Could a strong knowledge of game design help you win The Traitors? This was the question UK series one contestant Ivan Brett had in mind when he joined the show last year, keen to beat the odds for as long as he could while playing as one of the game’s Faithful. The author of The Floor is Lava and Bored? Games!, a professional D&D Dungeon Master and long-time fan of social gaming, Brett’s own pitch to the series’ producers was that he could beat them at their own format. Of course, things didn’t entirely go to plan.
Still, he believes there’s a method to the series’ format, a meta to follow to avoid being murdered, and several social game design tweaks he would make to keep the series feeling fresh for years to come. I sat down with Brett this week ahead of a big week of episodes in the show’s hit second season to discuss all of that and more.
“I love social deduction and social strategy games – adore them – and have for many years been running them as part of my job,” Brett says to me of his gaming background – a similar pitch to the one he used to apply. “I was running a lot of Mafia, Werewolf, those kinds of games in youth clubs and for corporate training exercises when I saw this advertised, and I thought ‘brilliant!’, obviously – if I was ever going to apply for a reality show it would be this.
“I got the idea pretty quickly that TV shows need you to have an elevator pitch for what you are like – a one line sell for what you will provide. So in a very sort of calculated way, I said ‘alright, well, I’m gonna be the guy who has run the game for years and now wants to play it, who has seen all the strategies and seen everything play out, and can now play using the best of those. So that was my application. In the edit I was listed as a children’s author, which is something else I did – probably to build the wholesomeness of my character rather than the strategic element, as they didn’t really show much of the Faithfuls plotting at all.” He sighs. “But that’s fine.”
As an applicant to The Traitors’ first run, the exact rules of the show were still something of a mystery to contestants, but Brett knew enough that he wanted to be one of the good guys, the Faithful, even though it was likely to be more of a challenge. “I thought that would be more worthwhile – so I went, ‘here’s my 10 point plan for how to survive as a faithful, here’s how I don’t get murdered, here’s how I don’t get banished’, all that kind of stuff. I really wanted to make the claim that I’d solve the game as much as possible – in a game where winning as a Faithful has only a tiny chance of success.”
Because here’s the thing – The Traitors isn’t evenly balanced, far from it. Globally, with the format produced in numerous countries, Traitor series wins far outnumber those of the Faithful. Even here in the UK, where Traitor Wilf fell at the final hurdle last year, that result only came to pass because of a controversial ‘parting gift’ from backstabbed player Kieran. More on that moment later.
“In well-balanced social deduction games, win rates are about 50-50. But the Traitors represent a higher chance of winning since there are multiple of them – and the Faithful have like a… what’s 50 divided by 18?” Brett does some quick maths in his head. “Like a three percent chance of winning? And initially I was going with the idea it would be an equal chance.” So why isn’t it fairer? It comes down to the show’s focus on its Traitor players as protagonist figures in each series’ plot, Brett believes, and also due to the rigid TV format of requiring each run to last 12 episodes.
“The show can’t have the game really begin until episode seven or eight,” Brett notes, “because you can’t get to a point where the game is liable to end before Episode 12. That’s why every time we got rid of a Traitor, they had to recruit a new one.” This was a sticking point for his plans, Brett admits, and why it was unwise for him to go harder earlier on any of his Traitor theories. “It’s better that you have them in your pocket and lull the Traitors into a false sense of security and focus more on not being murdered,” he says, pondering the best gameplay tactic for each series’ first half.
Easier said than done, of course – and Brett is murdered proof that even having a solid game plan can only get you so far. But despite the quick dispatch of two players per episode, he believes there are tactics and a path to follow for surviving as long as possible. “People have realised that actually being suspicious and being a thorn in the Traitors’ side is a really good salve against being murdered,” Brett says. “If you’re wrong, the Traitors will just think you’re a fool, but if you’re right, the Traitors will think ‘well I can’t get rid of them or the paper trail will come back to me’. So the meta right now is to be quite outward and to be quite forward about your theories.”
This year, The Traitors returned to the UK with a slightly different vibe – not least due to the influence of prominent player Paul. (“Paul is a brand new thing, someone who has been built as a villain and a Traitor, whereas previously the traitors are built as the protagonists of the show,” Brett muses. “I’m sure Paul is lovely but I’m also sure he’s accepting, watching this back, that he played the part of the villain because he knew that’s what was expected of him and he’s doing it well.”) But beyond the impact of having a different cast of players, there are other changes – and an attempt to make each episode’s challenge more interesting via the introduction of shields. These were initially introduced as a way for players to potentially sabotage missions for personal gain – immunity from murder that night – but haven’t yet had the impact Brett had hoped.
“From a game design perspective, the only relevance to the challenges are the shields. I think they’ve done well by taking a leaf out of The Mole’s book by having shields only available when you sabotage the mission, and potentially reduce the prize pot,” Brett says. But no contestant has decided to keep their shield secret, and later challenges have made it almost impossible to hide who had one. “I feel this is a shame,” he continues. “Going back to the secret shields is, from a game design perspective, very interesting because then you have that lack of clarity for the Traitors, who would have to scramble ahead and work stuff out. It’s all too easy for them, when they know someone’s got a shield, to take that person out of the conversation. So why is it interesting? It’s not. Jasmine gets a shield. No one talks about Jasmine for the rest of the day. Cool, great.
