BLOOD ON THE CLOCKTOWER

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _TABLETOP.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
publisher _THE PANDEMONIUM INSTITUTE.   designer _STEVEN MEDWAY.  players _5-20.   playtime _30-120 MINS.

June 26, 2022

images © The Pandemonium Institute.

As the fortieth (gasp!) anniversary of social deduction favourite Mafia, and its equally popular reskin, Werewolf, looms on the not-too-distant, you don’t have to glance too far afield to see the countless pretenders to the throne that they have inspired.

The core Mafia structure, which sees a group of players split into two groups, with secret evil players gradually picking off the rest, whose job it is to try and survive and identify the lurking ne’er-do-wells in their midsts, has been frequently imitated, rarely bettered. Some notable successors include Bruno Faidutti’s more card-centric Mascarade, the mild questing of Resistance/Avalon, and, of course, the wildly popular ‘One Night Ultimate’ franchise, which distils all the action of a typical game of, say, Werewolf, into a single manic round of accusations and finger pointing.

Elsewhere, other more conventional releases have injected tendrils of the social deduction gene into a broader tabletop experience, such as the potential ‘Traitor’ mechanic in Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter, the nefarious, backstabbing objectives tucked away in the decks of Awaken Realms’ recent hit Nemesis, and gaming experiences more directly oriented around hidden identities, such as Evan Derrick’s Dark Moon (itself a reskin of the hugely popular Battlestar Galactica Express).

In short; social deduction, hidden identities and, let’s face it, the fear, thrill and possibility of a fellow player throwing a decisive wrench in your strategy (or dagger in your back), remains an increasingly popular and present ingredient in the tabletop oeuvre.

Enter designer Steven Medway and The Pandemonium Institute who, in Blood on the Clocktower, seem to have thrown down the gauntlet to their genre competitors to offer up the most exhaustive, expansive and – they hope – exhilarating social deduction experience on offer.

Firstly, there’s no getting away from the sheer size and heft of Clocktower. It’s a weighty thing, and, having gone through various incarnations, redesigns and prototypes, the final delivered product is an impressively present beast.

Everything comes housed in the ‘Grimoire’, an oversized, mythical tome that each game’s ‘Storyteller’ – Clocktower’s version of a DM or games master – will carry round with them to help assist in their omniscient duties in running this almost intimidatingly variable experience.

“…there’s no getting away from the sheer size and heft of Clocktower… the final delivered product is an impressively present beast.”

The Storyteller will almost invariably be the arbiter of how enjoyable (and successful) a game of Clocktower will turn out to be. Much like Mafia, they are an overseer to the action; they will not be assigned a role, character or team, but will instead adjudicate and direct the gameplay, as the other players are secretly assigned roles (each with their own special power, rule or ability) and, if they are good, seek to take out the head of the evil forces (the ‘Demon’), who will, in turn, slowly be picking off good players for death, with the help of its ‘Minions’.

Clocktower proceeds over a cycle that will be instantly familiar to Mafia/Werewolf fans. During ‘Day’, players discuss what information they may or may not have, point fingers, call for executions and, in some cases, use their abilities. By ‘Night’, the Demon and his minions lurk, attempt to kill players, whilst a variety of other special roles and abilities may be awakened and put to use, too.

 Blood on the Prototype – The Pandemonium Institute have clearly put a lot of time, care and artistry into developing the final delivery version of ‘Clocktower‘. Pictured above is an earlier prototype which, whilst distinctive and containing many of the eventual componenets such as the ‘Grimoire’, nevertheless lacks a lot of the eventual polish, craft and character. The final delivered game is an impressive thing of real presence and beauty (a couple of minor future-proofing concerns aside)

It is, initially at least, a tremendous amount of information to absorb and remember for one individual, but Clocktower shrewdly provides a number of quality of life aids, from the aforementioned Grimoire, with inserts that run through the Storyteller’s duties in a step-by-step, night-by-night fashion, and a full character reference sheet for every player, so they can try and deduce which roles may or may not be in play (good and evil alike). For, unlike many other social deduction experiences, players do not even know which roles are in circulation in any given game (it is entirely up to the Storyteller to decide this at the outset) and, even when a player is killed, what their role or alignment was.

Another interesting wrinkle being that here, death is not the end. Whereas being killed in, say, Werewolf, would see a player essentially sat out of the rest of the game, their role exposed, in Clocktower deceased players continue to partake in all of the discussions – their role and allegiance safely secret – and even get one final ‘ghost’ vote on executions (more on which later).

It leaves Clocktower as a perpetual puzzle, right up to its climactic moments. Twists in the gameplay, such as ‘poisoning’ and ‘drunkenness’, can mute players’ abilities without them even realising, or allow the Storyteller to give information-seeking characters incorrect clues. More than any of its contemporaries, there is always doubt and suspicion circulating every claim and supposition of Clocktower, even your own.

