The Breadth of Betrayal

Board games with a traitor mechanic have been part of my games library for as long as I can remember. Strangely, when I ask people to define the mechanic, the answer tends to fall apart. Betrayal has a strong emotional component and many players identify any similar emotion as a kind of betrayal. Did someone attack you when you weren’t ready for it? Traitor! Did they break an alliance you’d thought was secure? Betrayal!

Even among games that have a defined traitor, it turns out that there is a fairly wide array of mechanics that make that betrayal real. Since this is a topic I hold near and dear to my heart, I thought I’d take a moment to work through some of these mechanics. Here’s a quick classification.


Games Where Someone Can Lie to You

Being lied to is never fun, especially when you know that your friend lied right to your face to gain an advantage over you. In Coup, lying is a defense mechanism. If someone knows what role cards you actually have, they are better able to tear you apart. Lying about what roles you have keeps the game on unsteady ground, and plenty of those lies will never be discovered, because they aren’t recorded from turn to turn. Other games that fit this mold are Secret Hitler, Resistance, and Avalon.

On the other hand, Sheriff of Nottingham is a game all about lying to someone, then immediately gloating over your web of half-truths. Each round, one of you takes the role of the Sheriff, while everyone else tries to get goods through to market. You put a number of resource cards into your bag, then declare what you have. But the game makes it difficult to be perfectly truthful and perfectly efficient at the same time. You can only declare one type of resource, along with the number of those you have in your bag. You can put a maximum of five cards in the bag. So what if you have three apples and want to add a coin? You have to lie and call it four apples. Or leave the coin at home and get fewer points than possible. Worse, there are contraband cards which are never legal. So, can you lie and bribe the Sheriff to avoid searching your goods? What happens when the Sheriff realizes they’ve been tricked?

Games Where Someone Can Hurt You

The emotional feeling of being betrayed is not a pleasant one. You and a friend are playing a competitive game, but seem to have a strong alliance. At a climactic moment, when you expect them to support you, they stab you right in the back. We use the word “stab” in this metaphor for a reason. There are plenty of games like this. In Diplomacy, alliances are meant to shift over time, and those shifts always leave someone broken and bruised. Sometimes, they can even leave friendships broken and bruised. But this can also happen in games like Risk or Catan. This kind of betrayal hurts even more because it isn’t a mechanic in the game, it’s a choice.

Every single competitive game with player elimination fits this category. As long as I can work to kick you out of the game, there is the possibility that I can lie about my intentions and then stab you in the back. In fact, it makes it easier for me to win. I’d rather fight an unprepared opponent than one who has their defenses pointed right at me.

Games Where You Are Trying to Find the Traitor

In games like Werewolf, the entire premise revolves around discovering the hidden traitors. There aren’t any other goals. When you find the werewolves, you win. If you fail, you lose. These games force players to lie constantly, and players who are poor liars are at an extreme disadvantage. Fans of these games often love them because they have an abnormal opportunity to lie to their friends, or because they get to be the hero who can always ferret out the truth.

Games like BANG! switch this up by granting players other things to do besides lie. You also have to shoot guns at the other players. In BANG!, players need to figure out the roles of the other players and attempt to remove them from the game in a specific order. Players often find themselves hurting their secret allies to keep their roles hidden from the Sheriff and Deputies.

Games Where You Are Trying to Win and the Traitor is Trying to Stop You the Whole Time

For me, these games are the peak of Mount Betrayal. Players have an active goal of winning the game, while one player is attempting to secretly stop that from happening. In Shadows Over Camelot, the traitor often makes suboptimal choices in attempt to appear like an unlucky player. Midway through the game, players may begin accusing their peers of being a traitor. Correct guesses help with victory, while incorrect ones bring the knights closer to defeat. Of course, once the traitor has been revealed, all gloves are off. The traitor can spend the rest of the game being as malicious as possible.

In Battlestar Galactica, the Exodus Expansion adds a pile of offensive capabilities to Cylons once they’ve been revealed. Human players might almost regret revealing the traitors as Cylons are able to throw tons of troops and force major crises in their quest to destroy humanity.

These games allow a traitor to lie for a short period of time, but the game doesn’t end when someone catches them. This is an especially good option for terrible liars who just want their chance to play the villain.

