Not Your Average Social Deduction Game: An Interview With Blood On The Clocktower Designer Steven Medway
Article by: Jillian Schmett
This week I have a great interview with the designer of a game that I was able to play while at PAX East, Blood on the Clocktower. Blood on the Clocktower is a social deduction game for 5+ players.. Now, I know what some people are already thinking, “Ugh, I hate social deduction games” as they hover their mouse over the exit button at the top of the screen. Well all I have to say to that is, just stop it! Bear with me for a few minutes and you might just find something that convinces you to change your mind. Worst case scenario, you read my whole blog and still don’t change your mind but at least you know all about this cool game that hasn’t been published yet and will have some interesting insight into how it came to be.
The biggest difference that makes it stand out in the category is that players are not eliminated when they are “killed” (voted out). They still are able to participate in the discussion, share info they have, and get one more vote that they can use during one of the voting rounds after they have been killed.
At PAX, the games were being run by the designer, Steven Medway, and his sister/member of the BotC team, Eden. They assumed the role of Storyteller and facilitated games for groups. Games were scheduled every hour with a sign-up sheet available for people to save themselves a spot in future games. We played three games over the two days we were there, and each ran between 40-60 minutes. None of the games ever felt either rushed or stagnant. Since it was a convention setting, I’m sure that Steve and Eden were moving things along to keep everything on schedule, but it wasn’t noticeable and didn’t affect the game play at all as far as I could tell. I could definitely see games running much longer at events with either larger groups or with people who know each other well and play often, and I don’t think that is a bad thing at all. One of my favorite things about the game is how every single time you play it is a completely different experience that is dependent on how the players interact, strategize, and so much more. There are many variables that can change from game to game.
At the start, a bag was passed around for each player to draw a button, which would assign them their secret identity. Each identity is either a “good” player (the Townsfolk and the Outsiders), or a “bad” player (the Demon and his Minions- the amount of minions vary depending on player count). Every character in the game has a different, interesting ability. The Storyteller (basically the moderator of the game) will then collect the buttons and keep them for the rest of the game in a box that is shaped like a book (the Grimoire). The buttons adhere to the inside panel of the box so the Storyteller is able to keep them oriented with the group, and remember who is which character. Some characters are secretly given information at the start of the game, for instance the Washerwoman stars knowing that 1 of 2 players is a particular Townsfolk. Some characters gain information as the game progresses, such as the Empath who, while alive, will learn during each night phase how many of their 2 living neighbors are evil. Some characters are given misinformation without even knowing it, such as the Drunk, who doesn’t realize that they are drunk, thinks they are someone else, and will only discover they are drunk when they realize that their ability malfunctions.
Each round consists of a Day phase, where players discuss and share whatever information they choose (or maybe plant false information) and a Night phase, where players will close their eyes, and the Storyteller will silently relay information or receive instructions from players with abilities that are active during the night phase. This is another way that BotC is different from other social deduction games in this style, because the Storyteller really has the ability to influence the game based on what information they give and to who. During the Night phase, the demon will kill one townsfolk. When players “awake” and find out who was killed, they will then vote on someone to execute, hopefully getting rid of the Demon or one of it’s minions.
As I said, we played three times with three different groups and each time was a blast. It was really interesting to see the different strategies people employed. The amount of characters and their abilities is incredible. It is such an interesting way to play this style of game without having it be completely “your word against mine” the whole time, because there are so many ways to gain information. There are so many possibilities that no two games could ever really be the same. Just seeing the way all of the abilities work together, you can clearly tell that Steve and his crew have put an enormous amount of time and energy into playtesting and perfecting this game. I highly recommend that if you get the chance to try it, even if you don’t typically like social deduction, you give this one a shot. Steve was kind enough to answer some questions for me about how Blood on the Clocktower came to be, where it is now, and where it’s headed in the future:
What is your experience in the gaming hobby? (How did you get into games, what are some of your favorites?)
I’ve been gaming in one form or another since early childhood. I was lucky enough to have one of the earliest home computers when I was a boy – a Texas Instruments TI994a – in the early eighties. I also had some hand-me-down pen and paper games such as the original Dungeons and Dragons, and Car Wars. I devoured anything with a strong fantasy theme that encouraged creativity and adventure and pushed the hobby in new directions.
