The Not-So-Secret Society- A Blood on the Clocktower Review

There’s been a lot of fuss surrounding Blood on the Clocktower. Reviewer troupe Shut Up & Sit Down controversially exalted the game prior to its Kickstarter campaign. Backlash ensued. It didn’t hurt the crowdfunding effort, however, as it found success and resulted in a physically impressive product to pair with its equally impressive cult following.

The disapproval aimed at SUSD’s review centered around the team diverging from their established editorial direction. It was the first time they produced a full review of a crowdfunded game in its non-final state. The guff was anchored by the fair point that Blood on the Clocktower is outrageously expensive. It feels less so in 2023, but at the time, $80 for a fancy pants version of Werewolf was certainly ridiculous. It’s crept up to $140 now, in its second printing.

I appreciate this argument. There are many very solid social deduction games that cost but a pittance, such as Werewords, Quest, and Secret Hitler. It’s not an undernourished genre at all. And despite what anyone may argue in opposition, this really is just Werewolf encased in an ornamental scabbard and mainlining road dope.

But that may be enough.

I understand where Shut Up & Sit Down found their juice. There’s something very epochal about this game. As a system, it leverages a couple of seemingly small tweaks for large gains. First off, every single player receives a special ability. You’re still split into two teams – one a minority with a secret villain and their minions, the other a group of good guys intent on rooting them out. But there are no featureless villagers. There are all kinds of roles with unique abilities. Some are extremely powerful such as switching sides or even causing the whole game to end if they’re hanged. While Werewolf can be played similarly with many custom roles in a kitchen sink style, that’s not the norm and feels as though the game is cracking at its foundation under such circumstances. That stress to the core of the framework is the very intention of Blood on the Clocktower, and it’s designed from the ground up to support this dramatic playstyle.

One of its strongest elements is in the editorial control exhibited. In order to reign in the sheer chaos of a dozen or more players, each with unique colliding abilities, the game includes three “scripts” of pre-selected roles focused on specific themes. These are heavily play-tested ability sets full of subtle interactions and wild strategies to tease out through play. This no facade as the output lives up to the promise, producing intriguing and memorable sessions. Even better, these scripts will stand up to limitless play. You could stick with the basic Trouble Brewing script indefinitely, continuing to see players enact fresh clever maneuvers and unexpected gambits.

The other aspect of editorial oversight is one integrated into the experience as a key component: that of the ‘storyteller’. This is Blood on the Clocktower’s most exciting and confusing aspect. While this role appears roughly equivalent to the moderator in Werewolf, it’s actually much more. Like every other element of this design, it’s juiced and turned over, providing a sense of novelty.

The storyteller is an active participant. They can’t win or lose like one of the players, but they are afforded legitimate decisions and are expected to massage the play experience. While this thought space evolves and is shaped by the pool of active roles, the storyteller will regularly provide secret information to players and even determine whether certain roles should be given clear or faulty knowledge in particular circumstances. They control tempo and can choose to end discussion rounds quickly or allow them to breathe. This is performed to balance the game state as the session matures, as well as to provide interesting situations for the group that create unforgettable interactions and fuel intense social dynamics.

The role of storyteller shares a segment of DNA with a dungeon master in roleplaying games. It’s a position of facilitator that at times can require strong improvisational judgments. You get to walk around all important-like, leading the group through narration while lugging about the secret box; a cardboard grimoire that holds all of the role tokens to its innards through lush Velcro. It’s also incredibly rewarding for both the storyteller and the players when you’re lucky enough to have a skilled coordinator. In fact, it can be downright sublime as you untangle everything that happened in the aftermath of play.

But this role of importance is also a big challenge presented. Blood on the Clocktower is demanding in that play can suffer or soar depending on the strength of the storyteller. This means the game is a difficult one to learn if everyone participating is new to the experience. It’s ideally a game you ease into by attending a persistent group that can take your hand. Toughing it on your own is not insurmountable, and it is indeed made easier by the narrower scope of the Trouble Brewing script. But I would hesitate to recommend an inexperienced group proceed to the more complicated scripts such as ‘Sects and Violence’.

There is an additional difficulty associated with starting up Clocktower in that you need a lot of people. Maybe you’re more popular than this lonely cur, but the ideal size for this game is around 10-12 open minded heathens. It is true, memorable encounters can be squeezed from the game at a lower headcount, but that’s a more unreliable proposition and one more suited to experience play.

