Dark Idea of Fun: Game Based on Salem Witch Trials Lets Players Hang “Witches”

Rynn Fox —  December 8, 2012 — 26 Comments

By Rynn Fox, Wild Hunt Staff Writer

A new strategy game based on the Salem Witch Trials is the focus of a recent successful Kickstarter campaign. Created by Joshua Balvin, owner of Rock Paper Scissors Games, Salem gives players the opportunity to experience the historical events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials through the lives of the actual people involved—42 to be exact—whose lives were directly impacted, and in some cases, cut short as a result of events.

Ann Putnam Jr.

Artist rendering of Ann Putnam, Jr., a real-life victim of the Salem Witch Trials, being used as a character in the new ‘Salem’ strategy game. (Image from ‘Salem.’)

The game plays over the course of 4 rounds representing the 4 months (June–September 1692) in which the hysteria was at its height. Each round has 3 parts: a Witch Hunt and a Witch Trial followed by hangings. During the Witch Hunt, players send residents to jail and provide alibis for their own jailed citizens. At the end of each round all jailed citizens stand trial. Players then collectively decide who is hanged and who is spared. The player who is most successful at discerning witches from villagers wins! (Taken from Kickstarter page.)

While satirizing the phenomena of witch trials has been the focus of both video and board games in the past, according to an interview Balvin did with the Boston Globe, the game has one aim:

“(…) recreating the paranoia that there are witches among us, the fear that you might be next, and the mob-mentality that led to the loss of 20 lives during the summer of 1692.”

While building a game centered around people who were executed as scapegoats to the Puritanical fears of the time may seem tacky, the game could be used as an interesting teaching tool to show how fear and paranoia affect people’s choices and lives—and drive home this point better than a game with fictional characters and scenes.

Still, crafting game play to center around outing and hanging “witches” is sobering. And not because it focuses on the Salem Witch Trials or on Witches; it’s what happens when the word Witch is switched out with other words: three that come to mind are homosexuals, Jews and transgendered. With Salem, Halpern seems to have created an intriguing mirror of humanity’s darker side; the side that targets as scapegoats anything that smacks of otherness and inspires fear out of ignorance.

Joshua Balvin declined our interview request.

Rynn Fox


Rynn Fox brings over a decade of journalistic writing and marketing experience to The Wild Hunt. Under her professional name she has written pieces on law enforcement, technology and food for Law & Order, Public Safety Magazine and Mas Magazine. As a Pagan journalist she covers topics important to modern Pagans and Heathens, providing an in depth look at the issues to move discourse beyond preconceptions and rhetoric into a deeper level of understanding.
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  • Charming. Just charming. I admit, I am unusually hostile to the entire videogame industry at large; having the unfortunate experience of knowing vidiots who literally trashed their REAL lives just to play all the time; but when you mix in such elements as the intolerance and sadism this game offers, it really makes me want to puke.

  • I first figured this was a boardgame variant of Mafia/Werewolf, but it seems to have a different base setup. Still, it’s not the first to play with the concept of trying to out members of a hidden group.

    • That was my first thought. It sounds like Night Watchman/Werewolf/Mafia with an iffy historical twist to it. So someone is actually trying to market this party game that’s really easy to play for free?

  • Boris

    How about a game “Christians versus Lions” ?

  • kenneth

    I don’t like doing the whole anti-defamation perpetual outrage thing around anything I detect the mere whiff of disrespect for pagan religion or progenitor cultures. It could be a good learning tool for the dynamics that come into play in witch hunts of any sort.

    On the other hand, if these guys really want to be edgy and un-PC artists, they ought to have the balls to go all the way. How about a game called “Conversos and Crypto-Jews”: A game of strategy in Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain in the time of the Alhambra Decree.” Players can try to decide which of their Jewish neighbors is a secret revert (or just a wealthy enemy they envy), then compete to see who can get the most of them into the Spanish Inquisition and then out of the country (minus their gold, of course).

  • MikoNoNyte

    How about hunt the Christians? Muslims? Jews? Oh wait, better! Hunt the Negroes, the Mexicans, the Chinese and the Japs! Hey what a game! Smells like bad news to me. Not teaching anything but hate, prejudice, intolerance and the ability to state “Hey, I don’t really wanna Kill *fill in the blank*! It’s only a game!” (or movie, or book)

    • My old RPG group once had an informal contest as to which of us could come up with the most politically incorrect game. I had previously run one based on a classic “Sandman” issue where everyone played a serial killer, so I was at an advantage.

