Deception may be the best murder mystery board game ever devised

Clue is a pervasive cultural influence. We all know what it means to talk about Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick or Professor Plum in the study with the rope. There are a lot of reasons that Clue is such a popular game, but one of them is definitely the situation that Clue puts you in. You get to feel like you’re solving a mystery. It lets you live out an Agatha Christie novel as upper-crusty aristocrats trying to catch a murderer in a stately old mansion.

But Clue has some drawbacks.

The worst part about Clue is if you put the cards in the envelope wrong and it turns out to be the revolver with the wrench in the conservatory.
The worst part about Clue is if you put the cards in the envelope wrong and it turns out to be the revolver with the wrench in the conservatory.

One of those drawbacks is metaphysical certainty. Like a lot of deduction games, Clue is based on symmetric information and precise logic. When you receive a clue in Clue, you learn something with 100% confidence about who the murder is or is not. A computer program could play Clue just as well as a human.

That’s not the only way to set up a deduction game, though. There’s another board game about solving mysteries that discloses clues in a completely different way, with asymmetric hints that point you toward the solution without any one clue telling you anything for sure about who the murderer is. That game is Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, and it requires you to employ your whole human imagination if you want to solve a case.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong


In Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, all of the players are detectives investigating a murder. The twist is, of course, that one of the detectives is also the murderer.

At the start of the game, each player has eight cards face up in front of them: four weapon cards and four evidence cards. That way, each person has four weapons that they might have committed the murder with and four pieces of evidence that they might have left behind at the crime scene. Secret role cards are dealt to each player to determine who the murderer is. Then the murderer chooses one weapon card and one evidence card from their own cards as the actual murder weapon and actual evidence left behind.

The game is facilitated by a “forensic scientist” player. Instead of weapon and evidence cards, the forensic scientist has six clue tiles in front of them. The forensic scientist knows the solution to the crime (from a phase of the game where everyone else has their head down), and is trying to help the investigators find the murderer. However, the forensic scientist is not allowed to talk. The only way the forensic scientist can communicate is by placing markers on the clue tiles (each clue tile is a multiple choice description of something to do with the crime: for example, the location, the cause of death, the motive, or the time of day).

The game can double as a language learning tool because all of the cards and tiles have both English and Traditional Chinese on them.
The game can double as a language learning tool because all of the cards and tiles have both English and Traditional Chinese on them.

Every investigator gets one official guess at the exact solution to the murder. An investigator who guesses wrong must turn in their badge, but can still participate in the discussion. If every investigator turns in their badge, then the murderer wins. However, if one investigator correctly guesses both the murder weapon and evidence left behind, then all of the investigators win.


The game roles play very differently, but all of them are very enjoyable and challenging.

As an investigator, you are discussing with all of the other investigators, trying to pick out the correct murder weapon and evidence based on the vague clues that the forensic scientist is allowed to give and your intuition about which of the other investigators is lying to you.

As the murderer, you are trying to blend in with the investigators while secretly misleading and misdirecting them into guessing the wrong solution.

As the forensic scientist, you are silently and carefully listening to the discussion of the other players, using what they are saying to decide how to place markers on the clue tiles and which clue tile to replace after each round of discussion. (The rulebook says to assign the forensic scientist randomly with the other roles, but we’ve found that some players really want to be the forensic scientist, while other players really don’t, so we tend to give it to the players who do want it.)

In larger games, you can add several additional secret roles, including an accomplice who knows the identity of the murderer and helps mislead the other players, and a witness who knows who knows the identities of both the murderer and accomplice but must keep their own identity a secret. Since a full game typically averages around 15 or 20 minutes, you can play several times in a row and everyone can get a chance to experience multiple roles.

Moments of insight

The best way for me to talk about why Deception is so good is to talk about a specific game that I was part of.

A while ago, we were having a game night to celebrate my cousin’s birthday and we brought out Deception. There were eight people at the table so we included the witness and the accomplice roles. I was the forensic scientist. The first game was a bit of a learning experience since we had four people who’d never played the game before and there was some confusion about how all of the roles work. The murderer had picked a whip as the weapon and a Kleenex tissue as the evidence left behind. As clues, I was able to give “bedroom” as the location, “lovers” as the relationship between the murderer and victim, and “bodily fluids” as a trace at the scene. By the end of the game, two people had figured out the correct solution and were lobbying the last person with a badge to guess it, but that person guessed something else and the murderer got away.

