The Jaunty Mattanza

a postcard of Sicily's famous burning manors Vespa tour

La Famiglia: The Great Mafia War, the latest design by Maximilian Maria Thiel, has caused a minor stir thanks to its subject matter, the Sicilian mafia wars of the 1980s. Sometimes called the Mattanza — the slaughter — this conflict claimed thousands of victims, including bystanders, police officers, and civil servants, and included acts of violence that crossed borders and oceans.

When it comes to board games, it’s hard to find a setting that will unsettle me. I’m less interested in a game’s proposition than its execution. Playing La Famiglia, however, it’s hard to escape the niggling feeling that this isn’t the most canny handling of a sensitive topic.

Unless... it's the world's grimmest biathlon!

So much for being a game about touring Sicily on a Vespa.

Before we dive into the particulars, let’s zoom all the way out.

Right away, La Famiglia puts itself in a very unusual niche. To start, it’s a heavyweight Eurogame, complete with a ponderous action selection system, a secondary action system underneath that one, and an in-your-face approach to combat that hovers somewhere between fascinating and counterintuitive. It’s also straitjacketed by a strict player count. Exactly four players are required, parceled into two teams that exhibit shocking loyalty for mafia dons. The gameplay is punitive, a far cry from the multiplayer solitaire that’s in vogue right now, full of nasty maneuvers and surprise car bombings. Oh, and it runs for about three hours.

So far so good, if I’m being honest. It’s hard to fault La Famiglia for trying something different, even if the result is a game where your mafia family hurries into the business of carefully arranging discs on a spreadsheet of actions.

This spreadsheet is where the lion’s share of your attention is invested. Turns largely consist of shifting discs from the top half — the previous round’s action sheet — down to the bottom, triggering some action in the process. There’s a workmanlike procession at play. Soldiers are recruited into your headquarters — as in, hidden behind your player screen — then dutifully marched onto the map of Sicily. Automobiles and speedboats are rolled out to enable better attacks or greater mobility. Drug factories are erected. Money is made.

Also its best? Maybe.

The action selection system is La Famiglia at its gamiest.

There are two big wrinkles to this system. The first is that rather than moving a single disc, you can opt to displace an entire column at once. The cost of such a move is often obscene, especially if you’re moving lots of opposing discs, prompting a small game of brinkmanship between sides to ensure that no column is totally abandoned to the opposition. The reward for such an expenditure can be worthwhile, upgrading your faction’s standing with the local institutions. This expands the effectiveness of your actions going forward. Good standing with the church and the police lets you recruit more soldiers, stronger relations with the economy lets you sell more drugs, and dipping into the pockets of justice increases your combat potential.

Improving your standing with these institutions is essential for victory. It’s also the beginning of my misgivings with La Famiglia’s setting. The implication that you’re strengthening your ties to the community is the direct opposite of how the conflict’s actors behaved. Eurogames have a long history of exsanguinating their topics until they’ve been reduced to idealized, bloodless caricatures, but the absence of civilian and state casualties is notable in a game where one of your principal means of interaction is detonating car bombs. Magistrates, police chiefs, politicians, and even a general of the Italian army were slain by gangsters. Here, concepts like justice, economy, and religion become deposit boxes and little else.

The second wrinkle to the action selection system arrives in the form of orders. These are chits placed on the main map to order your units to action. Each faction begins with a handful of basic orders, and gains access to better options as the island’s institutions are further swayed to their side. Once all the action planning is done, the game switches gears, accelerating from ponderous to—

…slightly less ponderous. There’s a stark thrill to activating the orders you’ve painstakingly seeded across the map, but this phase still proceeds in an orderly fashion that verges on over-deliberate. According to each order’s type (supply or attack), you count their initiative numbers and resolve them in sequence. More troops appear on the map. More money is made. Defenses take shape. Then and only then do attacks occur. To the game’s credit, the map is a constant churn of shifting battles lines. Thanks to car bombs, entire safe houses of soldiers are destroyed in an instant. Swarms of gangsters hop into automobiles to mow down opposing thugs. There are even speedboats for swift movement, underutilized but a pleasant diversion nonetheless.

The economic upgrades are all kind of bland, to be honest. "You earn one coin!" Yaaaay.

Each family has its own skills and upgrades.

