Werewolf/Mafia: A Childhood Game Turned Party Classic

Picture of By Sophie Kulla

By Sophie Kulla

In the past year, Among Us has become very popular and everyone played it at some point during this awful global situation we don’t want to talk about anymore. But Among Us is not the first social deduction game to get worldwide attention. Perhaps it’s time to contemplate the roots of this type of game. For many people this means to remember playing Werewolf or Mafia at a dozen sleepovers during their tween years – me being no exception. Why don’t we take a walk down memory lane and remember why Werewolf (or Mafia) is the best game?

For a long time, I thought Werewolf was a German children’s birthday party game – until I realized it is actually not. This social deduction game that can be played with just pen, paper, and an infinite number of friends is known across the globe. Funnily enough I only realized how popular Werewolf is during a stay in a Moroccan hostel, when suddenly the British guy across from me suggested playing it to pass time. My world was shaken – Mafia basically is the same as Werewolf?! Is the game popular outside of Germany? How had I not known this?

The Game’s History

Back in 1987 Dmitry Davidoff came up with the concept of Mafia which is based on his academic psychology research. It first spread around Moscow University, where Davidoff taught and soon reached other cities in the Soviet Union. Later, it even reached Europe and the United States, before game inventor Andrew Plotkin allegedly introduced the popular Werewolf theme in 1997. Princeton University prevails as a place where many different versions of Mafia developed.

How to Play Werewolf

If you have been playing this game at birthday parties again and again throughout the past decade, you can promptly skip this section. But if you’re clueless and just want an explanation of what the hell I am talking about, then the next paragraph is for you.

Werewolf is set in a village where the villagers try to outlive the werewolves. At the beginning of the game, the identities are assigned by handing out cards or slips of paper and which must stay hidden from other players, and one moderator is chosen. There are two phases per round. At night, the werewolves assemble and silently pick a victim to kill. The moderator then announces that the day has arrived and names which player died. The villagers, including the disguised werewolves, are now free to accuse whoever they believe to be a werewolf. Once the majority has voted for someone, the player is eliminated. The game goes on until only werewolves or only villagers are left – those are the winners!

Additional identities like a witch, who can save a victim or kill another player, or the little girl, who can secretly check a player’s identity, can be added. There are also YouTube videos that explain how to play the party game.

Walking Down Memory Lane

I’ve got two scenarios for you to get you in the right mindset. Just lean back and imagine yourself in the following situations. Maybe they are familiar?

You’re thirteen years old and there’s this one kid who lives in a huge house with a garden, and whose parents are somehow okay with hosting about twenty-something children on their property. You are allowed to set up tents on the grass so you can sleepover. After running around the garden and playing like teenagers still do sometimes (when the weather’s nice and no one’s looking), and when the sun is setting, someone suggests a round of Werewolf. You agree and gather on a lump of blankets. There is one kid who immediately offers to narrate the story, and uses words like “bloodred moon” and “peaceful villagers” to visualize the story, and finally they explain how “an awful murder has happened amid our idyllic town”. The next morning, you discuss who the werewolves might be and you’re having a blast. But let’s be real: Wasn’t the most exhilarating part when cupid awakes in the first night and nudges you to lock eyes with your in-game-lover who happens to be your crush in real life?

Time skip. It’s your second week of University, the usual games to get to know each other have been played, alcohol has been drunk, and parties have been checked out. You’re at a gathering of a fellow student’s friend, you’re about ten people, and you haven’t settled on an activity yet. Until someone suggests Mafia in an ironic, ludicrous way, just to test the waters. Is it ridiculous to suggest a children’s game or is it actually a classic? Turns out the majority of the guests know Mafia and admit to liking it, and after the cat is out of the bag, you start unashamedly discussing the nostalgia that’s been sparked. After you finally sort out which characters will be in the game and which can be discarded, you are about to start. Just then someone cries out “wait!”, before connecting their phone to the Bluetooth speaker to play eerie film music to set the mood. It can begin. Nightfall is approaching and the villagers go to sleep…

Why is it Still so Popular?

Somehow, even during this weird time of pursuing a master’s degree online I find myself playing Werewolf. Although the game loses some of its appeal when you play it online, it still works. But why is it stuck with us?

And people, I have noticed, really like to narrate bits and pieces about their past.

One reason could be the already mentioned nostalgia. When you decide on Mafia, at least half of the people sitting at the table could start up a conversation about how they loved (or hated) this game as kids. And people, I have noticed, really like to narrate bits and pieces about their past. As one friend of mine says: “Werewolf is a reminiscence of my childhood as well as my student years. Although I found it quite boring as a kid since the others weren’t able to keep their poker face for long, I now enjoy playing it!”

Another reason for its success could be its universality and practicability. Besides the annoying discussions if this character is called witness or little girl, and if we really need a thief, or if another werewolf would be better, the game is as easily explained as it is set up. All you need is enough people, at least one person who is able to narrate what’s happening, a pen, and a few pieces of paper. Universality also applies for the purpose of playing. Whereas in tween years Werewolf or Mafia promised suspense and excitement, it can be instrumentalized differently now. Or as my friend says: “Children’s game goes drinking game.”

Last but not least, Mafia wasn’t invented by a psychologist for nothing. Games where you can deceive others or uncover the scandal that the mayor is actually a werewolf, and where you must be cunning and clever in order to survive have their very own appeal.

The popularity of Werewolf and Mafia probably lies in a combination of the three. But still, it is astonishing how the game idea spread throughout the world and how children picked it up from one another, only to find out years later that everyone knows it. Perhaps our generation will be the first to be found playing Mafia in our retirement home 50 years from now, who knows?

Cover: Ganapathy Kumar

Edited By: Younes Skalli

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