 Blood on the Prototype – The Pandemonium Institute have clearly put a lot of time, care and artistry into developing the final delivery version of ‘Clocktower‘. Pictured above is an earlier prototype which, whilst distinctive and containing many of the eventual componenets such as the ‘Grimoire’, nevertheless lacks a lot of the eventual polish, craft and character. The final delivered game is an impressive thing of real presence and beauty (a couple of minor future-proofing concerns aside)

For instance, let’s say you’ve drawn the ‘Fortune Teller’, an information-savvy character aligned with the good team. In the dead of night, when all other players are ‘asleep’, you have been awoken by the Storyteller. You point at two of your fellow players, and the Storyteller nods, revealing to you that one of the two whom you indicated are in fact the Demon; the essential role that your team must identify and execute. That’s great… only, you don’t know which of the two it is. And, even more than that, you can’t even really be sure that you can fully trust that nod you’ve just been given. A fiendish minion called ‘The Poisoner’ may be in play, and if they’ve targeted you earlier this round (which you won’t know) then the Storyteller can give you completely inaccurate information. Or perhaps you accidentally pointed at your ‘Red Herring’, a character that will register as the Demon to the Fortune Teller’s power, even though they aren’t. Or perhaps you stumbled upon the ‘Recluse’, an Outsider character who, whilst on the good team, can also incorrectly register as the Demon, should the Storyteller see fit.

Or maybe, just maybe, you are in fact ‘The Drunk’, a secret character that can be assigned at the start of the game, that means you aren’t even who you think you are, and certainly don’t access have that power (though the Storyteller, naturally, must act as if you do).

If it all sounds overwhelmingly complicated, then you’re witness to what is, in many ways, the genius of Blood on the Clocktower, and what makes for such an absorbing and almost endlessly replayable experience. Conventional social deduction titles can easily fall flat if a pivotal role falls in the hands of a less capable bluffer, or if one of the special characters gets off a lucky guess or target with their ability. Quarterbacking can easily creep in, when more confident or vocal players get certain powers or roles.

“If it all sounds overwhelmingly complicated, then you’re witness to what is, in many ways, the genius of Blood on the Clocktower…”

Here, the Storyteller routinely has tremendous leverage to balance a game that is heading too quickly or decisively in a particular direction, buoyed by the fact that there are no vanilla characters; everyone has some form of special rule or ability and, as just detailed with the Fortune Teller, you can never be completely certain that what information you do have is infallible.

Heck, even the pivotal, evil mastermind of the Demon is given access to three ‘good’ identities that aren’t in play that they can bluff as, as well as cheeky ways of avoiding their own death and thus ending the game. A particularly cunning Demon, for instance, can even kill themselves in the night phase to avert suspicion, in which case one of their minion teammates is promoted to the role. Or maybe they will choose to ‘kill’ an already dead player, meaning there is no fresh death that night, thus throwing the good characters into a state of confusion as to how and why.

More than pretty much any of its contemporaries, no two games of Blood on the Clocktower are remotely similar, and yet the anchor behind all of this does hinge on the game’s biggest potential caveat; namely, the importance of the Storyteller.

Firstly, disregard any notion that the Storyteller somehow gets an inferior, sidelined or truncated experience. It’s a devilishly fun role, and one that is extremely active throughout, with decisions regularly needing to be made on how much you help or hinder each team, as well as conducting pivotal moments such as the votes for executions that take place in each Day phase; the democratic voting process that is, in many instances, the good players’ only opportunity to kill those who they suspect may be evil players.

“…disregard any notion that the Storyteller somehow gets an inferior, sidelined or truncated experience. It’s a devilishly fun role, and one that is extremely active throughout…”

It is nonetheless a lot to absorb though, and, as solid a job as the Clocktower base set does in gradually introducing the elements of play for new Storytellers, in addition to the aforementioned visual aids and tokens, there will likely be a number of mistakes or oversights made in initial games particularly. Thankfully, given the variable and unpredictable nature of the game, these are often easy to mask or recover from. The breakthrough moment invariably comes, though, half a dozen or so games in, when, with the general ruleset and mechanics now understood, a Storyteller really awakens to the potential of the gleeful chaos and narrative possibilities they have, quite literally, at their fingertips.

There’s scope for plenty of player-induced skullduggery, too, for unlike many social deduction games, Clocktower actively encourages players to facilitate private discussions between themselves – including the Storyteller. Keen eyes – and keener ears – may be privy to plotting or secret information this way. Who isn’t going to raise an eyebrow when that person – you know, the one whom you are absolutely certain is up to no good – decides to cosy up in a corner and plot with your most trusted teammate.

