Asmodee and Netflix recently announced a partnership to release new games based on very popular Netflix series, starting with three of the streaming service’s biggest titles: Stranger Things, Ozark, and Squid Game. As a big fan of the first of those three, and someone who’ll spend the next 11 months arguing that the “Master of Puppets” scene should win all the Emmys in 2023, I should be in the target audience for the Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer social deduction game. It feels a little undercooked, though, even though it’s largely a retheme of an independently published game from 2019 called Growl.
This is a very basic social deduction game, meaning a game where players have some sort of secret identity and try to win either individually or as a team without revealing the truth, whether it’s a team affiliation or your hand cards or something else. Coup, Love Letter, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf are all great, easy-to-learn, quick-playing social deduction games that also seem to have informed the development of this title.
The Stranger Things game probably draws the most from the One Night Ultimate Werewolf series, which itself derives from the 1980s game known as Werewolf and rethemed as Mafia, where players are split at the start of each game into two teams, such as werewolves and humans. Here, at least one player is already possessed by the Mind Flayer at the start of the game, while all other players are “Sane.” Each player then begins the game with a hand of three cards from the adventure deck, which has three Meeting cards mixed in at the one-third, two-thirds, and final spots, which will lead to some common actions across multiple players.
On a turn, the active player turns over the top card of the deck and decides to give it to any other player at the table. There are five main card types in the deck, one of which, the Waffle, is useless—more on that later. There are Mind Flayer cards, and their converse, the Memories cards; there are Hard Hit cards, and their converse, the Helping Hands cards. If you’re Sane, and if, at any time in the game, your hand contains three more Mind Flayer cards than Memories cards, you become Possessed, switching teams but not telling any other players. If you have three more Hard Hit cards in your hand than Helping Hand cards, regardless of your side, you’re knocked out of the game—but you can still end up on the winning side. You just don’t get to play any more until the round or game ends.
One of the major flaws in the Stranger Things game is that you have so few opportunities to get rid of cards. After each of the three Meeting cards is revealed, every player takes two cards from their hand, passing one to their left and one to their right, although Sane players can’t pass Mind Flayer cards. I understand the point of this is to reveal Possessed players when they do pass one of those, but it also means Sane players are in a very tough spot, at the mercy of teammates when one of the few Memories cards in the deck (there are far fewer than there are Mind Flayer cards) appears. Once you’re Possessed, there’s no going back, which I don’t think is entirely true to the story in the TV show anyway, so the game is kind of skewed towards the Possessed. Without other opportunities to get rid of cards, though, if you’re Sane, you don’t have much say in your own fate.
A round ends either after the third Meeting card or if there are just one or two players still active. If the game ends with one Sane player remaining, the Sane team wins. Otherwise the Possessed team wins. You can play a single round, or play three straight, in which case the Waffle cards matter. You get one point if you’re on the winning team in one round, and you get a point for every Waffle card in your hand at the end of a round. The original version of this game, Growl, required that you play the three rounds, so the inutility of the Waffle cards wasn’t an issue.
Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer can handle four to 10 players, shrinking the deck size if you have fewer people at the table and adjusting the number of players who start the game Possessed. It takes 20-30 minutes to play, but can also leave some players with nothing to do for a long period of time after they’re knocked out. There’s just nothing in here that I haven’t seen done better in another social deduction game, including the three I mentioned up top. A good Stranger Things game should have you running up that hill, but instead this game is barking up the wrong tree.
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.