The year is 1692, and the place is Salem, Massachusetts. Peaceful life in the colonial town has been disturbed recently by strange happenings, leading the townspeople to suspect each other of witchcraft. As accusations fly back and forth across the table, innocent villagers are caught in the crossfire as their friends and neighbors try to find the real witches who have infiltrated their ranks. But the witches have some tricks up their sleeves as well…
Salem is a hidden role/social deduction game for 4-12 players that takes place during the infamous Salem witch trials. We got this game last year via Kickstarter and were recently able to get it to the table and try it out. It’s a game on the lighter side of social deduction that accurately captures the fear and paranoia of colonial Salem in the time of witches, where you can never be too sure who you can trust.
Like many social deduction/hidden role games, Salem consists of two teams: the Witches, and the innocent Townspeople. Teams are determined at the beginning of the game based on the distribution of Tryal cards.
Each placer will receive 3-5 Tryal cards (depending on the number of players — for a 5-player game it’s 5 cards) which they look at and then place facedown on the table in front of them. The majority of the Tryal cards will say “Not a Witch”, but there will be 1 or 2 “Witch” cards mixed in as well. If a player starts with a “Witch” card, even if they have 4 other “Not a Witch” cards, he or she is on the Witch team. There is also a “Constable” Tryal card, which will be explained later.
In addition to their Tryal cards, each player will receive a Town Hall card, depicting a character whose role they will take on during the course of the game. The characters are all prominent villagers from the Salem witch trials (e.g. John Proctor, Abigail Williams), and each has a special ability which will help them over the course of the game.
The final step of setup is to shuffle the deck of Salem cards (explained in detail later), setting aside the “Night” and “Black Cat” cards. Then, place black tokens in the center in easy reach of all players. There will be as many blank tokens (nothing on either side) as the number of players, as well as one “Kill” and one “Save” token, which are both also blank on the other side. Once this is complete, you’re ready to play!
The first thing that happens during the game, fittingly enough, is the First Night. During this phase, all players will close their eyes. Then, the witch(es) will open their eyes and identify each other (though in a game with 6 or fewer players there will only be one witch at the beginning of the game). Then the witch team will quietly place the “Kill” token face up in front of any player (including themselves). Once this is done, the witches will close their eyes, and then everyone will “wake up” and open their eyes. The player who finds themselves in possession of the “Kill” token doesn’t die (yet), but they must take the Black Cat card and place it in front of themselves. Just like the superstition, the Black Cat can cause bad luck and misfortune to the person who it’s in front of.
The player with the Black Cat card is also the one to begin the round. On each player’s turn, they must do one of two possible actions: either draw two cards from the Salem deck, or play any number of cards from their hand. Thus, a player could spend several turns in a row drawing cards and then play out a dozen cards on a future turn, or they could draw one turn, play cards the next, and so on. There are cards such as Arson and Robbery which can cause a player to lose all of the cards in his or her hand though, so it’s not always wise to hoard too many cards.
So what is the Salem deck composed of, and what does it do? The majority of the Salem cards are red cards, which each have 1, 3, or 7 red X’s on them. These cards are played in front of other players, and when you play the seventh X in front of someone, you formally accuse them of witchcraft and may choose one of their Tryal cards to flip face up. For the townspeople, the goal is to find the Witch Tryal card(s) , and once those are all revealed, the townspeople win. However, once all of someone’s Tryal cards are revealed, they are dead and out of the game. The witches win if all the other players are dead (in other words, only witches are alive).
In addition to the red cards, there are also other cards in the Salem deck which have special actions. Blue cards are played in front of other players (you can never play cards on yourself) and have lasting effects, such as Piety, which prevents red cards from being played on that person, and Matchmaker, which are two cards which, when played on two different players, causes one player to die if the other one does. There are also green Salem cards which can be played for one-time effects, such as Stocks, which can cause a player to lose their next turn, or Scapegoat, which moves all red, blue, and green cards from in front of one player to another. Finally, there are two black cards in the Salem deck. The first is Conspiracy, which must be played immediately when drawn. When Conspiracy is played, the player who drew it must reveal one of the Tryal cards of the player with the Black Cat.