      Everyone agreed my ‘Civil War era Slave Hunter’ campaign was probably the worst. It was only an idea, though. I never ran that one, nor the ‘Blackwater’ campaign I did far too much research for.

      Second worst was my friend’s idea for a ‘SimKZ’ computer game, with configurable oppressors/oppressed groups, so you could go either Nazis/Jews or Israelis/Palestinians, Pagans/Christians…knock yourself out. It’d just be a palette swap anyway.

  • Censor

    Please get the apostrophe out of this blog post title.

  • As both a professional game designer and a Heathen, I have some choice words to say about this particular game. http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Culture-Blogs/an-absolutely-disgusting-bigoted-game-gets-funded-on-kickstarter.html

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  • Gareth

    I’m not at all bothered by this. The people involved were neither witches or Pagans and even if they were I’d still not be bothered. It could be a good game, it could be an interesting learning tool but I don’t see what it’s got to do with Pagan news.

    • The
      makers of the game probably think of witch-hunts as something in the
      distant past. Perhaps they are not aware of the fact that witch-hunts
      continue to this day. One has to ask, how long is long enough before one
      can satirise genocide (irrespective of the target).

  • Winterswan

    I like GOPagan’s article about this- I feel he brings up some valid points. This game bothers me. I’m not big into censorship (as an artist, I’m very much against being told what I can and can’t create) but I do believe that we’re responsible for what we create. As GOPagan writes, would be find a game about hunting Jews objectionable? Or slaves? There’s a point where the issue becomes one of respecting the beliefs of others. I find this witch hunting game to be, at the very least, in poor taste. At worst, I feel that it might encourage the idea that witches are to be rooted out of society and put to death. I already have enough trouble with neighbors who think I worship dragons in the back yard. Do we need to have this type of ignorance encouraged?

    • Winterswan

      I apologize for the typo (damned IPhone key pad): that should read “would we find a game” not “would be”.

  • Winterswan

    I’m also a bit concerned that Mr. Balvin declined the interview. Clearly, he doesn’t care how witches are portrayed in society.

  • Heatheresty

    2 of my ancestors were prosecuted and hung.This is a disgrace to my family and MY PAGAN RELIGION.

  • Under normal circumstances I would not pay any attention to fictional films or games in which witches are portrayed as evil and in need of “curing”. Unfortunately my sense of humour ends when I remember that literally hundreds of women, men and children are still being accused and murdered almost daily throughout Africa and India, because someone thinks they are witches. Having read this article however, I suppose it could be useful as an educational tool?

  • Lovely another game to incite the racist, the ignorant and the haters…….

  • Karen

    I find this to be very offensive. It doesn’t matter what the intent was in the game’s creation – it is simply in bad taste, and completely insensitive to those who regarded that time in our history to be one of the darker moments.

  • Cat C-B

    Perhaps there is indeed a need for an educational game on the Salem witch trials. None of the comments thus far mentions the gaffe in the illustration for this article; Anne Putnam the younger–12 at the time of the trials–was one of the “afflicted girls” and as such, was not a victim of the persecution, but rather a persecutor.

    She is also the only one of the prosecution witnesses to recant and publicly ask forgiveness for her actions, interestingly enough. Since women were not allowed to speak in church at that time, and since church was still the social center of the Puritans’ world, her confession had to be read aloud for her by a male member of the congregation. She’s an interesting historical figure… but by no means a victim.

  • sally Austin

    I get that humanity has a darkside, we don’t hide it well, but it’s been glamorized enough. Making the murder of people into a game(never mind the fact we’ve been doing it for yearscowboys and indians for example)is a tad wrong in my opinion. I hope this game doesn’t gain popularity

  • Luminous_Being

    I don’t think that a game about Witch Hunts should not exist, the problem is that any game has to decide what action the player takes should feel “fun” and how a player should feel “rewarded.” If the “fun” activity in the game were to successfully save as many people as possible from hysteria that would be interesting. If the win situation is how many witches you hang, that seems like an ugly thing to take pleasure in.

    I have seen a cartoony card game called Guillotine in which you compete with others to execute French nobility. If that game is fun and successful at making the reign of terror fun then maybe this can be as well.