Mafia is a roleplaying game that requires deception, strategy, and communication between townspeople who are trying to uncover who is in the mafia. It helps build stronger bonds between coworkers or new friends.
Plus, social deduction games are scientifically proven to boost cooperation amongst teams1https://arxiv.org/abs/2201.01816, improve logical thinking2https://ojs.aaai.org/index.php/AIIDE/article/view/12921, and build trust3https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3341215.3356272 between players. Whether you’re a seasoned player or a newcomer to the game, here is everything you need to know about playing Mafia (with expert tips to help you win!).
What is Mafia?
Mafia is a popular party game that requires roleplay, strategy, and social skills. Also called Assassin, Werewolf, or Village, this is a game of deception and betrayal between two groups: townspeople and the mafia. The hidden mafia members are trying to “kill off” the townspeople while the townspeople try to figure out who is in the mafia.
The game is played with a group of at least 6 people (or up to 18!) The ideal number of players is 12 to 16 people. Mafia is usually played with cards and a board, but we also have some tricks below on how you can play without cards! Each person has a hidden role of either an innocent townsperson or a mafia member. The game also includes a moderator, a detective, and a doctor.
Benefits of Playing Mafia
Mafia is simple enough to play with kids yet interesting and strategic enough to play with adults. Like all social games, it can be as competitive or casual as you want it to be. Some people like pretending they’re real mobsters or making bets on who will win, while others prefer to just goof off. Either way, this game fits perfectly into a game night and or work party.
The benefits of playing Mafia include:
- Promoting teamwork: Mafia helps you get to know people better because it requires working together and building trust in order to win the game. Players who may not know each other well
- Breaking the ice: Whether it’s a large group of work colleagues or a small gathering of friends, icebreakers can relieve tension and help people relax in new social settings. This game helps get past awkward silences by channeling everyone’s energy into something laid-back and enjoyable.
- Improving communication skills: In order for your team’s information-gathering efforts to pay off, you have no choice but to practice clear communication and openly discuss what’s going on.
- Learning how to spot liars: Yes, Mafia can reveal what it looks like when your colleagues or friends are lying to you! While the game is completely imaginary, it can teach you real-life skills like how to spot a lie and avoid deception.
- Practice reading facial expressions: There are 7 universal facial expressions, and mafia is a great way to practice spotting them! Use our tutorial to learn how to read faces.
How to Play Mafia (The Basic Overview)
Mafia can be played in the workplace, with friends, or with kids 9 and up. It takes about 15 to 90 minutes to play the game and requires at least 6 players. This social deceit game is perfect for game nights or work team-building parties.
Before you commit to a game night of mafia deception, here are some quick tips to help you understand how the game works:
- Mafia includes 2 teams: the townspeople and the mafia. The game’s objective is for the mafia to try to eliminate all the townspeople before the townspeople figure out who is in the mafia, or vice-versa. Whichever team accomplishes their goal first wins.
- Townspeople are the majority of players. They are uninformed, innocent civilians. Their goal is to properly identify, accuse, and eliminate all the mafia members.
- Mafia members are a smaller proportion of the players. For example, in a game of 6 players, there would be 3 townspeople and 2 mafia members (plus 1 mayor; the doctor and detective could dual-play as townspeople). Or, in a game of 12 people, there would be 6 townspeople and 3 mafia members (plus 1 mayor, 1 detective, and 1 doctor). The goal of the mafia is to “kill off” as many civilians as possible until they are the majority.
- Mafia has a lot of secrecy: Each player is secretly assigned their role, and nobody knows which team they are on.
- Some players have extra privileges: Each game of Mafia includes a doctor and a detective:
- The detective gets to guess a mafia member on each turn.
- The doctor has the opportunity to save a townsperson on each turn.
- Mafia happens in two cycles: the night cycle and the day cycle.
- The night cycle is when mafia members “kill” (or eliminate) townspeople while everyone has their eyes closed.
- In day cycles, players accuse people they think are part of the mafia, and the accused players can defend themselves. The group makes votes based on the clues.
How to Play Mafia Game (Step-by-Step Mafia Guide)
As long as you have at least 6 people and a comfortable place to communicate, you can play Mafia! For very large groups of over 20 people, it’s recommended to play two separate games. Mafia can even be played as an icebreaker game at a Zoom meeting!
Here is a video explaining the game, or you can follow the steps below.
No matter the setting, here is how to start and play Mafia:
1. Gather 6 or more people to play Mafia
Mafia is a group game that requires enough people to fulfill all the required roles. The ideal number of players is 12 to 16 people. Participants can sit around a table or communicate through video chat for Zoom mafia.
