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Best Bluffing Games

Cockroach Poker Game Review

I have over 200 games in my collection, and according to BGG, a quarter of those are bluffing games. Although that feels about right, I am not sure that I agree with BGG on some of those categorizations. For example, Decrypto is one of my favourite party games. It works best with two teams of 2/3 players, but I wouldn’t classify it as a bluffing game. You have to give your partner a three word clue that hopefully won’t be obvious to the opposing team. Sure you want your clue to be cryptic, but you aren’t lying (which is the key feature of a bluffing game).

Best Bluffing Game For Story Tellers: Reigns: The Council

Reigns: The Council is one of my favourite bluffing games. In playing the game, you make a proposal to the king and you are hoping that he will approve (or reject) it. On the front of the proposal cards there are four icons that indicate the size of the impact on the key pillars - Church, People, Military and Finance - if the proposal is accepted. These icons do not indicate the direction of those impacts, nor do they give any indication of the impact if the proposal is rejected. The sample card on the right (from my redesign of the PNP edition) shows that if this proposal is accepted, there will be no impact (0) to the Finance pillar, a small impact (1 or 2) on the Church and Military pillars and a large impact (3 or 4) on the People pillar. This information is public knowledge, but the details on the back are only known to the proposer. The king listens to all the proposals and must choose at least one of them. In making this decision, the king may ask any of the other proposers for their advice, but everyone has a secret goal so they could all be lying.

Reigns: The Council is a great game that works best with four and takes about half an hour to play, but to get the best out of it, everyone has to be capable of making up a story to explain how these outcomes are going to be manifested. This game started as an app, and then Nerial asked Bruno Faidutti (Citadels, Mission: Red Planet, Mascarade), and Herve Marly (Skull, The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow) to turn it into a board game. Unfortunately, it’s not readily available (even though they had almost 3,000 backers on Kickstarter), but you can get the free PNP files to make your own copy here (PnP Paradise). If you want something that is similar (and readily available), I recommend Detective Club.

Best Bluffing Game For Magicians: Cockroach Poker (Royal)

The classic bluffing game of Cockroach Poker (or its offspring Cockroach Poker Royal) works best with four to six players and takes about 20 minutes. The game ends when one player gets rid of all the cards in their hand (making them the sole winner) or when one player accumulates four face up cards of the same suit (making them the sole loser). The mechanics of the game are simple: I place a card from my hand face down in front of you and announce its suit (the cards in Cockroach don’t have any numbers on them). Suppose I told you it was a fly (the suits are bat, cockroach, fly, etc). At this point, you have to decide whether I am lying.

If the player guesses correctly, the card goes face up in front of the player who made the declaration. If the player guesses incorrectly, then the card goes face up in front of themself. But there is another option: rather than making the decision, the player can choose to pass the card. That is, he says he is passing, he picks up the card and looks at it and then places it face down in front of another player, and tells her that it’s a fly (or that it’s a bat). That player is now faced with the same choices.

When I play Cockroach with my fellow magicians, we have an additional house rule. More specifically, I have to show you a card face up (let’s say it’s a bat) and then I turn it face down and place it on the table in front of you and tell you that it’s a bat (or a fly). You saw the bat, but is that card on the table the same one?! This adds a layer of dexterity to the bluffing game and it definitely ups the enjoyment of the game. Incidentally, the publishers of Cockroach are a German company called “Drei Magier Spiele” and “Drei Magier” means three mages!

Best Head To Head Bluffing Game For (Heavy) Gamers: Android: Netrunner

Bluffing games are usually thought of as simple party games, but bluffing games can get heavy! The two counter-examples that instantly spring to mind are Android: Netrunner and Battlestar Galactica. Netrunner is a two player Living Card Game. Technically, it is out of print, but thanks to Null Signal Games you can still get a starter deck (System Gateway) for about $45 (£36). In Netrunner one player is the Runner and the other is the Corp. The Runner is trying to hack into the Corp, and the Corp is trying to stop the Runner. It’s a great game, but there is a steep learning curve (BGG gives it a weight of 3.4). So, it will take you a while to learn the game and understand how the two decks interact, and then you’ll want to customize your deck to make it stronger. That will eventually lead you to buy more decks (which is what makes Netrunner a Living Card Game). The potential for bluffing in Netrunner arises because every card you play is placed face down. So, you don’t know whether that card your opponent just played is a treasure or a trap.

If you are looking for something that is more readily available, I suggest A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (second edition). However, be warned that in order for two people to play this game properly, you have to buy three sets of the card game. But this card game also plays well with up to four players, so that’s a bonus.

Best Bluffing Game For 5 (Heavy) Gamers: Unfathomable

Battlestar Galactica is a slightly easier game (than Netrunner), that plays best with 5-6 players. It’s set in the sci-fi universe of the 2004-2009 TV series, with the Colonists running away from the Cylons. The catch is that one of the Colonists is really a Cylon. I would classify this as a hidden traitor game (only one player is lying) rather than a bluffing game (where every player could be lying). Nonetheless, whereas Netrunner cruises at 45 minutes, Battlestar Galactica takes a whopping two and a half hours to complete. It’s out of print, but Fantasy Flight Games have reimplemented the game as Unfathomable. It’s now set in 1913, and you are onboard the SS Atlantica, where one of you is a human hybrid seeking to sink the ship. With six players, this game takes almost four hours, and it can outstay its welcome. So, I would recommend this only for 5 players. Some gamers would say that Dark Moon is a shorter (one hour) alternative to Battlestar Galactica (in fact Dark Moon started off as BSG Express), but other diehards argue that it doesn’t scratch the same itch.

