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Jesse Dean
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Chicago
IL
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Mob Ties, by Hostage Entertainment Limited, is a very thematic negotiation game where players represent different mob families that are attempting to survive and prosper in the face of the ongoing, rising threat of “the Feds.” As mobsters are killed (by other players) and imprisoned (by other players or the Fed deck) the “Heat” level rises until, after three increases, the game ends. At this point each player converts their still living mobsters into cash and adds this value to the amount of cash they earned to determine their final score and thus the winner.

Components


Mob Ties’ component are okay, but not exceptional. The game includes paper money, which I find to be inferior to cardboard tokens from a functionality standpoint, but is probably superior from a thematic standpoint. Cash conversions are not quite frequent enough to make the paper money a big drag on the game’s play time but we ended up just skipping the bother entirely by using poker chips.

The game’s colors are problematic for those of us who are color blind, and even players who normally don’t have color issues may have problems telling apart some of the colors apart. I understand that using black, pink, or white as background colors might not be as appealing to some as using red, green, and orange or blue and purple, but they are also perfectly clear to everyone and thus prevent players from either making stupid decisions based on lack of awareness over game state or having to frequently ask the other players to clarify the ownership of pawns.

The game’s cards have a rather unusual shape, being a good deal longer then cards I have seen in any other board game to this point. This will make them pretty difficult, if not impossible, to sleeve, but I think that they are sturdy enough that this probably will not be an issue. You probably will only need to shuffle them once per game and I do they should be fairly resiliant even in the face of regular play.

The art is graphic but very thematically appropriate and I found the various attack and defense cards to be entertaining in a macabre sort of way. It is probably not appropriate for all audiences, but my group of jaded young urbanites did not find it to be particularly objectionable. There did seem to be a minor snafu in the card art as one of the cards ended up having the intended art of a different card, but this was a pretty minor issue.



The board is pretty well sized to fit on most tables, and is of typical board game quality. It is well laid out and does a good job of both facilitating game play and invoking the mobster theme. For some reason the play surface of the board is extra glossy, but there is nothing wrong with it, it was simply different from what I have seen with other board games.



I was pretty impressed with the plastic stands for the cardboard mobster tokens. Unlike say Warriors & Traders, where the stands were tight enough that I did not put the cardboard pieces in for fear of damaging them, in Mob Ties it is fairly easy to place and remove the mobster tokens without damaging them. This is important because, while there are enough plastic stands for the base game mobsters for a full six players, if you want to play with any of the mobsters in the advanced game then you will have to use the plastic stands of dead mobsters and thus will have to be able to remove and add tokens to the stands over the course of the game. So while it may have been better to include more plastic stands, I think that the stands they did include are effective enough to allow the easy removal of mobster’s tokens, which I think is a perfectly reasonable alternative.

Each player’s personal player mat is pretty effective at providing an overview for the flow of the game and contains lots of useful information. It was unusual for us to need to reference the rulebook in play because of this, though we did find it necessary to look up clarifications of various cards on occasion. Luckily there is an extra book that includes these clarifications and generally if we had a question about a particular card it was answered in this book. The designers and publisher clearly put a lot of thought into ensuring that most things that would not be immediately obvious would be answered in either the rulebook or the card reference which is something I greatly appreciate.

Another nice touch is the inclusion of a plastic skull ring that is given to the Don each round. While it is not particularly ornate or anything, it does allow for a handy prop for getting into character and, at least in our games, there were lots of jokes about kissing the Don’s ring. Thankfully no kissing actually occurred.

Structure and Gameplay
Each round of Mob Ties is divided into a number of phases, each of which takes a relatively small amount of time, allowing the bulk of the game to be focused on negotiation. Generally each phase serves to either provide a way for players to interact with each other, provides context for future interaction, or both and in this respect I find the game to be very effective. Games that include both an elaborate mechanical structure and a strong negotiation element tend to last much longer than they should; keeping the mechanical overhead down in order to maximize the negotiation elements of the game keeps the play time to a reasonable level while still emphasizing the game’s core focus.

Gameplay is centered on controlling the flow of money, and thus action cards, into individual player’s hands. Five of the six primary locations on the board provide money and the sixth provides cards in addition to various other secondary benefits. Money is important because whomever has the most money at the end of the game wins and because the only way to draw more action cards is to purchase them. Action cards are the only way to make attacks against other players and also the only way to defend against attacks. Thus after a particularly bloody round, and from what I have seen many rounds in this game are bloody, it will frequently be necessary to purchase additional cards if you want to avoid seeming vulnerable to potential attacks from the other players.

The first two phases of the game both involve resolving shows of respect, which are essentially area majority scoring, where majorities are determined by the respect values of all mobsters in a particular location. Players can choose to use their respect values to vote for whomever they like, and a major part of the game is to convince individuals to support you in the show of respect or to create situations, usually through murder, where you are the only one who can win in an area even if your opponent’s combine their might.

The first show of respect in a round is used to determine who the Don is, which gives quite a bit of power to the player with that capability, since they go first, get to decide who wins ties and gets an additional card each turn for both themselves and one other players. Other shows of respect are used to determine who gains the income from a particular business and to determine who gets nabbed by the Feds. Negotiation is fairly open, with the only limitation being that you cannot explicitly state what you have in your hand or exchange cards, so there is lots of potential for agreements and exchanges of cash.

