The Game of Mafia



Mafia is an 8+ player game that takes about a half hour. It has no board so it's perfect for a large party (especially late at night when people have been drinking) because the players can be all over the room.

The basic concept is that members of the dreaded mafia have infiltrated our community and we, as concerned citizens, need to root them out. So every day we hold a town meeting and lynch someone we suspect of being a member of the mafia (it's not as bad as it seems: we vote first). Then, every "night" the mafia secretly meet and pick a townsperson to kill; the townspeople learn about it in the morning. There is a also an undercover cop floating around somewhere who can help the townspeople.

At the end of the game when there are only mafia and two townspeople left the remaining townspeople must shake hands. The problem is that they don't know who is mafia and who is innocent and the mafia will try to appear as innocent as they can.

If "mafia vs. townspeople" doesn't suit your taste (perhaps you have relatives in organized crime) you can change the theme to be "werewolves vs. townspeople" where the undercover cop is a psychic. The rules work exactly the same either way.

This page describes how to play it at a party; if you'd like to play it on a computer (afterall, I've heard we are in the computer age) check out Expose Mafia. I haven't tried it but it looks pretty cool.

Set Up

Take a deck of ordinary cards and pull out the two black queens and a red king. Add to this a as many non-face cards as are needed to equal the number of people playing. Shuffle the cards carefully so that no one has any hint which cards are which. For extra security, I generally put a card (e.g. a joker) face up on the bottom of the deck to hide the value of the bottom card.

Give each person a card, being very careful that no one sees what anyone else gets. If someone sees, collect the cards, reshuffle and redeal; it's important that it be secret.

The players with the queens are the mafia (werewolves), the player with the king is the cop (psychic) and everyone else is a townsperson (also known as an innocent bystander). Be sure to explain this to everyone several times -- there is nothing worse than having a mafia ask in a loud voice "what does the queen mean again?"

General Rules

It's important that no one reveal their cards until they are dead. The one exception to this is the cop (or psychic) who may reveal his/her card at any time -- this is an important power of the cop (one of the few) and so should be emphasized. Dead people are allowed to open their eyes at night but must not participate in the game in any other way (they know who the mafia are and could easily ruin the game). Have people keep their cards face down in front of them and dramatically flip them up when they die (either defiantly or sheepishly as the case may be).

First Night

Now that everyone has their identities it's time for the mafia to meet each other. Everyone must close their eyes. Then tell the mafia to open their eyes and reveal themselves to each other. The two mafia players (the people with the queens, remember?) will open their eyes and look around to see who the other mafia is. When they've had enough time to do this, tell them to close their eyes and have everyone open their eyes. That's the first night.

Days -- The Lynching

During the first day, as on every other day, the townspeople (including the mafia and the cop, since no one knows who they are) have a meeting. The goal of the meeting is to lynch a mafia member. Beginners might be appalled at the lack of actual information they have on which to base a decision but vigilantes have been lynching people for centuries on just about the same amount of information. Try not to worry about it.


First, anyone can nominate someone to be lynched. They should give a reason but the reason doesn't have to make any sense. For example, "I nominate Tom because mom always liked him better." is a perfectly valid nomination (with a better reason than some I've heard).

The Defense

When there are three nominations each of the nominees, in the order of their nomination, gets to say why they should not be lynched. Their defense should be one or, if they are longwinded, two sentences -- short and to the point, we haven't got all day. "I'm innocent!", "Dave is the guilty one", "I heard John make a noise last night," and (my favorite), "I was mafia last game!" are all valid defenses. "I'm just a terrorist," is also legal but probably won't save your life. Common decency dictates that everyone should listen respectfully and not make rude comments during the defense statements but I've never seen it happen that way and, in any event, there's no way to stop them. But remember that the mafia would really like to manipulate the townspeople into lynching other townspeople so you want to watch for that.

The Vote

In the order of their nomination, the nominees are voted on. For example, someone says "All in favor of lynching Dave, raise your hand," counts the votes and moves on to the next person. Everyone who is still alive should vote for someone; no one may vote twice. In the case of a two way tie, re-vote but leave the third person out. In the case of three way tie (or a two way tie when you've already removed the third person) just keep voting until someone gets picked. Getting people to agree on someone to lynch is all part of the game. Some people refuse to vote. There is no rule against this but may I suggest that you lynch such people at the earliest opportunity as they are simply not being helpful in the War Against Crime (or the War Against The Occult, as the case may be). Again, participating in the game is what the game is about.

Nights -- Secret Deeds

The night turns after the first one require a moderator. And -- what a coincidence -- we now have someone who is dead (i.e. the guy just lynched)! He or she is the moderator. Note that only the moderator may talk during the night (or the mafia and cop will be revealed) and he or she must be careful not to talk "to" anyone -- it's pretty obvious even if you have your eyes closed when the moderator is talking to someone.

The Mafia Kills

The moderator will have everyone close their eyes. Then they will have the mafia open their eyes and kill someone. They must note who the mafia is and who the mafia kills -- it will be on the test (I swear that some people find this challenging). Then they have the mafia close their eyes.

