A Mind Game

also called "Mafia"

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.

I really like it. But then I go to some strange parties.

The Rules

Setting Up

Assemble a group of players. An odd number is best, although not absolutely mandatory. There should be at least seven players; nine or eleven is better.

Make up a set of cards, one for each player, with a role written on each one:

Shuffle the cards and hand them out, face down. Each player should look at his card, but must keep it secret. Only the moderator reveals his card and shows himself to be the moderator.

(Alternatively, the group can choose a moderator in advance; the moderator then takes the "Moderator" card, shuffles the rest, and hands them out face-down.)

Two players are now secretly werewolves. They are trying to slaughter everyone in the village. Everyone else is an innocent human villager; but one of the villagers secretly has the Second Sight, and can detect the taint of lycanthropy.

The Game: Night and Day

The game proceeds in alternating night and day phases. We begin with Night.

At Night, the moderator tells all the players "Close your eyes." Everyone should.

The moderator says "Werewolves, open your eyes." The two werewolves do so, and look around to recognize each other. The moderator should also note who the werewolves are.

The moderator says "Werewolves, pick someone to kill." The two werewolves silently agree on one villager to tear limb from limb. (It is critical that they remain silent. The other players are sitting there with their eyes closed, and the werewolves don't want to give themselves away. Sign language is appropriate, or just pointing, nodding, raising eyebrows, and so on.)

When the werewolves have agreed on a victim, and the moderator understands who they picked, the moderator says "Werewolves, close your eyes."

The moderator says "Seer, open your eyes. Seer, pick someone to ask about." The seer opens his eyes and silently points at another player. (Again, it is critical that this be entirely silent -- because the seer doesn't want to reveal his identity to the werewolves.)

The moderator silently signs thumbs-up if the seer pointed at a werewolf, and thumbs-down if the seer pointed at an innocent villager. The moderator then says "Seer, close your eyes."

The moderator says "Everybody open your eyes; it's daytime. And you have been torn apart by werewolves." He indicates the person that the werewolves chose. That person is immediately dead and out of the game. He reveals his card, showing what he was, and leaves it face-up.

Now it is Day. Daytime is very simple; all the living players gather in the village and lynch somebody. The mob wants bloody justice.

As soon as a majority of players vote for a particular player to die, the moderator says "Ok, you're dead." That player then reveals his card, and the rest of the players find out whether they've lynched a human, a werewolf, or (oops!) the seer.

There are no restrictions on speech. Any living player can say anything he wants -- truth, misdirection, nonsense, or bareface lie.

Contrariwise, dead players may not speak at all. As soon as the sun comes up and the moderator indicates that someone is dead, he may not speak for the rest of the game. No dying soliloquies allowed. Similarly, as soon as a majority vote indicates that a player has been lynched, he is dead. If he wants to protest his innocence or reveal some information (like the seer's visions), he has to do it before the vote goes through.

No player may reveal his card, to anyone, except when he is killed. All you can do is talk.

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.


The humans win if they kill both werewolves.

The werewolves win if they kill enough villagers so that the numbers are even. (Two werewolves and two humans, or one werewolf and one human.) At that point they can rise up and slaughter the villagers openly.

In Case It's Not Totally Clear

The villagers are trying to figure out who's a werewolf; the werewolves are pretending to be villagers, and trying to throw suspicion on real villagers.

The seer is trying to throw suspicion on any werewolves he discovers, but without revealing himself to be the seer (because if he does, the werewolves will almost certainly kill him that night, since he's the greatest threat to werewolf national security.) Of course the seer can reveal himself at any time, if he thinks it's worthwhile to tell the other players what he's learned. Also of course, a werewolf can claim to be the seer and "reveal" anything he wants.

The only information the villagers have is what other players say -- and who dies. Accusing someone of being a werewolf is suspicious. Not accusing anyone is also suspicious. Agreeing with another player a lot is suspicious, and therefore so is pretending not to agree with another player. Never voting to kill a particular player is very suspicious for both of them -- unless it's the seer who knows that player is innocent.

Technical Notes

When everyone closes their eyes at night, it is best for people to also start humming, tapping the table, rocking back and forth, or some such noise. This will cover up any accidental sounds that are made by the werewolves, the seer, or the moderator.

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 be careful to always talk towards the center of the group. If (for example) he turns to face the seer when he says "Seer, select someone," the werewolves may detect the change in acoustics.

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!")

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.)

But more importantly, the humans' chances are significantly weaker when there are an even number of players (including the moderator.) (See statistics.) This is probably because an even game always ends with a nighttime murder, and an extra murder is always to the advantage of the wolves; whereas an extra daytime lynching could help either side.

This game can produce a lot of shouting (during the day) and a lot of humming (at night.) Don't play where the neighbors will complain. ("Don't mind us, we're just deciding who to kill!")

My cards are cheesy cartoons (smiley faces, smiley faces with fangs, and a smiley face with a third eye.) Some of my friends have made decks out of selected Magic cards, X-Files cards, and other card games with neat art.

Danny Novo has contributed a PDF file of Werewolf cards, after my cheesy cartoon idea.