In our second game, everyone was now clear on exactly how to play. The murderer picked a dumbbell as the weapon and a cassette tape as the evidence left behind. I was the forensic scientist again. Initially, I thought I was going to have an easy job of it because I would just pick “gym” as the location to suggest the dumbbell. However, looking through the location tiles, I realized that there is no gym. There isn’t even anything that remotely resembles a gym. Eventually, I settled on “storeroom” because weights and old tapes both seem like things that might be in a storeroom. I was also able to pick “entertainment” as an activity that was happening, and “hot” as the weather.

We started to go around and have everyone give their theory of the crime. Most people seemed very uncertain and were focusing on a broom because of the storeroom clue. Guesses were all over the place about what entertainment meant.

Then we got to one of the new players. He looked around the table and said, “You know, I don’t know why, and this is kind of off the wall, but I’m thinking a storeroom could also be a weight room, and maybe the person was in there lifting weights and jamming to this cassette tape. That’s just what I’m thinking.” Now, he didn’t turn in his badge to guess that and ultimately the murderer ended up getting away again…

…but that moment convinced me of the greatness of Deception.

We were playing with three weapons and three clue cards per player to make the game easier for the new players, but that meant we still had 42 cards out on the table and 63 possible solutions to the murder. And yet, somehow, from only six very vague clues, there was a meeting of the minds between me and this guy who I had never even met before about the exact way that the crime happened.

That’s what I love about Deception. When you get a clue, it doesn’t actually tell you anything. (I mean, sometimes clues are extremely strong indicators. For example, if the cause of death is poisoning, you can probably safely eliminate a blender as the murder weapon. Although, then again, could the poison have been in the blender?) This pervasive sense of ambiguity means that you get a great lightning bolt moment when you put the clues together with a solution in a way that makes sense. And yet, it also always leaves some wiggle room for a smooth talking murderer to point out a different solution. If you figure it out successfully, you feel like you’ve solved the crime using both halves of your brain because the game allows you to develop and play a hunch in a way that you cannot do in a game like Clue that relies solely on logical deduction.


There is a card for just about everything, from working someone to death to leaving an air conditioner at the scene of the crime.
There is a card for just about everything, from working someone to death to leaving an air conditioner at the scene of the crime.

In addition to being an extremely fun and engaging game, Deception is also very well-produced. It includes enough components for 12 players (13 if you have the Kickstarter version), plus almost 300 cards and over 30 clue tiles. Generally, this is enough to play the game three or four times in a row without seeing any duplicate murder weapons, evidence, or clues.

Family friendliness

A couple of the cards are graphic enough to give you nightmares.
A couple of the cards are graphic enough to give you nightmares.

The recommended minimum age for Deception is 14. The recommended minimum age for Clue is eight. Obviously, murder is never really family friendly. Clue has you trying to figure out if someone was bludgeoned to death with a pipe or hung with a rope—is that undercurrent of horrifying violence really appropriate for eight year olds? I don’t know, but I can see why the age for Deception is higher than the age for Clue. A handful of the cards in Deception have overtly disturbing images on them. Also, younger children (and some adults!) might have difficulty with the poker face that you need to play some of the roles.

Final thoughts

One of the very first games of Deception that we ever played will always stick in my mind. The evidence left behind was a cigar. I was the forensic scientist and one of the clue tiles was the weather. I chose “humid.” One of the other players said, “humid… humidor… maybe it’s the cigar.”

As the forensic scientist, you are not supposed to talk, gesture, or emote, but inside I was jumping up and down, screaming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!”

That’s the kind of roundabout thought process that you often have to use in this game—and I love it.

I’m not going to claim that it’s a perfect game. Sometimes it’s less exciting than others. Sometimes the murder gets caught in about a minute because the murder weapon they picked is completely unlike anything in front of anyone else. And there are things about the game that don’t make any sense. I mean, if the forensic scientist is a police officer, why can’t they just say who the murderer is, you know?

Deception also has a lot in common with other games like Mafia, Werewolf, Bang, and The Resistance, but, in a way, I like it better than any of those because it requires you to use fuzzy logic and lateral thinking as part of the game. Sometimes I ask myself, what is my favorite board game? I’m not sure, but Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is definitely near the top of the list.

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