How to Play Mafia

By James Holloway
A close-up of a man winking.
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Mafia is a simple party game of murder, deception and mob justice. Originally invented as part of a psychology course, the game requires no board, dice or cards. Over the years since Mafia's creation, variants of the game have become common, adding greater strategic complexity.

Choosing Sides

In the original Mafia game, players are divided into Mafia members and honest people, with Mafia members outnumbered by the ordinary citizens. One player acts as referee, joining neither team. The referee can assign roles using playing cards or by tapping players while their eyes are closed. In some variants there are other roles, but in the basic game there are only townspeople and members of the Mafia. The original rules specify two Mafia players for games with up to seven total players, three Mafia players for games with up to 10, four Mafia players for games up to 13 and five Mafia players in games of up to 16.

Night and Day

Each turn in a game of Mafia is divided into night and day phases. During the night phase, players close their eyes. The Mafia members then open theirs and make eye contact. Using gestures, they decide on another player to kill. They then close their eyes again. The referee tells the other players to open their eyes, starting the day phase. During the day phase, the referee informs everyone that the chosen player has been killed. The dead player is now out of the game. The remaining players then discuss the crime and decide who they intend to execute. All players -- including the Mafia -- vote to choose a player, who is then eliminated from the game.

Winning the Game

The game ends when all members of one team have been eliminated from the game. The Mafia players, who know each other's identities, will be able to tell when this has happened.

Changing the Rules

Almost every aspect of Mafia has been altered by one group or another, from the number of Mafia members to the roles of the players. One of the most common variants is to add one or more detectives. During the night phase, the detectives can indicate one player and ask the referee whether or not that player is in the Mafia. During the day phase, they can try to get the townsfolk to execute Mafia players -- although being too obvious about being a detective is a good way to get murdered the next night. Other variant roles include a doctor, who can prevent villagers from dying. In some versions, the day phase comes first, while in other versions, including the original, the first phase is night. If night comes first, one player will be eliminated without ever having had a chance to play, but if day comes first the townsfolk will have even less information on which to base their choice of who to hang.

Mafia-Influenced Games

Mafia and its variants have been very influential in the world of games. Werewolf is a common Mafia variant, although, like Mafia, its rules are not always consistent. Board and card games such as The Resistance draw on the Mafia system. Online play is also popular, especially since it solves some of the problems of playing in person with a referee.

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.