The final card in the Salem deck (which is always placed at the bottom of the deck) is the black Night card, which must be played immediately when drawn. This card triggers the Night phase. To begin the night phase, all players take one of the blank tokens from the middle of the table and place it in front of themselves. Then, everyone closes their eyes. NExt, the witch team opens their eyes and replaces the blank token in front of any player (again, including themselves) with the Kill token, face down. The witches then close their eyes, and the player currently in possession of the Constable card opens their eyes. The Constable chooses a player and replaces their token with the Save token, face down (note that the Constable must choose another player; they cannot save themself). Once this is done, the Constable closes their eyes and then everyone wakes up. Before the tokens are revealed, each player must decide if they want to confess to save themselves from being killed. To confess, the player chooses one of their own Tryal cards and flips it face up. Once each player has decided whether or not to confess, all players flip over their token to see who has the Kill token. If the player that has the Kill token confessed, nothing further happens. But if they did not confess, they are killed by the witches and must flip all of their Tryal cards. Of course, if the Constable was able to place the SAve token on the same player the witches chose to Kill, the Kill token would not take effect, as it would’ve been replaced by the Save. The last step of the night phase is that all players choose one of the face-down Tryal cards from the player to their left and place it in front of them. In doing so, if a player takes a Witch card, they are now on the witch team along with the player from whom they took it (in other words, if you have ever had a Witch card in your possession, you are on the witch team). Similarly, if the Constable card changes hands, the player who now has it is the Constable and will perform the Constable’s night action (the player who was previously the Constable no longer performs the Save action). Then, all of the discarded Salem cards are shuffled to form a new draw deck (once again placing the Night card at the bottom), and play resumes.
The game ends when one of the following happens: When all of the Witch Tryal cards in the game are revealed, or when all players still alive are on the witch team. When a player dies, they must reveal whether they have ever had a Witch card (even if they don’t currently have one), which helps the townspeople narrow down where the Witch cards are, since it must have traveled to the right during a night phase. In addition, dead players will win or lose with their team, so if a townsperson or a witch is eliminated, they will still win if the members of their team who are still alive manage to win. And that’s all there is to it!
We have played a lot of party/social deductions games in our time and own quite a few as well. I have mixed feelings about a lot of these games (for example, it takes the right crowd and some convincing to get me to play Resistance) and they can really be overrun by pushy players who make things un-fun. However, in my experience with this game so far, Salem is different than other social deduction games we’ve played. There hasn’t been as much “us versus them” as in Resistance or One Night games, and the ability to place accusations on players a bit at a time makes allows the sessions to build in intensity rather than have moments of intensity and arguing. This makes the game a lot more fun for me rather than games like Resistance.
However, it’s still pretty tough to be on the “bad guy team.” Though, in my opinion, it’s easier to lie and manipulate in this game (as your witch card may end up in someone else’s hand), the game seems skewed towards the townspeople winning. This may change with the player count in the game (as we’ve only played with groups of five), so it would be really interesting to see how it played with seven or more, which would add a second witch card. Overall, this game is a winner to me and I think we’ll have no problem continuing to get this witch hunt out on the table.
Social deduction, for me, is a very hit-and-miss genre and, for better or worse, one of the most popular genres of games these days. Some games, like The Resistance, I really don’t like, while some games like Deception: Murder in Hong Kong I do, and still other games like Coup fall somewhere in the middle. Salem is, for me, one of the social deduction games I really like. While everyone is suspicious of each other and throws the fair share of blame around, it has never felt as mean-spirited or cutthroat as something like The Resistance. I have played the game as both the witch and a townsperson, and can have fun in either role (while usually I dread being the “bad” role and having to lie about it). It just doesn’t feel as stressful being on the witch team in Salem, and it’s definitely fun how the team can propagate after the night phase (though the time when I was a witch and successfully passed the card along, the Witch card was revealed before the next night phase, so I didn’t get the whole experience of being on a two-person witch team). The component quality is decent — the cards are nice and sturdy, with artwork that’s minimalistic but functional. The tokens are nice, though can be loud to move them around during the night phase if you’re playing on a hard surface, so you may want to use a playmat to muffle noise if you have one handy. And finally the box is probably the best part of the game — I love magnetic boxes to begin with, and with Salem’s box designed to look like an old leatherbound book, it’s certain to draw some attention. There are some negatives to the game, unfortunately. Being on the witch team and getting taken down by the lucky guess of one of your cards (as what happened to me during the first game we ever played) can suck, and some of the cards in the Salem deck can be pretty powerful (such as making a player discard their entire hand — though it could be argued that is a good deterrent against hoarding cards). It seems to be a pretty tough game for the witch team to win — I’ve yet to see it happen, though it’s gotten close a few times, and hopefully with more plays we’ll see a more even split of wins and losses. However, each time we’ve finished a game of Salem, everyone wanted to play again right away, which I feel is a pretty winning endorsement.