Mafia de Cuba review

Mafia de Cuba (2015)

Game Details
NameMafia de Cuba (2015)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [1.53]
BGG Rank1396 [6.63]
Player Count6-12
Designer(s)Philippe des Pallières and Loïc Lamy
Artist(s)Thomas Vuarchex
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's good! You should consider trying it if you have a chance.

Bonasera! Bonasera! What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to this review in curiosity, then this game that ruined your friendships would be suffering to this very day. And if by chance an honest reader like yourself should make enemies, they would become this blog’s enemies. And then they would fear you.

What is that? You wish me to be your friend?

Good. Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to share a blog post for me. But until that day, accept this review as a gift on my daughter’s Wednesday. My Wednesday too, as a matter of fact. I don’t actually have a daughter. And I’m writing this on a Sunday.

What am I doing with my life?

Mafia de Cuba box

WHAT’S IN THE BOX HOBIN?

Okay, I know that Mafia de Cuba invokes a different kind of crime family vibe, but I don’t really know anything about the Cuban mob and I’ve seen the Godfather approximately eleventy billion times. Write what you know, as they say, and I know the movie depictions of the mafia like the back of my hand. What, you don’t think that’s funny? You don’t think I’m a clown? You don’t think I’m here to amuse you? What do you mean I’m not funny? Not funny how? How am I not funny?

Gun on box

No seriously. What’s in the box?

That’s quite enough of that I think. We’ve got Crime Business to deal with here. We’re not having drinks at the Copa. We’re in Havana at the height of the power and influence of the Cuban mafia. Batista is still in power, and his systemic corruption is so vast and so entrenched that mobsters like ourselves are basically a new ruling class. It’s 1955 – we’ve still got four years to enjoy ourselves before Castro comes along and ruins everything. Life is good, crime is up, risks are down. Let’s just get together, my beloved friends, and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

Sadly, it turns out there really is no honour amongst thieves.

Cigars in the box

These cigars look an awful lot like cheap-ass hotdogs, friendo.

Mafia de Cuba is a game of social deduction and angry betrayal. Like One Night Ultimate Werewolf and the Resistance it relies a lot on the energy of the table. Unlike both of those games, it permits players a choice as to how much of the responsibility for a fun experience is going to fall on their shoulders. In lots of games like this, you play out the role that fate deals you. In Mafia de Cuba, you pick a role as pivotal as your comfort level demands. Loyalty or betrayal is (almost) entirely your choice.

One player takes on the role of the Godfather, passing a box of fine cigars around their top henchpeople. You’re surrounded by allies, at least so you think. Every single person in your company is absolutely the top of the hench game. The best henchers the lot of them. Each and every one of them is totally committed to the henching – the money is little more than an afterthought for them. At least, so you expect. That’s why you don’t even bother removing the cigars from your special cigar box – the one with the false bottom that contains a pile of diamonds, each worth an absolute fortune. It’s not like your top lieutenants are going to rob it right in front of you, right?

Cigar box

This cigar box is all false bottom.

You as the Godfather take the box and secretly you remove a certain number of the diamonds. You know, just to be safe. Just to make sure that if, mios Dios, someone makes off with a handful that you’ll be able to find the culprit with a bit of clever investigation. I mean, you could just kill them all but that sounds like it would involve an awful lot of mess, a fair degree of blowback, and probably more paperwork than you’d be able to handle. If people just knew how many forms were involved in being the head of a crime family, none of them would even want your job much less kill for it. Insurance by itself is a drag, and don’t even get me started on the entertainment receipts.

Anyway, you pass the box on to someone beside you, and they help themselves to something from the contents. Either they pick a cigar, which is represented in the game by selecting a role token, or they take any number of the diamonds. Once they’ve made their selection, the box gets passed on to the next person, and so on, and so on, until the box comes back to you at the end considerably lighter than it was at the start of its adventure.

At that point, you look into the relative dearth of diamonds and get very angry. You start accusing your formerly rock-solid associates of theft and larceny, and interrogate them on every aspect of their choice. What did they see in the box? How many diamonds were there? What did they take? What was in the box when they passed it on? WHERE ARE MY GOD DAMN DIAMONDS? If at any point you think they’ve stolen something, you can point to them and demand they turn out their pockets and reveal what they took from the box. You better hope they come up with some sparklers though, because anything else is a problem for you.

