The Goat Will Carry On
There’s nothing wrong with puns. That said, if your game prominently features one on the front cover its box, I’m less likely to pick it up. Scape Goat has two. “Goat milk?” and “Someone’s goat to take the fall.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at the back.
So how did it wind up here? Two words: Jon. Perry. Co-designer of Time Barons and designer of Air, Land, & Sea, a short stack of eighteen cards that still managed to be one of last year’s absolute best. That’s a pedigree that deserves a second look, puns aside. And I couldn’t be happier, because Scape Goat continues Perry’s tradition of breeding rattlesnakes — tightly coiled, easy to overlook, and packing one heck of a bite.
The cops were closing in. Pigs, probably. Literal swine. Hogs on the verge of going hog-wild all over our baaaaasses.
Yes, I too can pun.
Not that I was in a laughing mood. None of the members of the Billy Goats Gruff Gang were. We were all too busy studying each other over a glass of milk. Interrogoating each other.
“Someone’s gonna hoof it,” Green said.
“Udderly ridiculous,” Orange grunted. Like we didn’t all know the plan was to pin our most recent heist on one member of the crew. We’d worked it out. Red would take the fall. Green and Blue had approached me. Even Orange had given the obligoatory bleat of consent. Red had been told the patsy was someone else. The poor thing.
But at that moment, Red was filing her hooves. Not even nervous. And was that my card she was holding? Were they all holding my cards? I hadn’t seen any in a while. I started sweating. A betrayal at this point would be a real blow beneath the pelt.
“I overherd that somebody was going to rat us out to the cops,” Blue offered.
Red chimed in. “Cud you stop it? Nobody’s forgoatten that we’re in this together.”
But were we? I looked around the table. Green and Blue wouldn’t meet my eyes. Orange caught my stare and held it way too long, his rectangular pupils unmoving. Like he knew that I knew. Like I’d soon be negoatiating for my life. Tail-deep in manure. In my perifury vision, I could have sworn I saw Red smirk.
So I did it. My token moved all the way down the field. Past the stash, past the spot where we traded contraband. All the way to the pigs themselves. The table erupted. Bleating, butting heads. Why’d I do that? Why go to the cops? Time to indicate the real scapegoat. Everybody hooved Red. She laughed. She’d thought it was me.
I had, too. But it wasn’t me. I’d gone and screwed up the plan. Now the only one who’d go free was Red. The rest of us were about to have a very negoative time in a federal pen.
What’s so immediately appealing about Scape Goat is that it flips the social deduction formula on its head. Think back to your average game of Werewolf or Secret Hitler or whatever. What’s the conundrum? You know who you are. You know how to win. The obstacle standing between those points is everybody else. Specifically, the issue of identity. Some are on your team, some are working against you, maybe there’s a neutral role thrown in there. If only you could figure out who’s who, the tangle of competing goals would unknot itself and victory would fall neatly into line.
The problem with inverting that formula is that it’s ingrained in the genre itself. What does an inversion look like? Surely it isn’t a regular game, with everybody’s roles out in the open. It would be silly to call a regular game an “inverse social deduction game,” because that’s not how inversions work. Nor would we call a more complicated social deduction game an inversion. Even the most complex examples — those with a bunch of crazy roles and objectives beyond “find the werewolf” — collapse into dysfunction and tedium if the roles are played face-up. That’s because social deduction games are about the roles, not merely amplified by them.
Except Scape Goat manages it. What’s the inverse of social deduction? Think amnesia. Think Memento. Think being a member of a gang who doesn’t know whether you’re hearing good information. You know all the roles except for your own. And, in failing to know yourself, do you really know anyone?
It works like this. At the start of each play, you roll two dice. These determine a grid coordinate on the back of your character sheet. This always indicates another player — so if you’re blue, you’ll never be prompted with blue. This is because you’re being shown which member of the gang is the fall guy. The patsy. The scapesheep.
But the patsy’s sheet? It shows somebody else.
Think through that for a moment. The implication doesn’t always land right away. Everybody’s sheet shows green, but the green player’s sheet shows red. You know who to hang the crime on. But your patsy thinks they’re hanging the crime on somebody else. Which means you don’t know if your information is good. All those meaningful glances? When somebody at the table smiles? When somebody forces a peek at your hand? For all you know, all of those quirks and gestures and requests are because everybody at the table is gunning for you.
If you’ve ever felt the thrill of paranoia that comes from not knowing who’s working which angle, let me tell you, it pales in comparison to wondering if everybody is secretly out to get you. That’s Scape Goat from start to finish. Everybody is working toward a shared goal, except for that one target player who thinks they’re working against somebody else. But while the game permits open communication, nobody can address the question head-on because on their turn the scapegoat can run to the cops and win outright. So you’re forced to communicate in subtler ways. Stolen glances, kicks under the table, cryptic questions. The rub, of course, is that every initiation with another player might be feeding into a false narrative nobody but you is pursuing. If your victim winks conspiratorially at you, don’t you intend to wink back?
The way Perry teases that out is masterful. To frame a patsy, everybody needs to reveal a card of the patsy’s color. Preparing for that moment takes time, and may tip your hand that you’re getting ready for the frame job — unless, perhaps, you’re delaying the vote? Even then, there aren’t many copies of each card, so you may need to work to get everyone the right color. But every swap, every spoken word, every card placed face-up or face-down on the table, is more leaked information that might send the patsy running to the cops. Or worse, the non-patsy panicking because they’ve become convinced that they’re the one getting the finger.
Either way, bringing in the police wins the game for the scapegoat. So you want to be sure. But not too sure. If you’ve realized you’re the scapegoat, it might already be too late. More than once, I found myself on the verge of running to the cops when it turned out I wasn’t the patsy. Other times, I was keeping watch on the table, saw my color come up once or twice, and felt sure I was working with the group, only to find myself dragged off to answer for the crime we all committed. And those were the times I felt grounded. There’s nothing quite like staring at the plays unfolding on the table and having no idea which side you’re on.
Such effortless paranoia. And such a brilliant conceit, making you more certain of other people’s identity than your own.
My only reservation is for the game’s longevity. These days, social deduction games are often as complicated as the games they’re supposed to be more straightforward than, with a dozen different roles crammed into any given session. Scape Goat has two roles. And really, it’s arguable that they’re both the same role, “Criminal Trying to Frame Another Criminal.” It’s just that one of them didn’t make themselves indispensable before the game began.
The more I think about it, however, the less I care. Scape Goat is curated to make you doubt your own knowledge as much as you doubt everybody else’s intentions. It doesn’t need wacky role cards, or alternate ways to win, or some bystander who wins only if the silver mirror is in the stash when the patsy gets perp-walked to the cruiser. Perry has authored something pure and unornamented, a raw and feverish anxiety that only earns its exhale at the last possible moment. For that, I can weather a few puns.
A complimentary copy was provided.