Once upon a time on a cheesewagon to JC retreat…
Remember Resident Assistants from University dorms? Those straight-arrow squares who introduced you to your floormates on the first night of move-in, made everyone play awkward name games, and were the first to step into parties to tell everyone to “simmer down” because quiet hours were in effect? Those power-tripping “student leaders” who strutted through the halls searching for signs of misdemeanors like they were the T-800 hunting down John Connor. Remember those assholes?
I was a Residence Assistant…
…but I swear to god the RAs at my dorm weren’t as lame as what’s portrayed above. I mean, you’ll pretty much have to just take my word on this, but we were the cool ones. I know that’s also what any RA who was lame would tell you, but… Okay whatever, that’s not the point of the story anyway, think what you want about my peers and I.
Alright, so I lived in the largest dorm cluster on campus at the University of Alberta, a residence called Lister Hall. The entire community was made up of 4 towers of 10 to 12 floors each, with each floor housing around 40 people. This made for a population of roughly 1600 college students living in very close proximity to each other with minimal adult supervision. While the Lister Hall student body attended classes during the day, learning to become well-adjusted professionals of tomorrow, we came home to our own micro-society fueled by alcohol (legal age in Alberta is 18), yoga shorts, and youthful abandon. For the average suburban-raised teenager moving out of the house for the first time, it was real-life Neverland, except co-ed, with more dodgeball, and not under constant attack by pirates.
A big part of what contributed to this atmosphere was a Student-government leadership called Joint Council (JC for short) consisting of an executive team, as well as every RA (We called them FCs at our school, for Floor Coordinator) from each of the 43 floors. On top of the usual duties of making sure the residents didn’t burn down the building, Joint Council planned intramural activities, organized pub crawls, and year after year (while I was a student anyway) somehow miraculously managed to hold its own and protect itself against the tide of increasing political correctness, academia, and faculty intervention North American student dormitories were facing at the time (the kind of intervention that resulted RAs getting hired that resembled those in the video above.) Towards the end of October every year the members of Joint Council went on a retreat to a cabin in the woods where everyone proceeded to drink, smoke weed, and otherwise do what every other university students did for fun on the weekend, giving everyone a break from the drama of their own floormates. It was on the yellow school bus to JC retreat during my first FC year that I was first introduced to the game of Mafia.
There’s enough writing online (including the wikipedia article) that can fill you in on the rules, so I won’t bother reiterating it here. But to summarise for those unfamiliar, Mafia (Werewolf in some circles) is a folk party game best played in large groups (more than 10) that involve a Mafia team (a smaller team who know who each other are) convincing a Civilian Team (a larger team who don’t know who the Mafia are) to eliminate innocent members of their own group, while the civilians are concurrently working together to piece together who the hidden Mafia members are within their ranks and voting them out of the game. The Mafia wins if they successfully eliminate all Civilians, and vice versa. The game requires a fair bit of social awareness, acting talent, and most importantly, the ability to look at some of your best friends in the eyes and downright lie to their face in order to win. It is without a doubt one of the most fun, tension-filled games you will ever play, especially when it gets down to the wire with two or three civilians left.
Mafia caught on with the J.C. team that year. Over the retreat, and other subsequent gatherings over the school year we would always end up spending at least a few hours playing the game. Without exaggeration, we might have hit 9 hours in a single day once. The game was fun in itself, but how much it caught on with our group that year was nothing short of phenomenal.
I had almost completely forgotten about Mafia until recently, while I was staying at a co-working/co-living space in Nicaragua and a few digital nomads got it going after a group dinner, 6 whole years from the last time I played it with JC. It would appear that after college, the chances of being in a room with the right group of people to make a good Mafia game really drop off. It’s not the kind of thing you can just bust out at any party after all, the whole ‘close your eyes, head down part’ sounds so duck-duck-goosey to the uninitiated that not many groups are willing to give it a shot. It’s also surprisingly hard to get a large group together and maintain a whole group’s focus on a singular activity for so long in the smartphone era. Lastly, it’s a game that needs to be played with a high number of focused, generally sober people. Most of the time there’s either too few in numbers at a board game night sort of gathering, or there’s enough at a party environment but everyone would rather just toss back a few drinks and casually mingle instead.
It’s probably a good time to introduce what the point of this blog is. I am planning to design a card game that captures the tension of playing Mafia/Werewolf, but also solve a few of the problems that come with the original game; mainly, the high number of players required, including one narrator who effectively sits out. Most of my experience in tabletop gaming come from years of playing Magic the Gathering (Otherwise known as the Heroin of hobby choices when you’re a teenager, both in financial cost and addictiveness) and other tabletop games. I hope to launch this project on Kickstarter once it is completed, and it is in this blog that I will be recording design notes, writing down related thoughts, and otherwise documenting the journey. From pop culture to psychology, there’s a lot to build on in the world of social deduction games, which have really taken off recently thanks to board games like The Resistance/Avalon, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Secret Hitler. I’m a believer that this type of genre is just beginning to occupy the tabletop space, and will be committing more that a few sleepless nights in hope of designing something unique.
Follow along for the journey!