The Cop Accuses

Now they have the cop open his or her eyes and make an accusation. If the cop is right, they silently indicate an affirmative otherwise they indicate a negative (I would call this a "nod" and a "shake" of the head but I've heard people use the opposite meanings). There is an odd case in which the cop is killed before he or she makes an accusation; it doesn't matter what you do because they're dead and can't use the information anyway. Then the cop closes his or her eyes and everyone opens their eyes. The moderator announces who was killed during the night and it's now day again.

A Script

  1. "Everyone close your eyes." (Check that everyone's eyes are closed.)
  2. "Mafia, open your eyes." (Identify the mafia and verify that there are two of them.)
  3. "Mafia, make your kill." (Identify the victim, silently point to him/her and get it confirmed with a nod.) If the two mafia don't agree, this is not your problem; just wait until they decide (this can be quite entertaining, watching a silent argument).
  4. "Mafia, close your eyes." (Verify that they have closed their eyes.)
  5. "Cop, open your eyes." (Find the cop.)
  6. "Cop, make your accusation." (Verify who the cop is accusing and then indicate whether he/she is right.)
  7. "Cop, close your eyes." (Verify that he/she has complied.)
  8. "Everyone open your eyes."
  9. "So-and-so is dead."

End of Game -- The Showdown!

Night follows day which, in turn, is followed by another night. Every day and every night another person is dead. If we run out of mafia then the townspeople win! Otherwise, even if only one mafia survives, we get to the showdown when only two townspeople are left.

In the showdown, the two townspeople must shake hands to win while the mafia members would like to shake hands with a townsperson. This can take a while but, eventually, someone shakes hands with someone (the mafia are not allowed to shake hands with each other) and the game is over. If the two people who shook hands are both townspeople, the town wins and the mafia loses -- good has triumphed over evil and the world is a better place! If, however, one of the mafia shakes hands with a townsperson then the mafia wins. Evil has won and our children are enslaved by the dark forces!


The only variants that I know (other than what you call things which I already mentioned) have to do with the cop. I have the cop accusing every night in the main rules. I recommend it the way I wrote it; if the cop is too powerful, switch to one of these:

  • The cop may only make an accusation on the second night. This leaves him pretty powerless because, if he guesses wrong, he has very little information.
  • The cop gets only one accusation but he or she can make it at any time. This allows the cop to pick how much risk vs. how much information but if the cop is killed before he guesses he waited too long!
  • If you feel that the cop accusing every night gives the cop too much power, try it with the cop getting some fixed number of accusations or try it with the cop getting to accuse until he/she gets it right.

Since I first wrote this page there has been a ground swell of interest in Mafia. There is even a wikipedia page that lists variants. Rather than copy them over to here, this is the Wikipedia Mafia Page.


I've seen some amazing things in this game. The winners are the ones who can convince others that they are innocent or ignorant ("What do the cards mean again? I can't remember.") when they are really totally on top of the situation. The losers are usually the people who are simply asleep at the switch ("What do the cards mean again? I can't remember."). It's a pretty interesting dynamic. Pay attention & watch what works. Being the guy who is trying to direct the party will get you lynched but not knowing what is going on is pointless.

The key to staying alive is to stick to the middle of the road. The person who tries to accuse someone every turn will draw attention to himself. The person who tries to stay perfectly quiet will also draw attention to himself. Since every turn the players are trying to find someone to lynch, drawing attention to yourself is generally a Bad Thing. Likewise, it's also important that you not make any noise at night, not disrupt the game too much and generally try to go with the flow.

Dying isn't all that bad. You might find it more fun to be dead than to be alive because you know who the mafia are; certainly you will learn a lot to die early one game. Consider nominating yourself. But maybe you shouldn't vote for people who nominate themselves since they probably aren't mafia -- unless of course the mafia has caught onto that point of view in which case you should lynch a few.

As the mafia, kill any player who might be the cop or who might suspect you. If the cop reveals himself be sure to take him out that night without hesitation. Do not kill people only because they accused you, however, as that's a bit obvious. A good trick is to viciously accuse your fellow mafia -- when people discover he really was mafia you're in the clear (unless of course he denounces you). At the end, don't be eager to shake hands -- real townspeople are very reluctant to commit themselves.

As the cop you really need to husband your meager resources. When you find out who is the mafia, try to get them lynched. Keep in mind, however, that admitting you are the cop will get you killed for sure. So you have to be persuasive and subtle. Make the argument that people who accused the mafia were killed or that the mafia player is accusing a lot of people. Try observing for a few turns to see if you can get some outward indications. Remember to reveal your card if you are about to get lynched. This will get you killed but at least you get to tell people what you know, first.

As a townsperson you're pretty much at the mercy of random events. Nominate people who make noise at night, are trying to avoid being noticed or who seem to have an agenda. In the unlikely event that you make it to the end of the game, don't shake hands with anyone who is too eager. But also watch for the person who is trying to appear reluctant and suspicious. If this advice doesn't leave you much choice pick someone at random.


This game is about betrayal. It's about lynching innocents in the hope of killing someone bad. It's about convincing people that you are a good person when you are really bad. In short, it's about a part of the real world (thankfully, not the whole world). I think it's an important game in that it provides the players with experience in betrayal in a safe game setting so that they can better cope in a real situation. Occasionally, I've encountered someone who really dislikes this game; pointing out what's it's really about probably won't help...


Last changed 12/28/03.

This page Copyright © 2003 Dave Menconi.