And yet, there’s no avoiding the fact that the experience lands a heavy onus on the Storyteller role. There are, already, a number of websites and fan-made apps available that replace the need for much of the physical assistance that the Grimoire and its nest of tokens provides, but in truth, not only are these digital alternates fettered with errors and potentially game-breaking shortcut the tactile, the very manual nature of a physical copy of the game not only lends an extra layer of appeal and immersion to Clocktower, but physically manoeuvring the respective tokens, reminders and the like provides the best possible practice for new Storytellers getting to grips with roles and mechanics.

There’s a lot of content found in the base game, too. Three different game modes, beginning with the introductory Trouble Brewing, followed by the more adventurous and varied Bad Moon Rising and (the marvellously-named) Sects & Violets, each offers a completely separate rosters of characters, tokens, reference sheets and even character rulebooks. The starting mode, Trouble Brewing, has enough variety and diversity to get likely countless games from, whilst Rising and Violets not only introduce wildly different characters and Demons, but whole new mechanics, too, such as ‘madness’, which compels players to take actions they’d probably rather not. Then there’s the roster of Travellers & Fabled included, too, an additional set of extra powerful and even more unpredictable characters, that can be included in any of the three modes to expand the player count, or spice up proceedings when smaller groups start getting a bit too savvy or complacent.

The roster of ‘Fabled’, in particular, are an excellent inclusion, and should be an early read for all new Storytellers, including as they do, extra roles and rules that can make the game more accessible (including for those with cognitive/sensory impairments, disabilities or learning difficulties), more inclusive (such as roles that silence veterans for the opening minutes, or protect newcomers from early death), or simply deal with complications and frustrations. Issues catered for here include everything ranging from early leavers, truncated game times, and even those unruly few who refuse to stay quiet whilst you’re undertaking your essential Storyteller duties. Even the most bullish and vocal of flocks shall come to fear the wrath of a Storyteller aided by the ‘Hell’s Librarian’, whom, if you dare to speak over, can doll out instant punishment, and even death.

In regards to production value and finish, the various rulebooks, reference sheets and included accessories – such as a stand to rest the Grimoire upon, incredibly useful storage boxes to compartmentalise each mode, an accompanying fabric token bag – all help give the finished product, for the most part, a sense of real craft and artistry. The rulebooks in particular are beautifully characterful, doubly so when compared to their more rudimentary prototype versions. There are a couple of choices, such as the fact that the two halves of the Grimoire are held together with three provided binder clips (of all things), that feel decidedly less polished, though, and although there are clear improvements on some of the early prototype versions, there still remains some degree of concern as to how future-proof some of the felt-backed tokens may be; a couple were already threatening to peel apart when punched from their sprue.

It leaves appraising Blood on the Clocktower in relation to its not-insubstantial retail price tag of $145 (roughly £120) an especially contextual consideration. It’s a big, heavy and impressive chock of social deduction excellence. It’s as visual and atmospheric an experience as it is social and highly entertaining. Not including a modified free version for smaller player counts, you really need a minimum of 6 players (Storyteller included) to field it, though games of 7 or 8+ really provide the optimal experience. And of course, at least one of these whom must be able to be, or at least develop into, a half-competent Storyteller. If you can meet these numbers, you will doubtless get many hours of incredible, varied and highly memorable play out of Blood on the Clocktower, that will easily evaporate its hefty up-front cost.

Pushing aside cost, though, and for some the prohibitive player count requirements, and, if you are able to field it, you have in Blood on the Clocktower what is almost certainly the apex of social deduction gaming. It is the natural evolution of almost four decades of tabletop bluffing and backstabbery. Sure, there’s a lot to ponder and learn, but, by extension, this gives every player something to say and do, and crafts an experience where every role is important and potentially game-changing. It is an elaborate, engaging party game of almost breathless invention and tireless variety, an experience of deduction and accusation steeped in doubt and uncertainty, where every decision you make will be predicated with apprehension, where every action a fellow player takes will see you question their allegiance, all underpinned with a breadth of original and creative flourishes too numerous to mention here.

Some may perhaps quibble that a party game doesn’t need to be this big, this in-depth and complicated, or have this many options and characters to choose from, but to levy such an accusation at Clocktower would be to bypass its raison d’être entirely.

Anyone could be anything. Nothing is certain. Trust no one… including, potentially, even yourself.

It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to name another social deduction experience that can make such claims so boldly, and have them so firmly ingrained into every element and aspect of its gameplay.

It is, quite simply, excellent, matchless ‘tabletop’ trickery.

Nearly four decades on from Mafia and Werewolf, a new claimant to the throne is come.

Long live Clocktower. May its reign be bloody.

A dizzying, definitive social deduction experience. Its heft, head count and complexity may prove a barrier to some, but for everyone else, this is the very apex of hidden identity gaming; evolved, refined and perfected. Bloody brilliant.

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