By Dan Spezzano
Back in the summer of 2012 I remember coming out of GenCon and being one of, if not the first to review a new game based on the Starz show Spartacus which I called the sleeper hit of the show. It didn’t take long for others to catch on and Gale Force 9, a company not exactly known for board games was on their way. They followed that up with a Spartacus expansion, then one of my favorite games ever in Firefly and GF9 earned there chops as an “if they make it, I’ll try it company” for me.
So at GenCon this summer I picked up their newest title Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem which will now be called SOA for the rest of the review because that is a mouthful. I’m not really a fan of the show, I’ve only seen a couple of episodes but GF9 has a way of making games that are just great group experiences. SOA is no exception, and frankly might be their best title to date.
In SOA three to four players takes on the roles of rival biker gangs who are out to control territory and move contraband. A game last for 6 rounds and the gang who has the most cash is the winner. One of the complaints about Spartacus and Firefly is the games take a long time to play. That problem has been alleviated in SOA as a typical game takes 60-90 minutes tops. The game has a similar feel to Spartacus in that you can make and break deals with other players. It’s a game where you can be a total ass if you want to.
The game includes 4 club house cards and player blinds representing SAMCRO, The Mayans, Lin Syndicate and the One Niners all gangs in the show. Each clubhouse card has two sides, the unleaded side where all the starting resources are the same for each club. The back side of each card is called the High Octane side and the club’s not only have different starting resources but special orders and gang rules. While the rules suggest playing the first game with the unleaded side, I humbly disagree and suggest just randomly passing out the clubs.
Other components include 24 site (location) tiles, 5 of these tiles are double-sided indicating they are the starting tiles for each game. The other 19 tiles are not double-sided, you will use 6 random tiles each game. The game comes with 36 Anarchy cards, 4 hardcore anarchy cards, 4 six-sided dice and a Reaper patch to indicate first player. Controlling the reaper patch allows you to go first each turn and more importantly win ties during fights. There are 40 plastic figures referred to as dudes, 20 members represent by guys on motorcycles and 20 prospects represented by guys on foot. Each player gets 5 of each in the color of their club. Card board wise there are 24 contraband and gun markers, 18 heat tokens, 32 order tokens and 139 cash tokens.
Before starting play you must set up the play area. Each player gets a club board, blind, associated figures and a die of their color. You then place the 5 starting locations on the table. You then shuffle the other 19 location tiles, choose 6 of these and place them face down in two rows of three. Next take the 36 anarchy cards and shuffle them and deal out 15 random cards to form a draw deck. The game cards act as a timer for the six rounds, when you deal out the last 3 anarchy cards you know this is the last round of the game.
Each player takes his starting cash, guns and contraband and puts them behind his blind (screen) this information should always be kept secret from other players. He puts his clubhouse card in front of the blind with his members and prospects on it. Heat and order tokens should also always be kept in front of the screen. Let me take a moment to explain heat which is an indicator of how much attention you’re drawing from the law enforcement. Whenever a players club has more than 4 heat tokens one of his members, not prospects has to immediately take the fall. This results in the member being returned to the players recruit pool.
A game round in SOA is broken into 6 phases, in the first phase clubs collect order tokens. Each club has a base order token value on their club card and at the start of the round they add this number to the number of members (guys on bikes) they have to get their order tokens for the turn. Remember order tokens can not be hidden so make sure they go in front of your screen.
In phase 2 new cards are revealed by first turning over any two remaining face down site cards. After doing this anarchy cards are revealed. In round 1 you reveal one card, in round 2 you reveal two cards and then each round after that you reveal 3 cards. There are 4 types of anarchy cards that effect play in the following ways. Obstacle cards are one-time immediate effects that can affect all gangs such as giving everyone additional heat. Hassle cards are persistent effects lasting for the game round, one such example might be the inability to sell guns this round.
Opportunity cards are temporary locations that gangs can try to control for their abilities. These cards are discarded at the end of the round. Finally Last Call cards take effect at the end of the round and often can cause problems for gangs. For example the arrest warrant card will force the gang(s) with the most heat to take the fall. The good thing about last call cards is you have the entire round to avoid or capitalize on them.
