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.