Wise Guys is a 1920s Chicago gangster retheme of the 2014 release, Sons of Anarchy. It blends area control with action selection/worker placement and throws in a bit of blind bidding to create a strongly themed and satisfying thinky and fairly pugnacious experience for 3-4 players.
The Windy City
Set-up involves creating the board from a series of large, square tiles depicting different locations in the city. There's always 5 constant starting locations like City Hall and the Emergency Room but the other 6 business locations are drawn from a stack and offer the game some strong replayability. You will also choose your gang and populate your player board, which is known as your clubhouse - gangs have an asymmetric power and set-up which tweaks from a common core rather than the wild variance of the likes of Root. You also start to reveal Roaring 20s cards - these offer effects or temporary location for the round and also act as the game's timer. You will play though the 15 drawn for the game's deck over 6 rounds and then the game will end.
In your turn you will be deciding on how to use your Order tokens, which are spent on actions and marked by chits showing 20's automobiles. Broadly speaking these fit into recruiting/upgrading your gang; moving around the board and exploiting the locations you do control or fighting for those that are contested.
Actions on board spaces often revolve around generating the two (and a half) different resources: booze, cash (and guns). Of these, cash will determine the winner, but booze auctions will be the principal way to generate it.
Fighting comes in two flavours in Wise Guys - slugging and talking: both work very similarly but the former can involve burning gun chits and this will send gang members to the Emergency Room. To fight you sum the total of the relevant stat for each of the gang members involved, add 1dx and then for a slugging fight add 3 for each gun chit spent. Winner keeps control of the space and the loser retreats to their club house (and sends casualties to the ER).
After all orders have been played out by all gangs there is an end-of-round blind auction. All players choose how many booze tokens they want to spend and hold them in a closed fist. The overall total after a simultaneous reveal then dictates how much they are each worth - the greater the total the lower the individual value.
At the end of the round there is some clean-up and then you are off again. Play 6 rounds and it's game end: player with the most cash wins.
Forget About It... Actually, Don't
So Wise Guys absolutely oozes theme. Mobsters screaming round town in fast cars; squaring off at speak easies, wrestling control of underground hooch stills and 'taking care' of rival gang members when they are recuperating in the ER.
This is a game where bold tactics are the name of the game, and area control is often fluid. There's no 'turtling' to be had here as gangs bounce from place to place wrestling control from one another for a turn or two to steal the advantage before timely regrouping and the search for the next opportunity.
There's a dose of luck in here in the form of dice in the combat, but that's fine in a game of this character and weight, and the level of swing can be mitigated against if you care to. And I like the way that taking guns to a fight costs you clout, which is a stat affecting how much you can auction each turn.
Speaking of that, the blind bidding of the auction make for some further spice and further reinforces the theme with the sense of the gangs competing in the local liquor market.
I do have my criticisms: the player count is rather restrictive (but at least it's honest... how many 2-6 games are really that). I am not convinced about the balance in the gang special abilities. And while some of the Roaring 20s cards really pop, other feel less well designed.
Is Wise Guys my favourite area control game? No it doesn't really compete with the likes of Kemet, for example. But then it's not trying to ride that mechanic straight out. It's more of a blend and the blend works well, because the different elements serve the theme so strongly and for me, it's a theme I love. And it's that which will have it coming back to the table - maybe not super frequently but I don't doubt it will keep returning for far longer than many other 'better' games which might see a burst of play and then a drift to the back of the cupboard.
So if you fancy grabbing a Tommy Gun and a case of hooch and riding round town on the footplate of your Chrysler shooting up the place you can't go far wrong with Wise Guys.