You as the Don know exactly what is left of your possessions and can choose exactly what information you choose to disclose about them. Everyone else knows only of what they took possession and what they passed on to other people. That means that anything missing when they look into the box is in the pocket of someone earlier in the chain. Except, not necessarily because the first person to take something from the box also gets to do something a little extra. They get to take one of the role tokens currently in the box and slip it into a black bag which they then secrete about their person. They don’t have to do this, but if they want to give themselves an information advantage, that’s their chance to do it.

The Godfather might pass around a box like this:

The originator box

I’m sure I’ll get all of these back.

And by the time it gets to you, a few players down the line, it might look like this:

A box a few players down

ARE YEW A CAWP?

You’ll look into this collection and decide what you want. You could grab the diamonds, because then you’ve got a chance to pull off an individual win – the player that gets away with the most diamonds at the end of the game is triumphant. But maybe you want something more exciting. Maybe you decide to pick one of the blue federal agent tokens. That assigns your allegiance to the FBI or the CIA– you would win alone if you were picked out by the Godfather and told to empty your pockets. Federal agents want to look crooked, in other words – and only one agency is going to bag the collar. As such, if both agents are in play they both want to look as guilty as the other, and more guilty than anyone else around the table. They want the Don to point an angry finger their way, and they’ll tell the table anything in order to make that happen. In the process, they’ll often inadvertently tell people they’re feds. Unless that’s all part of the bluff…

Except, someone might have taken, or take in future, the red cleaner token. They win, alone, if the Godfather accuses an agent and if they decide at the last minute to pull out a (hypothetical) gun and blow the agent away. If the cleaner correctly targets an agent, then they win and everyone else loses. However, if they incorrectly shoot someone else both they and the target are out of the game. Does that sound fun? It should, because it is a blast in every sense of the word. It’s like throwing a lit match into a patch of dry heather.

Maybe that sounds a bit high octane though, in which case maybe you want to pick one of the green driver chips. The driver wins if the player to their right wins. They basically piggy-back on the accomplishments of someone else, joining in their success. That might sound very passive until you realise how much of the win depends on you knowing the win condition of your neighbour. If they’re an agent, you need to help them look dodgy. If they’re the cleaner, you need to make sure that you help them finger an agent. Although having said that, I’m not sure how that would make either of you any cleaner. If they’re a thief, you want them to get away from the scene of the crime with the largest number of diamonds in their pocket even if you have to snitch on a greedier thief in order to make it happen. You’re the key person – you’re running the getaway. The driver gets to slant the odds of success ever in their favour provided they can read their neighbour correctly and spin a tale that brings them closer to success.

Bottle of Liquor

Take a swig, friendo. It might be your last.

If all of that sounds too stressful, you can just grab one of the loyal henchperson tokens – in that case, you win if the Don recovers all their stolen diamonds without accusing the wrong person at the wrong time. You’re on Team Corleone, and everyone wins together or loses together. You’re the lynchpin of the Don’s investigation – a reliable source of information with no incentive to lie or obfuscate. It’s easy – all you need to do is tell the truth. Even if the Don accuses you by mistake, he’ll just pass a bottle of fine liquor your way as an apology and it’ll all be good. It’s all good, fam.

You make your choice, and you pass the box along. As it arcs ever closer back to its origin, your choices narrow and your proximal guilt increases. While everyone is going to be implicated in the state of the box as it arrives, it’s inevitable some of it is going to end up adhering to the person closest to the Don. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news.

By the end, the Don takes possession of a cigar box notably absent of both cigars and diamonds. They peer into the interior, grimace, and turn their attention to the lying, cheating, snivelling, weasely bastards around the table.

The box you get back

Oh, you absolute assholes.

The game doesn’t come with any guns to act as props, but if you have a copy of Cash and Guns handy, I recommend you angrily flail a pistol at your backstabbing buttonmen as you interrogate them. A nerf pistol might work even better because then you can even sink a dart mercilessly into the back of their heads.

‘YOU’, you point angrily at random. ‘WHAT DID YOU TAKE? WHAT DID YOU TAKE?’

‘I took a cigar, boss. I’m a loyal hencher. I hench all day, I hench all night. OooO, I live for henching. I’m on your side’.

‘HOW MANY DIAMONDS WERE IN THE BOX WHEN IT CAME TO YOU? DON’T LIE OR I WILL DECORATE THE WALL BEHIND YOU WITH YOUR BRAINS’

‘Woah chief, calm down. It’s only a game. There were eight diamonds when it came to me’

‘That’s a damn lie!’, shouts the person to their right. ‘There were ten diamonds when I handed it on, and I took a loyalty token too. He’s a rat thief. A RAT THIEF!’.

You swing the gun around to the first person that took the box. ‘How many diamonds were in the box?’, you hiss. You pretend cock your pretend gun, and pretend the click hangs ominously in the air between you.

