Hundreds of years ago, the people of Salem, Massachusetts were gripped by a mix of hysteria and greed. Over the course of several years, accusations of witchcraft spread throughout the community and other areas, bringing a premature end to the lives of many people. Enter Salem by Passport Game Studios & Rock Paper Scissors Games, a game where each player controls a handful of citizens based on real people from the historical site of the witch trials.
A bit of context is necessary before getting into the intricacies of how a game of Salem is set up. There are 49 citizens in all: seven citizens represented across seven different colors. If you set the game up properly, each column or row of citizens will have three Witches and four Villagers (that is, not Witches). As a result, the game requires that most (if not all) of the game’s characters are in play because otherwise the fundamental math falls flat on its butt. For that reason, games with fewer than seven people will have other players taking on one or two citizens from other factions to round out the numbers a bit.
Setup begins with connecting villagers to cards that indicate whether or not they’re Villagers or Witches. Each set of seven Witch/Villager cards maintains the ratio, and if you mess up the order (like my group did when we tested setup), you could end up with a screwy situation where there are more or fewer witches in a column or row than there should be. The game entirely relies on you getting this part right, so check and double-check your work before you move on or the entire exercise will be a headache. Once you have the seven sets of seven Witch/Villager cards ready, other players get a chance to randomly switch them around. Salem is all about knowing who is a Witch and who is not, so the player who set the cards up would have an obvious advantage. This additional layer of muddying the waters ensures that no one has any more knowledge than they’re supposed to.
The information at hand is tracked through a sheet of paper with seven rows and seven columns. Each row represents a faction, and each column shows numbers 1-7 (representing the individual citizens of that group). To the right of each row is a section for notes where you can track information that you glean via Alibis.
Alibis are the response to an accusation made by another player. Players have three Alibis and they can only use them one at a time; they’re restricted from using it again until they’ve used all three of them. The Treachery Alibi has the player saying something like “#1 is the same as #3”, and this is recommended to be notated with 1=3. Slander is used to say “#5 is not the same as #6” and would be noted as 5≠6. Finally, Hearsay is used to state “Out of #3, #4, and #6, one is a Witch”. Players must always pick a group of three with at least one Witch in it, and obviously naming all three of their Witches would be poor form as it would cost them the game. These Alibis are the main way that you will figure out who is and is not a Witch, and players must be careful about what information they reveal. A stipulation in the rules about not repeating alibis means that eventually the truth will come out, so the game has a limiting factor in terms of time.
That’s the core of the game, but there’s a divergence: there’s a basic and advanced gameplay mode. The basic mode has players trying to figure out who in a central group of citizens is a Witch or Villager. The highest amount of correct guesses win, but an incorrect guess results in an automatic loss. The guesses are processed by a first-come-first-served mechanic, so even if you’re right, you’ll lose if someone else commits to guessing first.
The advanced version is a different beast entirely. Players go through the game in a sort of bidding system, voting on whether or not they think the citizens on trial are Witches or Villagers. We made the mistake of playing the Advanced game for our first session, and it ended up taking over 3 1/2 hours to complete (including reading the rules for the first time, set-up, and actual gameplay). If you pick up this game, I highly recommend that you don’t make the same mistake. Ultimately, an Advanced game concludes after four rounds of trials with a point-scoring system. You won’t lose outright for a mistaken guess, but too many incorrect guesses will toss any chances of winning out the window.
Salem has a couple of strong positives. The historical vibe in the game is a nice touch. Each of the citizens has their own little bio that tells you a bit about their story, and they’re based on real historical people. It might be considered a bit dark to decide their fate considering how brutally unfair the actual Salem Witch Trials were, but it didn’t bother myself or my group all that much.
The materials are very well made. The character, Witch/Villager, and Alibi cards are printed on very sturdy cardstock. Tokens and lighter materials seem to be made of slightly thinner (but nonetheless strong) stuff, and the handful of cards and smaller tokens (for voting in the Advanced game) Everything fits neatly into the box.
And that’s where we enter the “bad stuff” territory. The box is pretty big on account of this game having a lot of moving parts. There are dozens of cards and hundreds of little tokens. At the end of our first game, we dropped the box and it made an awful mess. At that moment I truly noticed exactly how much stuff is in there. A basic game isn’t too bad, but an advanced game is going to end up with managing a lot of tokens, bits, & pieces.
There’s also the matter of time. We played two games, one basic and one advanced. A basic game takes around two hours and an advanced game takes around three. This is not a game you can play quickly. For one reason or another, I personally couldn’t get the game to click with me. My brain just couldn’t grasp the nuances of figuring out who was a witch and who wasn’t. The social dynamics of my tabletop group aside, I couldn’t manage to connect the dots and guess correctly. I lost both games handily, and part of that was probably on me.
Aside from that, though, Salem ultimately just felt like it dragged on a bit much. The game’s various pieces ensure that you have solid randomization and it makes it almost impossible to guess Witches by sheer chance, but something just feels missing to me. I’m normally reluctant to write about a gut feeling, but I had this nagging feeling that something felt off that I couldn’t quite quantify. I understand the goals that the game was trying to accomplish; I just thing perhaps it takes too long to get there and the road is paved with many potholes. It’s difficult to put it into words, but the game just feels needlessly complex. I think that it might have been possible to get largely similar gameplay with fewer pieces and a shorter gameplay time.
Ultimately, Salem just wasn’t up our alley. I think it would be best appreciated by groups that love to play social deduction games like Secret Hitler and are looking for something a little more involved. If that’s your jam, you’ll probably really enjoy Salem. If it’s not, this wouldn’t be the best choice for your first run at the genre.
The bottom line:
Salem is a social deduction game with a lot of moving parts. If you like games like Clue and Secret Hitler you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise it might be too involved for your average tabletop gamer to enjoy. Games of Salem also tend to take a while to play, and both set-up and cleanup are a bit more time-consuming than your average tabletop game.
Get this game if:
- You like social deduction games.
- You want a complex game that you can play in an afternoon or evening.
- You like uncovering a mystery.
Avoid this game if:
- You dislike social deduction games.
- You’re bad at “connecting the dots”.
- You like a game that you can clean up quickly.
The copy of Salem used for this review was provided by Passport Game Studios.
What do you think of Salem? Does it seem like the kind of game your tabletop group would like to play? What do you think of social deduction games in general? Let us know in the comments below!
Salem is a social deduction game with a lot of moving parts. If you like games like Clue and Secret Hitler you'll probably enjoy it, but otherwise it might be too involved for your average tabletop gamer to enjoy. Games of Salem also tend to take a while to play, and both set-up and cleanup are a bit more time-consuming than your average tabletop game.