Salem (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer: Travis Hancock
  • Publisher: Facade Games
  • Players: 4 – 12
  • Ages: 12 and Up
  • Time: 25-35 Minutes
  • Times Played: 8

Salem

I’m a huge fan of social deduction games.  I love playing them, I collect them, and I even enjoy moderating them.  I’m always on the lookout for good titles, and very few escape my notice.  Somehow — and I’m still not sure how this happened — Salem did escape my notice at first.

But I got the chance to play it a few weeks ago when a member of my game group bought it, and I really enjoyed it, so much so that I bought my own copy.  It is clever, and my groups have enjoyed our plays.  This feels like The Crucible in board game form.

The Gameplay

All players receive “trial” (spelled “tryal” for thematic purposes) cards at the start of the game.  Depending on the number of players, one or two players will actually be a witch, as shown on the trial cards.  Players receive five trial cards if there are eight or fewer players; players receive three if there are more than eight players.  Each player also receives a blank token.  

The goal of the townspeople (i.e. the non-witches) is to find the witch by having them reveal that trial card.  The goal of the witches is kill all of the non-witches.  In addition to the witches and normal townspeople, there is also a constable (also shown on one of the trial cards); that person saves one person each night.

TrialCards

In addition to their trial cards, players also receive a Town Hall card that gives them a special ability in the game.  These are historically based on actual townspeople of Salem during the famous witch trials, an excellent thematic touch.

Town Hall Examples

Like in Werewolf, there’s a night and a day phase.  You can play with or without a moderator.  At night, first the witches open their eyes and take the “kill” token — which is sitting in the middle of the table — and replace the one sitting in front of any player, including possibly themselves.  The token is flipped upside down, so players can’t immediately tell who was killed.  After this, the constable opens his or her eyes and places the “save” token face up next to a player.  (The first night is played differently than the others, with the big change being that the constable isn’t played.)

Before the player who was revealed is killed, each player is given the opportunity to “confess” and flip one of their trial cards face up.  This will save them from being killed if it turns out they have the “kill” token in front of them.

The tokens are now flipped over, and the player with the “kill” token dies unless they were saved by the constable or confessed.  Players can also die if (1) their “witch” card is revealed or (2) if all of their trial cards are revealed.  When a player dies, they may utter three words before falling silent for the rest of the game.  

During the day, rather than just discussion around the table, there is also card play.  This is the bulk of the game.  Players can either draw two cards or play at least one card on other players.  There are several types of cards that impact the status of the players and their abilities.  Red cards are the most important: these represent a number of accusations, and when a player accumulates seven accusations, they must flip over one of their trial cards.  Some sample cards are below.  

SampleCards

The game continues until either side wins!  I’ve streamlined the rules above — the special abilities and cards make the game highly variable — but that should provide the flavor of the game.  

My Thoughts on the Game

Salem has a couple of cool mechanics that I hadn’t seen in other social deduction games.  First, players can avoid being killed at night by sacrificing one of their trial cards, given them some say about how long they last.  Second, the card play during the day provides interesting information about who might have each role, preventing some of the quibbling that can veer social deduction into tedium.  Third, as opposed to Werewolf, where players can go silent for discussion, players are forced to play out cards, increasing participation and inhibiting the ability to hide in silence.  

Throw in the fact that each player has a special power — all of which are cleverly themed based on historical Salem figures — and you have an intriguing entry into the social deduction genre.

I especially liked the theme: Salem felt like a game adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Players that accumulate a lot of accusations are easy targets, so there’s a go-with-the-crowd element here just like during the actual witch trials.  

The production value is top notch, both in terms of artwork and component quality.  The box is especially cool: it looks like a book.  

My biggest complaint is the rulebook, which is among the most disorganized I’ve seen. I’ve seen a couple of groups mess up a couple of the rules, but I can’t really blame them, as it can be difficult to discern the flow of play from the rules.  Rules need to be organized around the flow of play, and that isn’t the case here.  

My second biggest complaint is that gameplay can be considerably slower than in other social deduction games.  The game is more complex than most in the genre, and players have more decisions.  That’s part of the game’s charm, but it comes at a cost.  

We’ve had a few plays fall flat — twice when a player accidentally flipped their witch card (and that’s certainly not the game’s fault!), and once when the witches were discovered early — but most of the plays have been fun.  

If your group likes social deduction games, Salem will likely be well received.  There are some original mechanics here, enough to make this an original and praiseworthy entry into the genre.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Chris Wray
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

 

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