Tipping the Hand: Betrayal in Games

The First Betrayal

After wandering that interminable house for what felt like hours, that brat kid finally revealed that he was the Bat God and that it was time for his Bat Brethren to feed. We were all going to die, he assured us. We would be drained of our blood and eaten. Or something.

His threats weren’t that scary, actually. We were armed to the teeth, and we’d already found all the rooms we’d need to put an end to the threat. The Sudden-Yet-Inevitable betrayal fell as flat as a tire on a sea of thumbtacks.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is, for many people, the game that introduced them to the “Betrayal” mechanic, and the game has become a mainstay of thematic betrayal games ever since. However, as a betrayal game, Betrayal at House on the Hill stands out as a betrayal game without lies.

Betrayal occurs in two acts: exploration and betrayal. During the exploration act, everyone works to explore the house and gain power to fight against the inevitable second act. As such, everyone and no one is an ally. Players have no capacity to control who the betrayer will be, so there is only a small amount of caution and distrust. This removes a lot of the inherent tension in the betrayal-game genre since the answer to “Can I trust you?” is not held by the players but rather by the game itself.

This causes problems.

The Anatomy of Deceit

Successful game interactions are built to exploit the same basic cycle: anticipation, preparation, risk, and then reward. This shares similarities to dramatic structures like the Freytag Pyramid and to economic game theory concepts to risk vs reward, however this game interaction structure is vital to the production of both dopamine – which will help to write memories – and endorphins – which makes life worth living.

Betrayal takes a single major cycle of anticipation-preparation-risk-reward and stretches it over an hour-long period. It’s like watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural. It’s a dramatic arc, but it has some problems.

To really build up the payoff of that final resolution, the brain needs to pump out several smaller cycles of rewards prior to the orgy of neurotransmitters that accompany the climax. In part, this is because norepinephrine – which is largely responsible for raising your heart rate during games and life – is actually synthesized from dopamine. Since dopamine is largely produced in response to a learning or task-completion experience, that means that high excitement requires smaller, lower-excitement exchanges.

Yes. Fun games contain foreplay.

I’ve got some bad news Betrayal, but there is something wrong with your foreplay.

Humans, you see, are social animals. We actually produce more of everything if an interaction directly involves another human. While skill checks, dice, and spreadsheets can make for magically complex and balanced economic exercises, no interaction with an inanimate object compares to watching an opponent’s eyes dilate as they gaze at their cards, look up, and say “all in.”

To really get the most out of a betrayer mechanic, you need lies. You need that human moment where you doubt that you can trust someone. There’s an added exhilaration to be gotten from being lied to by humans: humans are predators. When another person speaks to you, and you’ve been primed to expect deception, your fight-or-flight instincts will trigger at every single interaction.

Overdosing on norepinephrine – the classic “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitter – can be quite tiring. That’s why Doctor Trick recommends that you control your dose.

One Night

Hidden roles games come in a few varieties ranging from the incredibly-hidden roles of Bruno Faidutti’s Masquerade to the fantastically funny Spyfall. However, when you want to really condense down the absolute thrill of the betrayer mechanic, you need to take a long, cold look at One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Now, One Night is arguably not a betrayal game. One Night does pit all the players against an unknown number of werewolves, which is more of a direct Player-vs-player scenario than the player-vs-board present in most other betrayal games. However, since all players in One Night must pretend to be villagers, they are, ostensibly, on the same side. Kinda. Regardless, many of the same dynamics present in more cooperative betrayal games are still present and, importantly, condensed.

One Night mixes hidden roles with imperfect information in an unusual way, but the magic ingredient that makes One Night so superior to its almost-intolerable cousin is that the whole game is constrained to a 10-minute timer.

Additionally, One Night also creates a mixture of co-conspirators amongst its players that is closely mirrored by its close relative Resistance: Avalon. Werewolves, Minions, and Masons act as an important catalyst as players puzzle out who to kill in One Night. Never play the game without these parties present; they do too much to the game.

