Cigars, Diamonds, or Bullets
We number one shy of a dozen, dressed to the nines and seated around the heavily-grained table of Hotel Nacional’s grand ballroom. Through the high windows, propped open to let in the cool salt air, I can see Havana Harbor, smell it, taste it. Smoke curls over the dance floor, points of light glowing as made men chew the ends of their cigars. Motionless along the back of the room, hands clasped and suits crumpled from previous victims putting up a fight, the godfather’s men stand, faces unreadable.
“Don Daniel,” the godfather says, rolling his pig’s eyes in my direction. His mouth is turned down in a frown so deep it’s almost comical. Would be comical if it didn’t mean he might be about to order those crumpled men to drag me down to the harbor, wingtips kicking gravel and fists punching the salt air. Just like he had done with Don Alberto minutes before. The diamonds from the godfather’s enameled cigar case tickle at my breast, itching to be let out. “Don Daniel,” the godfather repeats. “Empty your pockets.”
Mafia de Cuba is all about that moment, the contraction of a single second when the godfather, furious at the theft of the diamonds he had stashed in his cigar box, orders somebody to reveal the contents of their pockets. For a splintered instant, everything moves in slow motion. Everyone’s breath is held. And then something is placed on the table, its sound alone enough to reveal whether the culprit is innocent or guilty. Will it be the soft clink of plastic diamonds, signalling that the godfather has recovered a portion of his jewels? Or the hard slap of a poker chip, the sign of a potentially game-ending error?
This is Loïc Lamy’s second “characters around a table” game. The first was Ladies & Gentlemen, about prudish Victorian couples separating to go about their respective daily activities — husbands to work, wives to shop shop shop — and then returning home to quarrel about how much income has been spent on clothing and handbags. It was a game about the little things of life, the trappings and social capital of neighborhood balls, and it presented a furiously-realized vision of its topic.
Similarly, it isn’t enough that Mafia de Cuba simply present a wallpaper of gangsters and their tenuous loyalties; it must feel that way too, from bone to muscle, from flesh to gaudy striped zoot suit. Compared to many other social deduction games, which present a clever social and logical quandary and not much else, this is a game that wants to do that and evoke a sense of place, even if only for the span of its ten-minute playtime.
When in the first half of the game that cigar box is passed around the table, you flip open its lid to reveal a pile of diamonds and role tokens. Will you be a loyal henchman, winning or losing the game with the godfather? Or perhaps you should risk the role of thief, pocketing some diamonds and hoping you can plump that smile, dampen those eyes, and persuade the godfather that you’ve had his best interests at heart all along. Other options spice things up: a federal agent who wants to draw the godfather’s ire so he can call in backup and exterminate the entire nest of vipers with a single stroke, the driver whose success is tied to whomever is sitting on his right, or maybe a lowly street urchin who just wants a made man to get away with the cash because he tips well.
At first glance, trusting players to choose their own role is a pleasant enough innovation. A couple rounds later, it’s apparent what a brilliant twist this is, an entire metagame springing into existence over the course of a single sitting. If you’re the sort who nobody trusts, maybe it’s time to play the fed, or try your hand at being loyal for once. If you’ve been quietly sitting in the corner for a while, perhaps you should steal a whopping seven diamonds and cackle when the godfather chooses poorly.
But it’s the second half of the game that reveals just how fiendishly clever Mafia de Cuba really is. After retrieving his cigar box and counting its contents, the godfather begins interrogating his underlings, and that’s when the lies, dissemblings, prevarications, accusations, and protestations start to fly. Armed with questions like, “How many diamonds were in the box when you opened it?” and “What role did you take?” — all straightforward questions unlikely to get straightforward answers — it’s the godfather’s task to get all his diamonds back. Everyone insists they’re a loyal henchman, or perhaps a benign street urchin or driver, and everyone’s got an opinion on how the godfather should proceed. It certainly doesn’t help that the original contents of the box were something of a mystery.
And then the godfather reaches a decision, time contracts, and someone must empty their pockets. Will they reveal diamonds or a token? Even the table holds its breath, cigar smoke suspended motionless in the sea air.
It’ll be too short for some, not meaty enough for others, and can become repetitive without a sizeable cohort of mobsters. Even so, with its emphasis on players selecting their own roles and lasting a sublime ten minutes, Mafia de Cuba is one of the best social deduction games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.