I saw this at Gencon last year, and despite never having seen the show that Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is based on, I watched the demo and was enthralled. I really thought it was going to be a really nasty Euro-style worker placement game with all kinds of fighting and Ameritrashy dice rolling. Well, it does all of that, but unfortunately, the game is quite dry if you’re not playing with a rowdy crowd. There’s a huge, and understated, negotiation aspect to the game that is only briefly mentioned in the rules, and that mechanic is what carries the game. It’s a shame, too, because I would think a game like this would have universal appeal since it morphs games like Agricola with the “punch you in your face” combat of Risk. I didn’t buy it at GenCon, but rather got it recently from a co-worker, and I have to say, it’s very different.
The idea of the game is that you are the kingpin of a band of bikers, and by band I mean “maximum of five members”, which is not big enough in my mind to constitute calling it a “gang”. In addition to the five members, you also have five “prospects”, which aren’t full-fledged members, but rather footsoldiers who can’t do much but make great placeholders to deny an opponent an easy couple of bucks. Better still, you don’t even start with more than a few of the “members” and “prospects”, so it’s not even a band, really, when you start, as much as a couple of rabble rousing dope dealers.
Like most worker placement games, you can spend actions to gain more people for your team, and you can use resources to upgrade “prospects” to full “members”. Thematically, it’s a little weak, since in the show there’s a shitload of members, but for game play purposes, it works well. Still, not a gang by a long shot. One great thing, though, is that each gang or band, whatever you wish to call them, has its own player board which provides them unique starting resources and special abilities. Some are better drug dealers, some are better killers. They all play a little differently, so your strategy playing one faction can be widely different from another, which helps replay value quite a bit.
The object is to collect the most money in a pre-determined amount of rounds, doing so by moving members around the board and activating spaces. Each round you draw and table one to three cards, and these cards can be good, bad, or bad for someone at the end of the round, more or less. This is probably the most interesting part, for me, because it changes the way each round feels based on what you can and can’t do. You also flip over a couple more locations each round until you have nine showing, at which point you’ve hit the maximum and don’t flip more. Location tiles provide you new opportunities to buy and sell drugs and guns, although the drugs are called “contraband”, which is kind of nice – you and I both know they’re drugs, but if you play with a younger player, they can simply be bootleg CDs or something.
While some of the locations are a bit on the “mature” side, such as the meth lab, the porn store, and the www.watchmygirlfriend.xxx porn movie studio, most are simply bars and the like. There’s 24 tiles, so you can simply remove the ones that you don’t like from the pool, then randomly draw the nine that you’ll be playing with. The artwork is taken straight from the show, and looks pretty nice, but there’s nothing lascivious about the aforementioned tiles, so it’s not like they’re throwing nudey pictures in there. It’s just a label and a fairly innocuous picture. If anything, I’m a little disappointed that it’s so tame, although the fact that it is allows me to play this with my 13 year old, since even kids need to learn the ins and outs of a life of crime.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the components in this game are really great. They remind me a lot of “Blood Feud In New York” in that it has great plastic bits like the bags of contraband and the little plastic Glocks. The attention to detail was really good here, all the way from the thick cardstock to the great box insert to the great looking money tokens, which closely resemble a wrapped stack of Franklins. The miniatures, which are the weakest parts in the game, are around the 15mm range, and aren’t all that well detailed. It’s not distracting, it’s just that they’re not awesome, despite everything else being awesome.
Anyhow, as I noted before, this game can be pretty damned dry, depending on who you play with. Sure, there’s combat and dope dealing, and the game play carries the theme really well, but it’s just missing something. If you play this without making deals and being a backstabbity cut-throat bastard, you’re playing it wrong, and you’re not going to like it all that much. For instance, on my first play of this game, we all were quite tepid on it. The next game, though, I did a lot of wheeling and dealing and it was far, far more enjoyable. It’s one thing to take someone’s lunch through force, it’s another to take it from them by talking them out of it. That’s where the fun happens. For instance, my daughter was being a whiny asshat because I attacked her, and when she left the room, I offered two guns to my wife in order to murder all of her members. She accepted, and the next few turns can only be described as genocide. While the wife and I were laughing about it, my daughter was really fucked off. That’s the kind of emotional response that mediocre games don’t really provide.
Now, I want to also mention a neat mechanic that adds quite a bit of strategy: Order tokens. In order to do anything in this game, you need to spend an Order token. Your gang starts out with a variable amount, and you gain one additional token per full member, and you use them to move, activate spaces, and in the case of spaces that have a “boost” symbol, you may spend an additional token gaining that extra ability. The trick here is that if you see an opponent going all out and spending all of their Orders, you can take advantage by starting a fight, and they can’t order reinforcements because they spent all their tokens. It’s a really smart way to allow players that don’t have a lot of members to re-use members in several locations. It certainly provides you with the impetus to think before you ride, so to speak, which is a good thing.
Another neat thing is the “Heat” mechanic, which is essentially a limiting mechanic that stops you from flooding the market with your drugs, or bootleg Care Bears. The way it works is that some actions cause the cops to look at you a little harder, which is abstracted by gaining a “Heat token”. At the end of the round, every player can secretly choose an amount of contraband to sell, and the Heat you have determines the maximum amount you can sell into the market. In another slick market mechanic, the price of the contraband is lowered incrementally when the market is flooded. So, if you have no Heat, you can sell as much as you want, but the more you sell, collectively, the less each is worth. It’s something that really shows that the team at GF9 understands market economics, especially when talking about contraband.
All in all, it’s a good game. It falls short of “great”, and with Miniature Market and others selling these off at a deep discount price, I don’t think it sold well. You really have to like worker placement and negotiation for this game to be played in the best way possible, and so keep that in mind if you’re ever looking at this game.
Why I Don’t Want A Pickle
– Good art and great components make this nice to look at on the table
– Interesting blend of mechanics engages players, mostly
– The specific inclusion of negotiation makes this game shine
– Lots of conflict and biker-cide adds a hard edge to the game
Why SOA Stands For “Such Overrated Anarchists”:
– Without negotiation, this game is pretty dry
– There’s some PG/R rated stuff in the game, so kiddies beware
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is somewhere between a worker placement game and a “dudes on a map” game, leaning more towards the former, obviously. It’s not a great game, but it’s most certainly a well designed, good one. If you aren’t playing with the kind of people that like cut-throat negotiations and raucous table talk, this game might fall a little flat. It’s not Stone Age, that’s for sure.
Learn more at the GF9 site for SoA:MoM, here, if you are so inclined: