Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Ever wanted to run your own gang? Gangs of Britannia lets you take control of one of the most infamous gangs in Britain in this fast-paced area control and negotiation game. So pull on your boots (or your razor-bladed flat cap if you’re playing as the Peaky Blinders) and dive into the corrupt lawless world of Gangland Britain.
Designed for 3–5 players by Daniel Feeny, Joel Livermore and Chris Winterhoff, Gangs of Britannia was launched on Kickstarter back in 2017 by London-based outfit Gangly games. Unlike many Kickstarters. this one was delivered pretty much on schedule in Summer 2018 but to surprisingly little fanfare in the industry. You can still buy the game via the publishers' website.
It's a relatively small box game, similar in size to Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write (Portal Games) or Arkham Horror: The Card Game (FFG). Inside the box, you will find a map of Great Britain comprising six tiles, five of which depict one of the main cities where the gangs were prominent (albeit many decades apart), including London for the Krays, Birmingham for the Peaky Blinders, along with Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. The sixth tile is blank and present for aesthetic purposes so that the board doesn’t offend anyone by being something other than rectangular in shape. There are some liberties taken with the geography of Great Britain, but whilst this might initially confuse someone trying to assemble the board it does not detract from the game. The meeples are wooden and meant to be shaped like gangsters which is a nice touch, the card stock is fine and the art on the cards has a serviceable slightly cartoony feel to it. The art (by Jason L Carr, Giorgio De Michele and Tautvydas Last) does appropriately set the tone of the game. This is not a long, strategic, accurate portrayal of gangland life with a sinister dark message to convey to its players. It is a more light-hearted take on the theme, focusing on the area control and negotiation aspects of the game. The game’s theme bleeds nicely into the gameplay and the two feel every bit congruent with one another and whilst I have branded this game as 'light hearted' that’s not to say that the gameplay lacks depth; quite the opposite!
The gameplay for Gangs of Britannia is straightforward, the rules are well written and easy to understand with a couple of exceptions (most notably the rule about having the most mobsters in your home town which took a couple of reads by more than one person to properly parse). There is a cunning amount of depth to this simple game which centres around the interaction between the players, negotiating deals and choosing just the right moment to stab your rivals in the back.
If you want an easy-to-learn gateway game to get you into negotiation and area control then you could do a lot worse than this. It is fun, plays in 45-60 minutes and doesn’t outstay its welcome. On your turn you place one of your mobsters in one of the five cities; the aim usually being to have the most mobsters in a city at the end of a round, seizing control of the city and gaining benefits as a result. You then have an opportunity to move one of your mobsters and play one or more cards to influence the outcome in a city. You repeat this 'play a mobster, move a mobster' a second time, taking turns in clockwise order.
But how do you decide where to go? Well there are several factors at play here. Obviously the positioning of your opponents plays a large part, but that’s not all. Each turn cities can be affected by one or more events. Everyone can see which city is impacted but they don’t know how it will be impacted. It could be good or bad for the mobsters present. However, each player knows the details of one of the events. This is your insider information; think of it as your snitch in the Police Department. This mechanic leads to some interesting deductive work: is your opponent building control in Birmingham because they know that the player with control in that city will receive money at the end of the round? Or is he bluffing to get you to move in and lose a bunch of your mobsters? This makes for a simple, effective and elegant mechanism that provides the player with just enough information to spice up the gameplay.
At the end of a round, if mobsters from two or more gangs are in a city then they must decide whether to deal or not. This is where the Prisoner’s Dilemma comes in. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a relatively simple 'game theory' concept where two individuals acting in their own self-interest do not produce an optimal outcome. If it is a face-off between two gangs they each simply decide whether to deal with the other gang or not. Their choice is indicated by simultaneously revealing a deal/deceive token. If they both deal then they both gain money. If one deals and the other doesn’t, then the double crosser gets to take one of the opponent’s mobsters from the city and add one of their own, thereby cementing their control. If they both double cross one another then they both lose a mobster. So far, so vanilla and 'so what?' I hear you cry. Well everything becomes more interesting when more than two gangs are in a city. In this case, if there are three gangs involved and two choose to deal but one double crosses then the double crossing gang gets the benefit. But you had better tread carefully because if there are two double crossing gangs and one choosing to deal then it is the double crossers that get hit by the negative effects. This simple twist on the Prisoner’s Dilemma makes for some very interesting negotiation and results.
Next, the event cards are revealed and resolved affecting the composition of gangs in the cities. A city might be raided and any gang with more than one member in the city is removed, or perhaps there’s a heist and the largest gang gains money. Finally, at the end of the round you evaluate which gangs control which areas and players gain cash accordingly. Players can choose to spend cash to purchase additional cards that help them to manipulate control in the next round. But cash is what determines end-game victory so you need to balance gaining additional powers and retaining your ill-gotten gains.
In the final step in the round those pesky Coppers step in. This is a clever, thematic use of a catch-up mechanism which feels perfectly integrated into the game. The cops raid the city that has the most of one gang present, reducing all the gangs in the city and effectively resetting the board for the next round.
You play over three rounds, with the event cards becoming more powerful in each subsequent round, and the gang with the most money at the end is the winner.
Gangs of Britannia is a game that has flown almost entirely under the radar. Perhaps it’s because the game blurb states that the central mechanic of the game is the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and this hasn't captured people's imagination. However, Gangs of Britannia is a great deal deeper than its initial premise and deserves to be played. Will this be everyone’s cup of tea? Well no: area control and negotiation are notoriously tricky mechanisms to make universally acceptable to gamers and the game or the theme may not appeal to all game groups. However, Gangs of Britannia introduces a new take on the standard Prisoner's Dilemma and it delivers a great integration of theme and mechanics!
(Review by Jason Keeping)