Our 16 games of Werewolf sprawled across 20 hours and two lengthy play sessions. They began well enough, with enthusiastic people enjoying each other’s company, keen to backstab, betray, and devour their fellow participants. Villagers—and the occasional werewolf—were hanged, and each person’s hands were bloodied. Yes, this was the decade-old social deduction game we all knew well—but now with sealed boxes, fistfuls of stickers, and a huge leather tome for the moderator to scribble in.
Ultimate Werewolf Legacy takes an old concept and pairs it with newfangled “legacy” game mechanisms. This means components are permanently altered—mostly the moderator’s diary—and decisions are made that impact future plays. In other words, it’s a campaign game with irreversible decisions, promising all the drama that premise entails.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t deliver.
The furry devil is in the details
If you’ve played Werewolf before, you know what to expect from this social deduction game. You need a minimum of eight players in addition to a dedicated moderator who runs the game—but the experience is better with more, ideally with a group of 12-16.
Each session consists of a chapter of play, with each chapter being broken down into three individual games. In each game you’re dealt new roles—some of you are voracious (but hidden) werewolves, while the rest are villagers full of suspicion. Play is broken into day and night phases, with the entire group attempting to suss out the villains by day and the werewolves devouring a villager at night.
The campaign consists of five such chapters, each offering a glimpse of story courtesy of the game’s leather diary. The narrative itself follows a series of strange occurrences around a New England town in the late 1600s. This is the heart of the game, where players make group decisions that alter the village’s path and provide consequences. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
The implicit promise of a legacy game is that choices have permanence. We want our decisions to make waves that ripples throughout the campaign. Ultimate Werewolf Legacy loses sight of this principle. It has moments where you think something special is really going to happen. Some of the time it will even trick you into thinking this particular outcome will shape things drastically. (The players don’t know most of this, however, as all of the stickering, note-taking, and branching paths are recorded solely by the moderator.) Feedback to players is obscured.
The single benefit to this design philosophy is increased replayability. It would be entirely reasonable to play through a campaign and then grab another copy of the game (or the recharge pack from the publisher’s website) and play it again. You would indeed see new roles and a couple of small changes.
But overall, the legacy elements here are a bit of a whiff due to their softness. Most player choices only have a very short reach. Some of the game’s best moments have these wild unpredictable narrative decision points full of promise—but they usually offer some bright new ability or radical option only for the next game. Then they’re gone like a horror in the dark.
For the sake of avoiding spoilers, let me fabricate an example. Before beginning play, the moderator (well, the diary) might offer a couple sentences of story concerning a villager accused of witchcraft. As a group, players must vote to cast the villager out or to declare her innocent. The outcome either adds or removes a new role to next game—although no one knows this when voting. Major decisions such as these seem like they should matter beyond modifying a single role for a single play, but that’s not the case.
Even the excellent use of props is often undermined by limiting the fallout to one session. Perhaps worse, the vast majority of stickering and branching pathways alter the role selection for the next chapter only. This is almost always based on the number of team villager wins in the previous set of three scenarios. In this way, the game seeks to balance play over the long haul through incremental shifts, adjusting as it goes. An experienced moderator hoping for some agency in crafting the role-set will find no love here, as their position is reduced to directing traffic and reading the small slices of story that are scattered throughout the game (and not particularly well written).
The single mechanism that does extend over the length of the campaign is the family system. In addition to a hidden role, each player possesses a family member card which groups the player with a neighbor or two sitting nearby. This has some interesting implications for early voting, but it more importantly facilitates the “Most Valuable Villager” (MVV) system.
The MVV is determined by different parameters in each game but generally is awarded to the player who makes the most significant contribution. Once a chapter concludes, the family with the most awarded members receives stickers. These offer special powers of various usefulness, with the most interesting arriving late in the game. Unfortunately, this system feels a little thin as it’s detached from the narrative. In fact, most of play remains distinct from the story that’s occurring since you can’t actually impact it in a significant way.
While the game’s full potential is not realized, it’s not a total loss. This release would serve a group well that is perhaps inexperienced with Werewolf. It offers role-sets that are roughly balanced, although not always terribly interesting, and it guides you through play with a few interesting mechanical twists and a memorable moment or two.
It also handles players dropping in and out between chapters quite astutely. (This is the positive aspect of decisions having a short yield and the narrative not boasting any extreme twists.)
Finally, the complexity of the game is introduced in small chunks. It’s not a heavy or opaque set of rules, but the unique structure and odd nature of the diary make for a bit of a hurdle. A preface chapter ensures that everyone is on the same page by offering solid explanations throughout play.
Assembling the pack
One of the fundamental qualities that separates this release from other legacy designs is the dedicated group size. While individual players can drift in and out, you will want a core fellowship of individuals committed to the journey. This is rough.
We all know that coordinating a dozen people’s schedules is one degree away from rocket science. The need to do this multiple times is a huge barrier, which will probably fall on the moderator—and there’s a high likelihood the group may tucker out and give up on the thing before completion.
In this regard, Ultimate Werewolf Legacy works best as a product aimed squarely at a younger audience. A group of college students in a dorm wanting to kill time is the ideal player base. The sheer length of the campaign precludes even convention play, as you could spend an entire day and still not finish.
The real point of failure here lies in the game’s unwillingness to commit. It wants to simultaneously support short-term play with people dropping in and out, while also making promises of long-term decisions with serious consequence. Investing in one approach might have worked better.
This is an undeniably ambitious release. While I think it has a modest audience, the design ultimately struggles to deliver on its premise. Much like the single paragraph of story that wraps up the end of the campaign, nearly everything here feels both understated and hollow.