Is the third time a charm?
Back in 2014, Gale Force Nine was on fire. Hot off the successes of games based on the Firefly and Spartacus IPs, they put out Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem. Based on the then-popuar FX channel crime drama, it was designed by the crack squad of Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and the late Sean Sweigart and it was a rather singular design. It wasn’t quite like other worker placement Eurogames – it was uncharacteristically ruthless and violent for the genre and featured gameplay elements like negotiation, intimidation, and direct combat. Which is all perfect for a game about bad guys doing bad things.
But the game seemed to struggle to find an audience- I recall at the time (when I gave the game top marks and shortlisted it in my Barnes Best Game of the Year roundup) the thinking was that the setting was of limited appeal and the license might hurt it more than help it. At the time (and probably even more so now), games with strong wheeling and dealing elements were kind of frowned on in favor of more canned, controlled, and balanced experiences. What’s more it was a game that was just plain nastier than most other contemporary designs- it was about shooting rival gangs with little plastic guns and selling tiny duffle bags full of drugs and pornography. A few years on, Gale Force Nine reskinned it with Dungeons & Dragons livery and put the design out as Dragonfire but again it didn’t seem to catch on. And here we are in 2022 and there’s another update, this time bringing it back to a historical organized crime setting in Wise Guys.
Being a big fan of classic crime films starring folks like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, I really like the move to a “Roaring ‘20s” gangster setting and was pretty stoked to play this game while rolling out my bad impressions of these legendary actors. Instead of motorcycle clubs, you take on the role of historical Chicago crime bosses, including Scarface himself, Al Capone. It’s still a game about sending out your Associates and Made Men to a grid of locations throughout the city, ordering them to exploit them, and occasionally getting into it with rival gangs moving in on the same turf. It’s still about building up Clout and selling contraband (this time, booze) on the black market to rake in the bucks. And it’s still really, really good.
The system was and is rock solid, with the new edition credited to Battlefront house designer Phil Yates. Not much has changed- it’s been years since I played the original so I’m not sure what is different if anything in the locations and their functions but the only big revision I can detect is that the Made Men now have variable bonuses for Slugging and Talking, the key stats you use when you send one into a location to fight for control. That’s a pretty big change, really, and it’s one for the better I think.
Mechanically, it’s of low to medium complexity. The goal is obvious- make the most money. Each turn you get orders (indicated by car tokens) and you can send your people out to do business for you. If you are the only person in one of the modular, variable locations you can use a future order to exploit it. Generally speaking, these either gain a resource (guns, money, and booze) or allow for resource exchanges. Some may impact Clout, such as City Hall where there ain’t no Slugging allowed but you can send your slick talkers in to take it over. Combat is a simple add strength, roll a die kind of deal and you might wind up with your footsoldiers laid up in the hospital, if not dead. There’s also “Roaring ‘20s” cards that are like the original game’s Anarchy cards. Some are universal events, some function like additional locations that you send gangsters to and fight over. Some are just plain brutal. You never know when you might get waylaid by an indictment or find your gang opening a soup kitchen to build up some clout.
Details like that mean that the setting is pretty rich, with key gangster themes throughout. Darko Stojanovic’s lovely illustrations set a fine atmosphere and when you are sending in your thugs to take over the Cotton Club a viable Chicago crime saga unfolds over the course of the hour, hour and half it takes to play through this game. It is absolutely best with four because it can be intensely social and much more so than most of today’s game designs.
You see, here’s the thing about this game that I really like. It reminds me of a time when hobby games were all aboutdeals. Negotiating and making alliances of convenience, trading resources for favors, that kind of thing. Typically, you played these kinds of games with friends and family – not strangers at conventions- and a genial sense of competition and the occasional friendly back-stab were part of the deal. But over time, games like this have lost favor and many today actively avoid playing this kind of design. This is a game where you can beg, cajole, threaten, or even make your way through it being completely honest about your intentions. It demands that players talk, interact, and establish a living social environment above the table.
And because of that, I wonder if this game is going to struggle again here in 2022 when there are many that don’t care for “mean” games or games where players that aren’t tuned into negotiation as a gameplay element are at a severe disadvantage. It’s also a modest production, replacing all of the plastic bits with cardboard tokens so it inevitably (and falsely) looks like less of a game compared to the big overladen crowdfunders out there and that may cause some to simply miss its presence on shelves.
But, it turns out that Wise Guys is kind of the perfect game for my tastes. It’s a modest production, has solid Eurogame design sensibilities but also elements of negotiation and direct conflict. The historical gangster setting is strong and it’s an appealing one, although it’s hardly diverse or representative of today’s gaming audience. I can’t help but recommend this game because I’ve always liked it, but the question remains if it will reach new players this time around.