I’ve been designing or modifying existing games for a long time, creating new maps or scenarios or rules that I felt improved the experience, and almost always found myself in the GM role. After spending my 20s drinking, dancing, reading, and generally being a disgraceful ne’er-do-well, I quit the partying life and decided to knuckle down and devote my time to gaming.
I am otherwise unemployed, so got to play quite a lot. I’ve designed about 8 complete games since, including a brutal Left For Dead expansion for Last Night On Earth, an epic Transformers wargame, a Battlestar Galactica legacy management game, and a board game version of Plants vs Zombies called “Lawn Of The Dead”. Whilst these are fully fledged games that each took over a year to design, including “almost professional” production quality artwork, they can not be produced for obvious intellectual copyright reasons, so I keep them for occasion private use with my friends. I’ve been designing thematically original games for a couple of years, including a pirate themed social deduction game for kids, and at least a dozen half unfinished monstrosities that have bugs aplenty. I’m extremely critical of my own work, so if something doesn’t work well, it gets shelved.
For the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the administration team for Exiles Gaming Club… a huge warehouse space in Sydney. The polite way to describe it is as a non-profit organization that provides space and tools and games for people in the area, that has over 2000 facebook members, and several hundred active members. The impolite way to describe it is as a bunch of (mostly) dudes, who hired a warehouse, put all their Warhammer miniatures, roleplaying and boardgaming materials in it, and threw the doors open for other gamers to share, free of charge. I have never seen anything else like it, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
When it comes to my “favourite” games… to be honest, I’ve become a bit of a snob. I tend to stick to games I really like and get all insular, sticking to great games like glue. I’m almost completely ignorant of popular games, and the only social deduction game I’ve ever played is werewolf. Wait, I lie. I did have a crack at Secret Hitler once. The games I love the most are Mysterium, Captain Sonar, Last Night on Earth, and the like. Basically anything with a strong team goal, and deep and interesting strategy. Codenames is good too. I’ve also been playing Battletech for 25 years. The mechanics are so hilariously bad, but the theme so fantastically strong, that I keep crawling back for more.
I've summarized the game from my experience, but in your words can you give us a description of the game and how it plays?
Blood On The Clocktower is a supernatural murder-mystery game for 5 to 20 players. In the sleepy town of Ravenswood Bluff, a Demon is on the loose, killing by night and taking on human form by day. Some players, who are good, are trying to find and kill the Demon, whilst other players, who are evil, are trying to keep the Demon alive and destroy the town. It is a “whodunnit” where each and every player gets some type of powerful ability or information to help them put the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the mystery in time. But… some players might be drunk or poisoned, meaning their information is false, and the evil team has a number of dastardly tricks up their sleeve to confuse and lead the good players astray. It is always a team game, so death is not the end… when you “die” in the game, you continue to play as a ghost, and the game is won or lost based on the opinions of the dead players.
Blood On The Clocktower is an extremely social game about lying and logic, deception and puzzle solving, and creates some of the most intense and exhilarating gaming experiences I’ve ever seen. It focuses on massive amounts of information, creative and adventurous bluffing, team building and verbal shenanigans. There are over 200 unique characters, including more than 30 different demons over 8 editions, and players are encouraged to design their own scenarios using the tools provided to tailor the game to their own tastes and play styles.
Players that turn up late may enter the game as powerful “Traveller” characters with questionable allegiances, and the Storyteller has characters to be as well, to help include players that are disabled, uncomfortable with deception, or would otherwise be unable to participate, and characters to help balance the social dynamics of the game when there is a mix of veteran and beginner players.
I played Trouble Brewing. You also have other modules, Bad Moon Rising and Sects and Violets. How do these change the game and which one is your personal favorite?
Trouble Brewing is the beginners edition, and is a solid, fun introduction to the game, suitable for players of all skill levels. If you’ve played Werewolf or Mafia, you’ll be familiar with the basic beats, but I have aimed for Trouble Brewing to be sooooo much more than just finding out “who is good and who is evil”. There is a nice mix of information and power characters, including some very troublesome Outsiders such as the Drunk (your information is false, but you don’t know that you are the Drunk), and some particularly devious Minions such as Spy (you get to see ALL characters in play, and who they are). I’ve run over 500 games with my local gaming group, and it is still a favourite, with deep strategy due to the logical possibilities created by characters that register as good or evil based on the situation, and a Demon that changes players throughout the game.
