Speaking Activity: Mafia Game (ESL/EAP)

Skill focus: Speaking, critical-thinking, justifying opinions

ESL Level: Intermediate - Advanced

Overview: In a large group, students interrogate each other to try to determine who are citizens or mafia in their community.

Materials needed: a deck of cards

Time Required: 15 minutes to explain, 40 minutes to play

Play mafia as an ESL speaking activity

Mafia is a fun party game, but it can also be useful in an ESL classroom. Recently, I've begun teaching an EAP (academic preparation) course that includes justifying opinions, discussion and critical-thinking skills in the course outcomes. Mafia can be a good game for practicing asking questions, providing justifications, and it's also a fun break from the regular routine.

As a teacher, you've probably noticed that a weakness of many students is that they answer questions without providing any justification, leaving the teacher always asking 'Why??' You can tell your students that this activity is designed to practice giving reasons.

Here is a basic EAP approach. If you just want to know how to run the activity without focusing on specific language, skip this section.

  1. Pre-teach language for discussions which should include expressions for giving opinions, agreeing, disagreeing, at minimum.
  2. Have your students practice using the expressions with some discussion topics.  (Here are two other activities for practicing with the same expressions.)

Now, they should be ready for Mafia.

Playing Mafia in the ESL Classroom

If you search online, you can find many variations of the game. Below is the variation I played with my upper-intermediate level college students. You can explain the instructions to them, or if you want them to practice reading, you could print the rules off and have them try to understand for themselves. It's likely many of your students will be familiar with the game (it's called werewolves in China), so you could let them try to explain it if possible.

Here is my explanation.

Mafia: Game Roles

There are four roles: citizens, a doctor, a sheriff (can also be called the detective), and the mafia.

Role Powers

  • The sheriff can investigate the identify of another player during nighttime.
  • The doctor can prevent someone from being killed (including him/herself) during nighttime.
  • Mafia members can choose someone to kill during night time.

As the teacher, you will be the moderator. To assign roles, an easy way is to use a pack of cards. Every student gets one card. In a given group, you want about 1/3 of the students being mafia members. If you have 10 students, prepare the cards so that there is the following:

  • one King (the sheriff)
  • one Queen (the doctor)
  • three cards of the heart suit (mafia -- you can change the suit if you want)
  • five other cards (citizens -- these cards can be anything other than the above)

Mafia: Game Play

The game operates in two modes: day and night time.

Essentially, in the day time, players talk to each other and try to determine who might be mafia. At the end of the day, accusations are made. If an accusation is supported in a vote, the accused player is killed.

At night, all players must shut their eyes and put their heads down. The moderator then asks the mafia to open their eyes, and, as a group, the mafia must all agree on someone to kill (by pointing). The mafia are then told to shut their eyes, and the moderator asks the doctor to wake up. The doctor then points at someone to save. The doctor then sleeps and the sheriff wakes up, and points to someone to identify. The moderator must then tell the sheriff if the person s/he pointed at is a mafia member, citizen, or doctor. Afterwards, everyone opens their eyes as it's morning.

If the doctor did not choose to save the person who the mafia wanted to kill, then the moderator must announce that a player died last night (and tell the class who it was). That dead player becomes a ghost who cannot speak anymore in the game, but no longer has to sleep and can therefore watch the game.

Accusations and voting to kill someone in the day and murder at night continue until one of the following happens:

1) All the mafia are killed, so the citizens win.

2) The mafia outnumber the citizens, so the mafia wins.

Note: When players are killed, they should not reveal what there role was until the game is over. This can make the game more exciting and mysterious.

Mafia: Game Execution

  1. Explain the rules.
  2. Assign the roles.
  3. Tell everyone to go to sleep because it is night time. The moderator then asks the mafia to wake up. The mafia then open their eyes and look at each other (so they know not to try to kill each other later). The mafia are then told to sleep again. That is all that happens in the first nighttime. (Note: it's important for the moderator to note who the mafia are, so s/he can know when the game has been won.)
  4. The moderator tells everyone to wake up as it's daytime. In daytime, players are given some time (e.g. 5 minutes) to question each other to try to determine each other's roles. The purpose of the questioning is to try to figure out who is part of the mafia and who is not.
  5. At the end of the day, it is time for accusations. Players can accuse one person of being mafia. The accuser must provide a justification for his/her belief. The accusation then must have a seconder (a person who 'seconds' the accusation). The seconder must also give a reason why they support the accusation.  If an accusation has been justified and seconded, it goes to a vote. If the majority of players vote that the accused should be killed, then s/he is killed) and becomes a 'ghost'. If the accusation does not pass voting, another accusation can be given by another player. If three consecutive accusations fail, then no one is killed.
  6. The moderator tells players to close their eyes and go to sleep because it's nighttime. The mafia, doctor, and sheriff perform their duties as described above.
  7. Afterwards, announce if someone has been killed, and repeat the cycle.

The game will probably take at least 10 minutes to explain, and 30-40 minutes to play (one round). The students may want to play another once they get the hang of it. There are various strategies that can be used by both sides to win; students will probably realize this slowly. Again, there are different variations of the game, so you might get some students suggesting other rules/roles. Adjust the game as you see fit.

Have a fun ESL class.

-- Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

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