2. Select one player to be the Moderator/Mayor
One person from the group will be the “mayor” or moderator. This person is in charge of mediating the games. They don’t partake in the official game-playing rounds. Instead, they oversee each round and create stories about each player’s actions. The moderator has the added benefit of knowing everyone’s secret role.
The mayor’s duties include:
- Distributing cards to participants
- Telling people when to “wake” (in day cycles) or “sleep” (close their eyes during night cycles)
- Timing the strategic discussions between players
- Informing participants if they have been “killed” or eliminated from the game
- Declaring the winning group
If you’re playing with a work team, it may seem natural to make the boss or manager play the mayor. We recommend changing things up and choosing a team member as the moderator.
3. Split up a deck of cards (or use the Mafia card game)
You can play Mafia with a deck of regular cards or the Mafia card game. The cards will randomly determine the secret roles of each player.
If you’re using a regular deck of cards:
- Set aside 1 mafia card for every 3 townspeople. For example, if there are 10 people, the mayor may choose 1 king to be the detective, 1 queen to be the doctor, the suit of hearts to be the mafia, and all other cards to represent townspeople.
- Remember that the number of mafia members needs to be less than the number of townspeople.
If you want to play Mafia without cards:
- Write the different roles on pieces of paper and mix them up in a bag or hat.
- Let players draw the papers to determine their roles.
Optionally, the mayor can hand-pick the roles by having all the players close their eyes and then tapping them on the shoulder with a certain number of taps. For example, 2 taps mean they are a mafia member.
4. Each player takes 1 card
Shuffle the deck of cards or paper strips and hold them so no one can see. Have each player grab a card and hide it from other players as they determine their roles. Once everyone knows their role, the mayor can recollect the cards or papers.
5. Assign roles based on each card
Now it’s time to reveal everyone’s role based on the card they drew. This portion can be changed based on the cards or selection process you chose in step 3.
The roles are:
- The detective (king card): Throughout the game, the detective role gets to guess which players are members of the mafia. They act like the FBI and use suspicions or evidence to make their selections. The number of detective guesses is equal to the number of mafia members. If the detective guesses correctly, that mafia member is removed from the game. If they guess incorrectly, nothing happens.
- The doctor (queen card): In each night cycle, the doctor gets to point to 1 person they want to save. They make this selection before the mafia starts their “killing.” If the mafia tries to kill that person, they will be saved for that round. The doctor can also choose to save themself.
- Mafia members (suit of hearts): The mafia is responsible for killing or eliminating 1 player in each round. This selection happens during night cycles when everyone’s eyes are closed.
- Townspeople (all other cards): The innocent villagers don’t have any special abilities in the game. They must close their eyes during each night cycle and hope they aren’t eliminated.
6. Start the first Night Cycle
Let the game begin! Once you’ve finished the setup, it’s time to start the first round. Each night cycle simulates townspeople going to sleep.
The mayor instructs all players to close their eyes and put their heads down. No peeking!
7. Let the mafia choose a victim
Next, the mayor instructs all mafia members to “wake up” (open their eyes) and see who is on their team. The mafia gets 60 seconds to silently decide which townsperson they want to “kill” that night. When they make their decision, the mafia points out their choice to the mayor.
Because mafia members can’t talk, this part of the game requires sending and reading body language cues. The mafia can use facial expressions, eye contact, and gestures to communicate with each other. Townspeople may also pick up on movements and sounds next to them to try to figure out who is guilty. But remember, townspeople cannot see anything during this night phase.
Check out this goodie to learn how to master body language communication in real life conversations:
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8. Mafia members close their eyes
Once the mayor knows who the mafia wants to eliminate, they tell the mafia to go back to sleep. All mafia members have to close their eyes and put their heads down.
9. The detective makes a guess
The mayor now says out loud: “It’s time for the detective to wake up.” Only the detective can open their eyes and point to someone they suspect is a mafia member. They can only use their instincts and hints from the game to make their decision.
10. The mayor silently tells the detective if they are correct
After the detective guesses a mafia member, the mayor nonverbally indicates if they are correct about identifying the mafia member. They can nod their head or use their hands and arms to communicate.
- If the detective were right, that mafia member would be eliminated from the game.
- If the detective was wrong, then nothing happens. However, they have figured out another one of the townspeople and narrowed down suspects for the next round
Then the mayor tells the detective to go back to sleep.
11. The doctor gets to save someone
For the last part of the night cycle, the mayor tells the doctor to wake up. This player gets to point at a person they want to save.
- If the doctor saves the same person that the mafia chose to kill, that player can survive the round.
