A martlet stylized as a mafioso.

McGill Mafia Club Retrospective

Telling people I’m part of the McGill Mafia Club has always gotten me a mixed reaction. Most don’t understand what I mean right away; am I part of a mafia syndicate? Do I carry out murders? Does McGill University secretly support the mafia? After a lengthy explanation that the game of mafia is actually a deeply enjoyable psychological game, most people retain their incredulity that we have a club for it. For many, playing mafia harkens back to summer camps and school playgrounds, as an activity to force kids to interact. But those of us who attend the Mafia Club regularly have fallen in love with the intense debates that take place within the system of the game. We crave the rush of adrenaline that comes when committing to a bold-faced lie. And perhaps most importantly, we enjoy the unique social interactions with other people that we can only experience through a game of mafia.

Running a club for mafia, however, has been harder than you might think. Without a clear guideline for how to attract and sustain members, we made several mistakes as a governing body that ultimately were harmful to the club’s lifespan. Writing this retrospective will hopefully guide future leaders of the mafia club in the right direction, as well as serve as a perspective piece for other university students interested or currently running hobby clubs. I will be reviewing how the mafia club meetings have evolved over the years due to our choices in direction, and specific speed bumps that we ran into along the way. I hope you readers will enjoy the insight into the inner workings of the McGill Mafia Club!

The goals of mafia club

The game of mafia is very diverse and can take many forms depending on the players and the context. Handing out playing cards and rallying people to vote off your best friend is a memory shared by many. The social dynamics in mafia can lead to hilarious moments and laughter, as the game lends itself well to inside jokes, impromptu leadership, and situations that can bond people together in a unique way. On the flipside, there is a deep strategic element to Mafia that is rooted in human psychology. The advent of bluffing board games such as Resistance and Secret Hitler have helped expose this side of the game to more people, as board game fanatics love optimizing and applying their strategies to a game centered around human interaction. Internet forums have been exploring and documenting the meta of mafia for years, and have extensively recorded breakdowns of logical fallacies and ‘tells’ on sites such as the mafia scum wiki. This group of people love the idea of applying theoretical concepts and theories from psychology in a tangible form through a game system.

This dichotomy between social play and serious play has been a hotly debated issue in the last 4 years of the club. Unlike other hobbyist clubs like Mahjong or Chess, the governing body of the mafia club must make key design decisions regarding how to run games of mafia, and those decisions directly impact the demographics that the club appeals to. Factors such as the roles we choose to implement, the voting method, number of players, and countless others have been discussed and experimented with.

Ultimately, the direction that we headed towards has, I would argue, caused the club to suffer. With a heavy emphasis on creating a community and social interaction, the core appeal of the club has been diluted, and the current atmosphere and longevity of the club are at risk. At a certain point in the lifespan of the club, we decided to brand it as a place not necessarily to learn and enjoy the game of mafia, but as a place to come make friends and maybe play some games on the side. When new members join the club to meet friends and hang out rather than to play the game, the club becomes unsustainable in the long term. I will go into this more in-depth in the last section, but I want you to keep this idea in mind as I talk about the progression of the club.

Meeting Progression Breakdown

Year 1: 2013-2014

Kaelan founded the club in this year by themself. The advertising was fairly minimal, with a post on the mcgill subreddit and McGill’s club fair being the main sources of new members. At this point, they managed to attract a healthy rotation of 10-13 active members, with about 8-10 showing up at each meeting. Outside of club meetings, members did not interact socially very much. . We were friendly, of course, but the focus in this first year was squarely on mafia itself. The only social events planned were two end-of-the-semester parties hosted by Kaelan, where we also played mafia and other mafia-like games.

The meetings themselves were fairly straightforward. Kaelan was the only one who modded for the entire year, and they chose the setups that we played. Due to the number of people attending, the players who came were guaranteed to play games within a one hour max cycle, as there was only one game going on. With a small group of people all relatively new to the game, we were all able to learn at a similar pace and learn about each other’s play styles.

Year 2: 2014-2015

This year, Tim took over the leadership of the club after Kaelan left on an exchange program. We used a very similar advertising scheme as the previous year, with a large focus on activities night. Our main objective this year was to increase our numbers and bring in fresh faces, as very few people joined the club after the first wave in September 2013. Through activities night, and also word of mouth as our club gained attention, our attendance numbers shot up. We had a nice rotating base of 30-40 players, and about 15-20 players on average. The people who remained from the first year had formed a strong friendship, and the new players coming in were more open to more social events. In addition to our end of the semester mafia parties, we organized events including laser quest, korean bbq, playing video games together, and many drinking events. These events made the club much more engaging, as members were able to invest more time into the club than just attending weekly meetings.

