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Board Game Reviews

Gale Force Nine’s Wise Guys Tries Again - Review

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MB Updated February 24, 2022
 
4.0
 
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Gale Force Nine’s Wise Guys Tries Again - Review

Game Information

Game Name
Players
2 - 4
There Will Be Games

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. 

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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.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
4.0
Wise Guys
Another solid attempt to make this great system a go- a violent and occasionally nasty Eurogame with a solid setting and fun gameplay.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #331028 24 Feb 2022 12:59
Barnes just… Can’t Stop… throwing us for a loop.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #331030 24 Feb 2022 13:15
Because of the limited appeal of the setting, it has been consistently difficult for me to get people to try the Sons of Anarchy board game. But when I do get people to try it, they really like the game. Mechanically, it is a very solid design with a perfect blend of euro and AT elements. Thematically, the components nicely emphasized the setting, especially the player screens that were made to look like big, fat leather wallets, the kind a biker might have attached to a metal chain.

Because of the problematic theme, it was smart for Gale Force Nine to re-theme the game, but D&D was not the right match. This gangster version is a better fit, but not exactly a timely cultural reference.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #331034 24 Feb 2022 14:13
I've had that problem with SoA: Men of Mayhem as well. Some folks never watched SoA and the theme was meaningless. Other folks weren't too keen on the drugs and guns theme, as in, "I'm not playing a game that glorified drug dealers." A shame, because it's a really good worker placement game.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #331035 24 Feb 2022 14:39
I used to own SoA. I never liked it, and I chalk that up to two problems. I was never playing with the right crowd, and I loathed the show.

At the time, FOX groomed that show to be their star after The Shield ended. Sons of Anarchy is no Shield.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #331039 24 Feb 2022 15:30
The other component that emphasized the Sons of Anarchy setting was the location deck. The locations were sized and shaped like bar coasters, and the back of each location actually looked like it could have been a coaster from the SAMCRO clubhouse. The fronts were a bit busy with game information and a picture, but the neon minis stood out nicely in contrast. I also liked that each player got their own d6 that matched the color of their minis. In the occasional multiplayer throwdown, it made easier to tell at a glance who rolled what. The minis were adequate, but my players liked the little plastic money stacks, guns, and bags of contraband.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #331056 25 Feb 2022 09:49
So the question remains — is the fundamental running gear of this game, regardless of theme, not palatable enough for the bulk of the modern audience? Can any theme salvage it enough to make it a commercial success?

I mean, wargamers know that their success comes directly from their opponent’s failure. The first player to earn one point wins. That confrontation is built into the setting, and anyone sitting down at the table knows not to take their opponent’s actions personally. Can this unwritten understanding be grafted into a game that presents itself to the broader hobby gaming audience?

And more to the point, a modern hobby gaming audience? Because in the original The Game of Life you can be a complete dick to a fellow player. 1960s family title. Confrontation is not new in gaming, in fact if anything I think it’s an older concept that is slowly dying off.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #331058 25 Feb 2022 10:05
I think that the fundamental structure of the game is fine. Plenty of people like worker placement games, and this is unquestionably a worker placement game. You place dudes in certain locations and receive goods or exchange one type of goods for another. The exciting twist is that instead of just passive-aggressively cockblocking opponents from key locations, you actually fight for the right to use that location for the turn. You can choose to use some guns in a fight, at the risk of drawing more attention from the cops. One more neat twist is that there is a market phase at the end of each turn where everybody secretly chooses how many goods to sell that turn. The price they receive is increased if few goods get sold that turn, or decreased if everybody is flooding the market with goods. Replay value is enhanced due to an event deck, a location deck that greatly exceeds the number of locations that will be used in a single game, plus each faction has a special ability. I haven't played Wise Guys or the D&D version, but I suspect that those qualities are found in every version of this game.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #331071 25 Feb 2022 11:48

Sagrilarus wrote: So the question remains — is the fundamental running gear of this game, regardless of theme, not palatable enough for the bulk of the modern audience? Can any theme salvage it enough to make it a commercial success?

I mean, wargamers know that their success comes directly from their opponent’s failure. The first player to earn one point wins. That confrontation is built into the setting, and anyone sitting down at the table knows not to take their opponent’s actions personally. Can this unwritten understanding be grafted into a game that presents itself to the broader hobby gaming audience?

And more to the point, a modern hobby gaming audience? Because in the original The Game of Life you can be a complete dick to a fellow player. 1960s family title. Confrontation is not new in gaming, in fact if anything I think it’s an older concept that is slowly dying off.

