Gale Force Nine’s crack in-house team of Dill, Kovaleski and Sweigart turned out Spartacus in 2012, Firefly in 2013 and now in 2014 they’ve hit paydirt again with yet another TV show-based title. Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is going to cement this publisher and these designers among the absolute best working in the business today. The GF9 gang has turned in what is quite likely the best crime-themed board game published to date. It doesn’t matter if your experience with Sons of Anarchy is that you’ve followed it since its debut in 2008, if you binge-watched the entire series on Netflix last week, or if you have no idea what SAMCRO stands for. The universal themes of intimidation, exploitation, gang rivalry, illegal enterprise and explosive violence should appeal to anyone interested in the entertainment value of bad people doing bad things.
From the white-trash biker aesthetic of the box- pitch black with a tasteless piece of flash art depicting a M16-toting Grim Reaper- to the tiny plastic Glocks and duffle bags of contraband (read: drugs and pornography), this game is totally bad ass and at a level rarely seen on the tabletop. You’re going to want to grow a fuck-off beard and wear tacky sunglasses while you threaten to put your friends’ men in the hospital if they don’t give you a cut of the deal or forming an alliance of convenience with a rival to throw down on a gang that isn’t respecting territory. Make no mistake, this is not a friendly game of passive-aggressive competition and genteel victory point calculation. Making the most money doing bad things is what wins this game.
Sons of Anarchy bears more than a passing resemblance to the core design of Deadwood, a 2011 Loic Lamy design that FFG published in the US to almost zero fanfare, but I think this is a far more fleshed out, detailed attempt at a highly interactive- and violent- worker placement game. The concept is that players position gang members at location cards and then use that location’s function to skim money from the local business, buy or sell guns and contraband, or conduct other transactions keyed to developing your gang or making money.
Each turn, you get a number of orders to move your gang around (all members from one location can move to any other- there is no actual geography). Once there, it takes another action to activate the location but by the time your turn comes back around someone else might have moved in some muscle to block you. Hopefully, you’ve used some actions to recruit prospects and “patch in” some of those lesser gangers to become full-fledged, bike-riding members.
And you’re going to want to bring some guns, whether you call in the order to fight or your opponent does. When violence erupts, there’s a die roll and a tally of all members’ combat value at the location. Prospects are worth one, members are two and any guns you bid in a closed fist give you three and each will also guarantee that an opponent’s man goes to the ER, where he might die at the end of the round based on a die roll. Once fists and bullets start flying, the highest roll wins, the low rolling gang is sent packing. If shots were fired, participating players raise their Heat level.
Heat is a measure of how much law enforcement attention the gang is attracting and it primarily affects an end-of-round contraband sale, where everyone secretly puts some of those little duffle bags in their hands and there’s a per-bag payout based on how many total bags are up for sale. The fewer total bags sold, the greater the payout. But a player’s Heat level may restrict how much they can get away with selling. Further, if your Heat level goes over four, you’ve got to select one of your gang members to “take the fall”, meaning he’s out of the game- presumably locked up. Heat level also comes into play through some event cards.
One to three event cards are drawn at the beginning of each round. Some take effect immediately. Some are Hassles that restrict actions during the round, and they usually really are hassles. There may not be a Black Market phase at the end of the round or everybody has to be on the down low and no guns can be sold. Then there are Opportunities, which act as temporary locations added to the base 11 already on the table that players can take advantage of if they act quickly. This is a brilliant idea that I’m surprised no one has done before, at least not that I’ve seen.
I really like that there are more event cards than you actually use in a game and also more location cards than what’s on the table. There’s not only plenty of variety and replayability between those two factors, there are also quite different situations and considerations that are possible from game to game. Special gang abilities add to the range of possibilities, and there’s already an expansion in the works that will presumably add the pieces for a fifth player. Bring it on.
To sum it up, this is a very interactive worker placement game with a three-part economy (money, guns, contraband) and a one-action-per-turn structure that leads not only to quick turns but also plenty of strategic decisions centered on timing. Developing relationships with other gangs and expectations based on their assumed holdings is also a major source of depth. Assets are kept secret, so you’re never quite sure if you’re going into a fight just to get blown away by someone with a big pile of guns.
The kind of interaction this game engenders is essential to selling its themes and setting. If you’ve got a fleet of bike-riding members cruising around the board and a lot of guns, you can really shake down your weaker rivals. They may be looking at selling guns somewhere, but you can block the action by ordering some men to go down there and stare menacingly at them. This is one of those games where you have an “aha!” moment, when you realize that the reason that moving and activating a location are separate functions. That space between means that someone can mess with you, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in. All resources are tradable, so a player going full-on into the gun-running racket might find more profit in selling their wares to other players than to the sites on the table. Or you might give a gift of some contraband to a player willing to send in some men to help you out in a tough fight. It’s very open-ended, and like Spartacus the rules contain a very specific “don’t be an ass” stricture.
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is one of the most exciting and entertaining games I’ve played this year. But I do have one fairly major complaint about it. When I play a game about making money, by jingo I want it to have paper currency in the box. A lot of gamers hate paper money for whatever idiotic reasons, but I think having a stack of play bills is an important part of the atmosphere. The cardboard money chits are fine, and it is fun to see them pile up over the course of the game, but after the exquisite paper money GF9 put in Firefly I was hoping for something more along those lines.
It’s a nitpick that shouldn’t diminish the overall quality of this design. Over the course of just three games, Gale Force Nine has emerged as a major player in the board games business. The highly thematic designs they are putting out are quite frankly blowing everybody else out of the water. They are smartly appropriating trends and design concepts but arranging them in masterful ways that convey their subject matter masterfully. I also think these guys are way ahead of the pack in terms of licensing. Snatching up television properties rather than film or video game ones is pretty smart in an era where really high quality cable TV shows are in such vogue. At this point, I would be first in line if they announced titles based on The Young and the Restless, Full House and 16 & Pregnant- because they would probably be awesome.