Games Where Someone Becomes a Traitor

Now these games are interesting. These games toy with the fact that you are a team, letting you believe you are one of the heroes, and then crushes your dreams all in an instant. You may have been the leader of the heroic resistance, with all the tools of light at your disposal, and suddenly you are the villain. Sometimes, everyone knows it. Other times, they never see betrayal coming. Halfway through a game of Battlestar Galactica, players get a second round of loyalty cards, which makes it very likely that someone who once thought they were human suddenly become a Cylon.

Mansions of Madness has an incredible sanity mechanic that I’ve never seen before. When your character loses their sanity, they aren’t removed from the game. Rather, you gain an Insanity card. Some of these cards have alternate win conditions. Some of them don’t. And you aren’t allowed to tell anyone else what’s on your card. Which means it is absolutely possible that you are still 100% on the side of good, but no one can trust you anymore. It also means that maybe you just want to watch the world burn instead of fighting the big bad in the square next to you.

And of course, there’s one of my favorite games of all time, Betrayal at House on the Hill. Everyone who plays Betrayal knows that the Haunt phase is coming, where one of the players will suddenly become the villain with some nefarious scheme. But no one knows when the Haunt will occur, who the betrayer will be, or what the evil scheme will be. Which means that while the early game is cooperative, very few people cooperate! It’s an exploration game where you want to hide from your companions. You want to be alone and get the Dynamite. You take joy when the other players get hurt in a trap, because it means that either they’ll be a weaker villain when you have to fight them, or that you’ll be the strongest player around when it’s time to Betray. It’s a beautiful game and the betrayal mechanic is entirely random, and therefore, entirely fair.


I love games about betrayal. There are so many varieties and I find them all so much more interesting and elegant than simply attacking a friend in a wargame like Risk. Sure, I enjoy cooperation. But infinitely better is the idea of beating all of your opponents while they’re trying to bring you down. Being the traitor is thrilling and I highly recommend it, like I recommend every single one of these games.

The Wise Count of Sensible Castle

I was recently reminded about Sensible Castle, a Cards Against Humanity event where thousands of surprised celebrants took turns being the Leader of the Castle and issuing a series of three decrees, each the length of a regular Tweet. Even though I was only the Count for three minutes, I took this as a unique opportunity to create the shortest logic puzzle I could.

Sensible Castle had a few rules about these decrees. Everyone knew each could only be 140 characters, but would-be leaders could only edit their decrees a single time. Which means many rulers rushed through their remarks without realizing they couldn’t go back and change them! Having benefited from their lesson, I spent far too long poring over a Google Doc and solution grid. Of my 420 character allotment, I used all but 35.

This puzzle takes its characters from a poem by e.e. cummings, called “maggie and milly and molly and mae,” which has been stuck in my head since high school. Miraculously, the puzzle is solvable and only has a single solution! I half expected that there would be many possible results with so short a puzzle, but I made it work.

While Sensible Castle had a dedicated webcam and a Hall of Kings with the decrees of all the past rulers of the Castle, it looks like the server has been taken down sometime this year. But I’ve saved a picture of my final decrees!

If you feel like taking a crack at the riddle of the Four Sisters, send me an email with the final solution!

Ascension and the Game of Chicken

This week has been the introduction to Ascension in my Games and Game Theory class. I love teaching this game for many reasons, and among them is how it easily shows one of the greatest game theory dilemmas: Chicken.

Ascension is easily my favorite gateway to Deckbuilding games. In a deckbuilder, you use a deck of starting cards to purchase new cards, which then get added into your deck. As the game progresses, your deck allows you to do better and better things. Dominion is the classic standard, but Ascension shows off the deckbuilding method in a great way. My students who have played Magic: the Gathering before were able to instantly pick up this game and run with it.

In particular, Ascension has two types of cards available for “purchase.” Heroes and Constructs get added to your deck and can be purchased with Runes. Monsters can be “purchased” with Power, but are not added to your deck, instead granting you victory points.

This means that you have two currencies which allow you to purchases two different types of cards. Generally, players focus on one or the other. Which is the perfect setup for conflict.

What happens when every player chooses to focus on one currency and have to compete for the best cards? What happens when the board is filled with the wrong type of cards and no one can buy them?

As soon as someone changes their strategy to focus on the other currency, their deck becomes weaker overall. But if no one changes their strategy, the game is objectively worse for every player.

