Blood on the Clocktower – Actual Play Review

“In the quiet village of Ravenswood Bluff, ‌a demon walks amongst you… During a hellish thunderstorm, on the stroke of midnight, there echoes a bone-chilling scream. The townsfolk rush to investigate and find the town storyteller murdered, their body impaled on the hands of the clocktower, blood dripping onto the cobblestones below. A Demon is on the loose, murdering by night and disguised in human form by day. Some have scraps of information. Others have abilities that fight the evil or protect the innocent. But the Demon and its evil minions are spreading lies to confuse and breed suspicion. Will the good townsfolk put the puzzle together in time to execute the true demon and save themselves? Or will evil overrun this once peaceful village?” In order to answer those questions, you’ll have to give the bluffing and deduction game known as Blood on the Clocktower a try!

Blood on the Clocktower – from Australia’s The Pandemonium Institute and Steven Medway with Andy Churchill, Evin Donohoe, Amy Hawkes, and Eden Medway – had a huge Kickstarter success earlier this year, and is currently in the part of the development process where non-backers can pre-order their own copies. Between downloads, conventions, and a pretty hearty looking community, though, BotC is already seeing quite a bit of play in the wild – including a Halloween party I attended last week. A costume party wherein many of the attendees arrived as BotC characters, so that tells you something about how fond people are of the game already.

I’ve played my fair share of bluffing games – the various flavors of Werewolf, Secret Hitler, that sort of thing – so even though this BotC party was my first experience with the game there was a lot that was familiar. There are two sides, and the game follows a day-night cycle. During the day players can chat amongst themselves, whether in public or in private sidebars, to try to exchange information or throw others off track. Players can nominate one another to be executed if they’re suspected of being bad (or for any other reason, really), which is decided by majority vote – if nobody else is nominated and then confirmed by an even larger majority, the first nominee dies. During the night various players have abilities that can activate, most gruesomely the chief antagonist who can choose a player to kill. That’s where the familiar gets left behind and things start to get interesting.

First of all, the game is run by a Storyteller. The Storyteller knows who everyone is – the roles are determined by random draw, and while everyone knows what might be on the table in terms of characters none of the players know which are actually in play and who is what unless someone blabs – and manages everyone’s ‘turns’ during the night cycle, but they also make a lot of decisions: how certain abilities play out, what information some players will learn, and so on. We’ll see some of what that does for the game later.

Usually players are divided up into four different types of characters: Townsfolk, Outsiders, Minions, and the Demon. Townsfolk and Outsiders both count as ‘good’, and win or lose together, but while each has an ability of some kind – ranging from ways to gather information to immunity against the Demon to the ability to kill other characters – the abilities of the Outsiders often actually hinder the Townsfolk in some way. Meanwhile Minions and the Demon are counted together as Evil, and also win or lose together. Minions each have some ability, either a one-off or a once per night thing, that makes the lives of the Townsfolk harder – or in some cases outright ends them. Demons (usually) kill at least one other player per night, and also have some additional ability or twist to make them interesting. The Townsfolk win if the Demon is killed. Evil wins if there are only two players left alive, meaning the last poor Townsfolk is left alone to be devoured by the Demon. In practice, if there is only one Townsfolk left alive while there are multiple Evil characters left the game is effectively over already, but that’s not entirely guaranteed because of what well and truly sets BotC apart: death is not the end of play.

First of all, you win with your side whether you’re alive or dead by the end, so that alone would make you want to pay a little bit of attention. But you’re also allowed to continue talking and going into sidebars and contributing to the information gathering/spread of misinformation, depending on your side. You can’t nominate anyone for execution during the day, but you can certainly help others figure out who gets the mob justice treatment. Here’s the real kicker, though: you still get to vote. One time only after dying, your ghost gets to throw in a vote for an execution, and the number of votes needed to confirm an execution is determined by the number of living players. Thus, even when things seem like Evil has it in the bag, a horde of righteously vengeful ghosts can rise up and slay the Demon to save the day!

So how does this all work out in practice? Let me break down what happened during my first ever game.

This was a 10 player game, so that means there were 7 Townsfolk, 0 Outsiders, 2 Minions, and 1 Demon. Lo and behold, though, when I look at my token I see that I’m the Baron: a type of Minion who introduces 2 Outsiders into play. Now, during the first night, when the Storyteller is giving out basic information, I learned who the other Minion and the Demon are. During the first day, I see the Demon player get pulled into a sidebar. Immediately after the Demon grabs me, reveals themselves as the Imp, and informs me that the other player had told the Imp that they’d been told that either myself or the Imp was the Ravenkeeper. 

The ability of the Washerwoman Townsfolk is to learn that one of two players is a particular Townsfolk, leaving them to figure out exactly who is what, but in this case their information is absolutely not true. Upon revealing myself to be the Baron, we conclude that when my ability introduced Outsiders to the game the Washerwoman must have become a Drunk, an Outsider who doesn’t know they’re Drunk and thus doesn’t know that their normal Townsfolk ability is malfunctioning. The Imp hatches a plan, and then after our sidebar confers with the other Minion in their own sidebar (I don’t think I ever learned which Minion the other player was, but as we’ll see it didn’t become relevant). People start getting suspicious about all of the sidebars, and the Drunk Washerwoman tells everyone what they ‘know’ to appease the mob. There’s not much to go on in terms of nominating anyone to be executed, so the torches and pitchforks are put away for now. 

