So people who know me are probably going to call me a hypocrite for this review, but I hope that they at least hear me out and let me explain myself before grabbing their metaphorical (or perhaps literal, given the subject matter) torches and pitchforks.
In my run of buying games off of Humble recently I decided to pick up Town of Salem and, over the past few days, played it for something like nine hours. I’m honestly more shocked than anyone else, but to understand why, I’ll first have to tell you a little about this game and about my experiences with other versions of it.
You may recall a game that you’ve played at camp, at school, or at some gaming party. The game has a few names, but the most common ones it goes by are Werewolf and Mafia (the rules are basically identical between the two, so don’t worry about the name difference). In these games, a group of people take the role of a town that is set upon by Werewolves/The Mafia and the town has to discover which members are secretly evil, plotting to kill them all. At night, the evil party strikes, taking out a player or two, and in the day, the town votes on lynching someone they suspect of wrongdoing. There can also be alternate roles, such as the Mystic, who can ask the Game Master once per night if a player is evil, or the Doctor, who can protect one player per night. It’s a very social game all about reading other players and winning over other players. And I fucking hate it.
Seriously, as a gamer you have no idea how much this game offends me. I have no idea why this game is so popular and to me, it’s one of the worst ways to spend your gaming time. Why is that? Two major reasons. Firstly, it has a really awful mechanic of board games: Player Elimination. While this mechanic can work in shorter games, in a game like Werewolf that, depending on the size of the game, can last an hour or longer, it completely sucks that you can be killed in the very first night and have to sit on your hands doing nothing and talking to nobody for an hour or longer. It completely destroys one of the best aspects of board gaming: a social experience with friends. The other reason I hate it is that it’s such a damn negative game. The whole game is arguing, and frequently there’s really not much to go on, so you’re just randomly guessing. You can try to read other players or take some info out of how they voted, but when it comes down to it, Werewolf/Mafia is more a game of getting angry for an hour while playing Russian Roulette.
So with that out of the way, I have to say that Town of Salem is brilliant and fixes nearly every problem I have with the game. For starters, with it being an online experience, you don’t need to worry about not having a good poker face, or having a tell or something. You get behind the ultimate mask to play this game, and it’s brilliant. Even playing with friends, it can be very difficult to tell who is who (You pick a unique username at the start of each game, so they can’t tell who you are from that either!), making it much easier to play even with people who know you the best.
The next thing the game does brilliantly is character roles. In the vanilla game, you either had the power to kill people or you didn’t. Suck. While certain roles were added to the tabletop game to help alleviate that problem, but that just made it even more frustrating to be an average joe with no abilities, because other people got cool powers and all you could do was argue. In Salem, EVERYONE has a role, and most, if not all are very useful. There are tons of roles, but I’ll just talk about the ones present in the main game. First is the mafia, which consists of three players: The Godfather, the Mafioso, and the Framer. These three will work together to take the town apart. They can only kill once per night collectively, but the Framer can help throw people off their trail.
The Town has nine members, which consist of many roles including the Jailor (Who can detain one person per night, which allows them to anonymously interrogate them and execute them if you so choose), the Lookout (who can watch one house per night, making note of who visits it), the Vigilante (Who can choose to execute someone of his choice at night, but will kill himself if he accidentally kills another villager), the Mayor (the ONLY class in the game who can officially reveal who he is, forever marking him as a good guy in the process. Once he does that, the Doctor can no longer save him and he becomes a big target for the Mafia… but suddenly his vote counts as triple in lynching votes!), and the Investigator (who can investigate one person per night, and will be given three possible roles for their target that they might be). Not only that, but there are also three other factions sulking around looking for different objectives.
The Jester will win if he’s publicly executed. Also, if he’s executed he’ll randomly kill one player who voted for him to be executed. The Executioner is given one townsfolk as a target at the beginning of the game, and will win if they can get that person publicly executed. And the Serial Killer works as a sort of one-man mafia. He’s immune to a lot of abilities and picks off one person per night, winning once the Mafia and Town is dead. These roles make sure that EVERYONE has something to do, some cool power to execute, and some strategy that they can approach the game with. The game becomes less about looking at little tells, and more about trying to weasel a lie out of someone about their role or their actions.
Now, there was also the problem of Player Elimination, correct? Sadly, that’s still present. However, games of Salem are frequently short (about 15 to, at most, 30 minutes thanks to a rather quick timer that counts down each phase), which means that the death timer is less of a problem. You can leave early without much negative repercussions to start a new game, if you choose to stay you can talk with other dead players and theorize about who was the killer, and several classes allow the dead to be of gameplay use! One such character is the Medium, who can (anonymously) talk to the ghosts at night, potentially getting access to their last action and the name of an evildoer, or even just getting in on the ghosts’ theories. Even once dead, the Medium can do a once-per-game Séance where they can talk to a living player at night. Hell, one character can even revive a player once per game.
One other fantastic feature is the last will. As you play, it’s extremely important to keep notes in your will; a little drop down menu where you can type whatever you want. When you die, whatever you typed will be shown to the players. Notes from a Jailor’s interrogation or an Investigator’s… investigations may prove just what the town needs to fish out the mafia. More than that, the game also offers Death Notes as a creative calling card, cryptic message, or even an important piece of a killer’s strategy. Any character (even the Townspeople with the ability to kill someone!) can craft a note to leave next to their victim. The killer can use this as a strategy (information about who is immune to their attacks, pointing to their supposed next victim, or even naming who they are, be it them telling the truth or not!) or just to make a joke/mock the Townspeople, and it adds a lot of fun and flavor to the game.
Even beyond that, the game adds much more variety with additional game types which will insert new roles into the mix, such as the Arsonist, the Witch, the Vampire, or even the iconic Werewolf, and new members of the town, such as the Amnesiac and The Survivor. Even the Mafia will gain new members! There are even ways for players to change roles mid-game, which makes the game ever evolving.
Oh, and there are lots of little cute cosmetics you can earn (or buy… it does unfortunately have microtransactions), including new character skins, new skins for your house, new skins for the town, new execution animations, new avatars, new pets, and a few other neat additions.
That’s not to say that the game is flawless. Far from it actually. While the Player Elimination problem is somewhat relieved, it isn’t entirely eliminated, and it’s very common for players eliminated night 1 to just leave the game, which frequently leaves the Medium with nothing to do. The graphics are basically Neopets level. Or… like a Facebook browser game. It’s very simplistic, but not in a particularly good way. They’re good enough, I suppose, but nothing great. The music is also lackluster and has no variety whatsoever, and some of the players are… well, they’re kind of dicks. The community is hit or miss, and players will frequently report for misplays, labeling them as “game throws.” Unknown if anything comes of those reports, but it’s somewhat troubling.
Even despite those problems, I had a lot of fun with the game, it’s pretty cheap, and I imagine it’s a lot of fun to play with friends. If you’re a Werewolf/Mafia fan this is a must-own, and even if you’re not it’s worth giving a shot.
I give Town of Salem a 4 out of 5.