The meetings this year were a little less organized. Due to the large fluctuation and range of people attending, the variety of game types we played was huge. Since we weren’t very organized as a government, we mostly played it by ear, with each weeks fluctuating from smaller games, to huge 20+ player games, to having to run two separate games at once. The club now required a larger amount of effort from the ‘governing body’, as all this event planning and larger meetings demanded more able bodies willing to contribute.

Mafia Club at the end of Year 2

Year 3: 2015-2016

I took over the club as president this year. Realizing now the potential the mafia club had, I put in a lot of effort in expansion and growth, redoubling efforts on recruitment with activities night, and introducing a beginner’s night to try to help new players get into the game. Our beginner’s night event attracted 50+ people. Realizing the larger amount of work needed to keep up with my plans, I also developed the first official government structure this year, with an official President, VP, and council members. At the end of the year, I transitioned this structure to have more defined roles such as VP internal etc. to help the members have more directed ideas of what to do.

Our meetings consisted of usually 20-30 players, with a large pool of 40-50 to draw from. By this point, many in the club considered the mafia club to be their primary source of social interaction, and the events we planned reflected this. Right off the bat in the new year, we organized events including hot pot, parties, and skating, all hosted under the mafia club banner.

The weekly meetings were getting harder to manage. We spoke several times about how we could enhance the experience, but nothing really stuck or helped. There were simply too many people with different expectations from different members of the club, and it was impossible to accommodate all of them without sacrificing some other aspect of the club. A lot of the pitfalls to be mentioned later began developing and showing themselves during this year of the club.

McGill Mafia Club after the 3rd year.

Year 4: 2016-2017

Mila inherited the club this year. Her plan was to largely follow the guideline I had set out the year before and maintain the level of the club as it was previously. She went through a very tough year of leadership, as many of the problems that were minor issues in the previous year had come out full force. This, in addition to the fact that many veteran members had graduated, meant that she had very little control over the club, and was unable to grow the club in the way that she wanted.

Attendance numbers this year have dropped significantly, and general interest in the club at the meetings has died down. Meetings are no longer engaging and active, and I feel a sense of obligation to play mafia instead of excitement. Members who come now are looking to see their friends and hang out rather than participate in an engaging game of mafia. For almost the entirety of the club’s lifespan up until now, we’ve been focused squarely on acquiring members and growing the club; at this point, I believe that it’s time to take a step back and objectively consider issues pertaining to the operation of the mafia club and how we can combat them moving forward.

Pitfalls we encountered

Social Power Dynamic

When the Mafia Club was created, the governing body of the club was largely informal. Due to a lack of hard regulations regarding leadership, we struggled with competing interests among the leaders of the club. When members of the leadership disagreed with each other, we did not have a formalized process for resolving conflict. We initially chose a non-hierarchical government structure because we believed that it'd be easier to fulfill the needs of the members. However, this opens doors for people with dissenting ideas to veto and hinder the progress of the club. To be clear, I'm not advocating for a dictatorial system of club management. I do, however, believe that a large amount of power allocated to a single leader does benefit the club and promotes progress. In the past, when a member of our executive council disagreed with our president's decisions, it was often difficult to find a compromise. It was extremely easy with the format of our government to disagree and undermine the decisions of the president. It hurts the club in the long term when a problem arises within the club and the council can't settle on a change.

A similar problem occurs when a single social group makes up a majority of club attendees. As mentioned previously, as the club expanded, more and more members were making the mafia club their primary group of friends. While this fosters a warm and familial environment, it can also affect the leadership of the club. If members of that social group want certain changes to the club or treat it a certain way, it's difficult to argue against their wishes. The demands of the majority don't necessarily align with what is good for the health of the club. The social group can control a large part of the club activities, and shape it the way they want. It can be hard to stay objective and make decisions that are beneficial for the club when met with backlash from its constituents. This environment also creates an uncomfortable social pressure, as acting against the group can affect your social standing within it. 

The solution I propose is to make sure the focus of the club is well-defined and transparent, such that it is easy to reference when making decisions for the club. The outline of the club should be laid out by the president near the beginning of the year, and whenever issues come up, the ultimate decision should be made by the president. At mafia club, we never planned out our meetings and activities far in advance. We usually relied on impromptu planning throughout the semester and sporadic changes to our meetings. Thus, when resistance was met from any decisions we made, we had no guideline to rely on to resolve it. This can be seen during our debates to do serious nights vs. casual nights, to split our tables according to setup style, to starting a side serious mafia group, amongst many others. In these situations, since there were always a number of dissenters, the ideas never saw the light of day despite possibly being beneficial to the club. With a more streamlined plan out of the gate at the beginning of the school year, more ideas can be tested and implemented.

