The holiday season is coming up and you know what that means? Oh yeah, I think you do. You’ll be attending all sorts of parties: with gossipy coworkers, forced family get-togethers, and countless white elephant and ugly Christmas sweater parties hosted by those too-cool-for-school neighbors.That’s right – you have a lot of potentially awkward social gatherings to look forward to and, of course, are tasked with trying to get the various different social groups that attend to mingle, cause you’re the “one that likes games, right?”
For me, board games do the work in these situations – but choosing a game that appeals to a lot of people from varying ages, gaming backgrounds, and interests is difficult to do. Trivia games, Apples to Apples clones, Charades, and Pictionary are a bit overdone and limiting. I’m here to tell you that Mascarade features many fun party game elements and is my preferred board game to take with me to social gatherings, especially ones chock full of strangers.
Mascarade is a game that solves many apprehensions people have with pulling out a board game during a party. Maybe you haven’t brought a game to a party before because you were worried that someone would have to sit out, or wait until the next round? Well, Mascarade can fit 3-12 people in one game. And the more players participating means more fun and confusion, which you’ll find is a good thing. Are you worried about carrying ANOTHER box or have you ever not brought a game because it was too heavy or large? Mascarade is smaller than those old VHS bubble cases and it is as light as a romance novel. Also, the level of of time commitment is low. A full game lasts around 30 minutes. Gameplay isn’t strenuous: it is about as complicated as playing Mafia at those Catholic team building exercises that I, like many other teens, were forced to attend – Or maybe they were at parties; I could never tell because they were always boring. Anywho, now that you are prepared to slap away any excuses a party-goer may have to avoid a board game with Mascarade’s lovely practical features, here’s how to set up and play.
At passing glance, Mascarade appears to be a hidden roles game – but it is so much more. At the start of the game, each player receives a role card associated with a one of 11 gorgeously illustrated Venetian characters and six coins in their fortune. You could be The Queen, Widow, Peasant, Cheat, Bishop, or others, and each player is trying to be the first to gain 13 coins to win. These character cards are more than just a pretty face, as each character is associated with a unique ability. Referencing the rule book, tokens and cheat sheets, players should get an idea of all the characters in play and their abilities at the start of the game, because after the cards are dealt, the character cards are turned face down in front of players and are not revealed unless taking an action to do so.
Gaining a good idea of what characters do is important in this game because while you need just 13 coins to win, gaining coins isn’t a linear process. The character abilities have two main focuses. The first is to gain coins. For example, The Queen character allows a player to collect two coins on their turn, The Witch switches fortunes with another player, and The Thief takes one coin from their neighboring players. The second focus of the cards are the character roles that let you swap (or not) character cards with another player, with the motive to gain access to the other character’s abilities or to just add a bit more confusion to the game. The Inquisitor points at another player whom must correctly guess their character or hand over four coins, The Fool gains a coin and has the option to swap (or not) two other players’ cards, and the Spy can look at another player’s card and can secretly swap (or not..) with that player. Confused yet? It’s okay, that’s the feature of the game.
This swap (or not!) part of the game is what makes Mascarade stand out among hidden roles games. You see, when a player decides to swap (or not?!), they take the card in front of them and one other card on the table – without looking or flipping either! – and take them under the table and, well, do something. Nothing indecent – we hope – just either swaps the cards or doesn’t. They could just pass the cards from hand to hand and return the cards to their original owners, or they could actually swap the two cards. Only they know what is happening under the table, unless of course they lose track. I mean, sure, there can be traitor among the five other players in Shadows Over Camelot, but can you remember or deduce which of the 11 other players may be The Judge? How do you know that the previous players haven’t swapped The Judge with someone else? Everyone is responsible for adding to the confusion, and make sure players don’t let the some cards settle too long in one place. And just like a poker game, bluffing other players is very important. Players are encouraged to keep the cards moving constantly while working towards those 13 coins, but it is important to not get frustrated by the constant changing card state. So keep practicing your best poker face and let’s get back to the gameplay!
The game starts with the first player and the next three each taking their’s and another player’s card of their choosing and after some bluffing, smack talk, and shuffling under the table return a card back to that player. During this opening round of swap (or not) actions, no one can look at the character cards. No one! This adds a bit of confusion to the table before the game really starts, which is how players start questioning who really has what character.
After the four setup turns, the game continues with normals rules in place. Each player has three options available at their turn: 1) The player can look at their character card, making sure to not reveal their character to others; 2) Point at another player, take their card and under the safety of a table swap cards (or not), making sure neither player reveals or looks at either character card; or 3) Announce their character and use the ability associated with that character. This third one’s important: it does not require the player to reveal their card, or even know which character they actually have, unless at least one player challenges their claim.
Challenging is one of the best parts of Mascarade. Through challenging you are publicly announcing that the current player is an impostor and YOU are that character and should be the only one with access to that ability. Multiple people can challenge and once every player has had a chance to challenge the claim or pass, each player involved in the challenge, including the current player, must reveal their character card. Any player who claimed to be a character in this example say, The King, and after revealing their characters discovers they are NOT The King, must pay one coin to the courthouse. If any player reveals that they are in fact The King, that player gets to perform The King’s ability (gain three coins), even if it isn’t their turn! Then everyone’s cards are turned face down once more, and the next player takes their turn. So instead of games like Mafia or Resistance where players spend their turns trying to deduce the roles of OTHER players, Mascarade has players trying to figure out THEIR OWN role. It should be noted that sometime you might want to challenge a player’s claim not because you think are the mentioned character, but because you know they’re not. Unchallenged claims can be the difference between winning or losing for some players, so sometimes it’s worth the loss of a coin to keep someone else from getting ahead.
I find Mascarade to be a great party game because it allows elements outside of the game pieces and rules to influence gameplay. This is also known as having a strong metagame. This is a game that shouldn’t be played in a bubble. You should get distracted at times and forget which character you have. You should try to bluff your way through the game and make players second guess what character sits in front of them. It’s fun if you all are drinking and constantly forget who has The Judge. It should be no surprise that Mascarade is a fun, well-balanced game that is inviting to casual and hard-core players alike. Mascarade is an altered, memory-driven, deduction required, matching game at heart and should not be taken too seriously. It is okay to guess wrong, it’s okay to make bold, ridiculous claims. Mascarade shines because winning isn’t my favorite part – trying to win is.
The game is designed by Bruno Faidutti who has a lot of other great games out there that I recommend playing: Mystery of the Abbey and Citadels, a game very similar to Macarade which features the same characters and adds castle building to the mix.