Bad Moon Rising plays extremely differently than all other editions. Players not only need to discover who is evil, but specifically which Demons and which Minions are in the game, in order to win. The good team has massive amounts of power at their disposal but little information. Sometimes players die in groups of 3 or more, sometimes nobody dies for days at a time. Characters like the Mastermind (that keeps the game going after good has already won), or the Zombuul (that secretly stays alive once it is killed) turn the discussion towards “how do we win?”, not just “who is evil?”.
Sects & Violets has a MASSIVE amount of information, and is batshit crazy. Crazy fun. Crazy intricate. Crazy confusing. Characters swap around. Players change alignments. Good players need to lie about who they are, not just evil players. There is so much wackiness and intrigue that even the Storyteller (the moderator) has a tough time keeping up with who is saying what, and why. The Flowergirl learns when the Demon votes. The Sage, if killed by the Demon, learns who the Demon is. The Clockmaker learns how far apart the Demon and it’s Minion are sitting. The Artist may ask any yes / no question and have it answered. But… if a Vortox is in play, then all that information is false! Meanwhile, the Witch is cursing players that nominate others, and the Pit-Hag is choosing to change players characters and alignments around, so people’s stories keep changing day by day. This is a crowd favourite.
The above editions each have roughly 30 unique characters, and the following expansions follow suit:
Garden Of Sin is an edition particularly suited to logicians, as almost all information is public, and good needs their combined brainpower to figure it all out.. The Demons do not kill, but instead win after a certain amount of time has passed, but have other nefarious abilities to make up for it. The Storyteller can get extremely creative with what information they choose to give the players, and has much more liberty to lie and deceive as well. The Amnesiac doesn’t know what their ability is, and has to guess. The Atheist character means that all players are good, but the Storyteller can break the rules to make it look like evil players exist. This is my personal favourite edition, and should be available soon.
Midnight In The House Of The Damned is the advanced edition, and is still in the works. This is a game about whispers and secret cabals and incredibly risky bluffs. The Heretic means that whoever wins, loses. The Rogue can cheat. The Wizard can make a wish – any wish – for a price. Legion, a Demon where 90% of all players are Demons, needs to convince the good players to turn on each other. This edition is extremely unstable and is super high-risk-high-reward, as games can be won or lost based on the incredible persuasive powers, or the courageously ridiculous bluffs, of almost any player. If Garden Of Sin is for mathematicians, then Midnight is for Politicians. For advanced social deduction players only.
The Greatest Show on Earth, is a collection of characters, about 50 to 80 in total, that are simply for people to use to create their own unique games, using the online game creation tool. There are some truly bizarre folks in here, and are currently being playtested to make sure they are all unique, fun, powerful and balanced. It’s tricky business.
How did you come up with the idea to create the Blood on the Clocktower games?
A friend of mine hosted a social deduction games night, and I really loved it. I played a half dozen games, and they were enjoyable experiences, but I felt that player elimination was an unpleasant mechanic, and that a severe lack of information available about who is on what team, made the joy short lived. I wanted to play a game where every single player was important, every single player knew something valuable, and every single player needed be involved and work as a team in order to win.
Starting with a cast of about 20 characters, I’ve been designing Blood On The Clocktower continuously for the last 4 years and built up from there, getting feedback all the time and being a regular player myself. Every design decision or addition has been based on asking the following questions:
Will this encourage players to engage with the other players?
Will this encourage players to come up with creative and never-before-seen strategies?
Will this be balanced and make the game better as a whole, so that everybody has fun… not just the winners?
Will this be accessible to both veteran players, and non-gamers alike?
I wanted to create a game that was a genuine battle of wits. An intense, engaging and endlessly evolving mental and social chess game, that was “easy to learn but hard to master”, that was also full of mystery and culture and genuine juicy setting. I didn’t want a board game so much as a trip into a spooky and odd world of religion, magic, and mystery – something with gravitas. If you’ve seen the film “The Name of The Rose” then you know what I mean. Butthis needed to be done in a way that I could have fun with friends and form a social group too. It needed to be about people, not pieces.
How long have you been working on them?