Many roles – like the Robber, the Troublemaker, and the Seer – take their action in the night and then need to build their consensus afterwards. This plays with the dynamics of anticipation and preparation, but the Werewolves, Minions, and Masons have a completely different experience. They start on a team – they already have a consensus – and that small start gives them a benefit. In addition, that puts them in a unique situation whereby they can feel tension for somebody else. Their fight-or-flight instinct can kick in by proxy when their teammate is threatened.

I have a tip for playing One Night, and it is a weird one. Never chain multiple games right after another. That climax where one player flips their role and the fate of everyone weighs on a single turn of the cards creates an incredible rush of fear followed by relief.

Give yourself some time to enjoy it. Make a drink. Talk strategy. Milk that moment for all it is worth. That moment delivers on what bluffing and uncertainty do at their absolute best. Don’t muck it up by starting another stress cycle right away.

If you want to chain those experiences, but you don’t want complexity, then you need to give The Resistance a try.

The Resistance is the older sibling of Resistance: Avalon and exists as more of a mechanic than as a full game unto itself. The Resistance does one thing perfectly, and it has acted as a springboard for a dozen similar games including its younger, sexier cousin.

In The Resistance, a group of players must conduct 5 missions against an evil empire. Surprise! Some of the players are secretly agents of the empire!

It’s not the setup that is special, but rather the implementation. Each mission must take a certain number of players, and those players will vote secretly about whether the mission will succeed. If there is even one vote to fail, then the mission fails. The game ends when three missions fail or three missions succeed.

It’s that simple. There is no randomness. No skill. Just bluffing over and over again. While any traitor does have a significant decision to make in their first mission – “should I vote for success to build cred with the other players? – most the tension comes from the team selection and voting process. (A commander nominates the team to take a mission and then all players vote openly.)

This nominating process is an unadulterated bullshit machine. Players bluff and double-bluff as they try to weed out the traitors. Sometimes a traitor takes a fall so that another traitor can sneak into just one last vital mission.

It’s madness through and through. That said,The Resistance provides something that none of the other betrayal games do. The Resistance thrives on the concept that there is no chance of a mistake. Other games, like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter allow the opportunity for a betrayer to play in absolute secrecy. They allow for randomness to break a venture, but The Resistance provides no such shield. Missions only fail if there is a traitor. Period.

Unlike Werewolf’s reliance on what people say, The Resistance relies on what people do. While this series of successful or failed missions does lend to a tense hour of play, it also loses something of the human interaction. The Resistance provides a logic puzzle: people are either traitors or they are not. Aberrant behavior is always the result of being the traitor. There is not even a sub-optimal play that can cast suspicion on someone.

As such, it is easy for games of The Resistance to fall into quibbling over a growing logic puzzle rather than as a series of bluffs. This can make the game lose steam as the strength of the game – the human interactions – give way into a collective effort to defeat the cardboard.

If you want to defeat cardboard, then you may be in for a long haul.

The Long Haul

Two mainstays of tabletop betrayal games – Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot – have faced a serious challenge to their dominance over the genre: Dead of Winter. All three games challenge the players to survive against systems which create a credible threat of defeat even without the addition of one of the players acting against the rest. Each also presents hidden information held by individual players which they are prevented from sharing directly with the others.

This creates a sustained atmosphere of distrust. Along the way, each game presents challenges – micro-climaxes – where the balance of the game is held by a handful of cards contributed in secret. Eddies of tension ebb and flow over the board with each turn. Whenever someone steps out of line, discussion erupts across the table as players turn on each other to discover the traitor.

What Dead of Winter does that none of its contemporaries do is a stroke of genius. Where each game encourages players to watch for even small transgressions against the good of the team, Dead of Winter actually forces players to make sub-optimal decisions.

Each cooperative player in Dead of Winter must complete a randomly allotted personal objective in order to share in the victory of the game. These personal objectives… well they look an awful lot like betrayal. They will see you hoarding resources, blocking off travel, and generally disrupting the order of simply keeping the colony of survivors alive.

