Critical Play:

This week, I played, which is an online version of the classic game Mafia that is played strictly using text. The creators are unspecified but accept donations through Patreon and run a Discord server; the platform is via a web browser. There isn’t a specific target audience, aside from perhaps the fact that a game based around assassination and some complexity is unlikely to be geared toward young children. That said, the online format allows the game to be played with friends/family from wherever in addition to with strangers interested in competing or meeting other people. 

I played with 12 players, but games can range greatly in their size; the site allows full customization for how many players are in the game and what roles they will play. While describing every possible role would be excessive (there are 213 in total), the core of the game is based around a team of villagers, and a team (in smaller games, this might just be a single individual) of mafia. 

Like in standard Mafia, there are two alternating “rounds”—day and night. At night, the mafia selects a villager to kill, in addition to preparing strategy for day; during the day, all players that are alive discuss the current game state and vote for someone to be killed. Voting is public, and players can switch their votes up until the round ends—creating strategic opportunities such as wasting time or creating chaos as a mafia member to distract the townspeople.

In an asymmetrical team vs. team competition, the mafia know who their teammates are, but the villagers do not know the roles of any other players in the game. This element leads to a more direct strategical format from the mafia, but it doesn’t preclude savvy villagers from working together in their own way. Some of the roles assist in such play; for example, the “Governor” can overturn the condemning vote once per game, and the “King” can pick a day in which the King’s votes count for 1,000 (thereby overriding any public consensus); the form of giving an individual villager the ability to control the decision on how to kill influences how the remaining players interact during the peripheral rounds. 

The obvious difference between and classic Mafia (beyond the wide range of roles and rules, which are optional) is that it’s played strictly via text. When in-person, discussions during the day rounds often become chaotic, but allowing multiple players to communicate simultaneously can (at least ostensibly) make for a different pattern of decision-making.

From a stimulation standpoint, I think I prefer games that have a little bit of a technical component (say, Among Us) if in a digital form to break up the monotony of text/voice chat, but I wouldn’t say one form is necessarily better—that’s simply a personal bias. For that matter, I did still have fun, while alive; after being killed, my association with the villagers wasn’t necessarily strong enough to be invested in the remaining result of the game. That said, being able to communicate with the other deceased players (in a classic in-person game of Mafia, you’d have to be silent) at least made for something to do.

Many of the preferences I have for making the game better are customizable options on the site (for example, the villager : mafia ratio, the length of rounds, or the specific roles), so I give credit for the offering of such nuanced personalization to create the type of Mafia a group desires. That said, I’d advocate for additional suspense around the key moments, such as a build-up to hearing who died overnight, or a celebratory animation for the winning team. I’d also make some type of limit on the chat (timer cooldown/number of messages that can be sent in a given round, for example), since bigger rounds were overly hectic for nuanced gameplay. Lastly, I’d revise the user interface to make the details on player roles, game settings, etc. a bit more salient in comparison to the chat—although the chat is the core of the game, its centrality creates a salience that I think might be contributing to the situational spam/madness by players. Overall, I had a good experience with, and it was fascinating to see such a tried and true game in this unique form. 

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