“On the fringe, blood and bullets are the rule of law and if you’re a man with convictions, violence is inevitable.”
This quote from John Teller, the titular club’s founding member, is among the first words printed within the rulebook of Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem, a 3 to 4 player area control/resource acquisition game based on the now-finished hit TV show. It’s an appropriate mantra for those familiar with the series, which follows Teller’s son, Jackson (Jax), as he struggles to continue his father’s legacy and steer his troubled club toward a more lawful direction. The show tackled some weighty issues during its 7 year run, and featured a diverse cast of dysfunctional misfits and lovable criminals. Does the game live up to that pedigree?
Short answer: no. But hear me out, because it’s actually a rather good game. While the show aimed to give viewers a more personal look at the lives of each character, particularly focusing on Jax and his immediate family and closest brothers-in-arms, the board game by Gale Force Nine pulls the camera back a bit and puts players in control of the clubs, not the members. So, sadly, that means you crazy Happy fans won’t get to send the psychotic member of SAMCRO off to do some unreasonably, monumentally dangerous task. Instead, you’ll assume control of either the Sons themselves, the Mayans, the One Niners, or the Lin Syndicate as you try to stake your claim over the town of Charming.
If you’re an extreme purist, then the inclusion of the Niners and the Lin Syndicate might strike you as a bit odd, primarily because the miniatures used to represent your units are referred to as Prospects and Members, and Members are riding motorcycles. For the ill-informed, neither faction was a motorcycle club in the show. Ultimately, this doesn’t matter in the end unless authenticity is absolute for you. Two expansions are currently available which add the Grim Bastards and the Calaveras, and increase the player count by one each, so if you want to be true to the biker theme, then consider getting those.
Inaccuracies aside, Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is played over a series of 6 rounds, wherein each player is issuing a single order to their units. Collectively, your units are referred to as Dudes, and are divided into Members and Prospects. There are some significant differences between the two, and the various roles they fulfill or actions they can perform, but I’ll get to that in a minute. At the start of the game, place the five starting tiles on the board and shuffle the remaining tiles, placing 6 more face down below them in a 3×2 grid. This forms the area of play, and at the start of every round, two more tiles will get revealed.
Next, shuffle the deck of Anarchy cards and deal 15 face down. (A number of these cards are red-striped on their front side. These are for a Hardcore rule variant and can be omitted or included based on group decision). At the beginning of the game, one card will be turned face up. These cards will temporarily alter the state of play, either by adding additional rules or restrictions to a round, or temporary locations for players to occupy and fight over. At the start of the second round, reveal 2 cards; at the start of the third, and for every round after, reveal 3 cards. When the last set of 3 cards are revealed, this is the final round.
Each player will now choose a club and collect their various starting assets as well as their player board and standing shield. The shield is used to conceal the amount of money, guns, and contraband you have from your opponents, while everything else is to remain visible. The player boards are double sided, with one side exclusive to the High Octane rule variant. Essentially, this side of the board gives each club two unique actions that only they can perform, and also alters up the starting assets, while the Unleaded sided is for normal play, where everyone is limited to the same actions. Once players have gathered all of their pieces, give the reaper patch to someone to distinguish first player and it’s time to begin.
In turn order, one action at a time, each player will spend an order token to issue a single order. The amount of order tokens you get is determined by the base order value printed on your player board plus any Members (Dudes on bikes) you have. The various actions you can take are as follows: Ride, Throw Down, Exploit, Recruit, Patch In, and Sit Tight. Some are simpler than others, so let’s go over them. To Ride, spend an order token and move any number of Dudes from a single location to another. There’s no limit to the amount of units you can move, and no distance restriction – you can move anywhere on the board as long as it’s revealed. When you issue an Order to Throw Down, you must do so at a location that is contested, and a contested area is simply one that contains two or more clubs. If you are the initiating attacker, you must have a Member present at that location to start the fight – opposing clubs do not have to.
Fights are handled via a step-by-step process: firstly, all Prospects present in the fight contribute 1 strength; all Members contribute 2. Each participating player, at the start of the encounter and moving in Patch Holder order, may choose to call in reinforcements. You may move any number of units from one location to the contested tile. You may pull from multiple locations, but must spend a single Order Token from each location that you pull units from, and must decide to do so all at once. After all participating players have called for backup, you now pull guns. From behind your shield, take into your hand as many guns as you have or wish to use in combat. Each gun contributes an additional 3 combat strength, but also has a far more nefarious effect which I’ll explain shortly. Extend your hands out to show how many guns you are contributing, total up the combat strength of each club, and then roll the single die of your club’s color for that tiny dollop of suspense.