I'd guess as long as the player knows there's conflict, it shouldn't be a problem. Copies of Risk are still on the shelves at Target, so conflict in games isn't a deal breaker these days. The problem with SoA was that its setting (theme for every boardgamer not on TWBG) was a little too far out there. "Play the role of your favorite scuzzy biker drug dealer! Straight off the show you probably didn't watch!"

Bootleggers are a little cuddlier than biker dope dealers, and the setting matches the mechanics just as well. Shellhead is correct about the game itself - there's a lot of good stuff going on there.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #331074 25 Feb 2022 12:17

Shellhead wrote: The exciting twist is that instead of just passive-aggressively cockblocking opponents from key locations, you actually fight for the right to use that location for the turn.


This is one of my favorite parts about Tiny Epic Western, too. You get the initial bonus as the first arrival and then you're often fighting to keep the secondary bonus of being there. Or sometimes you're just drawn into a fight because someone else wants to get the initial benefit. Both players stay active there for the poker game, regardless of duel outcome, too.

Back on topic: I agree that SoA has some interesting stuff going on. My one play (with Stormseeker!) just didn't have a lasting impact for some reason and, like RobertB says, I didn't watch the show, so I didn't have any other attachment to it. I will say, however, that the theme of a modern biker gang, no matter how repellent it might be objectively, is at least more interesting than going back to that same, tired 1920s bootlegger theme (made up of people who were, if anything, every bit as violent as the characters on SoA, from what I know of the show.)
Cranberries's Avatar
Cranberries replied the topic: #331086 25 Feb 2022 16:55

hotseatgames wrote: I used to own SoA. I never liked it, and I chalk that up to two problems. I was never playing with the right crowd, and I loathed the show.

At the time, FOX groomed that show to be their star after The Shield ended. Sons of Anarchy is no Shield.


The Shield still haunts me.

I recommend the Mob museum in old Vegas.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #331188 01 Mar 2022 12:50
This looks cool! I never played the first game because the license did nothing for me, so seeing it back in this form looks neat. We'll see if it's still available the next time I'm in the US.

I'm a little out of the loop, but did anyone do something like this for Spartacus or Homeland? Those were good games, but the Spartacus license did nothing for me, and the Homeland one did nothing for anyone who might possibly have played the game with me.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #331190 01 Mar 2022 12:57
Yes, there was a re-themed Spartacus featuring characters from the X-Men comics, called X-Men: Mutant Revolution. I haven't played the X-Men version, so I don't know how well the treachery, slave auction, gambling, and gladiatorial combat elements translate from Spartacus to X-Men.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #331191 01 Mar 2022 12:58
No Homeland yet, but Spartacus was rereleased last year with a generic gladiator setting. Otherwise it's almost unchanged.

Edit - forgot about the X-Men version. That was a long time ago though at this point and that bombed.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #331192 01 Mar 2022 13:03
And I forgot about the generic gladiator one. Does it have the infamous Jupiter's
Warning: Spoiler!
card?
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #331193 01 Mar 2022 13:20
It does, surprisingly.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #331195 01 Mar 2022 13:36
Or
Warning: Spoiler!
card?

The show made Game of Thrones look like Little House on the Prairie. Unlike Sons Of Anarchy, I could see this one sneaking up on someone. "Jupiter's what!" Oh yeah, forgot that was in there.

My ex-boss was a big fan of historical fiction, SF, and fantasy in all media, but really didn't like nudity in what she watched. So no Game of Thrones for her. Unfortunate, because nudity aside it would have been right in her wheelhouse. She told us one time, "I wanted to watch Spartacus, but had to stop." I had to laugh. "How long did you watch it, about five minutes? If that?"
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #331199 02 Mar 2022 09:28
I would be remiss to not mention another great Spartacus card title, "Accept Deeper Ramming"
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #331373 05 Mar 2022 08:36
I still own MoM (+ both expansions) & Spartacus.

I play them both annually with my cut throat BFFs.

We love them both*. I'm the only bloke that watched both shows.

* As I get older, I find the slightly shorter game length of MoM more and more appealing. Spartacus can play a bit long if you're not careful. Obviously, starting with increased influence tightens a game, but it's just not the same experience...
Genghis's Avatar
Genghis replied the topic: #331507 10 Mar 2022 07:33
I believe that Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem was reimplemented in D&D skin as "Vault of Dragons" (2018) not as Dragonfire (2017).
justis's Avatar
justis replied the topic: #331878 26 Mar 2022 13:05
Reminds me of a cross between their Son's of Anarchy, with a bit of Dune mixed in.
Dudes were members & prospects.