Ooops. I just saw this question. Clocktower has it’s 4thbirthday in a month or so. The ruleset took about 2 years to get right. Trouble Brewing took about 2 years (and 300 games or so) to be refined and properly balanced, whilst the other editions are taking about 3 years each. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but the character powers are all so game-changing, that all permutations need to be considered. It is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, but I want all the lovely people who shell out for a copy of Blood On The Clocktower to get a game that is done right the first time.The first three editions, mentioned previously, are super slick, and ready to be published. The expansions are “coming soon” because they still have a few wrinkles to be ironed out.
What were some of your biggest challenges early on in the design process?
Oh My God…so many.
The biggest challenge initially was getting the game terminology set. That’s a boring answer. But, when you are creating something completely new, you don’t even know what words to use, you need to keep changing things up until you find what works. I pity the players that had to put up with me at that time.
The other big challenge was simply getting people together to play a broken game. Unless you are doing a visual reskinning of Bejewlled, in the early stages, all games are broken, and the people who want to play are few and far between. A lot of gamers familiar with the genre didn’t like player elimination, or games based primarily on body language and simple guessing, and I had to convince them that “No, my game is not like that. Totally guys, I swear!”. I ended up taking the game to bush festivals and non-gamer types, and developed quite a following from people who I didn’t think would dig it, but they did. It was when I was running games all day, every day at hippy / burning man type gatherings here is Australia whilst on holiday, then all weekend every weekend when I got back, that things started to really take off.
You have quite a following in Australia, approximately how many games/players are being played/playing regularly at this point?
We have over 300 people in the Sydney Blood On The Clocktower group. We have about 2 games days per week, with each event going for about 10 hours. Since each game goes from between 30 to 120 minutes, that is a LOT of Clocktower per week. We usually get about 15 to 20 people attending over the course of a day, although some events get up to 30 or 40. A few games just get 5 or 6 players, so I’ve had to design specific rules to cater for this smaller number.
There are about a dozen Storytellers who run games in the city in different locations, and 3 copies of the game here to cater to that demand. Many of the veteran players love the Storyteller role, because it is the most challenging and creative of all.
You recently traveled to the United States and have started building some worldwide hype in anticipation for a future Kickstarter, what are some of the major cities that people can find a Grimoire in if they are interested in finding an event?
In Australia, there are gaming groups in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. Internationally, there is a group in San Francisco and Boston. There was a gaming group in Edinburgh and London up until recently, but the event organisers had legitimately more important things to do like get married (!) and move to New Zealand (!), so the copies that were in those countries are being sent elsewhere… I believe a group is starting up in Amsterdam too soon.
I am making each copy by hand at this stage, and that takesabout 30 to 35 hours work, so progress is slow.
What was your favorite part of your US trip?
Secretly giving you, Jillian Schmett, the “Poisoner” character to play as in my final game of Clocktower at PAX ;)
In all seriousness, I just loved the vibe – which to me means the art and the people. Boston was way way way too cold for these Australian bones, but I did get to see snow fall for the first time in my life, so that was cool. Pun intended. I loved PAX and just being “inside” a community of gamers and geeks and people like me. So many friends were made, and I’m keen to come back.
I loved New York and San Fransisco for the shows, the museums, the fact that people were all up in my grill the whole time, and vice versa. Americans talk. A lot. I like it. I would go to parks and theatres and even the subway… and people were ENGAGED with each other. That is something you should appreciate as much as possible, and is rarer than you might think. My friend, Evin, who is the promotions manager for Clocktower, and an Australian-raised American says “In New York City, people assume that everybody’sbusiness is your business, and that your business is everybody’s business.”
As for fun. “Sleep No More”, in New York, blew my head off. It is a nightly production of MacBeth, done over a 5 floor warehouse, and was the greatest theatrical show I think I’ve ever seen. Death Guild, a goth club in San Fransisco that runs on a Monday night (for some reason), was a similarly boss experience. Both had a truly great atmosphere, I felt completely at home, and I miss your lovely country because of all the delicious events like these that I don’t get to go to any more.
Another member of the Clocktower team, Evin, will be traveling to the US this summer, where can players plan on finding him and getting a chance to check out the game?