The real star of this brawl is the map itself. Sicily is divided into twelve mandamenti, each with three sub-areas. The goal of the game is to control a certain number by round’s end. Control itself is a ragged and tenuous thing, defined as having troops in two of a mandamento’s three areas. This leads to a brittle state of affairs as families seize the bare minimum necessary to control an area, leaving their opposition untouched elsewhere. It isn’t long before the map is marbled with opposing factions, entire regions one or two solid orders away from swapping hands. It’s an attacker’s game; staying put is liable to get your soldiers blown up or circumvented altogether. Once everyone figures that out, it becomes very difficult indeed to determine your course of action.

Both the stacked orders and the map’s changeable tendencies call to mind games like classic Diplomacy and Dune, Christian Petersen’s A Game of Thrones, or the tragically out-of-print Forbidden Stars. There’s room aplenty for bluffs and feints, unexpected maneuvers, even the rare utterly expected but also utterly unstoppable attack.

At the same time, its most significant departure from its peers is that the sides are set in stone. There are no red weddings in this slaughter, no unexpected betrayals or panicked conversations as you try to dissuade a former buddy from lodging a dagger between your shoulder blades. The biggest threat posed by your ally is that they might bumble into an area you hope to control. Since you can’t attack an ally, exchanging territory is a fraught proposition that requires multiple orders — one for them to vacate the region, plus another for you to move in — which presents an awkward window for a rival to tarantella into the gap unopposed.

No true modern board game at all, nosiree.

What’s a modern board game without a bunch of upgrades?

The weirdest part is that La Famiglia, in both setting and gameplay, feels like a game about betrayal. This extends to its victory conditions. You win if your team controls six mandamenti. But you also win if you control five on your own. Unlike the variable partnership-versus-solo victory condition of Dune, this latter possibility drags your teammate into the limelight as well. I don’t like to speculate, but a backstabbing ghost seems to hover over La Famiglia. Was this once a more robust game of diplomacy and disagreeable alliances before development handcuffed its teammates together? It sure feels that way.

The odd faithfulness of these mafia families is counterintuitive, but it should be noted that there are glimmers of insight into the Great Mafia War. Car bombs are one of the strongest tools in your arsenal, especially against an entrenched foe, but a successful attack leaves its target area empty rather than handing over control. Pentiti, soldiers turned collaborators of the state, can be used to remove rival soldiers despite their defenses. Factories openly identify as producers of narcotics. And the map teems with neutral mafiosos, readily gobbled up into your greater enterprise or tricked into suicide missions against rival families. These all suggest wider considerations, even organized pushback to your illegal activities.

Such gestures remain faint. It doesn’t help that the rulebook says next to nothing about the Mattanza, declining to define terms like “pentiti” or express the conflict as anything other than a jaunty wrestle for control over Sicily. Where the gameplay comes across as gaunt thanks to the absence of inter-factional politics, the story is similarly undernourished. It’s the sort of game that begs to ask an entirely different set of questions from the ones it’s actually asking. When somebody at the table recruits a wad of soldiers in a neighboring territory, I want to cast a frantic eye at the buildup and demand to know what they’re up to. Instead, their intentions are wholly clear. They will attack me with those soldiers. There is nothing else for them to do. There’s no room for mistrust or paranoia — a telling omission from a game about a gang war that confounded authorities in part because they couldn’t tell who was working with whom.

Gotta say, I love how it looks. What a handsome game.

La Famiglia is a big one.

Put these together, and La Famiglia is similarly confounding. Its best elements are those that gel with its focus on teamwork, in particular the action selection system. Everywhere else, it’s functional but emotionally vacant. Every so often it will rise to the occasion, usually with an unexpected incursion into enemy territory or the timely defusing of an opponent’s order. The rest of the time, it’s oddly staid compared to its kin. After three hours and dozens of moves, a mafia war should leave me energized and excited. Instead, La Famiglia produces relief. It’s a game that says and accomplishes little. If only that were a commentary of its own.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 17, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Une critique qui tend plus à critiquer ce que ce jeu n’est pas au lieu de critiquer ce qu’il est. Assez dommage.

  2. En même temps, quand un jeu veut incarner une partie de l’histoire, il est normal que l’on s’attende à ce qu’il la respecte! Et c’est aussi très bien de comparer le jeu aux autres ayant les mêmes mécaniques…

    Dan, thanks for this well written review, as always!

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