Review: Sons of Anarchy-Men of Mayhem + Expansions Publisher: Gale Force 9 Number of Players: 3+ Play time: 60+ mins Age Guide: 14+ I actually know someone who was a Hell’s Angel, and he once described the TV show Sons of Anarchy to me as “a load of old pony, mate”, or words to that effect. Having now watched the first episode, I think I can probably concur. My problem isn’t with the acting (which is good), or the protagonists spraying automatic weapons and detonating huge quantities of explosives without the slightest raised eyebrow in the surrounding neighbourhood. I’m not even bothered the narrative themes are a little hackneyed. No, for me, everything just looks so… clean. Either the production company hired Tyra Banks to run the costume department, or the gang members spend more time at the launderette and dry cleaners than the clubhouse. Lock up yer fabric conditioner. Not a splattered fly, oil smudge or ripped stitch to be seen. Sons of Spotlessness. Imagine my surprise then, whilst reading a forum thread about good sub-$20 games, to see a respected user claiming the board game based on the TV series is not only good, but he’d been telling people on the forum for months about its uber cheap yet big thrills. I scoffed once at the idea of it being any good, and then again at the idea of any modern big box board game being under $20. However, a quick look on Amazon both sides of the Atlantic revealed that the game was indeed a budget bargain, and reviews of the game were surprisingly positive. Surprising, as a TV licence is often the kiss of death for both video and tabletop games alike, which I’d presumed accounted for the low price of this offering. Little did I know that games company Gale Force Nine has been making a name for itself producing tabletop TV licences like Spartacus, Firefly, Homeland and of course Sons of Anarchy, that not only capture the theme for fans, but feature excellent game mechanics that appeal to non-gamers and uber-nerds alike. That’s really quite an achievement. Sons of Anarchy is part of an incredibly playable stable of TV licences from Gale Force 9. So without further ado, I risked a crippling £19 and placed my order, and can now report that after several plays, unbelievably, and flying in the face of my opinion of the TV offering, Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem really is bloody great. In fact I suspect if this game had been released with a generic outlaw gang theme rather than a TV licence, it might have made greater ripples in the gaming community. As it is, it’s a relatively hidden gem. Components Opening the box you’ll be delighted with just how much bang you get for your buck. The counters and player boards are made from good quality card stock, there’s both gun and contraband-in-a-cute-little-duffel-bag plastic tokens, helpful player screens remind you of round order and possible actions (and serve to hide your stash of cash, guns and contraband from prying eyes) and the miniatures (Members on their Harleys and Prospects on foot) are nicely sculpted and just the right size for play. This is one game where you don’t want to be pushing little wooden cubes around a board. Sweet. The location cards that form the basis of what is at heart a worker placement and area control game are printed on, basically, beer mats with the gang logo on one side, which adds a thematic clubhouse feel to the affair. What’s more, all of this fits into a well-designed insert which has just enough room for the game and its two expansions (more on them later). Locations are the core of the game. They provide resources and are the source of all conflict. While many of the locations, characters and imagery in the game are drawn directly from the TV series, all of it is generic enough to be purely biker-gang thematic if you’re not a fan. The rulebook too isn’t too heavily illustrated with stills from the series and is concise and well laid out — the only times that my group had to refer to it (which were few), the specifics were easily found and helpfully brief. So the production quality is great, but how does it play? Gameplay The screen is to keep your stash of guns, cash and contraband hidden throughout the game. The player aids printed on it are a bonus. As mentioned already, this is a straight worker placement and area control game, although the layout and content of locations will vary game to game, as apart from the hospital/emergency room combo and three core sites the other six starting locations are drawn at random from a remaining deck of nineteen. Combined with the fact that just fifteen Anarchy cards (essentially event cards) are selected from a deck of thirty-six at the start of the game, it looks as though every game you play will be subtly different. So thumbs up for replayability. The game round is split into six parts: Players claim order tokens based on their member count The start player flips over two new locations and one to three Anarchy cards Players take turns issuing one of six orders Everyone gets to sell contraband on the black market using a blind bidding process Any “Last Call” global card effects are resolved A Clean Up phase clears the board of old orders, retrieves a few dudes from temporary sites and ships any injured dudes in the Emergency Room back to their clubhouse or to the morgue. Samcro prepare to Throw Down in the centre of town against The Mayans for control of The Hairy Dog bar. If all of this sounds like fairly familiar worker placement mechanics, it’s because it is, and