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[Review] Family Business

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Today, Bang! has acquired a rather large following and for good reason; it's a fun, light card game, which pits players against one another. But long before Bang! came Family Business (Mayfair Games, 1989 - David Bromley), a game that is often considered a definitive example of the "take that" genre. It's amazing that a game that is over fifteen years old still has the popularity of Family Business, and Mayfair has produced a new spiffy 2006 edition, so that folk uninitiated into the game have a chance to try it out.

On one of our DiceTower podcasts, I mention how "take that" (games in which you play good effects on yourself, bad effects on others) are slowly falling in favor for me, as the lack of strategy in them often isn't replaced by fun. But Family Business, despite a few quirks, just has the theme, fun, and entertainment value to keep it fresh and enjoyable. Every time I've played the game, people have had fun, and some of my teens are constantly requesting it, simply because of the fun they have when playing it. And that's my opinion of the game - not strategic, not a lot of depth, some player problems, but fun interlaced throughout.

Up to six players can play, and each is given a "family" of nine mobster cards, which they place face up in front of them. A deck of fifty-four action cards is shuffled, and five are dealt to each player. The rest are placed as a draw pile on the table, next to the box, which is a double discard pile - also known as "the wall". During the game, mobsters will be placed on the "hit list", with each mobster being added being placed in a line starting away from the wall. Mobsters closest to the wall are in the biggest danger. The dealer takes the first turn, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.

On a player's turn, they simply draw one card and then play (or discard) a card. The cards that can be played include:
- Contract card - this card allows a player to choose a mobster of another player and place it on the hit list. A player can cancel a contract card with either a "Family Influence" card or a "Mob Power", although some contract cards specifically forbid the playing of either or both of these cards.
- Priority contracts - these contracts place the target mobster at the front of the line.
- Double contracts - same as an ordinary contract, but put two mobsters on the line. If a player plays a Family Influence or Mob Power, they can only save one mobster.
- Take it on the Lam - these cards allow a player to remove one of their mobsters from the hit list. Another player can play the Finger card to cancel these.
- Hit - allows a player to kill another mobster, placing it in the dead pile, but they must add one of their mobsters to the hit list.
- Substitution - allows a player to replace a mobster on the hit lists with any other mobster in play.
- St. Valentine's Day Massacre - kills all mobsters on the hit list.
- Federal Crackdown - removes all mobsters from the hit list.
- When playing a Family Business card against a contract, a player simply cancels the card. But when playing a Mob Power card, the attacking player must place one of theirs instead!
- There are several other cards, with various effects.

Whenever there are six or more mobsters on the hit list, six or fewer mobsters in the game, or one of three different cards is played, a "Mob War" begins. During a Mob War, play proceeds as normal; but at the beginning of each player's turn, before they do anything, they must kill the first mobster on the hit list, discarding it, and moving all the remaining mobsters up one place in line. Two cards cause the Mob War to happen at double rate, which means that two mobsters are killed each turn. A Mob War continues until either all the mobsters are dead, or one player plays the "Truce" card.

When a player has all of their mobsters eliminated, they are out of the game, discarding all of their cards. The last player with mobsters alive is the winner!

Some comments on the gameā€¦

1.) Components: My previous version of Mayfair was the original game, which had silhouette graphics, which just were a bit jarring to play with. However, the new version has some cartoonish artwork, adding to the theme of the game - and more importantly, changes the artwork on the mobster cards. In the previous version, each mobster card was identical, except the name of a famous lawbreaker. In the 2006 version, a pixilated version of an actual photograph of the mobsters is included, adding a lot of flavor to the game and a bit more variety. There are some complaints that many of the cards don't say what they do, which is a valid complaint, I suppose; but after one game, I have yet to see a player not quickly remember what each card does. In this sense, the theme certainly helps. The game is smaller, and all the cards (good quality, by the way) fit nicely into a small double-sized box with lid.

2.) Rules: The rule booklet is on a fourteen page foldout sheet (which, like a map, I can't ever get folded back correctly), clearly explaining both the rules, and what each card does. Really, the game is quite easy, but taking time to go over each card is usually beneficial when teaching new players. The game, after a few times being played, often settles down into a syncopated rhythm with players announcing what they are playing, taking the counter card, etc.

3.) Theme and Fun Factor: If the idea of controlling a mob family that is attempting to wipe out the competition doesn't appeal to you, then I implore you to ignore this game; as the theme simply is the heart and soul of the game. Every time I bring out the game, players get into character, repeating lines from history or movies, and using cheesy fake New York accents. Explanations of "hits" are made, and with an extraverted group, Family Business can be one of the most fun times you'll ever have. Even teenagers will join in the fun, as they make and break deals with one another, agreeing to gang up on one person then attack their partner. Taken in a light spirit, Family Business can be riotous fun.

4.) Elimination: There is often a backlash against elimination in games; and indeed, I'm certainly not a fan of the mechanic - especially in longer games. But who can argue against elimination in a mob game, especially when games run thirty minutes at the most? I have seen several players gang up on another player who has annoyed them or won the last game (metagaming), and there's not much that can be done about that. Players simply can't defend themselves from the other players. There's a bit of diplomacy that can be done (mostly by pointing out "He's winning"), but the game comes down to the other players deciding who to take out. Sometimes, games can be more interesting, with everyone having only a few mobsters left; but players still have to make decisions on which player to take out first.

5.) Strategy: I can't really say there's a lot of strategy in the game, which is why I label it a "take that" game. You simply play good cards on yourself and evil cards on the other players. It's not very difficult to decide WHAT card to play; most of the decisions lie in WHO to play the card on. Yes, holding the St. Valentine's Massacre card until the lineup is filled with everyone but your mobsters is a neat trick, but most of the strategy in the game is very simplistic and easy.

The fun in the game comes from the atmosphere, the theme, and your opponents. Family Business provides a nice framework for players to simply have a good time, and it's an easygoing, simple system work in many situations. There may be some who are turned off by the theme, but most folks have a good time with the game. It ain't your Puerto Rico, but it's charming in its own way. And when I say charming - that's "blow away the guys in the other mob and make it look like an accident" charming. Doesn't that sound like fun?

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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