Essentially, Dead of Winter solved the cooperative game problem, and, in doing so, solved the largest problem facing long-session betrayal games. Dead of Winter adds an enormous stress climax to the game for EACH PLAYER participating in the game. Every game will see each player given the spotlight and being scrutinized in the star room as everyone observes them for the slightest hint of disloyalty.

Dead of Winter takes eyes off the board and onto the players. It makes the players into the stars, and players should always come first.

Betrayal in Digital Games

As Matt Lees pointed out in response to my question on his Patreon page, Betrayal mechanics have not been explored much in mainstream digital games. Hell, so few have been released that I had to search for games which fit the bill.

My first thought was of The Ship. As a guest at a terrible dinner party, the players are each assigned a target by Mr. X. The strange thing is that the dinner party is full of NPC guests that each need to eat and keep clean. Additionally, so do the players. If anyone does anything suspicious in front of guests, guards, or cameras, the guards crack down on them and throw them in the brig. It’s joyous madness.

It’s not really a betrayal game, though. The players are not bound to complete a series of cooperative objectives. They are not on a team. It’s just a deathmatch in a fancy dress.

Blank Media games has released Town of Salem, a game heavily inspired by Werewolf, and Space Station 13 are examples of small-press games which have dabbled in betrayal, but they never saw wide acceptance or acclaim.

One prominent game did make waves with a betrayal mechanic: Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In K&L2, IO-Interactive expanded on the traitor system from the original Kane & Lynch game by adding a mode called “Undercover Cop”. Unlike the “Fragile Alliance” mode retained from the original, “Undercover Cop” assigned one player to act as a betrayer. This betrayer did not  participate in the ad-hoc traitor system, but rather could shoot at and kill other players without being tagged as hostile to the other players.

This difference – where one player is assigned the role of the betrayer – is what separates opportunistic betrayal from the “betrayer mechanic”. Diplomacy and Risk revel in allowing players to stab each other in the back, but those are winner-take-all games. “Betrayal” games require there to be a group, ostensibly working together, with a game-assigned traitor in their midst. (This is what eliminates Archipelago – one of my favorite games – from counting as a betrayer game even though there is a hidden objective for triggering the losing condition.)

There are several reasons the betrayer mechanic is under-represented in digital games, and each of those reasons presents a unique hurdle.


Most digital games have some variation on character or account persistence: the concept that a game contains more than one session and that those session affect one another. This seems an odd thing to point out for digital games, but remember that a vast majority of betrayal games contain no persistence whatsoever. In fact… there is only one major stand-out for persistent tabletop betrayal games.

It may be cheating to talk about Paranoia at this point. Tabletop RPGs are so different from their digital counterparts that whole volumes could be filled discussing the issue. Paranoia can also be played in many styles, some of which are much closer to The Ship than to a traditional betrayer game, but it’s still one of the best examples of a persistent betrayal game.

It is rare in Paranoia for a player to actually be assigned to cause the whole party to fail. Rather, each member is a part of a secret society with its own objectives in any mission. Anyone caught attempting to complete such an objective is declared a traitor and must be killed by the other players. Meanwhile, they all need to complete a shared task.

It’s an interesting twist on the betrayer concept, and it can act as one example of how to alter it for very long-form, multi-session play. Completing secret objectives provides players with benefits from their society, but rooting out traitors provides benefits from “The Computer.”

Instanced Gameplay

One of the inherent strengths of tabletop play is that each gameplay session acts as a multiplayer instance: you play on an isolated island with the other immediate participants in the game. Everything that happens in that instance of the game is erased when it is over. Generally speaking, one session does not affect the next session or other session of the same game played by other people.

Additionally, it is rare for tabletop gameplay to be performed with strangers. Normally, tabletop games are played by a group of friends with preexisting relationships and social dynamics. Even in pickup games at a game store or convention, organizing the game and the table-talk that surrounds a game lead to relationships forming. This is how people work. We’re social creatures.