anyone that’s played Stone Age, Champions of Midgard or Lords of Waterdeep will feel pretty much at home here. However, a game about outlaw gangs ripping up the town is never going to stay ‘Euro’ for very long, and the choice of actions in the third phase of the game round is where things get tasty. During the orders phase, players on their turn can spend an order token to carry out one of six actions: Ride ‘Dudes’ (Members or Propsects) to a new location Exploit an uncontested location for resources (sometimes getting to spend an additional order to “Boost” the action just taken) Throw Down and fight another gang for control of a contested location Recruit a new Prospect to the gang Patch In and upgrade a Prospect to a full Member for the cost of one cash and one gun Sit Tight and do nothing to see what others do first, but it will cost you an order anyway. Without orders, your gang will sit idle. The lazy gits. Violent Consequences It’s worth pointing out that at the three player count it’s possible to tiptoe around other gangs in the Orders phase without much conflict as there are resources to go around, but sooner or later you’re going to want something that someone else has got and have to Throw Down a challenge to either scare off the opposition, or (more likely) fight it out for control of a location. At this point each antagonist gets to call for backup and move Dudes in from other locations, and then secretly select how many guns they’re going to bring to the party (maximum of one per gang member). You conceal them (or even none if you’re bluffing) in a closed fist which you then hold to the centre of the table. Players simultaneously reveal and then roll a single dice, adding the bonuses for Prospects (+1), Members (+2) and guns (+3). Whoever wins gains control of the location and its precious resources, with used guns raising a gang’s heat with the law and sending opposing gang members to the emergency room. Guns don’t kill people… oh, hang on, yes they do. Sometimes. They also draw unwelcome attention from the law. Concealed bidding is also used in the Black Market phase, where players select how much contraband they wish to sell (limited by heat level), conceal in a closed fist and then reveal simultaneously. The more total product that the combined gangs are trying to shift, the more the market gets flooded and the less everyone will get for their illegal booty. The mechanic is fun in both selling and fighting situations and leads to plenty of table talk as you try to bluff and intimidate the opposition. Your contraband stash and mounds of cash are what makes your world go round. The game lasts for a set amount of turns (until the last Anarchy cards are played out) at which point everyone totals up their cash to discover the winner. A tie is resolved with a show of guns remaining, and if still tied the antagonists Throw Down in a final glorious bloodbath to discover the victor. (Download the full rules here.) Final Thoughts Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem reminded me a little of the card game Grass, with its slightly edgy theme and the emphasis on cash, stash, hassle and heat, with the ever-present opportunity of cutting deals with other players. That’s right, in Sons of Anarchy you can cut any kind of deal, at any time, with any other player. Just don’t expect them to honour any bargain! A spiritual successor to Grass? I liked Grass, but I love Sons of Anarchy as much as I’m “meh” about the TV series. It’s dripping with biker gang theme, has plenty of player interaction compared to many worker placement games and has masses of replayablity thanks to a thick stack of Locations and Anarchy cards to randomly pick from each game. Adding to the shelf life are plenty of ways to spice things up once you’ve got a few games under your belt. A High Octane mode uses the flip side of the player cards giving each gang different starting resources and special gang rules and orders, plus there are an additional five Hardcore rule mods listed in the rule book to make the game that much more bloodthirsty and cut-throat — as if it wasn’t already. Things not violent enough for you? Go High Octane or Hardcore. Or both. There are two gang expansions, adding the Grim Bastards and Cavaleras gangs for a total of six players if you’re using both. I haven’t played at that player count yet but I expect it to make things significantly more bloody as the amount of available locations remains unchanged. Neither expansion has extra game modules as such, but each does provide you with a smattering of unique new Hardcore rules. Each expansion adds another gang and another possible player. Expect things to get brutal with five or six gangs in town. So my advice is, fire up the chopper, saddle up and take a trip to the town of Charming CA. Whether you’re a fan of the Sons of Anarchy TV show or just an avid gamer, you’ll find something here to flick your switches. If you’re both, it really is a no-brainer: just buy it already. Pros: Excellent production quality, components and packaging. Well written rule book. About as brutal as worker placement games get. Plenty of player interaction. Bags of replayability. Incredibly cheap for what it is. Cons: If you’re unlucky with the location draw you can end up with nowhere to really sell anything. The themes of gang war, contraband and guns might not be for everyone. Only three or four players in the base game. No two player mode. The TV show theme might put off some potential players, which is a shame.