‘Twelve, boss. There were twelve’. You had taken out three so yeah, that tracks.

‘What did you put in the bag?’

‘I put the cleaner in the bag. There’s no cleaner at the table’

But why would they do that? Well, there are reasons within reasons, smoke within mirrors. Maybe they took the cleaner and just want the agents to feel safer. Maybe they wanted to disincentivise anyone from taking an agent token so the boss had an easier time of it. Maybe they didn’t put anything in the bag and as such is using that as an opportunity to ferret out the loyalists that will admit they saw it come their way. Maybe they actually took an agent, and want to seem as crooked as a five bob note. You’re going to have to decide on what their answer means at some point, but not necessarily now.

Cleaner is a bag

Clean as a whistle

‘And what did you take?’, you ask. The gun wavers. You’re going to pretend to shoot someone as a lesson to the others if your diamonds don’t start making their way back into your cigar box.

‘I took a henchman token’, they say. But isn’t that interesting? There were only four of them in the box and two came back to you. Someone is lying here. Which of them is it? What do they have to gain from the lie? How is everyone else responding to their answers? Who is what, and what is where?

And so it goes on, with the Godfather interrogating everyone in turn or out of turn and everyone trying to give an answer that brings them closer to the win. Everyone needs to look loyal, except for the ones that don’t, but the ones that don’t might just be trying to look disloyal to attract the Don’s attention. Maybe everyone took diamonds. Maybe one person took them all. There are liars around the table and it’s up to you to find them.

You whirl around, putting the gun to someone’s temple. ‘EMPTY YOUR POCKETS’, you say.

‘You’re making a mistake boss’, they plead. ‘I’m loyal. I swear I’m loyal’

‘EMPTY. YOUR. POCKETS’

Three diamonds clink on to the table. Everyone imagines the click of the gun and the splash of the poor sod’s body as it is thrown into the nearest river. The process of diamond reclamation is slow, ponderous, and easy to mess up. The godfather has the toughest role of all, but it’s not necessarily easy for anyone aiming for an individual win.

Selected things

A rogue’s gallery of guilt

We played Mafia de Cuba at the college game day I mentioned in the review of the Resistance. It’s often the case that I’m picking and playing games as a result of player count, but it’s a new experience to be picking a game because it’s the only one available that supports enough players. We had the maximum of twelve in the first game, and it went down sufficiently well that we played it several times more over the course of the day. Even as the numbers ebbed and flowed, and other games came back into contention, Mafia de Cuba was still a requested crowd pleaser.

It’s easy to see why, too – the way it lets you self-select your role (within the constraints of the options that come your way) means you can have as stressful or as sedate an experience as you like. If you want all the attention to be focused on you, you can start off as the Godfather. Everyone is going to be depending on your charisma to keep the game moving though and the questions you ask will define in many ways how much fun everyone has. If you want to avoid the spotlight, grab a loyalty token. Then you’re just assisting the Godfather – if they win, so do you. If you want to potentially pull off an endgame upset then pick the cleaner, because whether you are right or wrong it’s going to be funny. Many deduction games assign asymmetrical roles, but relatively few let you choose asymmetrical involvement.

There is though perhaps a reason as to why this remains a relatively unusual system – it leads to very uneven games. The amount of fun you are going to have depends on two things:

  1. The box that comes your way
  2. The box that ends up with the Don

If nobody takes a loyalty token, then absolute nothing anyone says can be trusted and it becomes a game of simply playing the odds and randomly guessing. The Don needs truth-tellers to anchor the chain of evidence. Multiple truth-tellers corroborate each other, and while the Don may never know for sure who is on their side the investigation can draw ever decreasing circles around the radius of suspicion. Without that, the Don is rudderless. So, you need people to pick at least a couple of loyal tokens.

If all that was taken were loyalty tokens and diamonds, the game becomes trivial. There will be X number of points of honesty, and if they’re at all distributed around the table then you’ll find the puzzle tremendously easy to unpick. You mentally cross off the people that you think are loyal, and accuse the rest. Even if you’re wrong, you can toss a bottle of Tequila their way to soothe tensions.

The game permits hilariously comic plays like one player taking all the diamonds, but the design of role selection means you might well be instantly outed. You might find person to your right says ‘There were ten diamonds when I passed it on’, and the person to your left says ‘There were none when I took it’. You might find their story corroborated both before and after. In that case there aren’t a lot of places you can hide.

When you take the box from the Don, you don’t want to select anything that can unambiguously link to you if the next person takes a loyalty token. If you’re the one that passes the box to the Don then you’re going to have to make do with what scant options you may have been left.

