Managing Werewolves
Issue № 285

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#section1

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 #section2

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#section3

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#section4

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.”

About the Author

Michael Lopp

Michael Lopp is a Silicon Valley-based engineering manager. When he’s not worrying about staying relevant, he writes about pens, bridges, people, and werewolves at the popular weblog, Rands in Repose. Michael wrote a book called “Managing Humans” which explains that while you might be rewarded for what you produce, you will only be successful because of your people. Michael surfs in Northern California whenever he can because staying sane is a full time gig.

25 Reader Comments

  1. Sorry, I just don’t see the creativity in this game (or article). If tapping into teen horror-flick-fantasy driven thought processes is the answer to doing well in the workplace, then we have a serious problem in this culture.

  2. I didn’t know the game. Now I have to play it. And I’m sure I’ll learn something cool from it. Great article! Thank you.

  3. I’ve never heard of this game before, but it sounds interesting, like aggressive card games where bluffing is key. But I have a hard time applying the rules to real life. As a manager of creative folks and one whose calendar is packed with meetings with people across the organization, I simply cannot relate to the dark point of view.

    It’s no secret there are some people who seek to undermine others and climb political ladders — assholes are a corporate institution. But from my experience, people who have skin in the game want to genuinely contribute to meetings, and they are almost always open and collaborative. A corporate culture that revolved around exposing “werewolves” would ultimately implode in self-defeating witch hunts.

    I wish this article had delved into ways of actually managing those challenging relationships with werewolves, instead of laying out tactics to simply identify them. It’s not hard to determine who has hidden agendas, and it’s not hard to figure out what those agendas are. The hard part is managing the good people with the bad. I have my own methods (fire them), but sometimes it’s not always that easy.

    I hope you consider a follow-up on the actual management aspect, because the article does not deliver on the title’s promise.

  4. Sounds far more useful than closing your eyes and falling backwards hoping someone will catch you.

  5. Played a similar game with friends… and I’m definitively in the middle of it in real life. Often times you know the truth of situations, but it helps to actually hear someone articulate whats happening. Thanks for the pimp article!

  6. Let me start by saying I appreciate trying something different. The article is pretty well written, clever, and an interesting topic.

    But it doesn’t align very closely with my workplace experience. It doesn’t sound like it aligns with many others’ experience either.

    Sure, every business has a few people like that. But I would argue that spending any time trying to decipher their movements or change in vocal pitch is going to get you nowhere.

    If you stay who you are: honest, optimistic, energetic, and creative – then you will find your way to success much quicker than focusing on the devious actions of others.

  7. This is an interesting article, but I am not sure what the take away from it is. It seems that the author is suggesting that in business, like in the game, only the strong and deceitful survive. Are you condoning and suggesting that we all start lying and playing power games in order to deal with all our coworkers who are doing the same?

    The article supplies an excellent description of the game, however, the parallels that the author draws to everyday life seem a little dubious and pessimistic. In addition, I agree with the premise that not everyone in an office setting is honest or trust worthy, but the author does not actually offer any constructive methods of dealing with these kinds of people beyond playing power games and dropping down to their level.

  8. I’m in agreement with Kevin Potts, this article needs some sort of follow-up on actual implementation of the Werewolf theory of project management. Not enough connection to concrete reality, for me.

  9. I usually like A List Apart’s articles (even if I don’t understand some of the more technical ones), but it feels like someone got ahold of this one specifically to promote their party game in an exciting way, with some vague unrealized promise of tying it into a “working with other people in a collaborative environment” article. While the game certainly has its psychological appeal, and at its core, reading the mood and analyzing why people say what they do has relevance, the metaphor of “don’t let the monsters win” stays quite literally “don’t let the monsters win”. And what is “winning” or “death”? They’re discussed as tangible, immovable final results, when in my experience, nothing in web design is set in stone forever. The whole metaphor is treated with such stark gravity and dramatic flourish that it makes me feel like I’m missing out on something very exciting in my mostly-civil, compromise-friendly profession.

    I’ll echo those before me to say that while I’ve met manipulative people, I haven’t been in any lynch-mob-meetings, and I certainly wouldn’t I say I’m “paid to play a real-life version of this horrific game every day”.

  10. Having moderated several hours’ worth of gameplay last year with Michael around the table, I can confirm that he’s a fine werewolf player.

  11. Boy, am I glad I don’t work for you!

    If you eye your team with suspicion, expecting that there are werewolves among them, then invariably, you’re going to see werewolves–and then make things worse when you try to kill them.

    If you have werewolves on your team, then chances are, you’re the alpha.

  12. Great article! I’ve been playing this game quite a long time now with friends, and being a communication skills trainer, I use this game in my training sessions. Clients are REALLY very enthusiastic about it and it’s a great activity to play in the evening program of multiple-day sessions. I added some moderations to it to address especially presentation skills, convincing skills and social sensitivity/ awareness. It’s totally fun and very useful at the same time.