Everyone goes to sleep, and we awaken the next day to find that the Imp’s player was the one to die. Game over, right? Good wins, the Townsfolk celebrate? Not yet, according to the Storyteller. What the Townsfolk didn’t know was that the Imp had picked themselves, and the Imp’s special ability was that if they did that then another Minion becomes the Imp, which the other Minion player in fact had. Then, the former-also-now-dead-Imp claimed to be the Ravenkeeper, whose special ability is that if they die during the night they pick a player and learn which character they are. This not only ‘confirmed’ the Drunk Washerwoman’s information, the former-also-now-dead-Imp pointed out the New!Imp and said that they were a Townsfolk . . . but wouldn’t say which one out loud, a reasonable thing to do considering how many Townsfolk want to remain as secretive as possible as long as possible.

As people debated the veracity of the new information presented to them, the Chef (who had already used their ability to find out that there weren’t any evil players sitting next to one another – the Chef was sitting between the original Imp and I) loudly remarked that if the Demon was the Imp, it was theoretically possible that the Imp had killed themselves as a way to throw off the scent . . . before resolving that, no, there was no way the bad guys would do something that crazy this early. I breathed a very quiet sigh of relief from next to them.

Things rapidly devolved into chaos from there. At one point the Soldier, who was immune to the Demon, nominated another Townsfolk for execution, almost on a whim . . . but the nominee turned out to be the Virgin, so the Soldier was immediately executed for nominating them. I tried to pass myself off as the Oracle, who learns how many of the dead players are evil, but I fumbled my bluff to the Chef and was promptly executed in turn. It all turned out  terrible okay in the end, though: after several more deaths there were only two Townsfolk left along with the New!Imp, and a host of votes – including my own ghost vote – sealed the town’s fate forever. Evil wins!

As the night went on another two games were played. The final count was two wins for Evil and one win for the Townsfolk. Like most games of the genre, Evil has something of an advantage: every death, even the deaths of Minions, brings Evil closer to the threshold of victory. That being said the Townsfolk have a lot of potential tools at their disposal for gathering information, and while losing Townsfolk to death always counts down to the end sometimes a death can be useful to the Townsfolk, if for no other reason than one who has already used their ability can be sacrificed without a loss of intelligence gathering. Sometimes a death can even provide more information – like with the Ravenkeeper, or the Empath learning that their new living neighbor is evil.

What I find particularly interesting is that which Townsfolk, Outsiders, Minions, and Demons are in play can actually act as something of a slider for difficult. You could play a complete uphill climb bloodbath of a game, but you might also choose to give the Townsfolk a better fighting chance – which actually covers everything the Storyteller does, really, since they’re the one deciding things (like which characters become which Outsiders when a Baron shows up, for instance). The Imp is relatively straightforward if slippery, but the Zombuul has to be killed twice, and actually registers as dead to everyone else’s knowledge and abilities – you’ll need to execute their corpse to make it stick. The No Dashii kills a player every night and then Poisons the two nearest Townsfolk, causing their abilities to malfunction! Then you have Townsfolk like the Professor (who we didn’t have during this party), who can once per game choose a dead player and (if they’re a Townsfolk) revive them!

To that end, there are apparently three ‘editions’ in the box for the planned release of the base game: Trouble Brewing, Sects and Violence, and Bad Moon Rising, each of which offers something different and each of which is more difficult for the Townsfolk than the last. You’ll want to try Trouble Brewing if you’re new to BotC, while Bad Moon Rising is touted as a ‘death extravaganza’. The base game that will include these editions will feature 39 Townsfolk, 12 Outsiders, 12 Minions, 9 Demons, 15 Travelers (special characters for players who arrive mid-game), and 12 Fabled characters (special characters for the Storyteller to play as). The site says that there are a total of seven planned editions, which will bring the total number of characters over 200! Also, you could always build a playset of your own using these various character options, using the handy-dandy script tool they’ve made available.

One thing, though: while the game says that it’s good for 5-20 players, I noticed as the party went on and the number of players grew that things got . . . a little on the chaotic side (and there was very limited drinking going on, so unlike the last time I played Werewolf at a bachelor party [hang the Sheriff!], that wasn’t the issue). It just seemed like there was a lot for the Storyteller to manage and a lot of information and misinformation for the players to try and wrap their heads around, and sidebar time grew harder to keep managed to a reasonable level. That being said, that was the round that the Townsfolk won, so it’s not like the game gets anywhere close to breaking down. You just might not want to drop complete newcomers into a 20 person game so they don’t get overwhelmed. 

With the sheer variety of characters in Blood on the Clocktower providing a ton of replayability and – just as importantly – tangible tools for the Townsfolk to use against the Evil hunting them, this is a bluffing game with a lot of life to it. The fact that death is not the end of a player’s participation in BotC takes care of the one real problem that has always bothered me about this type of game, that of players having to sit there bored until the game ends and they can start over. 

Plus, while it’s still in the pre-oder stage you can give the rulebook a read, check out the almanacs on the Kickstarter page for the editions, use the script tool to build your handouts, and find out where people are playing on the BotC site. That same site will also provide you with news, more game info, and a way to pre-order the game for yourself.

This might have been my first time giving Blood on the Clocktower a try, but I have a feeling it won’t be the last.

Thanks to Lance, Kate, and the rest of the Townsfolk and evil-doers of Ravenswood Bluff for giving me a chance to learn about and play this game!

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