A List Apart

Managing Werewolves

Managing Werewolves

If I move a muscle, I’m dead. Jane, who I’m pretty sure is a Werewolf, is jumping from one player to the next, testing will and looking for weakness. She’s looking for a sign of guilt or discomfort and it’s not just her. The room is full of people looking for someone to lynch.

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The game is Werewolf and I’m both exhilarated and terrified, which is odd because I’m paid to play a real-life version of this horrific game every day.

A dangerous scenario

Werewolf is a party game described by its creator as “a game of accusations, lying, bluffing, second-guessing, assassination, and mob hysteria.” Understanding how it’s played is important to understanding why this game will sharpen your critical thinking skills regarding group dynamics at work.

A moderator begins by handing players a card that indicates their role: Villager, a Seer, or Werewolf. With all the cards distributed, each player announces their role in the village and everyone says the same thing, “Hi, I’m MyName and I’m a Villager.”

Now, some people are lying. A bunch of them are Werewolves, but they’re not going to admit that because we (the Villagers) want to kill them (the Werewolves) before they kill us.

The moderator then announces that it’s nighttime and all the players close their eyes. The two things that Werewolves are afraid of are, obviously, cows and zombies, so all the players make one of two sounds: “BraAaaaaaaaAaaaains” or “MooOooooooOooooo.”

These sounds are cover for what really goes on at night: The moderator asks the Werewolves to awaken and to pick a Villager to kill. Once the Werewolves have silently selected their victim, they go back to sleep. The moderator then awakens the Seer, who points at one player. Via a thumbs up or thumbs down, the moderator confirms for the Seer whether that player is a Werewolf or not. With everyone back to sleep, the moderator then awakens the village and announces who the Werewolves have killed in the night.

Then the game begins. The village must collectively choose to lynch someone whom they believe to be a Werewolf, based on whatever information they’ve inferred from the previous night’s killing or been given by the Seer (who may or may not want to reveal themselves as the Seer, a.k.a. Werewolf Enemy Number One). It’s not much to go on, but the villagers must execute someone every morning because, each night, each turn, that’s exactly what the Werewolves do. And when there are more Werewolves than Villagers, the Werewolves win.

We can’t let the Werewolves win. 

I’ve explained the mechanical basics of the game, but I have not explained its beauty. I love Werewolf because it’s a game where you can safely learn how to deal with the worst people you’re going to meet in the most dangerous scenarios possible.

People lie, some are evil, others just want to screw you

In the real world, I have a longstanding policy of optimism. When I begin a project, I assume that we’re a team working collectively to do the right thing. As a strategy, optimism has served me well, but here’s the bad news:

  • People can vary from being poor communicators to being outright liars.
  • Politics and process often screw up people’s value systems beyond recognition.
  • Evil things happen. Sometimes randomly.

In your career as either an individual contributor or a manager, you are going to be faced with unexpectedly shitty situations involving other people with devious agendas. Yes, the HR department is furiously working on cleverly named workshops about conflict management and situational leadership that will help. However, there’s really no replacement for having already had the experience of watching someone lie to your face and then figuring out what to do next.

This takes us back to a critical part of Werewolf: the accusation phase. Every morning, the Villagers must select someone to lynch-and while the moderator keeps track of time, it’s the Villagers who organically guide this process. If you want to stay alive, you should be watching the selection process itself. How is the potential Werewolf selected? What does the process look like? Who leads it?

Invariably someone in the village jumps into the leadership position. They start questioning people and guiding the accusation process. When this happens, pay attention: Why are they leading? What’s the motivation? Every word and every movement has different situational meaning. This is, effectively, your boss’ staff meeting, except in this meeting, people die.

When the group has selected a potential victim, the moderator asks the initial accuser why they think this Villager is a Werewolf. The reasoning can vary from “He’s twitchy” to “Well, we have to kill someone.”  The victim is given a chance to defend himself against this accusation—which, if he actually is a Werewolf, means he sits there and comfortably lies to the entire room.