The club with the highest result wins the encounter; in the event of a tie, all participating players lose except the Patch Holder, who wins all ties. All Dudes that lost the fight must retreat back to their clubhouse. Place them back on your player board. However, if guns were used, then some Dudes are going to the hospital. For each gun used by an opposing player, you must send an equal amount of your units (Members or Prospects, your choosing) to the Emergency Room tile. At the end of every round, you will roll a die for each Dude in the ER; if you get a result of 1-3, that Dude dies and returns to your reserves. If you get 4-6, he survives and returns to your player board for active use on future turns. Another way to return injured Dudes is to control and Exploit the Hospital tile, which will allow you to return all of a single club’s units back to their club house. Finally, each player that pulled a gun in combat earns a Heat Token, which I’ll explain shortly.
Another action you can take is to Exploit a location. Doing so allows you to immediately perform the action printed on the location tile. These usually consist of selling guns or contraband for cash, or purchasing the former with the later, or some other variation of the sort. Each location can only be exploited once per round, and to remind all players of this, when you perform the Exploit action, place your Order Token onto the tile rather then returning it to the pool. Some locations have a Boost symbol in their lower right. When a player Exploits a location that has a Boost symbol, they may choose to immediately spend an additional order token and perform that extra step. Furthermore, if a fight is breaking out and you are the initiating attacker, if you win the brawl, and the location has not already been exploited, you may (should you so desire and be able to) spend an Order Token to immediately Exploit and/or Boost it.
To Recruit, simply pay 1 Order Token to add 1 Prospect from your reserves to your club, placing him on your player board. You may also choose to Patch In, which allows you to turn 1 Prospect into a full fledged member. Doing so requires the additional cost of 1 cash and 1 gun. Lastly, you can choose to Sit Tight. This effectively passes your turn (but does not end your actions for the round) as you wait anxiously to see what other players are going to do. You must still spend an Order Token to perform the Sit Tight action.
Play continues around the table until all players have spent their Order Token, which begins the end-of-round phase. First, players may choose to sell contraband that they’ve acquired to the Black Market. Take in your hand any number of Contraband from behind your shield and hold it out for everyone to reveal simultaneously. Once revealed, refer to the reference card to determine how much you’ll earn per Contraband sold. The more units of Contraband trafficked by players, the lower the cost – so choose when and how to sell wisely. Keep an eye on your Heat Tracker, however; the higher it is, the less Contraband you’ll be able to sell during the Black Market phase. Additionally, if a player were to exceed a Heat of 4, they must Take the Fall. Reduce your Heat Tracker back to 1 and return one of your Members to the reserve (from anywhere on the board, including the ER and your player board). If you have no Members that you can remove, then you are eliminated from the game.
If there are any Anarchy cards which say “Last Call,” those effects would apply now. Finally, clear off all of the Order Tokens from the locations (all units remain where they are), roll for any injured Dudes, and clear off the remaining Anarchy Cards. To begin a new round, collect your appropriate Order Tokens based on your starting value and Members, reveal 2 new location tiles (if possible), and 2 or 3 more Anarchy Cards depending on the round. The Patch does not change hands unless a player Exploits the police station successfully, or defeats the Patch Holder in a fight, so being the first player has its advantages but also makes you a prime target. Repeat until the Anarchy Deck runs out after 6 rounds, then total up your cash. The player with the most cash wins. In the event of a tie, the Patch Holder wins; if they are not part of the tie, compare guns, and the most guns wins. If you are still tied, end the game in a Throw Down to determine which club will be left standing.
There’s a very thin thematic bridge between the show and the game, especially considering the earlier mentioned inaccuracies, and although it’s rare that what you are doing feels like it’s from Sons of Anarchy, the game overall is still quite heavy, and I don’t mean that from a gameplay perspective. You’re still dealing with guns, violence, drug trafficking, and prostitution, although in a very abstracted way. The locations and cards all feature stills from the show, but none of them are particularly risque or extreme. Still, you may want to keep this one away from young or sensitive players. The components are all fantastic quality, with solid, detailed plastic molds for the guns and contraband, and thick cardboard dollars for the cash – and there are a lot of cash tokens in the game. The location tiles and player boards are all nice, thick cardboard stock, although the player shields could have been a tad bigger.
With 3 or 4 players, the printed time of 60 minutes is about right. Adding in additional players with the expansions adds two additional location tiles to the board, and can potentially extend playtime by another 30 minutes per player as there is a slight increase in decisions to be made. Ultimately, Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is another solid adaptation from Gale Force Nine, as they’ve shown they know how to take an existing property and give it the proper board game treatment it deserves with Homeland: The Game. Although Men of Mayhem doesn’t fully capture the nuances of the show, neither did Homeland; however, they both served a more functional purpose, and that is to get players engaged with an identifiable and recognizable theme, and keep them entertained with fun, varied gameplay.
Playing Time: 60-90 minutes
Set Up/Clean Up Time: Average/Average
Component Quality: High
Final Verdict: Good