Popular Mechanics: Breakdown of Betrayal

What drives a saboteur each time they secretly poison the well? Is it revenge? Madness? Or just really needing those last few victory points?

Howdy, friends! Welcome to a new series I’ll be doing called Popular Mechanics. In this series, whose name I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to use, I will be discussing various mechanics and game devices used in tabletop games. Each mechanic will get an article describing the mechanic and how I define it, as well as the pros and cons of the mechanic itself. Following that, the next article will cover a game that uses the mechanic well. And following that article, we’ll cover a game that implements the mechanic poorly in some regard. Sometimes the game focus articles will focus more on the games themselves, while other times the focus will remain on the mechanic itself.  Bear with me while I figure out the actual format of the series myself, but I’m pretty sure that will be the basic layout moving forward. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to discuss the mechanic as well as what we like about it, dislike about it and suggest games we all enjoy which use the mechanic well.

Mechanical Breakdown

So let’s kick things off with betrayal. I don’t know why I decided to start with this, but here we are. While trying to define this mechanic, I realized it breaks down into several components that often accompany each other, but are very distinct. These components as I see it are:

  • Hidden Roles
  • Bluffing
  • Cooperative/Team Play
  • Asymmetrical Gameplay
  • Variable Player Powers
  • Take That

Let’s define each of these quickly and see how they fit into the Betrayal mechanic.

Pictured: A Hidden Roll

Hidden Roles is fairly key to the betrayal mechanic. Without hidden roles, the game is simply a Team Play game. You can’t betray someone if you’re not attempting (or faking) cooperation. In games with hidden roles, discovering everyone’s role (a Deduction component) is often very helpful to ensuring the correct people win.

Bluffing is highly connected to hidden roles. While there are certainly games that have hidden roles without a heavy bluffing element, they often go hand in hand.

Which leads into Team Play. By their inherent nature, games with a betrayer need a team to betray. Without teams, it’s a free for all. So again, you’re not betraying anyone, you’re just their opponent.

Asymmetrical Gameplay is when players, usually on different teams, have different goals, different turn structure or some other variation that makes the way they play different enough from the other players.

This is not to say the same as Variable Player Powers, which is when each player has a minor power or ability unique to them which grants some benefit.

Take That is a mechanic which has players surprising others with some trick, usually to the other players’ detriments. This is often when the betrayer reveals themselves to be the betrayer and also harming the other players in some way.  All of these components factor into what makes a good betrayal mechanic work.

What is Betrayal?

So now that we’ve covered all the components which can make up a betrayer mechanic, let’s really define what the betrayer mechanic means. For this article, the betrayer mechanic is defined as ‘when a player is secretly working counter to the goals the players openly claim they are cooperatively working towards’. This definition brings some games under the betrayal umbrella and pushes some out, which we will discuss in later articles. For now, let’s discuss pros and cons.

Pros

Betrayal mechanics add variety to games. It adds an level of excitement and mystery to what could be an otherwise very straight forward game. It causes the players to really evaluate and focus on what every else is doing and question every turn. Betrayal mechanics draw players into the narrative and story elements of the game, whether they know it or not. Games with a betrayal mechanic make it much easier for players to get into the heads on their character. I’ve played many games where I was utterly shocked when the betrayer finally revealed themselves, because I had been certain it was someone else. Betrayer make for great stories and build fun memories with friends that I still reference in my board game circles today. Further, because every person will play differently, betrayer games have a higher likelihood of being played multiple times. Experiencing a new player’s take on how to run the betrayer can really bring new life into a game.

 

 

“I know he betrayed me, but he did a super good job doing it!”

Cons

On the other side, betrayer mechanics can be frustrating and upsetting when you work so hard towards a goal only to have someone step in and mess it all up. A great betrayer is both a good gameplay element and a bad one. They can ruin the game for everyone else in their attempt to win. Also there are plenty of people who simply don’t like being a betrayer. Being a good betrayer often requires high level of bluffing, quick-thinking and in depth knowledge of the game. Most betrayer games need the betrayer to have good knowledge and understanding of the game’s mechanics to perform at their best. For new players, it’s very easy to get caught in a lie or have to spend a few too many seconds reading a card which can give them away far too soon.  And in these cases, it can ruin the game for he betrayer because they might feel like they were defeated too quickly or performed poorly (which is never a good feeling). Games with betrayer mechanics tend to be fairly unbalanced. It’s very difficult from a design standpoint to build a game that grants equal chances of winning for both sides. Which brings up the question, should both sides have equal chances of winning?

A proper reaction to traitors.

Final Thoughts

Personally, I’m on the fence about betrayer mechanics. I enjoy cooperative games. I like everyone working together and reaching a common goal as one. So, it’s not that I dislike the betrayal mechanic as a mechanic. It’s just that I want everyone to be working together. It makes me sad when it turns out someone I’ve been trusting throughout the game turns out to be working against us. Further, because betrayal games tend to be longer in game length, it means either I have a few more hours of working against the betrayer or that they have been working against me for the last few. Either way, I just want everyone to get along!! Still, I can appreciate a good betrayer mechanic done well and, like I’ve said, I have had some fantastic game nights where I’ve been betrayed at the perfect moment.

Overall, I’ve seen a good couple games that have really done the betrayal mechanic well and others which could use some tweaking. In the next article, we’ll discuss games that I think use the mechanic correctly and how their implementation of it adds a lot to the game without overpowering either side?

What do you think of the betrayal mechanic? Do you have any good tales of betrayal?

  • Chaos_United_8

    Betrayal at the House on the Hill is becoming a big fav with the people I work with. People who aren’t even into board games are asking me to bring it to play. I think betrayal is a great mechanic as long as everyone knows what they are signing up for…insert troll face.

    • Matt Sall

      Betrayal at House on the Hill is such a great game, but it doesn’t fit with how I’ve defined betrayal here. I’m planning on going deeper into that in upcoming articles.
      But I totally agree everyone needs to be on board if you’re playing a betrayer game.

  • euansmith

    This sounds like it might turn out to be an interesting series. Thanks for giving it a go. The title is tip top.

    • Matt Sall

      I’m glad! I have lots of ideas for mechanics I want to touch on so hopefully this will be a long running series.

  • Tshiva keln

    One of my favourite games is battle star Galactica due to this mechanic. I love trying to deduce who the cylon is (and trying to convince the others of the truth). I also like that half way through there could be another cylon added so it keeps the game alive even if the first one is suspected or found out.

    • Matt Sall

      Hmm…. Maybe you should be sure to check out the next article when it comes out…..