This is what we call the game of Chicken. While it often uses the example of James Dean and his rival driving cars towards certain doom to see which driver takes the coward’s path and swerves first, Chicken can also be found in places as diverse as Ascension and global nuclear disarmament.

In the Chicken matrix, both players would prefer to be at the bottom right, but they find themselves locked in eternal struggle at the top left. No player is motivated to change their strategies, because they would immediately get trampled by the other player. Since no one is willing to put themselves in a weaker position, the eternal struggle continues.

In Ascension, this means that players will make suboptimal choices, waiting for another player to change the state of the game. In terms of global nuclear disarmament, no one wants to be the first to get rid of their arsenal. And for James Dean, it should lead to therapy sessions about the dangers of bravado.

Solving This Dilemma

How would you change Ascension to solve this dilemma? You could create a house rule that allows players to spend, say five points of a currency to remove a card from the board which does not cost that type of currency. Or allow a player to remove a card from the board if they don’t purchase any cards on their turn. Both of these allow the game to change states, but both penalize the player who decides to make the change. Plus, won’t the other players benefit from your sacrifice? Now we’re dealing with the Volunteer’s Dilemma and that’s an entirely different can of worms.

Ascension is a fantastic game to get new players into the world of Deckbuilders. Plus, with a ton of expansions and new versions, there’s always new cards and concepts to be tried and tested.

Dragoon: A Test of Aggressive Play

I had the opportunity to finally play Dragoon by Lay Waste Games, a game I happily backed on Kickstarter ages ago! Dragoon is a game about rival dragons, who subjugate local towns and villages while burning their opponents’ holdings to the ground. I was excited about the theory behind game play back then, and absolutely satisfied with how everything came together in the final product

Here’s the thing. You get to play a Dragon. A DRAGON. You want to hoard gold in any way you can. So every action you can take has the goal of gathering gold, whether it’s as tribute from human towns, stealing your opponents, or from the adventurous thief who is likewise trying to steal from all of you. And dragons don’t sit at home hoping gold shows up. They get out there and fight.

So an important question for me is whether this is a game that rewards Aggressive play.

Aggressive play can be a huge problem in a gaming group. In war games like Diplomacy, aggression often leads to player elimination, and the winner is simply the last one left standing. But other times, aggression leads to putting a player into a losing state without actually removing them from play. In Lords of Waterdeep, you can be so far behind in victory points that winning is absolutely improbable. And that’s just demoralizing.

Good news. Dragoon makes it work!

In Dragoon, play feels very temporary. Laying claim to a village is just as easy as destroying it. So building up an epic empire of subject towns isn’t hard, but you always know that it could crumble at any moment. You might lose towns through random chance! So your goals become very short term and utilitarian. How do I get the most gold right now. How do I stop someone else from hurting me this round?

And that’s perfect. Because another player’s aggression can’t remove you from the game. They can give you a setback, but scores can be very volatile. I was losing one round, winning the next, and losing again just as suddenly. And at none of those points did I feel stuck. It also meant I felt no guilt at all at those moments when I was aggressive. Because everyone can bounce back.

Which means Dragoon really allows you to be a Dragon. Aggressive, defensive, building, plotting, destroying. All of that and more.

I highly recommend you try out Dragoon! Try different playstyles, because this is a safe kind of environment to try a lot of strategies. Solid game theory opportunities, and I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more in the future!

7 Kingmaking & Munchkin

You know that feeling when you win a game because everyone else lets you win? That’s because they all Made you a King. Kingmaking is an interesting game theory problem and Munchkin is the best example there is!

6 What is This?

Before trick-or-treating on Halloween, I decided to answer some of the basic questions about what Atomic Game Theory is all about. This is the origin story, folks! Enjoy!

Roll for the Galaxy: Ambition Expansion

An expansion to Roll for the Galaxy?! I am IN.

How could you make this incredible game even better? Well, the designers have taken a page from an expansion to the earlier Race for the Galaxy, adding minor goals in the form of short races for objectives. Are you the first player to get a 6-point Development? Or the first to gain a planet of every color? Gain some extra bonus points. This certainly mixes up the game and adds a little more direction to play.

Ambition also adds new homeworlds and new types of dice representing your leaders and entrepreneurs. These special dice have two icons on each face, allowing you to more strategic options, especially in the early game.

If you’re a fan of Roll for the Galaxy, pick this up! I’m itching to test out all of the new probabilities in this vastly expanded game.