Additional, external pressure is provided by the presence of the Feds, which accumulate in an increasingly fast manner as the game progresses and both push the game towards an end, by removing individual player’s gangsters temporarily or permanently from the game by sending them to prison, and also encourage negotiation by adding a new venue for shows of respect, if a building is successfully hit by the Feds then one mobster gets nabbed, and which gets nabbed is determined by a show of respect.

All of this leads up to the Action phase where most of the direct conflict in the game arises. Most of the action cards provide various methods in which you can attack, and thus kill, each other’s mobsters, with a smaller, yet still significant number providing methods of defense or other special abilities related to movement, voting, or prison. The fact that there are more attack cards then defense card in the deck makes perfect sense to me from a design perspective, after all you want players to attack each other and thus push the game closer to an end point rather than stagnating. However, this is also where the game sort of fell apart for us.

Because of this differential between attack and defense cards, after the first Business round it seemed more worthwhile to attack then to negotiate, particularly if you are earlier in the turn order. After all, why bribe another player by splitting the income on a business when you could instead kill enough of his people that he won’t be able to retaliate. Especially since the first kill of the game, if it takes place in the first round, gets a $25 first blood bonus and the best way to ensure that the other players won’t attack you is to ensure that they are not able to. Even if they block you they are unlikely to have another defense card in their hand so the second attack will probably work. This particular train of thought in our games led to big blood baths that determined the likely winners, those who were most effectively able to control the most valuable locations with a minimal amount of cards, in the first round or two. It also decreased the total amount of negotiation as there were no longer enough mobsters or action cards left to challenge a dedicated player’s control of locations.

This particular train of thought and its consequences is likely due to poor play on our part, likely as result of our unfamiliarity with more in-depth negotiation games. Conserving your limited number of action cards is important, as if you play them too quickly not only do you appear weaker in the face of your opponents but you also lose the ability to retaliate. More experienced players, either at Mob Ties or negotiation games, are likely to bluster and bluff and use various psychological to convince other people to do their dirty work for them. However, I think this might require an especially skilled group of players to pull off, as a single trigger-happy player or one whom gets a bit too greedy can cause this entire edifice of respect and credibility to come crumbling down into a brutal and deadly gangland war with few survivors.

Does this sound thematic? It does to me, and while there was some disconnect when we played, the game as a whole seems to simulate the whole mindset leading up to a battle between organized crime families leading up to an eventual shut down by the Feds very, very well. This need to show strength, control sources of income, and to work out how to share particular criminal rackets, seem to be very appropriate for a game that is focused on mob families. It is obvious that a lot of care went into making the game thematically consistent, I am just not sure that I am enjoy that consistency to get past what seems to be potentially overly chaotic gameplay.

Most of the game’s structure is good, and I think as a whole provides the framework for a very effective negotiation game, I just think it is the completely random card draw that pushes it over the line for me. While uneven card distributions make for varying player incentives and thus reasons to negotiate, I think the relative rarity of defense cards is such that it becomes much more valuable to be able to survive an attack then to be able to carry them out. With only five mobsters, a successful attack has such a strong effect both from the loss of a mobster and also from the implication of weakness that a successful attack implies that I wish that something had been done differently here, either by giving slightly more control over the sorts of cards you can buy, giving more cards, or having a larger total number of available, so the loss of one did not have such a big impact on your capabilities. Of course, if the game were changed to suit my sensibilities, it would end up being a very, very different game, likely one that would be more of a hybrid rather than the pure negotiation game it is now. Maybe I should take my tendancies here as a sign that pure negotiation games are not my thing?

Conclusion

I do think there are people who will quite enjoy Mob Ties, particularly those who are really into negotiation games, and thus may be able to avoid the chaotic bloodbath, who like the idea of a very thematic game focused on the mob, or those who like the sort of chaotic bloodbath that this game may descend into, but none of those categories really fit me or my game group. As such, even if I was interested in playing the game more, and I would not mind playing the game again at some point simply to determine if my hypothesis about advanced game play is true, my group had a strong enough negative reaction to the game that it is unlikely I will play it again in the near future. Which is too bad, because I see the hint of a very interesting game in Mob Ties, I am just not sure if I will ever be able to find it.


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Ken Dilloo
United States
Bothell
Washington
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Everything is relative to perception, and your perception is limited.
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The Ginger Ninja
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Thanks for the review. One small correction would be that you say the only way to acquire more action cards is to purchase them, but then talk about how the Don (and one other player) gets to draw a card, after election.

I have yet to play, although I do have a copy. I suspect that bluffing may play a bigger role than simply optimizing based on deck composition, but I could be wrong. Makes me think of poker. The size of your chip stack (or hand of cards) is very important for others to see.

This isn't the type of game I go for either, but I am hoping it fills that negotiation game hole, in my collection, and I love the theme and artwork.
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Tim Seitz
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Glen Allen
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Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him. 2 Sam 14:14
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Jesse, your review reminds me of the upcoming Chicken Caesar for some reason.
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Philip Pack
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I agree that it is a game that will only work with a specific crowd of players. I really hope I have that right crowd, as this game to me sounds like a total blast.
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