Globalization and parlour games

Margaret Robertson recounts the wild spread of Mafia (the parlour game, not the crime organization) in Wired:

He was born in Kamensk-Uralsky, an unremarkable, mid-sized town towards the centre of the current border with Kazakhstan. It’s a spot less than 150km from the site of the 1957 Kyshtym nuclear disaster — a blast second only in size to that at Chernobyl — which killed hundreds and was hushed up by Soviet officials until 1989. The Chernobyl explosion occurred in 1986, while Davidoff was starting the work which would produce Mafia, and Gorbachev was busy trying to block the US Star Wars space weapons programme…

Mafia first spread among the children and students whom Davidoff taught to play, but once out in the wild it propagated fast — far beyond Russia’s still-closed borders and across the world. Russian students who had gone abroad for postgraduate work took it with them, embedding it into the clubs and groups they joined. A set of Hungarian Mensa members so loved the game that they set up a special interest group to teach it to other Mensans around the world. Questors, a west London community theatre, integrated Mafia into its improvisation practices in the late 80s; by 1989, it had reached the US, where the children at a Pennsylvania summer camp taught each other the rules by torchlight.

Having infected the student population, Mafia travelled where they travelled. Fred Deakin, one half of the band Lemon Jelly and now head of the Airside design agency, recalls teaching dozens of other travellers as he backpacked around south-east Asia in the late 80s. “I was the most popular guy in Thailand just because, at every hostel I went into, I sat down after a couple of beers and said, ‘Does anyone want to play this game?’ And people would flock like moths around a flame. It was incredible.” Once Mafia reached the Far East, it found the perfect breeding ground in China’s late-night clubs. Zachary Mexico, in his book China Underground, details how Mafia addicts now play all night, fuelled by Red Bull and cigarettes.

My introduction was less glamorous: Dean Karlan’s living room. (Sorry, Dean, but it’s no Red Bull-fueled Chinese nightclub.) His eight year old beats me every time…

Learn the game here.