After AP tests at the end of senior year in high school, there wasn’t much to do in class. Our teachers didn’t have anything to teach, and we weren’t particularly motivated to learn, so we were stuck in a room full of peers for 51 minutes until the bell rang and couldn’t get too loud. Some may see this as a waste of time: we saw it as an opportunity and played a lot of Mafia.
Mafia is a simple game of social deduction. The basic game has 3 roles: the narrator (who runs the game), the Mafia, and the townspeople. To setup the game, the Narrator gives out secret roles to all of the players: either one of a few Mafia or mostly townspeople. Then, everyone closes their eyes, and the Mafia open their eyes and to see who each other are. The game then switches between 2 phases of day and night until the Mafia or Townspeople win. During the night, the townspeople close their eyes, and the Mafia silently choose to kill someone. When everyone wakes up for daytime, the Narrator tells everyone who was killed and eliminated from the game (usually with a grisly story). Then, everyone has to argue and agree to lynch someone. Various suspects are accused over discussion, and a vote is taken by the Narrator. That player is then eliminated from the game, and it goes back to night. The townspeople want to lynch all of the Mafia, and the Mafia want to kill all of the townspeople.
There are many variants and extra roles you can assign in this game, but the core gameplay is talking and thinking. The townspeople need to observe how everyone else is arguing, accusing, defending, and voting to determine which side they’re on, and the Mafia need to blend in with everyone else and hope that the townspeople just lynch each other. And through the game, everyone needs to determine who they trust and how they can make others trust them.
I really enjoy Mafia, but it’s typically a fad, and people get over it quickly. In addition to during senior year, my college friends played a lot of Mafia during the summer after our junior year. I think there are 2 major reasons why Mafia fades. First, players can be eliminated as quick as within a minute of the game starting, and Mafia isn’t as fun to watch as it is to play, especially if it goes long. Second, Mafia pits people against each other through deception, and that can be hard to deal with on a social level. Unless a game is cooperative, players will compete with each other, but in a game like Chess or baseball, the rules constrain the competition to a narrow set of well-defined behaviors. This makes it easy to walk away from a game and shake hands afterwards.
Mafia isn’t so easy to section off. Despite the fact that players know that the Mafia must deceive other players, it’s still tough after the game for townspeople to reconcile that their friend was lying to them for the a half hour and trying to turn townspeople against each other. And when you have a theory and others don’t trust you enough to believe your theory, you again may feel betrayed beyond the confines of the game.
As I mentioned, I still really like Mafia, but I can see why that second point can be stressful and induce paranoia in others. To address that, I recently picked up “The Resistance“, which is basically Mafia without elimination. There are hidden roles, but instead of lynching players, there are 5 missions, and each round, the players vote to pick a subset of players to go on the mission. These players then each secretly decide whether they want the mission to succeed or fail. If the spies (similar to the Mafia) manage to sabotage 3 mission, they win. If the resistance (the townspeople) succeed on 3 mission, they win.
The Resistance addresses both of the problems of Mafia well. There is no elimination, so although a spy may be discovered early and ignored, they still vote and can try to influence others. Second, there are just enough rules and structure around the game that instead of players focusing on accusations and wild speculation at all times, players can instead center their play (and concern) more around voting patterns.
Compared to other board games, The Resistance works better with large groups because it actually is a party game. Recently, I have been getting more into serious board games and trying out different ones with my friends. Although I enjoy games like Steam or 7 Wonders, these games typically are optimization tasks with some element of randomness and deducing the strategies of other players. In short, these games can be figured out, and unless you play the same group with the same players, some people are going to have fun.
The Resistance dodges this problem in that the game isn’t about the rules: it’s about working with other people with the rules, which leads to constant interactions in the game. And after the game, the conversation isn’t about what one player did right and what another player can improve on: the conversation is about how players succeeded or failed in figuring each other out. After we finished playing The Resistance last night, I enjoyed finding out exactly what people were thinking at various points in the game and how it could have gone differently.
So my foray into serious board games may have quickly ended. It’s true that there are serious board games (most famously, Settlers of Catan) that do focus on social interactions, but I guess I’m just not that interested in forcing people to figure out games to be competitive. And that’s mostly an artifact of my situation right now: were I with exactly 3 other serious gamers, I would probably play a lot of Settlers with lots of expansions. As it is, though, I play games with a large group with various levels of game seriousness, and although we aren’t stuck in a classroom for 51 minutes, we still want to play games.