With so many Werewolf variants out there and with the success of games like Coup and Secret Hitler, you’d be forgiven for thinking there can’t be much room in the market for yet more social deduction games. You’d be wrong, of course. The hidden role and social deduction games keep on coming and most bring to the table enough novelty to keep players coming back for more. That’s the case here with Salem 1692 from publishers Facade Games.
Salem? Where have I heard that before?
In this game, players each represent townsfolk from 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts. You’ll surely know the story of the Puritan theocratic community and its infamous witch trials. If you don’t know it from history, perhaps you’ll know it from the Arthur Miller play, The Crucible. Even if you’ve never heard of the Arthur Miller play, you’ll still be familiar with the underlying tale because you’ll have seen it spoofed so many times, notably in The Simpsons.
The Salem 1692 game plays up to 12, and each player’s character is drawn from the bank of 15, each with their own special ability. You’ll find some of these special abilities distinctly more useful than others, but the difference is not so huge as to unbalance the game. And if your character has a really useful looking skill then that just might make jealous competitors point the finger at you and accuse you of witchcraft!…
How do we hunt the Salem witches?
When each player has a character, next come the Tryal cards. Depending on the number of players, there will be one or two Tryal cards that indicate a player is a witch. All the other Tryal cards will say ‘not a witch’. These cards are all shuffled and dealt out so that each player has cards face down in front of them (the number for each player varies with the player count: five cards with 4–7 players, four with 8–9, three with 10–12). Players can look at and will know what is on the Tryal cards in front of them.
On their turn, going round the table, players can either draw two cards from a separate pack that mostly allow accusations to be made or they can play any number of accusation or special action cards from their hand. When a player has seven accusations levelled against them, they must reveal one of their Tryal cards… If a player has all their Tryal cards exposed, then they are dead. That means they are out of the game.
Any player who has a witch card is a witch, regardless of what their other Tryal cards say. Townsfolk are seeking to expose the witches (find the witch cards). The witch is seeking to avoid exposure and will be trying to kill off all the other players. Don’t blame them: it’s in their nature. At various times in the game, players will each have to take a Tryal card (face down) from their neighbour. If they find they’ve taken a witch card, then they too are a witch (and the original witch remains a witch even though they no longer have a witch card). When ‘night’ falls, players all close their eyes and the witches silently choose a player to kill. Players don’t know who the witches are attempting to kill because they place their token face down. A player with the constable card can secretly nominate a player to be saved from being killed. Before it is revealed which player has been ‘killed’ by the witches, every player has the chance to save themselves from the possibility that they have been selected by voluntarily revealing one of their Tryal cards. Of course, that also brings them a step closer to mortality… If a player takes the risk of not revealing a Tryal card and they survive, this may sow suspicion that they have only done so because they are a witch and so knew they were safe from being selected by the witches for death…
So how does Salem 1692 compare with other hidden role games?
My group is especially fond of hidden identity social deduction games and we regularly round off games evenings with games from this genre. Perhaps because we have become connoisseurs or maybe because we’ve just been spoiled by playing some of the better examples, we can be quite critical of titles that seem to fall short. A recent play, for example, of Secrets, the new game from Repos, fell flat for us despite its impressive pedigree and its high quality components. Players just found it too easy to determine who was on which team and could too quickly seize victory. Play gave us no sense of excitement. By contrast, every play of Salem 1692 has proved both tense and amusing.
There is perhaps less to actually go on in Salem 1692 than in many other social deduction games: more guesswork than deduction. Despite this, Salem 1692 is great fun to play. Suspicions are bandied back and forth as players seize on the slightest excuse to point the finger at each other. There is scope for a bit of role play for those who want to really inhabit their townsfolk characters and the increasing likelihood that the witchery may be spreading adds to the existential threat that non-witch players feel. When you take a neighbour’s Tryal card and discover that it has made you a witch, it delivers the same thrill a player gets when they pick up a Cylon card partway through a game of Battlestar Galactica. Your objective and whole raison d’etre turns on its head, yet the game achieves this without making the gameplay feel in any way chaotic.
That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to Salem 1692. It’s a game where players are eliminated, so you could find you are out quite early and have nothing to do until the game is over. Players have to be prepared to accept the possibility that they may have to just sit out a game as a passive observer for maybe another 20 minutes. If that’s going to be an issue for you or for any of the members of your group, then maybe you need to look at a more forgiving hidden identity game. Having passed on this health warning, my group got no complaints from the players consigned to an early grave: though they had no further part to play in the game (the rules specify that they are allowed to utter just three words before falling silent), each found Salem 1692 sufficiently entertaining that they were happy to watch the rest of the game play out so that they too could discover who the witches were.
Salem 1692 is a game that’s best played with higher numbers but, if you’re playing with more than half a dozen, it can be awkward accommodating successfully the manipulation of tokens required of the witches while others have their eyes closed. You need to have players make a noise so the witches’ and constable’s movements don’t identify them. Even so, the witches may still find it quite literally a stretch to surrepticiously position their kill token.
Salem shows that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover…
It would be impossible to comment on Salem 1692 without drawing attention to the packaging. The cards come inside a beautifully designed magnet-lidded box that looks for all the world like a weathered 17th Century Bible or similar tome from the period. Full marks for production here: well 9/10 anyway… It’s just a pity that the cards fit so snugly in the box that it doesn’t allow room to sleeve them. This is an unfortunate oversight as many folk especially want to sleeve games involving hidden role cards.
Quibbles aside, this is a great little game that it is quick to teach and learn so it’s one that could get a lot of play with both experienced and occasional gamers. I rate it 8/10. But beware: the box looks so much like an old book that, when you open it and pull out cards from within, you must expect others to suspect witchcraft is at work…
Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.