Multiplayer digital games are not like this. Most digital multiplayer games fall into two categories: pick-up group instanced multiplayer or persistent world MMO. Yes, there are many local multiplayer games – particularly dominated by party and fighting games – but even those are rapidly integrating online multiplayer.

These predominant multiplayer formats create an incredibly low barrier to entry for players to get into the game. They don’t need to invest time into gathering parties, they don’t need the emotional investment of meeting new people, they just need to tap “join” and be ready for fun.

This greatly reduces the amount of anticipation and preparation necessary for creating intense betrayal sessions. Essentially, this makes it difficult to provide exciting “foreplay”.

Session length and foreplay

With much of the table talk, game setup, and other preamble required to get into the mood of a betrayal game taken care of by automatic matchmaking of some sort, it becomes difficult at best to craft an experience that delivers on the nail-biting tension and sudden exultation that accompanies a betrayal game. Without the social tells brought by human interaction, the structure of the gameplay session itself becomes even more important.

In some ways, Kane & Lynch 2 actually handled much of this quite well in its “Undercover Cop” mode. In that mode, the Undercover Cop could not actually kill the criminal players until they stole the money. This created a period of the game where everyone is acting together. In small ways, bonds are forming and each player gets an impression of the effectiveness of the other players.

Once the money is stolen, the ballet of murder begins. It becomes a one against many battle game mixed with an escape sequence.

Funny thing, though. This pattern – the preamble followed by the 2nd act twist – strongly parallels Betrayal at House on the Hill. In many ways this also presents a weakness. While Undercover Cop does assign the cop right at the start of the session, that player does not have much opportunity to identify themselves before the mid-game twist.

This is one of the structural advancements that The Resistance made so clear: foreplay is important. The Resistance makes it clear that tension requires warning, tension requires multiple non-final conflicts. Undercover Cop gets this, to some degree, through its player-vs-enemy coop combat, but that does not really advance the inter-player tension and conflict. It’s a distraction. It’s playing against the cardboard.

The Ship and Space Station 13 actually handle this well. They give you something to do that isn’t necessarily a winner-take-all survival challenge. They both send you off to do several mundane tasks. These create a slow escalation of tension as you fear that you’ll be discovered or hunted while doing these somewhat meaningless errands. This creates a feelings of rising tension and provides opportunities for players to interact in isolation.

These interactions, however, cannot be rushed. The window of vulnerability they create is important for allowing players to communicate with one another. When one player follows another on one of these errands, that creates an imbalance of information. There’s a tension created as “why are they following me” is asked, but there is a greater impact on the game if both actors in this play survive. They both know that they didn’t kill each other. Are they allies? Are they amicable enemies? Regardless of the answer, they are closer now than the other players in the match.

That makes them special.

This is as close to direct human interaction as most digital games allow you to get, and that interaction creates investment in one another. It makes a relationship between the players, and that relationship is the core source of tension in betrayal games.

With the right balance of short, preliminary encounters and final, high-stakes climaxes, it’s possible for a digital game to accomplish the excitement levels of traditional betrayal games. This takes time, however. It can take minutes to let players build relationships, to let them get invested in each other, just so – right at the end – they can spend that investment in an orgy of accusations and conflict.

How long does that take? 10 minutes? 20? More? That’s all well and good for a console or for a PC game, but how do you handle betrayal on a mobile device?

A Special Hell

Here’s a secret: mobile games have very short sessions. How short?

Imagine a man sitting next to you with a stopwatch. When you decide to take your phone out of sleep mode, he starts the timer. When you complete your interaction with the game and exit to the home screen on your phone, this cruel man stops the clock. The the timer has rolled past three minutes, you go back to the drawing board.

Those three minutes… they’re called a “long session.”

A short session, where you check on timers or collect resources or maybe just rejigger some equipment, that needs to be completed in thirty to forty-five seconds. Otherwise: drawing board.

This is why a MOBA has never risen to the top of the mobile charts. This is why Hearthstone, despite being a spectacular marvel of design and art, cannot unseat Game of War. The terrible truth is that most people who play multiplayer games on PCs and consoles lend control of their lives to the game for its duration. Sleepless nights can be dedicated to “one more turn” or “one last match.”

