Streets Slick with Neon and Lies
Until last Friday, I’d always wanted to visit Hong Kong. Then there were four totally unrelated murders within an hour of each other. One of them went unsolved. The other three had all been carried out by police officers.
As you might expect from a game called Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, there has been a murder (in Hong Kong, surprise surprise), and it’s up to you to solve it. Everyone is given their own set of cards depicting various possible murder weapons and other assorted clues. So in one round you might have a syringe, panties, and a riddle as your clues, plus a dagger, trophy, or radiation as your murder weapons. Then everyone secretly draws a role card and—
Hold on. No really, hold on. Yes, this is another social deduction game, and yes, I’m right there with you. The board game scene pretty much hit peak social deduction over the past couple years, so I get it. But stick around, because Tobey Ho, the designer of Deception, has had a couple strokes of brilliance that set it apart as seriously good stuff.
For one thing, Tobey Ho must have played Mysterium at some point. Gone are the oneiromancers, ghost, and hundred-year-old mystery. In their place are the clues that sit before each player and the solitary forensic scientist. This is the guy who knows what’s up. When your group goes through the usual “close your eyes” tap dance that lets the bad guys know who each other are, the forensic scientist gets to watch while the murderer indicates his clue and murder weapon from the cards laid in front of him. In one game, the murderer might pick the venomous snake and handcuffs; in another, pesticide and a table lamp.
The rub is that the forensic scientist is apparently a creep who lives in the basement laboratory, and nobody on the police force wants to go down there. So rather than just say who the murderer is, the best he can do is to hand out cryptic clues, little snippets of vague information in the form of forensic reports. Unlike Mysterium, these aren’t dreams straight out of a bad acid trip. Instead, they’re one- or two-word tidbits about the crime scene itself. So if the killer left behind a menu as a clue, the forensic scientist might report that the murder occurred in a restaurant. If the weapon were poisonous gas, he might tell the investigators that a bystander had noticed a peculiar smell. Most of these opportunities for clue-giving are drawn randomly from a hefty stack, so on occasion they won’t make sense right away, forcing clever forensic scientists to stretch their imaginations to make use of them — and to avoid misdirects. For example, one time I submitted a report that the weather was “humid.” Unfortunately, this drew everyone’s attention to the steamed dumpling clue that was sitting right in front of an innocent player. Not that they knew that.
Which brings us to Deception’s second spark of inspiration. We’ve already talked about the forensic scientist, and it almost goes without saying that nearly everyone else at the table is an investigator. Unfortunately, the murderer is also on the force, freeing them to leap to bad conclusions and guide their fellow officers away from the truth. This fosters an incredible sense of distrust among everyone at the table, where every single insight is immediately treated with suspicion.
ME: “Well, if the victim’s expression was angry, maybe that means he died in a fight? Ryan has a ‘kick’ card in front of him. Maybe that’s it?”
RYAN: “That’s so like you to say I’m the murderer. I’ll bet it was your ‘arsenic’ over there. The victim knew he’d just been poisoned by you, and he was pissed about it, because you’re a regular pansy son of a—”
You get the idea.
Even better, there are two optional roles that absolutely must be included if you really want everyone glaring daggers at each other. The accomplice is there to help the murderer mislead the police, while the witness knows both of their identities. This might sound extremely powerful, but the witness is given two major handicaps. First of all, she doesn’t know which player is the real murderer and which is the accomplice, so she still has a few beats to work through. Second, if she’s too overt in guiding the investigation towards the correct culprits, the murderer gets one last chance to bump her off before he’s sent to prison, thus winning the game for the bad guys.
Deception particularly shines with a higher player count, perhaps in the eight to twelve range, where every role is given room to breathe. Adjusting the difficulty is as simple as handing out more or fewer cards to each player, and it’s the sort of game that plays in a breezy 15 minutes. In any case, the result is one of the best social deduction games I’ve played in a long time, packed with misdirection, jolts of genius and folly, and constant throbbing paranoia. Also theoretical Hong Kong neon, though you’ll have to use your imagination for that.