- If the doctor saves a different player, nothing will happen to them, but the mafia’s selection will still be eliminated.
- If the doctor dies, no townspeople can be saved in future rounds.
Lastly, the mayor tells the doctor to go back to sleep.
12. Start the day cycle
The second part of each round stimulates all the players “waking up” to go over the events of the previous night. The mayor instructs everyone to open their eyes, and they tell a short story about what happened during the night cycle.
- For example, the mayor might say: “Last night, the mafia attacked Rob, and he was in critical condition, but the doctor was able to save him. Unfortunately, the detective couldn’t catch any of the mafia members involved, and they are still wandering the streets of our town.”
Feel free to embellish the story for more drama and intriguing moments.
13. Players discuss the night’s events
Finally, everyone gets the chance to talk in an open discussion! The mayor sets a timer for 5-10 minutes for everyone to discuss the previous night’s events. All players have a chance to participate (including the detective, doctor, townspeople, and mafia).
- The mafia may pretend to be townspeople and accuse other players of crimes in order to throw them off.
- The townspeople may discuss why certain people seem suspicious or innocent.
- The mayor must monitor the time to maintain a level of mystery. Shorter times are best for smaller groups, but larger groups may need a longer discussion.
14. Players make accusations
After the discussion, all players have an opportunity to accuse other people of being mafia members. When someone makes an accusation, it must be agreed upon with at least one other player. Once someone seconds the accusation, it’s time to move that player to the defense phase.
15. Allow the accused to defend themselves
Once two people have formally accused a suspected mafia member, the accuser gets 30 seconds to explain why they believe that person is in the mafia.
Once they explain their view, the accused person gets 30 seconds to defend themselves and explain why they aren’t a mafia member. This is where the deception part of the game comes in:
- Players can try to prove their innocence through lying, truth-telling, or presenting evidence.
- Players cannot show their cards to prove any statements.
- More serious games may desire to develop elaborate backstories, create accents, or get into character to portray their part.
16. Everyone has a chance to vote
When an accused has pleaded their case, everyone has the opportunity to vote like a jury. The mayor will call for players to give a thumbs up (if they think the accused is guilty) or a thumbs down (not guilty).
- If the majority vote is thumbs up, the person is considered guilty for mafia involvement. They are eliminated from the game.
- If the majority vote is thumbs down, the person is saved.
- The vote may be anonymous (with everyone’s eyes closed) or out in the open.
- The accused, accuser, doctor, and detective all have a chance to vote.
17. If “not guilty,” start a new accusation round
Everyday cycle needs to have a guilty player that is eliminated. If the payer was voted “not guilty,” the mayor should ask everyone to make new accusations. Once an accusation is seconded by another player, it’s time to repeat the defense and voting cycles again.
18. Begin a new night cycle
When a player is finally declared guilty, they must show their card and be removed from the game. They no longer get to participate in discussions or votes, but they can keep their eyes open and observe the remaining rounds.
The mayor then instructs everyone to begin a new night round.
19. Continue until all townspeople or all mafia are eliminated
The game rounds continue (night cycle-day cycle-accusation-defend-vote) until all mafia or townspeople are “killed” or eliminated from the game. The mayor declares the team with the most members left as the winner.
6 Expert Tips, Tricks, and Strategies to Win Mafia
What makes Mafia so interesting is the way it parallels real-life events. Here are strategies you can use in Mafia that may also help you improve your people skills.
1. Learn how to spot a liar
If you’ve ever wondered what your friend or your boss looks like when they’re lying, playing Mafia may give you some intriguing clues. The discussion, accusation, and defense rounds are based on figurative situations, but they could
Observe how certain people react to being accused and look for these key signs of lying:
- Sniff it out: Liars may scratch or touch their nose because blood flow increases to these tissues4https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2009-01-28-0901280382-story.html when lying.
- Neck Touching: Does someone’s neck get sweaty or uncomfortable when lying? Liars may scratch or touch their neck an average of 5 times.
- Mismatched Hand Gestures: The body language of a liar’s hands may not match up to what they are saying. For example, a player who is actually a mafia member may accuse an innocent person by pointing at them while looking the other direction.
While these are just general cues that may indicate lying, it’s important to note that they are not 100% indicative of lying. In fact, most people have a baseline when it comes to their lying behavior—that is, they may show a nervous or stress cue when deviating from the truth.
And while it’s essential to look for cues in others, it is equally critical to pay attention to your behavior if you are deceiving others. Do you rub your wrist when you lie or scratch your neck? Pay attention to these cues and try to mask them to give away less information.
