You all know how I feel about the Spartacus board game. It came in at number one on my list of the 50 Best Games Of All Time. (It's worth mentioning that Cosmic Encounter was so high on the list it hovered ABOVE the top spot, as the best board game of all time.) Now, Spartacus was based on a TV show that I've never watched. Regardless, it was a slam dunk from the first play.
Now comes Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem. Another board game from the same company who brought us Spartacus. Another game based on a show that I've never seen. Can Gale Force Nine do it again?
MEN OF MAYHEM
Three or Four players each take control of a gang of bikers. Apparently men on motorbikes are some sort of criminal gang thing in America. I don't know. They're Hell's Angels or something. I have no idea. Anyway, their activities (and your activities) involve gun-running, drug-dealing, porn production and such. It's a game for adults – let's be clear on that.
The board is made up of location tiles that are dealt randomly at the start of the game, with the exception of a few always-there tiles like the Emergency Room and the Police Precinct. The point of the game is to send your gang out to these locations, take control of them, and then exploit them. You do this by issuing orders to your gang, spending little tokens that have shitty little mobile phones printed on them. They're great.
In your bike gang (you call them your “dudes”) you have full members and recruits. Recruits can't do much. They can help in fights and they can help you hold down areas of the board. Your full members are stronger in fights and each full member gives you an additional order token.
So what do these orders let you do?
RIDE: When you issue a ride order, you can move all your dudes from one location to another. Let's say an opponent has a few recruits hanging around the docks. You can issue a ride order to send an enormous team of ten guys down to the docks to scare the shit out of them. That's the kind of thing this game is about.
EXPLOIT: If you're the only player with guys at a location, you can exploit it. Basically this means you can use the area's effects. It's some simple worker placement stuff. It's how you gain all your resources. A gun factory will let you exchange cash for guns. The docks will give you contraband. The Police Station will let you lose Heat (we'll get to Heat later). You can also spend an additional order to “boost” most locations, to use an additional effect. At the brothel, for example, you can spend an additional order to tell a recruit to have sex with a prostitute, transforming him into a full member of your gang. Mm-hm. You can.
THROW DOWN: This is how you fight. When you have dudes at a location and another player has dudes there too, you can issue that Throw Down order and start to rumble. Throw Downs are great. First of all you can issue additional orders to call in backup. This will send more dudes speeding to the location for the fight. Then you decide if you want to bring guns to the fight. You do this by taking however many of your guns you want (they're hidden behind your player screen) and holding out a closed fist. Your rival does the same. It's a game of bluff, all blind. You show the guns, and each gun you use will add 3 points to your strength total in the fight. Once you tally up all your bonuses (1 point for a recruit, 2 points for a full member, 3 for a gun) you roll a D6 and the winner takes control of the area.
Here's what I like about guns – if you bring guns to the fight, people are going to the hospital. And I mean for sure. I like that. Even if you win and drive off the other gang – if they brought guns, you have guys going to the hospital, and then maybe the MORGUE, son.
RECRUIT: Simple one, this. A recruit order brings a new recruit to your clubhouse. After bodies get dropped, this is something you simply have to do.
PATCH IN: Those punk recruits? You need them to be full members as fast as possible. You can issue an order to do this at the cost of a dollar and a gun. Remember that every full member you have in your gang gets you an extra order. It's a worthwhile thing.
SIT TIGHT: This is the “do nothing” order. This isn't as weird as it sounds. Sometimes you just want to bide your time to see what other players are doing. You will probably use this order a fair bit. It can even be part of your intimidation mind games.
THE BLACK MARKET
After you do all your orders, you can sell contraband on the black market. This works beautifully. You decide how much contraband you want to sell, then hold it out in a closed fist. Everyone shows how much is being sold. The price is adjusted for that total. If there is a LOT on sale, the price drops. If very little is on sale the price will be much healthier. Man, there is a LOT to think about here. How much contraband do the gangs at the table hold? Will everybody go all in? How much heat is on your rivals?
Heat KILLS you in the Black Market phase of the game. Heat, police attention, is gained by exploiting hot areas. It can be lowered by visiting the police station and exploiting your position there. The more heat you have, the less contraband you can sell on the black market. If you have NO heat at all, you can sell an unlimited amount of contraband. Heat is something you need to keep an eye on. It can easily hurt you in the end-game.
SPECIAL GANG POWERS
Each gang has special powers too. The Mayans don't need to issue an order to throw down. They can just FIGHT. Another gang gets a cash bonus if they hold the First Player patch at the start of every round. These are rules unique to your gang that let you tailor your play a little bit. Your rivals know what you can do, and they can try to squeeze you in those areas.
There's more to this game. Anarchy Cards get flipped at the start of every round. These spring out events and additional opportunities. Maybe a gung-ho cop will arrive in town, putting heat on everybody. Maybe a Russian gun-running opportunity will open, allowing your gang to lock it down and sell a huge amount of guns for massive profit. Maybe you'll get the opportunity to send a rival's gang on some bullshit wild goose chase. Let's look at a couple of cards in particular...
LEVERAGE: This card, if you send dudes there, lock it down, exploit it – it lets you either remove or add heat to a rival gang. Now, in this game you can make deals at any time (and break the deals too). The LEVERAGE card can be used to threaten a rival or to make an alliance. It's an example of how beautifully interactive this game is. It's hilarious, too. If you like to board game with a bunch of utter shitheels, this card will create a lot of laughs.
GANG WAR: Gang War is a card that gives a cash bonus when you send rival gang members to the hospital. If Gang War pops out, all of those guns at the table are going to start firing. You can convert violence into money. Bodies will DROP.
All those guns you collected, all that contraband – it all means nothing if you can't turn it into cash. The winner of the game is the person with the most money. The money MUST BE ON THE TABLE. You have a lot of guns? Cool. Great. You have a lot of drugs? Great. Where's the money?
If you carry a lot of heat, you can't sell your shit. If you can't lock down certain areas, you can't sell your shit. The game has you at each other's throat at all times.
They did it again. Jesus. They did it again.
Sons of Anarchy is a fun, easy-to-play game. It's real strength (similar to Spartacus) is in its focus on player interaction. The game IS other people. When you feel this game – when you feel the intimidation of a gang riding ten-strong into an area where you have a couple of recruits – you will fall in love with it. When you feel the rage of other players goading you into throwing down when you have next to no chance of winning, you'll fall in love with this game. When you throw down just to prove that you will when pushed, you'll fall in love. When you squeeze out an unlikely win? Love. When you lose but send about six of your friend's guys to the crematorium? Love.
I need to play this game many more times. My early take is that this will be in the hunt for my board game of the year.
They did it again.