22 September 2022
A team at the University of Warwick has developed a pair of freely available card games about the Scottish witch hunts, in support of charity.
In ‘Witch Hunt 1649’, players take the roles of neighbours in a seventeenth-century East Lothian community. Dr Martha McGill, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in History and leader of project, comments: “The games aim to be sensitive and non-sensationalised, promoting understanding of the historical backdrop of the witch trials and empathy for their victims. While we wanted the games to be fun, we also wanted them to encourage serious reflection. Stepping into the shoes of fictionalised historical figures is a memorable learning device, encouraging deeper consideration of the life circumstances, agency and motivations of past actors.”
Scotland made witchcraft a capital offence in 1563. The Witchcraft Act was not repealed until 1736, by which time something in the region of 3,000 people may have been executed. 1649 was a year of particularly intense prosecution, partly because it was also a time of political and social turmoil. King Charles I was executed at the beginning of the year, and the radical Kirk Party that came to power in Scotland was keen to stamp down on sinful behaviour. Pressure to root out evil came from above, but the witch trials were also driven from below: prosecutions typically began when neighbours accused others, usually following an argument. Approximately 84% of those accused were women, most commonly those of middling age and social status who were known for being quarrelsome.
Witch Hunt 1649 includes two games. The Dregs of Days (lead designer Martha McGill) is suitable for 2-7 players, and takes about ten minutes per player. It explores tension and hardship in seventeenth-century Scottish communities, as well as looking at the accusations raised in witch trials. Players are typically allied in pairs. Fate cards require players to navigate tricky scenarios, but also allow them to buy assets, which can be used defensively or to attack others. Each game includes at least one trial, featuring accusations of magical malpractice or Satanic pacts drawn from historical records. Story cards provide further historical context.
Lying Lips (lead designer Emmay Deville) is suitable for 3-6 or 8 players, and lasts about 5 minutes per player. It aims to reflect the importance of rumour and slander in the witch hunts. In the first phase of the game, players trade assets while gossip about witchcraft circulates around the village, represented by the Rumour card. In the second phase of the game, a witch trial takes place. Players take on roles, with the trial commissioner and jurors aiming to identify the chief scandal-mongerer.
The games can be played with family and friends, or used in classrooms (recommended for ages 14+). It is possible to download and print them at home, to play online, or to purchase a professionally printed version. All proceeds go to charity. Sales are currently support the Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, in recognition of its work combatting (often gender-based) violence.
The team is grateful for funding from the University of Warwick, and for the input of its historical consultants, playtesters and logistical supporters, listed here. The project was inspired by Virtus, a card game about medieval masculinity produced by Professor Frank Klaassen and students at the University of Saskatchewan.