It is clever enough to sidestep one of Werewolf’s gravest misdeeds, one which is particularly egregious at those large group events, for Blood on the Clocktower does not wholly eliminate players. Instead, characters offed through a special ability, hanged, or executed nightly by the evildoers, they are turned to ghosts and are allowed to still participate in all discussions. They’re even given one final opportunity to vote at any subsequent point in the game. Besides the obvious benefit of keeping everyone engaged and active, it places a heavy weight on the living seeking out and persuading the dead to side with them. Those ghostly votes can prove crucial in nailing the demon to a post. We’ve seen this in smaller games such as One Night Ultimate Werewolf where player elimination is eschewed, but I haven’t seen it implemented in a longer form title such as this, particularly so damn well.

The final trick is a dandy. One issue with a game of this magnitude and style is what to do when your guests arrive at different times in the evening. It can be awkward holding off starting the session or, the inverse, trying to rush through a game at high tempo when someone needs to leave in the near future. Blood on the Clocktower introduces ‘travelers’ for such a situation. These are roles functioning as a third faction – somewhat similar to gray characters in Two Rooms and a Boom – that will want to side with one side or the other. Each traveler has their own ability and is able to influence play to some degree. But the structure and the scripts themselves are balanced around these traveler players dipping in and out. There are proper incentives for the others to engage these third wheels in conversation and integrate their agency. It’s a very smooth addition that again, eases the social burdens of this style of game.

For all its ludic and physical innovations, the primary characteristic of Blood on the Clocktower is in its mystique. There’s an enigmatic quality about it. It’s not merely a thing to quietly experience and forget about, it’s a lifestyle game with its own following. There are discord channels with regular sessions being played at all hours of the day, secret meetings at conventions, online forums and discussions to be had. It’s a culture, born of the game’s strength and its unusual traits.

Playing with an experienced group is something else. It’s like slipping into a secret society and pretending like you belong. Following their logic and trying to keep up is like mimicking a special handshake in real-time. The wild interactions of roles produce over-the-top and dramatic moments that burst forth unexpectedly. It can be intensely difficult to follow what is going on and keep up with the social maneuvering. You can be left behind.

The intense social nature feeds into all of this, as play is more of a party and a gathering than a process. It is loose and chaotic. Partygoers get up and walk around, they huddle in corners and whisper deadly poems. It’s a dance of paranoia and bitter quietus. When everything’s going right and it feels as it should, it seems as though I’m participating in something larger than myself. This is when I fall into a state of intoxicating coherence and everything clicks in unison. This is when I feel like I belong.

 

A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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  3 comments for “The Not-So-Secret Society- A Blood on the Clocktower Review

  1. Nicholas Schoichet
    January 12, 2023 at 1:10 pm

    I adore Social Deduction as a genre, but Blood on the Clocktower has consistently rubbed me the wrong way.
    Physically and atmospherically they’ve knocked it out of the park, but as a game it feels… arbitrary.

    I think of it as a Social Confusion game; Social Deduction without deduction.
    Everyone gets special powers and can potentially provide lots of information, but there’s little ability to verify any of it. Add the effects of poison, untrustworthy mod administration, and no ability to verify which roles are actually in the game on either team, it feels like there’s little meaningful way to glean a signal from the noise.

    Things kind of just happen, players are forced to make gut assumptions and guess-and-check their way to victory or loss.

    Then again, for many players I’m sure that the chaos and excitement can be a lot more fun than a more procedural deduction-focused werewolf puzzle would be, and I’m just that old man who doesn’t get “the kids these days”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 12, 2023 at 1:37 pm

      I hear ya. I think people that have bounced off it often feel the same way.

      This hasn’t been a problem for me, as I’ve found that it forces you to verify information by cross-referencing what you know between several other people. Usually someone can corroborate certain pieces of information, such as checking whether anyone has seen or heard of a specific role being in the game.

      I think this lack of a more solid evidence based deduction framework is really just how these bigger games work, such as Werewolf and Two Rooms and a Boom. Smaller games such as Resistance seem to lean more into an evidence based paradigm that parallels what you’re looking for.

      Like

      • Nicholas Schoichet
        January 12, 2023 at 1:45 pm

        Well said!
        In the San Fransisco area, we have a Werewolf group that plays a modified version with a heavier focus on voting, protected trials, and information play. We also have a sister group in Atlanta that prefers a more fluid “mob rule” style of play. Sparks can fly when there’s cross over!

        Liked by 1 person

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