Phase 3 is the issue orders phase, each gang starting with the patch holder take turns issuing orders. While I won’t go into each order in full detail they are as follows; ride: move dudes from a location to another. Exploit: Use a location you control. Throw Down: Fight at a location you contest. Recruit: Add a new prospect from your recruit pool to your club house. Patch In: promote a prospect to a member. Sit Tight: You do nothing, but still spend your order token. Club Orders: If using the high-octane side, each club has a club order you may spend an order token on to use.
Phase 4 is the Black Market phase and this is where you sell your contraband. How much you can sell depends on your heat level. For example if your club has 3 heat they can only sell 1 contraband. On top of this any club selling contraband gains 1 heat at the end of the black market phase. To sell your contraband player secretly places their contraband markers in their hands and extend their fist over the table. Once everyone is in, you reveal.
The good news is everyone who sells is going to get cash, the bad news is the number of contraband being sold determines how much money each is worth. If all 4 players has a total of 12 contraband they would only be worth 1 cash each, while a total of 3 contraband being sold is worth 3 cash each. The laws of supply and demand extend to the seedy world of biker gangs. In case it is not obvious, paying attention to other gangs heat levels prior to selecting how much to sell can give you an idea of what the maximum contraband being sold might be.
Phase 5 is where last call cards affects take place and phase 6 is the clean up phase. Orders are cleared, opportunity and anarchy cards are cleared and if you have any dudes in the emergency room you can roll to see if they come back to the club house or die and go into the recruit pool. After 6 rounds the gang with the most cash wins the game.
The only concept left to explain is throw downs. Simply put SOA is an area control game with a lot of chaos going on. To control a location you have to be the only gang with dudes on the site. If someone else puts dudes there you no longer control it and can’t exploit it. While this doesn’t mean you have to throw down, if a gang wants to use a location they need to get rid of the other gangs by making deals or fighting.
The first thing to note about a throw down is you can only issue this order at a location containing one of your members, a prospect can’t start a throw down. A throw down is a simple 3 step affair. In patch order each gang must decided if they want to call for back up. Calling for back up means spending an order token to move dudes from one other location to the throw down location. You can spend multiple order tokens if you need to bring in dudes from multiple locations.
Next you pull guns, which works much the same way as contraband. Each player in the throw down secretly puts gun tokens in their closed fist, the number of gun tokens can’t exceed the number of dudes in the fight. Once everyone is in you reveal. Any guns used in a fight are discarded after the throw down, also using guns gains you a heat token after the throw down. The final step is called Getting Bloody and it is essentially a single roll off. Each player rolls one die and adds +1 for each prospect, +2 for each member and +3 for each gun.
The highest modified roll is the winner. The loser has to move all his dudes back to the club house. If there is a tie and the patch holder is not in the fight all gangs retreat to their club house. No mater the result every gun you used injures a rival gang member. Each player must decided which of his dudes are injured and move them to the ER. Winning a throw down allows you to immediately spend another order token and exploit the location, assuming it hasn’t already been exploited this turn. This prevent one player from winning a throw down and then another player immediately using a ride order to contest the area. If you spill blood you’re going to get to reap the rewards.
Now that I’ve covered how to play and what’s in the box let talk about the game. As I just mentioned it is an area control game at its core, but you throw in the location unique benefits, the randomness of the anarchy cards and the ability to make deals with other players and the game comes to life. Can you pay the Mayans to move off that location so you can sell you excess guns, if you give them the money will they really move? Balancing your orders and being able to adjust each turn is the key to being a successful scumbag.
Having played the game several times now the randomness of locations and cards keeps it very fresh and very entertaining. The six round limit means games will play in a reasonable time and you’re never really out of the game. I will caution however much like I did with Spartacus that this type of game is not for everyone. We all have friends who can’t separate game play from personal feelings. He doesn’t understand that attacking him at a location serves a purpose. You want to steer clear of playing this game with those types.
In the end Sons of Anarchy is a brilliant game, it takes a lot of what was great from Spartacus and make it work better. The theme fits in perfectly with the game play and Gale Force 9 once again proves that it’s entirely possible to make a great game on a licensed TV show. If only they could get a crack at The Walking Dead.