It’s 2014. Jimmy Falon takes over The Tonight Show, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dominates social media, and John Travolta introduces Adele Dazeem. But you know what I remember from that year? Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem.
As the follow-up to Gale Force Nine’s killer debut, it established a streak. A series of releases that was absolutely outstanding and would come to be defined as classic. I still adore this game. There is no better worker placement design, and that’s not simply because it has little plastic duffels of drugs and porn that you hock on the black market.
This title was and is criminally underrated. Part of that is the Sons of Anarchy setting, a television show about as trashy and anti-intellectual as, well, Spartacus. Cast no stones for I watched and enjoyed both of these series.
But these releases, as well as other GF9 bangers like Homeland and Star Trek: Ascendancy, succeed at a level beyond their settings. If you’re down with the concept of a “Dudes on a Map” game where the dudes are riding motorcycles, you should be playing SOA. The motif is hierarchical dominance as expressed through violence and wealth. It’s about operating outside the law and striking from the fringe to dismantle and conquer the corrupt institutions of society. There’s a crooked Robin Hood-like romanticism at the heart of it, an illusion of self-justified sin as a display of liberty.
It isn’t just the setting that has an edge to it. The main mechanism of the design is worker placement; however, it incorporates a brutal element of conflict where you can batter and kill your opponent’s workers. In that sense it leans into area control and Ameritrash influences. It’s far less passive aggressive than the modern worker placement-style design, and this irreverent and aggressive take on the genre really synthesized with the subject matter to present something noteworthy and binding.
It’s really just a great damn game.
Praise Jax Teller, for the Sons are back. Again.
Yes, it was already re-released rather quietly as Vault of Dragons in 2018. Despite embracing the culturally popular Dungeons & Dragons franchise, this release landed with a sickening thud and is now forgotten.
Wise Guys will not be forgotten. Or at least it shouldn’t be. I lack faith in current market trends and the crowdfunding infatuation, so perhaps there is little hope.
But this game is brilliant. That’s because it’s Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem with two improvements.
The first is clearly the setting. Prohibition-era gangsters is a definite improvement. I say this as someone who has seen every episode of SOA.
It’s a much more inviting context. It’s far enough removed from our current time that it feels less ruthless and more pleasant. This is significant, particularly when trying to convince someone to play the thing.
There are also very few quality gangster titles, with only Bootleggers and Godfather: Corleone’s Empire coming to mind. That’s an absurdity that needs to be rectified.
This backdrop simply works. Your main actions in the game are taking turns moving your thugs around town and exploiting locations. The goal here is to run a business. You’re managing a simple economy of three resources: guns, cash, and liquor (the duffels of contrabands in Men of Mayhem). The mafioso with the most cash at the end of play is all that matters.
There’s strategic thought – identifying sites intersecting with your economic engine – colliding with an underlying tension of protecting those locations and strong-arming your foes into abandoning theirs. It’s an exciting game with large brawls and violent shootings.
There is a sense of uncertainty woven throughout which supports that central tension. In addition to dice-based combat, there are random events each turn with quite a few radical inclusions. My favorite is one which has you moving other player’s characters during a turn instead of your own. Yes, this maverick sense of chaos is emblematic of the design principles embraced by the trio of Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart.
Illicit transactions and bloody drive-bys are gangster. The mechanisms aren’t jammed into this setting and it all feels well-suited. Someone unknowledgeable of its original influence would not be able to identify this as a repackaging of game design.
Before I highlight Wise Guys‘ second improvement, I need to give it some guff. The biggest failure of this product is the absence of plastic. The bits in Sons of Anarchy were wonderful. Plastic duffels and pistols were very satisfying to collect. Club members represented by motorcycle miniatures were simply cool. I mean that not in a trite way, but in a Steve McQueen tossing a ball off a cell wall kind of way.
Cigs, leather jackets, and plastic miniatures.
The removal of these figures actually lessens the game’s charisma. It feels more distanced from the “Dudes on a Map” genre, and spirits aren’t quite as high. New players don’t have that reaction from the depths of their gut, muttering “whoa” as they examine a tiny plastic Glock.
Another point that echos the loss in aesthetic, albeit a smaller one, is the changing of money tokens. In Men of Mayhem, cash was represented by chits where the artwork stretched to the seams of the token. So, it was a three-dimensional chunky Benjamin. Now it’s a token that has a little image of a bill on it. A small complaint, yes, but one of the most satisfying aspects of Sons was stacking that skrilla in a big organized pile behind your player shield. You could make your own private pallet of wealth mirroring Walter White’s storage locker. It’s just another voguish quality that is now absent.
Here’s where some of that disappointment is plugged like a fistful of dirty gauze shoved into a gunshot wound. While the plastic of Sons of Anarchy is lost, this is partially absolved by the new Made Men.
In Sons, you’d promote your weaker prospects into Members, allowing them to use firearms and contribute more strength in conflict. Here, you gain a faction specific character with heavily improved stats over your regular gunmen. This is a big change, and it’s actually terrific.
Combat was overhauled to facilitate such a variety of characters. Now, the location determines whether you have a physical altercation or a verbal sparring. This is represented by the two stats of Guns and Talk.
This change is not subtle. It has a large impact by adding a rich dimension to conflict. The Made Men influence this. Beyond specializing in one form of conflict or another, they allow you to manipulate the stakes.
For instance, you may choose to focus on safer Talking locations when running low on Tommy Guns. Having your Made Man murdered is a huge blow, and by choosing verbal conflict you’re avoiding facing the lethality of gunfights. This does mimic a similar affect in Sons of Anarchy where some locations prohibited the use of guns in conflict, but the impact is more expansive in that certain Made Men are stronger or weaker in these types of fights.
You also have fewer Made Men in Wise Guys than Members in Sons. Instead of several spread-out combatants, you have a couple of concentrated positions. This has a more subtle effect on play, as it limits some of the lesser utilized strategies such as going thin and wide, but it produces new considerations with increased weight.
Veterans of the previous design will find familiar situations requiring a complete re-assessment. It alters how you view conflict and will force new tactics as you determine best practices in deploying and protecting characters.
It’s also a nice touch that the characters are all based on actual infamous gangsters. This provides a sense of legitimacy to the setting, and it feels as though care was actually taken in developing this new edition.
This is a fantastic change, one that almost entirely makes up for the loss in style. It sells the more spartan components by actually utilizing their form in a way which would have been difficult with miniatures. It also means this is an altogether different proposition than that of the Spartacus re-release, as this design offers an incentive for fans of the original to adopt the new version.
With that being said, this doesn’t feel like an altogether new game. The structure is the same, the majority of mechanisms are identical, and the flow of play is similar. The Made Men addition is strategically impactful, not necessarily a tonal or identity change.
This is still a great game.
I must admit that the consideration of dropping Men of Mayhem and retaining Wise Guys is very difficult. I can’t quite convince myself to abandon the unrelenting coolness of SOA in favor of a sharp new system improvement. Either way I lose.
But there are people out there who don’t own Sons of Anarchy. There are people who balked at Charlie Hunnam on a board game box. There are people who would enjoy the hell out of Wise Guys.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.