If you have a big crew (6-11) and you want something lighter and faster than Unfathomable, I highly recommend Feed the Kracken. That only takes about an hour, but it’s a relatively new game, so you’ll have to pre-order it from Zatu. Alternatively, I highly recommend Deception: Murder in Hong Kong and that only takes 20 minutes.

One of the main problems with hidden traitor (and deduction) games is that they play best with a very specific player count, and that number is usually larger than the usual attendance at my game nights. For example, The Resistance: Avalon plays best with 7-8 although it advertises 5-10 on the box, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf plays best with 6-8 even though it advertises 3-10. With smaller numbers, I find that it’s too easy to guess who the traitor is (and you don’t use most of the roles that come in the box). As a result, the game experience at the lower player counts suffers.

Another problem with hidden traitor games is the incidental (but impossible to ignore) clue that results when a player moves or reaches over to point at something (or distribute items). With your eyes closed, you are more aware of the sounds around you, so as someone moves to complete their actions, you have a good idea of who that person is, or can at least tell where the player is (on your right or left, or across from you). So, at the start of the game, be sure to warn players to minimize their movements and position items so that they are easily reached.

Best Deduction Game For 3-5 Players: The Grimm Masquerade

One bluffing game that works really well at 3-5 players is The Grimm Masquerade. You are secretly one of eight fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc. There is a deck of artifacts (6 copies of each artifact). One of those artifacts is your boon (you want three of these to win the round) and one of those artifacts is your bane (if you collect two of these, you have to reveal your identity); the other artifacts have no effect on you. On your turn you draw an artifact card and decide whether to keep it, or to give it to another player of your choice. Then, you draw another artifact card, and you do the opposite. As you accumulate artifacts in your hand, you automatically reveal any sets of three identical artifacts (and you can optionally discard sets of two), giving the other players a hint about your identity. If no player succeeds in accumulating three of their boon artifacts, the round ends when there is only one unmasked player. What I especially like about this game is that even if your identity has been revealed, you can continue to play as normal trying to unmask the other players to score points. In other words, there is no player elimination. It also looks great on the table.

Best Bluffing Game For Players Who Won’t (Can’t?) Lie: Prohis

You don’t have to be a good liar to do well in bluffing games. Prohis is the game that proves it. You are a smuggler transporting goods (represented by cards). On your turn, you can draw another card or place 2-4 cards face down on the table. If you choose to place cards on the table, one of the other players may decide to inspect that cargo, and if they find any contraband, they get to score all the cards that you just played. If they don’t find anything, you score all the cards. However, in order to inspect your cargo, they need to have an inspection card in their hand. It’s a very easy game to teach, and it plays well at all player counts (it says 3-6 on the box). It feels like a variation of Sheriff of Nottingham, but that game takes an hour to play, while Prohis is over and done with in about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, Prohis is out of print.

That wouldn’t stop me. Normally, I would just make a similarly themed version of the game and print the cards out. But my wife hates games that glamorize crime (it’s arguable whether Prohis does). So, I rethemed the game for a holiday vacation. You are coming back from a holiday abroad, but you haven’t declared everything in your checked luggage. When you pick up your bags from the baggage carousel, a customs officer may choose to inspect them. This gives the game a more whimsical feel, and if I feel like playing a bluffing game, and someone says they don’t like telling lies (or is not good at telling lies), this is the game that I bring out. It has always been well received, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

As you can see from the picture above, the cards look great (in the original, the card back was a truck, so the face down cards would look like a convoy). When you turn the cards over, you see the contents. Dirty laundry will score you 1 point (0 points if it’s left in your hand at the end of the round), loads of money will score you 4 points (-4 points if left in your hand), and the inspection card will score you 3 points (1 if left in your hand). I used a double number index (large number in purple, small number in red) to make the distinction in values. In the original, you had to refer to the rulebook as the only number printed on the card was its played value.

When a baggage inspection takes place, if an inspection card is turned over, then you have messed up an undercover operation and the inspection is a bust (so whoever played the cards get to score all of them). It’s important to point out that the inspection card has a number in the lower left. That number is how many cards can be inspected (the values range from 1 to 3). Sure, you might know she’s carrying contraband, but you only have one shot at finding it.

A final recommendation is Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game. You can play it as a cooperative game, with everyone trying to achieve a common goal. But, by design, it’s a semi-cooperative game with each individual having their own secret goal. Moreover, it might be the case that for you to win, you have to make sure that the group fails to achieve their common goal. Not all of the personal goals conflict with the common goal, but this conflict creates a great game dynamic. Is Andy just being a pain (because he normally is) or is he being a pain because he has a contrarian secret goal? It plays 3-5 in about 1-2 hours, and although this may look like a Zombie game, you don’t have to really have to worry about them.

Roll those dice, baby!