    Some comment on mr Kevin Potts: “The hard part is managing the good people with the bad. I have my own methods (fire them), but sometimes it’s not always that easy.”

    – spoken like a true Werewolf! 😉

  13. But in the workplace, it’s often better NOT to cry werewolf.

    But believe me they’re there. They may only show their faces in a full moon (i.e. high stress situation), but I believe every group of people has a hierarchy and pecking order, and usually it goes unstated.

    That’s how you keep your villagers asleep long enough to eat them.

  14. (look that up somewhere…)

    Yes, it is the game called Mafia described in Wikipedia. It’s something that a group of people at W3C play a lot too – unsurprisingly, because working in a group of people with declared intentions (make a great standard for the world) and undeclared intentions (make their company rich, make their patent more valuable, destroy the patent system and the free world, ensure that PonyML never gets finished so that the proprietary DonkeyML wins in the marketplace, etc etc) is a lot like playing werewolf.

    Managing people on the assumption that some of them are werewolves is misinterpreting the game.

    What it teaches you to do is work with people and think carefully about both the motivations they tell you about (“I want a promotion”, “I want to transfer to another group”) and the ones they don’t (“I want to spend more time away from home”, “I don’t like working for you and want a new manager”).

    It also teaches you that your intuitions are just that – nobody is infallibly good at judging people – even people they know very well, although it is clearly easier than with people you hardly know. Which in turn leads to important balances of trust, self-doubt and decision-making…

    In the context of a game, where the goal is the survival of the village (or the werewolves) and not the individual, it also teaches you about sacrifice, and how to decide whether it is worthwhile – because sometimes it is, and sometimes it is just glorious and pointless.

    And of course it can show you things about the way other people think and work in a group – not hard-and-fast reliable things becaus it is a game, and more so because it can be gamed if you are using it in a formal context. But Not entirely useless stuff either.

    The level of actual *fun* depends on the context, on the players (some people can make anything seem like an inquisition or an endless unplanned and pointless meeting) and on the moderator. It also depends on the fall of the cards. Some people make great werewolves, or seers, and the game becomes far more interesting. Is there anything worse than knowing your “lover”, whom you always have to protect, is in fact a werewolf? Yes – holding the double vote of the Mayor, as well…

    And it’s a social way to spend an evening (has anyone ever played it in the morning?) that can be as interesting for people to watch even if they hate playing. This happens to some of the quiet ones especially.

    Because it’s true, they are more expendable even if they are not werewolves – a team game requires a team effort.

  15. I’ve never heard of this game before, but it sounds pretty interesting. I’ll have to give it a try some time.

    Office politics can be really unpleasant and complicated, especially when your agenda (and we all have one, even if it’s just to do the best work we can) goes against the agendas of most of your coworkers and supervisors (which I’m thinking is how the werewolf game relates to office politics).

    This article actually gave me a little bit of insight into the conflicts I’ve had in previous positions. Thanks!

  16. I feel that this article seems to be mirror of my life. I myself doesn’t know whether I was a werewolf or the good farmer. I believe most of the human beings on this earth are in the same way.

  17. I don’t think it’s a problem to draw parallels from anywhere in life. It simply gives others an insight into the way you view bigger pictures.
    I’m glad for metaphors.
    However, I really hope I can get by being a lowly villager. Not lowly in stature, but honest, real and optimistic.
    Ah, who am I kidding. I’m stocking up on silver bullets…

  18. Sounds like a great way to develop social tools. Knowing how to identify the bad guys, and how to be the bad guy, is a great tool in arming yourself against the people in life who would exploit you. Forget office politics; everywhere in life there are cutthroats who will scalp you for a dime if you let them. From car dealerships to politicians, arming yourself with the ability to know when they’re lying, what they’re lying about, what their motivations and interests are, and making an educated guess at the truth is the key to looking out for number one *without* being a werewolf yourself.

  19. What a strange sensation to read the first paragraphs of this article and then find out that it was just a game. It describes a real life work environment I experienced. There was only one werewolf, but the whole environment became tainted and antagonistic because of it. The interesting thing was that the person causing the problem wasn’t officially a manager, but was allowed to wreck havoc the management, who didn’t know how to deal with the problem. In any organization, it’s the job of management to weed out the werewolves before they devour the rest of the staff.

  20. The werewolf game is actually quite popular in Korea, known as “Mafia” where the werewolves are mafia, the seers are cops, and the villagers are citizens, with identical rules (except for the mooing or the brains). Never connected it with the work environment but in hindsight it is giving me valuable feedback on how I react in a crisis. It might not be a good team building exercise though, cause although its good at getting to know each other, you might not see a person the same way ever again 😉

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