Critical Play: Bluffing, Judging and Getting Vulnerable…

For this Critical Play I choose to discuss Mafia, the classic social deception game that was invented by Dimitry Davidoff in 1986.It is a very minimalist game that does not have any hard requirements for materials.For example, there is a moderator that does not participate as a member in the game and is responsible for assigning character roles to the others. They can do things like write roles on pieces of paper or pass out cards, although it suffices to tap players to indicate their roles to them. Additionally, it’s very low stakes and does not demand that the players be vulnerable and reveal information. Player’s can undoubtedly reveal information about themselves through their actions in the game though.

The game itself requires at least six players to be played correctly. There is one “moderator”,  at least two “mafia”, one “detective” and at least two “civilians”.  As mentioned earlier, the moderator does not participant as a member of the game but is rather an overseer who is responsible for narrating events. The mafia’s job is to try and become the majority by silently murdering civilians. The detective can ask the moderator about the other players and gain information about who is who. And the civilians are there to deliberate and vote people off.

The rounds each follow a pattern: night time antics followed by day time deliberation.The antics part involves the mafia silently choosing someone to murder and the detective doing some quiet sleuthing. They all direct their choices to the moderator. The day time part has the players argue and accuse each other of being mafia. They then vote on who to send away. 

The joy that comes from the debate resembles a mixture of narrative and fellowship kinds of fun. A story gets developed as the game progresses and it’s only bounded by the moderator’s imagination. In our case, the story involved the tragic murder of a baker while delivering cupcakes to the Obamas. The stories tend to be goofy and whacky, which allows for people to easily bond over them. Since the game has no formal design elements (it does not come in a box, nor have any actual pieces needed for gameplay) it leans heavily on this blend of fun to keep it entertaining. However, its low fidelity is not a drawback at all. Rather, it is the fact that it can be spontaneously played anywhere that makes it work so well as a game. 

As I played I realized that it’s difficult for me to determine what the target audience of this game is. In some respects it’s a pretty violent game. The mafia is wreaking havoc on innocent townspeople. The game centers around murder and retaliation, which is exciting but also dark. However, it can be modified to fit any story that involves an informed minority (the attackers) and a clueless majority (the innocents). This is why the game is alternatively known as Werewolf, which involves a more childish universe of characters. I think it’s clever that the game is this versatile, allowing it to appeal to many audiences. 

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