How to Play Mafia
Mafia: Multiple Ways to Play
One of most entertaining (and cheapest) ways for friends to have fun is with a good ol' game of Mafia. The objectives are simple: "Good" townsfolk players try to figure out who the criminals are while "bad" mafia members attempt to get away with their murders.
Today, we'll review an easy way to play this game of truth and lies, but keep in mind that Mafia has many different ways you can experience it. I'll try and note these along the way, but remember you can sculpt Mafia as your group of friends sees fit. That said, let's learn how to deceive and bluff your way to victory!
How to Set Up the Game
Obviously, first you'll need some friends. Go make some! You'll need at least 6 total players, preferably 7,8, or 9. Arrange everyone in a circle so they can face each other.
Next, select a narrator (some people call this person a moderator or judge). The narrator will referee the game, and knows everyone's identity but is careful not reveal anyone. The narrator runs the story and gives rules to the game's participants. The narrator needs to be familiar with the workings of the game, and it's best if they have a creative mind so they can weave amusing stories. A good memory also helps.
After the narrator is chosen, the remaining players need to be given their jobs. Typically this is done using any standard deck of cards; set aside specific cards and assign roles to them, then deal them face-down. Typically, you'll want two mafia members, one doctor, one cop, and the rest as Townsfolk, but you can adjust the exact amounts to suit your preferences.
Check the table below to see the commonly-used card symbols. So, if I was narrator and I had six other people playing with me, I'd randomly deal out two aces, a king, a queen, and any two number cards to my six friends. The narrator, of course, doesn't need a card; everyone knows who they are.
Starting the Game: Night Phase
Everyone now knows who they are but not each other. The narrator, who typically stands up while the other players sit, will give these instructions (they don't have to be verbatim).
- Players, close your eyes and "go to sleep."
- Mafia members only, wake up.
- Mafia members, select a target to kill. (The mafia members silently nod or point to a target).
- Mafia members, go to sleep.
- Doctor, wake up and choose someone to save. (Doctor silently nods or points, more on the doctor's role later).
- Doctor, go to sleep.
- Cop, wake up and choose someone to accuse (more on this role below).
- Cop, go to sleep.
- Everyone, wake up!
Now, the narrator presents a story detailing how the target of the mafia unfortunately met their demise. The more creative and amusing the story, the better. If your friend Jill plays the piano, for instance, the narrator could speak of how the mafia arranged Jill's favorite instrument to fall on her as she walked to her piano recital. Oh, the cruel irony.
The mafia's target is dead and out of the game (unless the doctor successfully saved them). They can keep their eyes open in future night phases, but can't reveal any information. The remaining players now move to the day phase.
Time to deduce one another's identity! Now, players talk among themselves to see if they can figure out who in the group would have killed the target. Did Daniel kill his own girlfriend Jill, seeing as it's so obvious that he'd never do it? Is Madison acting a little suspicious over there? Why is the normally outspoken Clyde not saying a word?
It's smart to establish a time limit for the day phase. Five minutes usually works fine. During this time, the group can vote to kill someone, suspecting them to be a mafia member. A majority or tied-for-majority vote kills the player and reveals their card. If that player is one of the mafia, congrats townsfolk, you're that much closer to winning! If the player is not in the mafia, congrats mafia, you tricked the townsmen into killing innocent teammates!
Winning the Game
No one has to be killed by the townsfolk each round. If they can't agree on a target or decide to abstain, proceed to the next step. The night phase now repeats; everyone goes to sleep, the mafia wake up and choose their new target, the doctor and cop (if still alive) wake up and repeat their actions, and so on. This continues until either the mafia members have all been caught, or the number of non-mafia members left equals the number of mafia remaining, at which point the mafia wins.
Mafia Member Tips
Now we'll review each role in the game. Mafia members and townsfolk are the only required characters, but I strongly recommend using the others as well.
- As a member of the mafia, you're one of the killers. You've got a hard job, you'll have to choose targets and bluff innocence. Be careful not to make noise when you wake up during the night phase, and remember that accusing others too quick will often make you look suspicious. Try to maintain a balance of neither talking too much or too little.
- A truly nefarious mafia member can even try to gain the townsfolk's trust by ratting out their fellow crook in desperate situations. "You can tell Abbie's guilty by the look on her face, I vote we kill her this round."
- You're an innocent civilian being targeted by the malevolent mafia members. Unfortunately, you have no special powers to help you deduce their identities. It's up to your wits and to narrow down the culprits.
- Townsfolk may seem like the most boring role, and to some it is, but the best moments of the game can just as easily come from successfully nabbing the killer as from getting away with the crime. You'll feel like a real detective when you correctly identify the mafia, and you don't have to worry about bluffing since you're innocent.
- Saving Targets: The life-saving doctor isn't mandatory, but plays an important role (some groups even call this character the angel). During the night phase, the doctor will wake up and select someone to save that round (they're allowed to pick themselves, although repeatedly doing so can irritate others). If the person they choose is targeted by the mafia that round, instead of dying, the person will be saved.
- Changing the Story: This doesn't have to make much sense story-wise as long as it's fun. For example, doctors usually save patients from illnesses, not falling pianos, but with the above example the story could change to "Jill was almost crushed by the falling piano, but a masked doctor pulled her out of the way." Narrators, be sure not to reveal the doctor's identity when incorporating them into the story, and don't reveal who the doctor saved if they weren't the mafia's target.
- Benefits: Being saved by the doctor provides a huge benefit for the townsfolk, because they now know someone's innocence. The mafia won't target themselves (unless they're doing a truly insane bluff and hoping the doctor saves them), so if someone was protected during a round, you know they cannot be one of the killers.
- Deducing Mafia Members: Sometimes called the sheriff or detective, the cop has a special phase during each night round. When the narrator indicates, the cop awakens and nods or points at someone to "accuse". The narrator then shakes their head yes or no to indicate whether that person is a mafia member or not. Cops should of course ask about a different player each turn to collect as much information as possible, and aren't allowed to reveal their knowledge.
- Cautiously Accusing: The cop's ability provides crucial information about who is innocent or guilty, but he must be careful when trying to pin the blame on a mafia member. If he pushes too hard, the townsfolk may vote to kill him instead, thinking him to be a mafia member trying to cover his crimes. Also, being too verbal can signal the mafia to kill you next, which would really hamper your team's chances of winning.
Other Characters and Variations
You now know how to conduct a game of Mafia! Experiment with various settings until you find the game that works best for you. Depending on your group's size, think about the ideal balance of mafia members, townsmen, cops, and doctors.
- Spirits: For a creative way to keep mafia-killed players invested, consider having them visit the townsfolk during the day round as a deceased spirit. A kind spirit could offer a cryptic clue as to one of the mafia's identity, or, an angered spirit could mislead the players. Another way to keep dead players interested is to continue requiring them to close their eyes during the night phase. That way, they still won't know who killed them and can (if the group allows it) continue to participate in discussion during the day phase.
- Mafia, Werewolf, or The Resistance: Mafia is a great way to have fun with friends, and requires no supplies beyond a normal deck of cards. My personal favorite variant is called The Resistance (in particular, the Avalon edition), which you'll have to actually buy and is a bit more complex, but provides a neat system to keep everyone involved in the game til the very end. However, players searching for a simpler and inexpensive (heck, it's free) deduction game to test the waters will favor Mafia.
Let me know which role you enjoy playing most, and I'll see you at our next game review!