Classic parlor game Werewolf gets rebooted to tear more friends, marriages apart

The last time I played Werewolf, a woman who I believe runs a small theatre company told my wife-to-be Bryn that “she was fucking stupid.” I also spent the entire evening nakedly lying to Bryn about who I was and what my intentions were for the other players at the table, casting aspersions on my character and suggesting just months before our pending nuptials that I was comfortable with the most outright of deceptions. I won, but at what cost is still undetermined. Needless to say, we haven’t returned to the game since.

But Boulder-based designer Mathew Sisson‘s newest iteration on the popular parlor game may have us rethinking our avoidance. While design can’t mend the wrongs of that fateful night, nor temper the passions of the one of the most devious social experiments ever constructed, it could at least make an evening of lying and deceit an exercise in polished appearance.

Werewolf, also known as Mafia, was created in 1986 by Dimitri Davidoff, a young Moscow State University psychology student attempting to stuff two years of college into a single one. Davidoff explained it once as “the uninformed majority versus the informed minority,” which should be utterly unsurprising to those who grew up under the spectre the Cold War.

There are werewolves. They eat townsfolk, but are townsfolk themselves. Only the werewolves know who each other are, and they slowly pick at away at their neighbors, round by round, unless the town bands together and with a combination of rampant paranoia and generally superstitious deduction, and attempt to kill the werewolves, one person at time. Collateral damage is typically high, and, perhaps unlike any other party game, it raises deep questions about who you think your friends are and how they could literally look you in the face and tell you that they 100%, absolutely not a werewolf. As Margaret Robinson noted, Werewolf works because it resonates with “some of the worst, but most universal traits of human society.” It is a game fueled by the same ambition, desire, and hate that fueled pogroms, witch hunts, and the secret police.

Naturally, this is why Sisson wanted to give it a makeover. After stumbling into a late-night session at SXSW featuring Harper Reed, former CTO for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network, Sisson became enamored with the game, but found that it, like many boardgames, was intimidating to newcomers. “Werewolf is designed in a way that’s scary for people who’ve never played because it’s dark,” Sisson says. “I wanted to make cards that were cute with bright colors and use wool felt for the carrying case.” Sisson viewed this as a substantial rebranding of the ugly side of human behavior. How do you make a game about cheating the ones you love accessible to a wider audience? “It’s a user experience problem,” Sisson says.

Sisson tapped designer Kyle Miller in Los Angeles and art-directed new designs for each of the main characters. Kotis Design in Seattle provided the wool felt packaging. It’s a sharp reboot and perhaps may pave the way for other reimaginings of classic experiences.

Sisson’s Werewolf is emblematic of a larger shift away from purely digital experiences into the realm of the physical. It encompasses the rise of 3D printing, maker culture, Arduino boards and other things that you hold in hands. Sisson worked in software design but wanted to explore new experiences. “I wanted to be more in touch with what I was designing and you could see with your hands,” he says.

Werewolf will be available in July and is currently available for pre-order on Sisson’s site.