Take our Lie Spotting Quiz to see how good you are at detecting lies, and learn more about this valuable skill in our Ultimate Deception Guide: How to Tell If Someone is Lying.
Never miss a lie again. Learn how to spot deception and uncover hidden emotions. Follow our science backed framework and unlock the secret language of lies.
2. Avoid accusing innocent players
Take care to think through your accusations before making them. Accusing an innocent player wastes a round and can reduce trust between players. Regardless of which team you’re on, you want to build trust.
Innocent players typically:
- Remain neutral to confrontation.
- Don’t get defensive about accusations.
- Maintain relaxed body language.
- Have steady breathing.
- Share longer or more detailed stories.
- Answer questions the same every time.
- Hold eye contact with accusers (don’t dart their eyes or look away). Be careful. Eye contact can also be used when someone is bluffing.
If you are a mafia member, you can also use these tricks to deceive other players into thinking you are innocent.
3. Master the art of body language
With limited verbal conversations, Mafia is certainly a game of body language. If you are a mafia member, you must rely solely on nonverbal communication to discuss with the mafia during the night rounds. If you are a townsperson, you must read the bodily cues of other players to determine who you want to accuse as a mafia member.
Notice the body language cues that you and others send so you can make the smartest decisions in the game. For example:
- Who is on the defense? If you accuse someone who is guilty, they may display aggressive or defensive body language like crossed arms, furrowed brows, or a puffed chest.
- Look for pursed lips: People tend to push their lips together when concealing something, as if keeping their mouths closed will prevent information from spilling out. This is a particularly important cue in the workplace because it shows that someone may be holding back from saying what’s on their mind.
- Notice people’s legs: While others are looking at the player’s eyes, you can search for body language cues in leg positions. If they are rubbing their hands on their legs (leg cleansing), they may be nervous or lying.
This Ultimate Guide to Body Language will help you unlock more powerful cues to use in the game and in real life.
4. Ask straightforward questions about identities
A direct question can really throw someone off guard. While others may dodge around the subject, bold players simply ask others “Are you in the mafia?” Watch how people respond to a straightforward question about their identity.
Do they get defensive? Do they answer quickly? Do they hesitate? Do they laugh? Your interpretation of their answer may depend on how well you know their personality and the information you’re seeking.
Liars also have a difficult time answering “Why?” questions. For example, you may ask a potential mafia member, “Why did you accuse Vanessa of attacking John last night when you were the one who voted to eliminate him in the last round?” If they stutter or struggle to explain their intentions, it could be a red flag that they are lying.
Remember, mafia members are the individuals who know each other in the game, while townspeople are playing “blind.” If a person in your group seems to play favorites or has a strong opinion about someone, question their intentions to help determine if they have more information than they’re letting on.
5. Avoid revealing too much information
When in doubt, keep your mouth shut (but not with your lips pursed!) No matter what role you play in Mafia, maintaining the mystery can help protect your team against the prowess of your opponents.
Oftentimes, the person who talks the most or points the moist fingers could be the guilty one themselves. Only reveal the bare minimum amount of information required to remain in the game.
6. Pay attention to the mayor
Whether you’re a mafia member or innocent villagers, you should pay careful attention to the mayor/moderator. They know the truth about everyone. This person is supposed to remain neutral in the game, but they may have specific alliances or favorite players in real life. Look for cues like:
- Eye contact: Who does the mayor look at during the discussion and accusation parts of the game? Their eyes may reveal clues to who is innocent or guilty.
- Knee and foot placement: Are the mayor’s legs pointing towards a specific person or area of the room? People tend to subconsciously target their feet toward the person they want to talk to or the direction they want to go.
- Tone of voice: Does the mayor speak confidently or hesitantly about certain players? Are they very detailed or short in their descriptions of the night cycle events? Notice their vocal tone and use it to guide your accusations.
Key Takeaways: Play Mafia to Improve Your Body Language Cues and Lie Detection Skills
The secrets to winning Mafia are actually people skills that can help you win in business and in life! As you play this game with friends, family, or coworkers, think about it as a playful opportunity to learn to “read” them better.
The most important skills for Mafia are:
- Reading body language: In a game with such little time for discussion, your ability to read nonverbal cues directly correlates with your potential for winning.
- Lie detection: Uncovering deception can be as simple as looking for lying red flags (like nose touching or shifting hands) or as complex as decoding complex emotions that are unique to someone’s personality.
- Question-asking: Don’t be afraid to ask other players direct questions about their involvement with the mafia or their innocence. Straightforward questions are one of the easiest ways to uncover someone’s intentions.
- Neutrality: The calmer you can remain under pressure, the less likely you are to be falsely accused.
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