluff and you’ll lose one of them. Last player standing wins, so very much a case of humble honesty versus ambitious but dangerous deception.
Played the games on this list but hankering for something more; something … richer? Well there are an array of games that feature much more intricate rules and play mechanics, but also include some element of deception.
First up is a Best Play favourite, Battlestar Galactica (Amazon link). Don’t be put off by the intimidating IP it is attached to. Players are ostensibly working together to flee the evil Cylons, in a battle for survival that becomes increasingly desperate. The camaraderie and collaboration required simply to stay alive is part of the fun, but the fact that either 0, 1 or 2 of you are working on behalf of the Cylons makes for an intensely fascinating dynamic.
Some games will witness accusations flinging around the ship, perhaps with half the players ending up thrown in the brig for allegedly failing to help the cause with enough fervour. Of course, it will later transpire that no one was a Cylon in disguise. A later session might reveal two Cylons trying to deflect attention by attacking the other, accidentally subverting their own mission. The fact that it’s a simple case of survive or die, played out over a manic and tense couple of hours will make the deception all the more compelling.
Dead of Winter (Amazon link) borrows this idea and instead applies it to a zombie holocaust. Again, players are supposedly working together for the betterment of a post-apocalyptic human society, though one of them might be trying to sabotage the collective mission. Here the betrayer will be working alone, and may well have a mission of their own to achieve before destroying that of the others. Another great game, but one in which the hidden role aspect is more of a background concern rather than a game-making headline act.
Lastly, there’s Archipelago (Amazon link), a game about colonial civilisation in the New World around the 17th century. Here, players make no pretence about working together as they compete for resources to improve their fledgling settlements. Worryingly for all of them, however, is that there will be periodic crises that emerge. Here, players will have to temporarily club together to resolve them, for the survival of the entire archipelago. Secret pacifist players can only win if the collective colonies are especially stable by the end of the game. Failure to cooperate could spell a game-ending loss for every player, so these fleeting alliances become essential.
Except, of course, if you’ve been handed the secret separatist card, in which case you’ll be gunning for mutual destruction in a bid to free the locals from European rule.
And that’s it. Everything you need to know about hidden role games, as well as which ones to add to your collection.
If you would like to buy any of these games, it’d be great if you could use these Amazon links to do it, and you’ll be helping fund the site if you do.