Deduction games ask players to solve some sort of mystery, whether it’s the killer in a murder case or the secret identities of other players at the table, by using logic and clues they will acquire over the course of the game. Here’s my personal ranking of the 10 best deduction games I’ve ever played, running the gamut from straight-up mysteries to social games with lots of bluffing that work as smarter party games.
A deck-based, cooperative mystery game that reminds me of Chronicles of Crime in a smaller package, The Sherlock Files come with three cases per set, and ask players to work together by playing clue cards—but also award you points at the end of the case for what you got right and for discarding cards that turned out to be irrelevant.
Another social deduction game, this time for four to 12 players, Deception lets the Murderer play along as one of the Investigators to try to sabotage their attempts to solve the case. The Forensic Scientist knows the answer, but can only communicate what they know via special tiles that point to something about the cards in front of the Murderer. With higher player counts, you can also name a player as an Accomplice or a Witness to add a little more complexity. It’s a murder-mystery game with more meat than Werewolf-style games, but not so much that it’s no longer a fun social experience.
I think Love Letter is the smallest game I own—it’s a deck of 16 cards, and a few red jewel tokens that go to the winners of each match. You get one card, and on your turn, you draw the top card from the deck, and then choose one to keep and one to play. Some card effects are good, some are bad. Some target another player, and even let you guess the player’s card, where they’re out of the game if you guess correctly. Matches take just a few minutes, ending when only one player still has a card, or when the deck is exhausted, in which case the player with the highest-value card wins. You play until one player has won enough tokens to reach the victory condition. It’s been rethemed several times, including versions with Cthulu, Archer, Star Wars, and most recently the Avengers’ Infinity Gauntlet.
This series of single-play games, which run about $12 a box, won the Kennerspiel des Jahres (experts’ game of the year) in 2017, and now comprises 17 unique titles, all of which work the same way by simulating an escape-room experience. Players work together to solve a series of riddles, each of which will yield a three-digit code that will unlock more clues. To solve those riddles, you’ll have to manipulate various game components, often cutting them up or otherwise destroying them, to find hidden messages or line up different images. There’s a built-in hint system that allows you to keep progressing if you get stuck on a certain riddle, and other than The Catacombs of Horror all of the games should be solvable in under an hour.
Orient Express has been out of print for decades, but it’s still one of my all-time favorite games, working a classic grid puzzle into a board game set on that famous train route. Players are detectives and move around the train, interviewing witnesses and crew members, searching areas of the train, and sending telegrams at certain cities along the route, with each of them revealing a clue that might help them cross out one or more squares on their worksheet. The first person to correctly guess the killer and the motive wins, although the clues can also point to the weapon used or other details that might allow you to narrow down the list of suspects. The designers released 40 separate cases before the game went out of print.
See my review from earlier this month. The Search for Planet X is based on a real hypothesis in modern astronomy, that there’s a ninth planet beyond Neptune, and asks players to compete to figure out which sector of the sky holds the missing planet—and what celestial object is in each of the other sectors as well.
The original Werewolf, also known as Mafia, isn’t really a board game—players can just write the game’s roles (Werewolf, Villager, Seer) on pieces of paper and assign them randomly, playing over a series of night and day phases where Werewolves kill one Villager each night and Villagers have to guess during the day who’s a werewolf. One Night Ultimate Werewolf condenses it into a ten-minute experience with more roles and an app to take the place of the human moderator, and it’s since been expanded with five boxes that add more roles, and a spinoff game that combines its mechanics with the roles and the Resistance universe of the game Coup.
A deduction board game that, unlike most games on this list, plays out on an actual board—a modular one you’ll assemble each game from six different parts. You can use the game’s companion site or the codebooks included to set up each specific session, where three to five players compete to find the creature using their own starting clues and then by asking one other player on each turn if the player could be located on a specific space, according to that other player’s clue. Each game has a unique solution for its starting setup and clues, and the competitive nature of the game means it’s a race to figure it out first, and perhaps guess before you know for sure if you have the right space.
This cooperative (or solo) game from Lucky Duck uses a companion app and QR codes on all game components to let players solve numerous scenarios piece by piece, moving to different locations, interviewing various witnesses, finding evidence, and using the four experts (criminologist, scientist, hacker, and doctor) to gain more clues. There’s also a time element that can boost your score if you come in under that figure. The cases are quite involved, and ask you to use the app to examine different scenes, giving you 30 seconds to look at a 360-degree image of a room and identify objects that might be evidence in your crime, which is also VR-enabled if you have a compatible device. Games can take an hour or more but they’re very engaging.
Coup is probably the best-known social deduction game on the market; it’s that or the execrably-named Secret Hitler, I suppose, which has more notoriety than the game itself deserves. The base game of Coup plays three or four, with each player starting the game with just two cards, and the goal is to be the last player left with a card in their hand. Players take actions based on the cards in their hands, but don’t have to reveal the cards unless challenged by another player; if the challenge is successful, the player has to reveal and discard that card, but if the player wasn’t bluffing, the challenger has to discard a card. Players can use cards to gain coins, and spend seven to launch a coup against another player, who must discard one card (with no defense), or they can use three and claim they have the Assassin card, which has the same function but can be blocked. It’s a game of bluffing all around, and is completely flat—nobody is ‘it’ and all players start on equal ground. The Reformation expansion lets you play with up to 10 players and introduces team play. Both games are really fast and highly portable too.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.