“It doesn’t seem like getting a shield makes you a banishment target in this particular season either, which is fine – that’s just where the meta is,” he adds. “But enforcing the shield being secret would be so much more interesting because Traitors would then spend missions trying to watch who got a shield, and a way to find Traitors would be to see who’s spending time not sabotaging the task but watching who
Other types of shield could grant different gameplay bonuses, he suggests, such as protection from banishment or a mini-challenge to try and survive for another day and win a protected share of the prize – a little temptation for Traitors to sniff out. But for now, it’s hard not to argue that the game’s design is working just fine – as the second series earns viewing figures most TV shows can only dream of. “They’re balancing a couple of quite big spinning plates,” Brett says of The Traitor’s current game run. “One of them is the game being good and being exciting. The other is not jumping the shark, which I’m sure [production company] Studio Lambert are very, very aware of and really trying not to do. A format change everyone thought they might try is to bring in a Faithful information gathering role, something like we would call a Clairvoyant or a Seer, where one particular Faithful has a hidden role.” But doing so risks complicating things for audiences, he concedes, and tampering with the current balance (or unbalance) of the Traitors and Faithful. “They don’t necessarily need Faithfuls to do anything except flounder,” Brett says of the series’ early game. “It’s far easier to add twists for the Traitors.”
This can be seen in the ‘twists’ where producers allow Traitors to put people publicly on trial, or when they’re forced to murder in plain sight. “There’s a lot of that active GM-ing,” Brett says of these moments, which showrunners have waiting in the wings. “What they’re doing with those is interesting, too, because none of them are information gathering – they’re all to do with mistrust seeding.” This creates great TV, obviously, and also ensures Faithful themselves never gain too much of an advantage. But there has to be a balance, Brett believes, otherwise players simply mistrust everyone and cannot form bonds. “As a GM in D&D, it’s very similar,” he continues. “If you keep throwing grind and properly horrible situations rather than interesting moral quandaries – ‘kill your mother or let your dog die!’ – then you will see players at their worst. You might watch amazing things happening, but you won’t bond with those characters in a way that will stick with you.”
For players, there’s nothing as amazing as finally catching a Traitor – something often celebrated by both Faithful and backstabbing Traitors alike. “We’ve learned by now that really the only way to take out a Traitor is for the Traitors to decide it’s their time to go,” Brett says. “Literally every Traitor in the last UK season was taken down by another – Alyssa, Amanda, Kieran all taken out by Wilf, and then Wilf was taken out by Kieran.” Which brings us back to that moment at the end of last year’s series, when Kieran ensured Wilf’s demise via an obvious hint. The show’s rules state that Traitors aren’t allowed to disclose the identities of Traitors – so was this an instance of the game’s design being broken? “I believe it was against the rules,” Brett says. “I mean, I think it made great TV and I respect Kieran for feeling so strongly about it at the time. But I’m pretty sure it will never happen again.
“The game only works if Traitors aren’t allowed to reveal Traitors and this will have been borne out by play testing. I’ve played enough Werewolf where you can and it’s fun to do so, but that’s because the game is allowed to end at any point and it’s too easy. It’s too powerful a move. The Traitors run tests where they have three or four days of random people coming in to trial the game out. They probably went through one [where Traitors could reveal themselves] and went ‘oh that was calamitous’, because the Traitors could just tell on each other, or say ‘Oh, I’m a Traitor by the way, work with me’. It would be a really interesting game to watch but it wouldn’t be The Traitors.”
Judging by the reception to this year’s series, a third UK run seems guaranteed. So what advice for gaming the show would he pass on now, to next year’s players? “I think they need to understand the prevailing view is about survival,” Brett says. “You’re most likely to be a Faithful – it’s four and a half times more likely you’re a Faithful than a Traitor in this series – go in there and raise suspicion about yourself. Don’t sit under the radar because then you’re a murder target. Make sure you’re playing the game, make some noise, enough that you’re a potential banishment target as Traitors aren’t going to go for banishment targets. But then if you are accused immediately accuse someone else – hopefully someone else that other people have talked about. Don’t bother defending yourself – it doesn’t work. Always have a really good visible ‘biscuit’ to throw at the Round Table. Try and survive being accused a couple of times and that should get you quite a long way. But it’s a really difficult line to tread and I don’t know if I could do it really well.”
In the longer term, Brett believes The Traitors’ format will need to change as, currently, there’s “only so many finals to the show” which spells a shelf-life to the format. Having two Traitors in Episode 11 means there’s likely to be two in Episode 12 – “which is OP”, Brett believes – even if finales with two Traitors going head-to-head in other versions of the show around the world have been fun to watch. “What I would say to make the game more balanced is to not let Traitors recruit after Episode 9,” he says. “That would then at least do a bit to balance the game back and make it 40-60 or 30-70, rather than right now which is 90-10. If you could risk having one Traitor in Episode 11 you could have an Episode 12 with no Traitors. And actually, here’s the thing, an Episode 12 with no Traitors would still make for great TV and a great finale. I’ve heard people crying out for it – ‘let’s have an atheist game! let’s have a game with no Traitors!’ That’s not going to happen from the start but it could happen two episodes or one episode from the end. If you’ve got five people standing around the fire pit who trust each other, do they vote people out?”
“You’re never going to have one of those amazing day three victories that you see in social deduction games we play in upstairs rooms at pubs where thirteen surviving players high five each other because they’ve all shared part of the money,” he acknowledges. “But I want to see the show go on and on and on.”