I have done some statistical simulations of the game, mostly to figure out when to add a third werewolf. (Seventeen players looks right.)

Possible Variations


I did not invent this game; Dimitry Davidoff did, in 1986. I learned it much later, at the 1997 National Puzzlers' League convention, under the name "Mafia." (Two Mafia gangsters, one Knight Commandant, and everyone else innocent citizens.) I think werewolves are niftier, so I changed it.

Dimitry Davidoff had a web page up on which he describes the origin of the game. The site is no longer available, but a copy can be found on archive.org. His rules are well off the current average, though. The players may lynch any number of people during the day, and lynched players do not reveal their identity. The villagers can only find out if they've won by ending the day and seeing if there are any killers left. There's no communicating at night, and there is no moderator or Seer.

More about the origin of the game, from its creator:

i was studying at psychology department of moscow university. i was doing two years at once (roughly junior and senior years - yep, was a crazy time =) and teaching ap psychology class for high schoolers (translating it to american realities). my course paper was about time as the primary psychological (human) construct. so in my class, i was playing with different notions of time - why we want spent time as we spend it? is there a time we spent we rather wouldn't (this would be a definition of a psychological symptom incedentally). anyway, i was trying to find an activity for students - so it would produce a biggest time spending with the smallest input (and i wouldn't have to prepare for classes that much =). i was trying to find something that would structure time not by means of outside organization (being in class) or preparation (for example, previous common knowledge as a topic). first i was asking couple of students to make a secret agreement in a hall (about topic they want to discuss), then return to the classroom for others to guess it. and while watching this discussion, i suddenly realised (eureka kinda moment) - that WHO is in agreement is the biggest secret of all.

my students become the first players. then of course student parties in my dormitory - biggest one in moscow - housing thousands of students from different departments. it quickly spread to other departments and dormitories - likely over next summer, through student summer camps. i [have] tried to keep a track of mafia since then - treating it as a natural experiment of a meme spreading. i guess due to its nature (no real prerequists to the game besides being a human - that was the idea of course), the game was spreading pretty fast in russia. in all possible discourses, from bandits and prisons (i have a firsthand accounts) to goverment meetings. and students of course were providing the main drive. i went to a few meetings with students in the us (mit media lab was one of the venues, btw) - and its the same pattern everywhere.

anyway, few things extra from the top of my head:
     1. the whole approach (there are few other games i've created at that time) is grown out of lev vygotskiy (founder of the soviet psychological school in '20s) and alan turing's test.
     2. the 'moral' aspect of the game is/was important too - errors of first and second type are unintuitive concept in psychology. to force players in accepting errors was one of my primary concerns. there were some psychological disputes on that topic, i was trying to solve
     3. in '89-'90 i was teaching psychology 101 for international students (mostly from socialist countries then), some of them probably become first seeds in spreading mafia outside russia.
     4. i am still finding new things about mafia all the time, it is surprisingly euristic.

-- Dimitry Davidoff (from email, September 2005)

Kristofers Sevcenko reports: "The Latvian national TV used to run a (IIRC) weekly TV show called 'The Parliament vs. The Mafia' ca.1990-95, which went by basically the same rules as described on your page. Please note, that I was around 12 at that time, so I don't really remember all the details very clearly, but here's how I remember it. It was played by celebrities and intellectuals and was rather popular. I think there were 12 players. Not sure how many gangsters were there, but one of them was a Godfather, who was the one who actually made the decision of whom to kill off during nightime. The 'Seer/Knight Commandant' was called an Investigator. Not very sure, but there might have been two Investigators. Also, the persons whom the players decide to 'lynch' during the day, got a minute to say their last words and try to convince the other players to let them live, after which all the players actually voted, with an equal vote meaning the person would be spared (I think)."

Steven Clays reports: "We (= a Belgian group of 2500 ecologists between 8-25) learned the game from Slovenian people in July '96." Hm.

If you have any more information about the early history of the game, please send me a note. That's erkyrath@eblong.com.

Commercial Editions of Werewolf

Several have popped up. (I'm not even trying to list commercial editions called "Mafia", or other themes, of which there must be many -- there's a Do You Worship Cthulhu? for example.)

And I might as well give my opinion about this sort of thing:

I did not invent this game, so I have no right to permit or forbid people from publishing commercial versions of it, or otherwise making money off of it. As far as I'm concerned, it's folk culture, as much as hopscotch or chess. (Even if it was invented in 1986 (see below). Folk work fast. The word gets around.)

On the other hand -- if you publish a version which is called "Werewolf", as opposed to "Mafia" or some other theme, it would be cool if you noted my name. I don't insist. I'm just asking. Because I am the sole inventor of the idea of having this game be about werewolves... and while that gives me no rights of ownership, it does mean that the chain of causality flows back through me.

It's kind of a weird feeling, actually. I am your memetic lycanthropic Eve!


Other Werewolf/Mafia Web Pages

Last updated February 14, 2010.

Werewolf Statistics

This page in Spanish (translation thanks to Daniel Gómez)

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