Overemphasis on socialization

This ties in closely with the above point, but is distinct enough to earn its own section.

Hobby clubs cannot operate long-term without emphasizing the enjoyment of the hobby itself. Over time, a number of the veteran members of the club have lost interest in mafia. This is natural, as most people can only enjoy a game like mafia for a limited amount of time before losing the spark that drew them to the club in the first place. However, when a large part of one’s social circle is still attending the club, many will continue to attend our meetings not to play mafia itself, but to hang out with their friends. This would be fine if it did not affect the gameplay of mafia at weekly meetings. Many members can be seen coming to the club with their homework or with other board games and hanging out and working instead of actively engaging with the game they are playing. It’s especially difficult to call these people out because of the nature of mafia, since playing passively is a viable strategy. In addition, talking and messing around is a core feature of the game of mafia, so it can be hard to draw the line between gameplay dialogue and talking with your friends.

We tried to solve this issue by instantiating a no distractions rules, which bans players from a game from using their laptops and cellphones during the game (which, on a personal note, I find ridiculous that we even need to state explicitly). This hasn't worked for two reasons. Firstly, simply enforcing this rule does not mean that the people who are playing are invested - they can not be on their electronic devices and still not be invested in the game itself. Secondly, because of the aforementioned social pressure, it can be hard to call out your friends for trying to socialize when you are part of the social group yourself. This in addition with the scaling issues to be mentioned later make this an extremely hard problem to combat.

Moving forward, I think that the only way to solve this problem is to bring in a fresh set of new people who are genuinely interested in playing and learning mafia. I can't fault the current members too much for losing interest in the game. But to maintain the focus of the club, it is necessary to bring in people who are interested in playing mafia. Without that, the meetings are simply an excuse for current members to come hang out, and when they leave the club will fade away.

Issues with scaling

As the club grows bigger, the amount of people needed to run each meeting increases. In the first year, with only one mafia game’s worth of attendees at meetings, it was fairly straightforward for the moderator to run games. However, every year thereafter has had two to three games’ worth of people at every meeting. This not only means that there need to be at least two to three people willing to moderate mafia games, but there also needs to be an overseer to collect people who have died and to constantly reshape the groups. This means that at any given meeting, we need upwards of 4 people willing to sacrifice their own gameplay time and enjoyment to organize and moderate games. That's not even mentioning the fact even moderating a game of mafia is hard and requires practice. For a club centred around playing mafia and relaxing, to expect to have enough people to do this every week is unrealistic. We have made compromises by having larger games of 20-25 people, but it is not an optimal way to run the club. Not having enough volunteers also means that if we don't have enough games running, people get bored when they die and have to sit around and wait for these longer games to finish. 

In an ideal world, we'd have the people every week who are willing to sit out and moderate games for attendees. Even if we can accomplish this for a few weeks, once midterms start people's attention to their club responsibilities usually dips. The solution that we've come up with, that would work for our club specifically, is to code a program that would help with moderating. This would be a program that anyone could access that has pre-built setups into it such that it would auto assign roles and help the less experienced moderate easier. This has the added benefit of reducing the downtime between games, as we don't need to wait for a human to create a setup and randomize roles on their own. The only issue is finding someone willing to do this. It might be possible to use club funds to contract a programmer to make this program for us. Regardless, at a certain point, I think the amount of people overwhelmed the mafia club government, and caused a negative impression of club meetings as a result.

Skill Gap Differentials

Though a minor issue, the skill difference between veteran players and new players is apparent in mafia. Though many believe mafia to be a game of chance, there are a lot of 'set plays' that an experience mafia player would always do. Certain situations have been figured out and a meta has formed. It can frustrating as a new player to be thrust into a situation and not know what the correct choice is, especially since it's possible that the veterans could be lying to you. 

The solution here is to ease newer players ifnto simpler setups and smaller games so that they can get the hang of the game easily. We accomplished this with the introduction of beginner's nights, but this idea of simple games should continue throughout the first few weekly meetings, just so everyone can at least catch up and reach a base level of skill before going into more complicated dynamic setups. A lot of people who have come to the club get frustrated when put into tough situations and feel like they make the wrong decisions. Giving them more leniency to make these mistakes would help these newer player acclimate to the meta of play at our club.

Switching Leaders

As with every club, members come and go, and the executive council must switch year to year. For us, we have had a rough guideline of what we wanted to accomplish with the club, but nothing concrete to carry out our ultimate vision of mafia club. 

Conclusion

The McGill Mafia club is still going strong. After some issues with SSMU and the building closing, the club has been starting meetings again in September 2019. You can check out the ongoings of the club on the facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/mcgillmafia/