Evin will be in Columbus, Ohio, from mid-June until late August and will be running games of Blood on the Clocktower there regularly. He’ll be demonstrating Blood on the Clocktower all day every day at GenCon (Indianapolis, August 2-5) and PAX West (Seattle, August 31-September 3). There’ll also be short trips to other cities to demonstrate the game:
- New York, NY (June 4-11)
- Toronto, ON (July 20-22)
- Nashville, TN (TBC, but likely mid-August)
- Los Angeles, CA (August 24-27)
Keep an eye on the Blood on the Clocktower Facebook Events Page at – games will be posted there as they’re confirmed. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more details or want to schedule a game for your group or venue.
I know this interview is turning into a plug for the game, but I am incredibly proud of it, and if you want to come join in the fun, check out the above, or visit BloodOnTheClocktower.com for more information.
Right now you’re making each Grimoire by hand to get copies out and allow as many players to experience the game as possible (which I think is pretty awesome and shows some serious dedication to your project), how has that been going? What are some of the biggest challenges with that?
It has been going “mostly well”. That is marketing-speak for “a logistical nightmare that has borne some fruit in areas I didn’t expect.”
As a designer, I am interested in getting as many people playing and enjoying my game as possible, even if it doesn’t sell well. That’s what gives me a buzz, so that’s what I’m putting my time into. I am incredibly fortunate to have a team of dedicated players who are keen to pick up a pair of scissors and a roll of sticky tape and build with me. I could not do this all by myself and still remain sane.
The biggest challenge so far has been art. If you make a board game… GET GOOD ARTWORK. Of course, you won’t know what artwork you need until you have made your game. And you won’t get your game played by more than one or two dedicated friends until you have good artwork to make it appealing. It is a catch-22 situation that can be resolved either by 1) being Fantasy Flight, or 2) Doing the art yourself, and often redoing it from scratch each time there is a minor rules change. I took option 2, and did the art and visual design myself (with a huge helping hand from stock image sites), which helped immensely. But, it does mean that every prototype Grimoire (the game term for the box that opens to become a book-like game piece) sent out into the world has art updated from the previous iteration. I’ve got a professional artist sweating away as we speak, but his work won’t be available for a while yet.
The other big challenge is materials. Having 30 hours work fall apart in your hands isn’t pleasant. But, if you do it well, having people come up to you and say “My word, good sir. That game box looks positively awesome.” makes the process all worth it… even though I know my visual design work is not at the professional level. If you are a games designer, and want people to play-test your game, I heartily heartily heartily recommend developing the artwork and presentation in tandem with the mechanics. It makes a big difference to people’s interest. And people’s interest will need to be long-term if you want adequate feedback.
One of my favorite things about this game is that it’s such an immersive experience. I’ve heard some great stories about some of the sessions you’ve run. Could you tell me one of your favorite memories from either playing or running the game?
Oh man… I wouldn’t know where to start!
There was the game where 5 separate people claimed to be the Mayor, and there was no Mayor in play. They had such a good time accusing each other of being evil, that the good team overlooked the possibility that they were all evil… which they were. Sneaky players. And beginners, too.
Or the time the Mutant (who is immediately gets executed if they reveal that they are the Mutant), died, then the evil Bone Collector (who gives dead player’s their ability back for a day) chooses the Mutant in secret. So… this poor, confused, new player swears that he is the Mutant, again, so the good team digs up his body and executes him, again! Then the Imposter (who steals player’s abilities), steals the Bone Collector’s ability, again chooses the Mutant, and get’s the unlucky chap executed for a third time in a row! It was hilarious, even though good eventually won that game.
Or the time a good player gained the evil Wizard’s ability (they may make any wish… for a price), pretended to make a wish, bluffed as being an evil Wizard and claimed to have transformed the Demon into a Zombuul (a Demon that secretly lives on after they die), then convinced the Demon to commit suicide. It was such a risky, insane bluff, and when it worked, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
There have been so many “wooooo!” moments, that it is hard to get across in words the exhilaration that can be felt after working hard – really hard – to put everything you have into a win, and having it pay off. Even some of the games where I have lost due to being completely bamboozled by my friends have stuck in my memory and we still talk about games from years ago.
Any rough idea of when you’ll be bringing the game to Kickstarter yet?
That… is the biggest mystery of all. We are getting a deal with manufacturers as we speak, but are keen to build up a community of players before kickstarting, so probably early 2019. I want to get the game out there, get people playing and enjoying themselves and forming the social groups that Clocktower tends to create. Kickstarting and financial success are a nice bonus that come afterwards.
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