This is true, frequently more so, for tabletop games. Tabletop games add a social pressure to commit to the game, to maintain some form of nebulously defined “immersion.” I’ve even seen designers lauded for “playing dirty” and forbidding any technology which might interrupt the game. These people put the uninterrupted continuation of gameplay above the health and safety of their players. This same pressure often manifests in online guilds and clans filled with dedicated “hardcore” players.

Such nonsense does not carry in the mobile space. Most mobile devices, were designed as extensions of telephones, and they retain that purpose. They are devices that must, at a moment’s notice, transform into a device for speaking to other human beings. A user always controls a mobile device, never the other way around.

Thus the need for brevity in gameplay sessions.

Heaven is other people

Betrayal games require interactions with other people. That’s the heart of the tension. The flirtations between truth and lies play out over a shared map of victory or death. You need success to be shared and failure to be absolute. The stakes are high in classic betrayal games. After all: you only live once.

In many games, multiplayer matchmaking alone could take up the whole of a mobile session. Hearthstone has the advantage of an already huge player base and only needing to account for a 1-v-1 experience. Betrayal, however, necessitates a group. (the magic number is often 4 or 5 players, but it can vary.) The number needs to be large enough to conceal the traitor, but small enough that each member can build a relationship with each other member.

A common solution to this matchmaking dilemma is to have them all move into a persistent world or to a hub. Allow for some actions to be taken in the hub, but leave the meat of the game in a structured instance. This is particularly common in MMOs, but can also be found in the online multiplayer of Red Dead Redemption.

Once again, this method does not work for the mobile session length. As such, a drastic modification is in order.

Doctor Trick’s Prescription

Let’s begin by saying that my prescription is only one solution. It isn’t THE solution. It isn’t even my only solution. It is my favorite solution right now.

Also, I’m not a doctor of any kind.

In order to prevent players from leaving in annoyance, mobile platform matchmaking needs to be instant. This is a large part of why asynchronous play is so popular with mobile developers. Since asynchronous play does not require both players to be online at the same time, the matchmaking pool is enormous when compared to synchronous play. Technical reasons aside, it’s just deeply socially unlikely for synchronous play to work out.

However, since we want a back and forth between players, we need to create an environment where multiple players can interact multiple times. Additionally, we need this environment to have an end. We need to have a climax that determines success or failure after the betrayer has had multiple opportunities both to sabotage the other players but also to be discovered. As such, this instanced gameplay environment needs to exist for multiple sessions, and each player in each session needs to be able to contribute to the completion of some shared goal.

Anyone who has played a game by email or played Laser Squad Nemesis is beginning to recognize the formula already. Asynchronous turns which execute simultaneously are an absolute joy to behold and add a huge amount of tension even to digital games. This can even be seen in Trion Worlds’ recently announced Atlas Reactor.

The concept is pretty simple, create an environment where players may take turns and submit their actions to a server. When all actions are in or a time limit expires, execute all actions simultaneously. Set up rules – which can be complicated – for resolving conflicts. Repeat.

The best of these games in meatspace not only encourage table-talk, but they thrive in it. The most famous boardgame form of this – famous for its power to end friendships and marriages – is Diplomacy. The nefarious combination of long talk sessions and theatrical reveals lead into a form of interpersonal betrayal few games even attempt.

So, dear readers, when you make your betrayal-themed games – whether physical, digital, or even digital mobile – be sure to let the negotiations take place. Let players talk. Even if it’s just canned messages. There is no betrayal without words. When you find that knife in your back, you find it was the trusted lies that cut the deepest.

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About Trick Dempsey

When Trick isn't busy making games at Massive Entertainment or spilling words into a novel, he can be found with Briana keeping the Crooked Thimble name alive over on Patreon. He recently put the finishing touches on their production of a lets play podcast using a light hack of the Dungeon World system. Some day he will finish his visual novel inspired by The Yawhg.
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