But perhaps the most significant problem here is that no matter how I turn it over in my mind I still can’t work out what incentivises anyone to take a diamond. I mean, sure – you can win the game alone if you grab diamonds but if winning is your goal it’s always going to be better to side with the Don. It’s a group win, but a win none the less. If you’re looking for an individual win that you can lord over other people then the other roles are just more interesting to play. The only reason to take a diamond, it seems to me, is to spice up the game when you don’t have any other choice that inspires you.

And that’s fine – it really is. Mafia de Cuba is flexible enough to support varying ambition with cheerful adaptability. But I did play a couple of games where I had been demoted to the shadows just because of where I was in the line. It’s great to say ‘you can choose how involved you are’, but as I said above that’s only true within the constraints of the box that comes your way. For a couple of games, I just up complete bollocks just to give myself something to do. Silence could have perhaps gotten me the win, but really what I wanted was the play.

I’ll give you an example of that. I’d grabbed a small handful of diamonds, and hadn’t been asked any questions since I said I was loyal. I was the first to select a role, and as such nobody had any real way of telling that wasn’t true because I’d slipped a loyalty token into the bag. That was until the person a few up from me revealed there were fewer tokens in the box than the Godfather expected at that point. Suspicion pivoted to the person before, and just as it began to move further and further up the line I started to question how sure the Godfather was that they had counted correctly. Was he sure all the diamonds were in the box to begin with? After all, he’d made that mistake in an earlier round – miscounted the diamonds and as such threw off a whole investigation. Maybe some had gone missing since then? People slip them into their pockets and they don’t necessarily always return them. Devoid of a way to play the game proper, I decided instead to start manipulating the greater context of the meta-game.

I didn’t do that because I needed to deflect attention away – I did it just because I was getting bored and thought the discussion was getting a bit stale. I didn’t do it to win the game, I did it to see how the game context changed with a bit of idle prodding. It was an unabashedly intellectual exercise in exploring the space of play, and really I shouldn’t have any opportunity or incentive to do that in a game. I shouldn’t be looking to see ‘what happens to the excitement curve when I throw a grenade into the middle of the table’. I should be too invested in my own success for that kind of indulgence.

In the end, under certain circumstances the game will flounder because it simultaneously needs truth-tellers around the table, and the tension of play and the space of bluffing is constrained by their presence. Tipping the balance one way or the other will have a massive impact on what happens. Everyone gets a chance to set the balance as the box goes around. The wisdom of picking an agent for example depends, at least in part, on whether the cleaner and other agent have been selected. That in turn has a push your luck element depending on where you are in the pecking order. What you pick will change the value of every other token in the box. That’s very clever, but it also doesn’t lead to balanced games. Few people are looking at the box and thinking about what this session needs to maximise fun for everyone. They’re looking at it thinking about what gives them as individuals the most chance at fun for the roles they have available. This absolutely isn’t always the case, but it’s the case often enough that it makes specific games an unreliable prospect. Balance is an emergent property of the table, and nothing in the game encourages or rewards seeking it.

BE DISCRETE

This is a tall order

Finally, we’re going to discuss this game’s setup in some detail in the teardown but oh my God. Selecting from the box requires a lot of consideration, both in terms of what it makes available to you and what it says about the people up the line. But in order to carry out your role you need to contemplate the contents, and then memorise the contents, and then covertly select what you want from the box. All of this without anyone noticing, and perhaps requiring some light sleight of hand to deflect attention. It can take any individual person twenty to thirty seconds to decide and act on their decisions. In a twelve player game, that’s an average of about five minutes until you’re ready to actually play. It’s funny to watch people picking up a box, sniggering, and then unconvincingly fumbling around. At least, it’s funny the first few times. Before too long you’re just wishing that they’d hurry the god damn hell up.

Absolutely none of this makes Mafia de Cuba a bad game. It’s a good game with movements of greatness. It’s just that like a dime-bag of cheap cocaine the good shit is cut with cheaper agents to bulk it out. Is that a thing? Dime bags of cocaine? Does cheap cocaine get cut with rat poison and flour? You might find it hard to believe, but I don’t often spend a lot of time with criminals. At least since I stopped attending the local meetings of my political branch. Anyway, you’ll certainly feel the hit when you play but it’s just not as pure as I would like, and the rush is only erratically delivered.

The sheer versatility of player numbers might well justify Mafia de Cuba a place on your shelf, but there are other social deductive experiences out there that could offer a more reliable experience with a much brisker setup.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.