This is why I love Werewolf. Where else can you hone some of the shadiest but most important skills you need to work with groups of people?

Rapidly size up a person based on how they deliver a single sentence. “I… am a Villager.” Where was he looking when he was speaking? Did he make eye contact? Was he fidgeting? Is he usually fidgeting? Why’d he stutter? That strikes me as… wolfy…

Observe the rapid evolution of roles in high-pressure scenarios. Who comes forward to lead? Are they challenged? Do they last? Why is she leading now? She was quiet last time. Who does she question? What kinds of questions is she asking? What kind of non-verbal language is she using? And why does she appear to be aligning with him?

Figure out how to fluidly integrate yourself into a group of strangers. How do they develop alliances based on little information? Who already knows each other? How are they communicating? Who is really playing and who is still trying to figure out the rules? Who am I instantly connecting with? Why I am being let into this particular clique? I don’t trust her, but for some reason she’s got my back.

Learn how to lie without the guilt or getting caught. What’s the difference between sinning by omission, twisting the facts, and outright, blatant lying? What kind of a lie is a temporary convenience versus long-term trouble? How many lies can you tell and still keep your story straight? What are the keys to a convincing lie? What does this particular group of people want to hear? “You can’t kill me—I’m the Seer and I know who the Werewolves are… really.”

Aggressively turn the spotlight off you and onto someone else using nothing but chutzpah. Who is the weakest in the room and how did they make themselves weak? What’s the balance between sounding credible and desperate? When is answering a question with a question the right move? Can they sense you’re aggressively trying to hide? How do you defuse the leader’s authority and credibility? “No, I’m not a Werewolf, but I’M CERTAIN SHE IS!

Perfect the poker face. Can you hide your emotions and reactions? What is the right type and amount of eye contact, body language, and tone of voice? When is calm believable? When is it not? Who can you look in the eye while maintaining your cool? Who is a liability? When is it time to completely shift your personality to make a point? “I… am a Villager.”

This isn’t role-playing: this is life or death

Werewolf is a game and games are fictionalized simplifications of life that allow you to explore extremes of social interactions in ways you normally cannot.

In real life, there’s a subtle but detectable flow to how a group of people interact. People adopt standard roles and act according to discernible rules. Unfortunately, it’s an impossibly long set of rules, because the rules vary as much as each person is different.

In Werewolf, on the other hand, there’s a very small set of rules:

  • Villagers, kill Werewolves as best you can.
  • Werewolves, kill Villagers as best you can.
  • Sleep when you’re told to.
  • Survive.

Interwoven within these rules is the actual game, and therein lies the brilliance of a solid game of Werewolf: It’s a crucible of people dynamics, improvisation, and intellectual combat. In just a few short hours of game play, you realistically experience some of the worst meeting scenarios imaginable—and the motivation to handle these scenarios with care and agility because, well, you don’t want to die.

I’m optimistic and, sometimes, realistic. I don’t actually believe someone will deliberately lie under normal circumstances, or that they are purely evil. There are those who have agendas that don’t align with mine, which gives them incentive to work against my interests, but they’re not just out to screw me—they’re out to succeed. Just like me.

In reality, most meetings aren’t high-pressure, survival-of-the-fittest lynchfests. Many meetings are well structured affairs with hardly a drop of blood spilled. But each time you speak in a meeting, you get a moment in the spotlight to demonstrate that yes, you understand what’s going on, you are clear about the rules of this particular game, and you’re in it to win.

We can’t let the Werewolves win

I suspect Jane is a Werewolf because she’s running the show this round. She’s keeping the spotlight on herself, and that means she’s excited; she’s got a lot of energy and, I suspect, a thirst for blood.

I’m being quiet. Intentionally. I’m waiting for her to accuse me, and I know she will—and that’s when I’ll blow her cover and expose her as a Werewolf. I can set this trap because I’ve played with her before and I know that she believes what I believe:

“We kill the quiet ones because they aren’t helping.”

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