Hidden identity games are some of the funniest and most nerve-wracking games out there. The players gathered around the table know that one of them is working cleverly and secretly to utterly thwart and sabotage what the rest of them are trying to achieve. No one around the table really knows what anyone else’s aims are. Everyone is instantly suspicious of everyone else, and keenly watching every action each player takes, trying to deduce who is the villain in their midst. Conversely, said villain is doing everything in their power to remain undetected and unsuspected.
The gaming market is rank with this type of game, a testament to the continued allure of hidden identity games. These games can range, for example, from the light and quickly concluded, like Bang! and the Werewolves of Miller Hollow, to the weighty and multi-layered contest that is Shadows Over Camelot, Nemesis, or either version of The Thing. These mentions are by no means an exhaustive list, as such a list is beyond the scope of this article, and there are also a number of games that utilizes some aspects of the hidden identity mechanic, but are not hidden identity games per se. In Faidutti’s Citadels, each round every player secretly selects a character that ultimately determines play order and bonuses, but is not considered a hidden identity game for this discussion.
Secrecy goes hand-in-hand with betrayal. Betrayal is as old as cooperation in human history. Humanity seems to be ineluctably attracted to such villainy. And because art imitates life, there are countless examples of such perfidy and treason throughout western literature. The ancient Greeks were well aware of this tragic impulse and reflected that on stages where Jason betrayed Medea and their children are murdered, and Helen betrayed Menelaus and thus the Trojan War began. Perhaps the foremost articulate documentarian of human betrayal in the English language is Shakespeare throughout his histories and tragedies. Henceforth, Iago, the despicable antagonist in Othello, will be quoted throughout. All those examples are from western theater, but now let’s take that old impulse and combine it with the modern art of gaming and produce a chance to indulge such destructive behaviors in the safe confines of a game, hurt feelings not withstanding.
The trickiest role to play in an otherwise cooperative game is the secret villain. Although the term villain is used here and throughout not as a pejorative, but as a title to denote opposition to the rest of the table. The villain has to play the other players off against each other, to sow doubt and confusion about motivations and actions of others, and keep the waters of clarity murky and clouded. The villain has to do all this with subtlety and precision, lest they overplay their hand and expose themselves and their intentions to all hawkishly gathered around the table. Bluff, deception, and verbal misdirection are the tools of the trade of this brand of villainy, and every player who draws a villain card will be wise to use them well. Granted, such a role will fit some personalities better than others. And playing such a role is somewhat akin to acting on a stage. So naturally, the better an actor one is, the easier it will be to play a villain in such a game. That said, the following is a guide for any player with the villain as their hidden identity.
“And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” -Iago
These games can be loud and fraught with arguments, incriminations, and accusations. This is the contagion of the villain, and such rancorous cacophony is melodic music to their ears. The livelier the accusals and suggestions of impropriety flying around the table, the safer it is for the
villain to operate with relative freedom of action. This is the atmosphere that the villain tries to nurture and grow from the first turn to the last roll of the dice (presuming that dice are used in the game).
But the question does arise - how best to play a villain well, how does one turn a table of chummy comrades into a writhing nest of vipers bent on destroying each other? I am by no means an expert in this fiendish field, but I do have a pretty good track record in the aforementioned games as a villain and I will lean on that experience and try to impart the salient features of a successful strategy to keep one’s identity a secret during such a game.
“I follow him to serve my turn upon him.” -Iago
Let’s now pretend that you, dear reader, have drawn the card of ill repute. You are now a dread double agent. Shyly suck in a slow steady breath and without twitching a muscle about your eyes or moving any other muscle across your limbs, silently slip that mask over your body and become the villain as you quietly let that breath escape. Now look around the table and mentally start dividing up your competition. Your task now in part, is to divert attention away from you and towards your fellow players. You want them to saute in a simmering broth of doubt and uncertainty until the final act wherein the villain triumphantly pulls off his or her mask to the shocked surprise and amazement of everyone else around the table.
“Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.” -Iago
Firstly, hidden identity games are best played with a large group of people whom you are not too familiar with, as one’s family and close friends might easily see through all your theatrics and attempts at misdirection and subterfuge. Don't be dissuaded from playing with family and close friends though, you’ll just be required to up your fiendish villainy a notch or two. In fact, that might be the true test of hidden identity gamesmanship, because if one can keep one’s villainy obscured from family and close friends, then one might temporarily give up such games and try instead treading the boards beneath the proscenium arch in the warm embrace of a klieg light all the while interpreting a soliloquy of the Bard to the rapturous enthusiasm of the audience, family, and close friends.
“With a little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.” -Iago
Now let’s break down this strategy guide into a short numerical list of crucial importance:
1. Play nice and be a team player, at first. Don’t act in a secret way or try to be sneaky; you’ll be seen and outed. Act deliberately in the open for all to see as much as you possibly can. The table will naturally divide quickly into competing groups. Join a group and be an active supporter and champion of the group for as long as you can use them. And when you leave such a temporary group, announce to the table that you found a recent action suspect and now you’ll be supporting a competing group. That will help keep the table on edge.
2. Keep cool, don’t panic, ever. Know at several points in the game, someone will accuse you of treachery. Take such accusations in stride. Stay cool, stay calm, stay collected. Never get excited or raise your voice in these exchanges. Never justify your actions to the accuser or the table. Either dismiss such accusals as contaminated tripe or tainted corruption. Realize that these are probably just a phishing attack on your character by
desperate do-gooders trying to ferret out the culprit. You are not a ferret. Remain unflappable, act tired, and calmly turn the accusation back on the attacker. “That’s just what the traitor would say to divert attention away from themselves.” But mark that player, because they could continue to be trouble throughout the game.
3. Refrain from making accusations of other players, but reluctantly support those made by other players. Let other players rush in where cautious villains fear to tread. You know the accuser is acting foolishly rash, but your support will encourage him or her to continue down this insidious path just like you want. Your tepid support for wild accusations can then be easily switched to another undeserving player next turn. Be an equal opportunist when it comes to giving support to the casting of wild aspersions.
4. Divide to conquer. Act like a player riddled with uncertainty, even hesitancy when it comes to your turn. Portray a player who doesn’t want to be seen doing anything that will attract undue attention, you never want to be considered a villain. Seek approval from the dominant players. Ignore with a hint of mild disdain suggestions from players currently under a cloud of suspicion.
5. Don’t start off with dastardly deeds, be subtle in your villainy. There will be plenty of time
ahead to unleash your dastardly deeds and, if all goes as planned, by that time your
game mates will be beyond any opportunity to halt your maniacal machinations.
6. Act always with calculation, always predicting how such an act will be perceived around the table. Never overplay any of these suggestions. Remain fluid, unpredictable, and unreliable. Draw no attention to yourself.
Now, Villain, you can go forth with some confidence that all around you chaos will reign, but your ship will ride these choppy breakers all the way past the victory line. Sit down and make menace worthy of an Iago!!