A Game of Thrones – Board Game Impressions
While swords clash on the battlefield, and ravens carry messages between the magnificent lands of Westeros, aristocrats scheme and backstab in the dark alleys of King’s Landing, all in a bid to be crowned King of the Seven Kingdoms. For fans of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic this game is going to be hard to ignore, and for those who just like a good conquest title, this is one of the best out there right now.
In my previous Age of Conan and EVE Conquests reviews, I may have gushed a bit about the mechanics of each game, and how they embrace their source material without feeling too random or mindless (unlike Risk). Well, be prepared for more gushing, because not only does A Game of Thrones nail the feeling of the books, most notably in full games, but it is also the least random conquest game I’ve ever played. Not a single die is packed in the box, and a carefully crafted strategy will always win, as long as you are willing to play the game of thrones.
The game currently supports two expansions. A Storm of Swords includes a whole other campaign board and special campaign rules, alongside additional rules you can supplement your game play with. The older expansion, A Clash of Kings, is a collection of rules and mechanics that were initially cut from the base game, as well as a modification that lets you play the game with six people, as opposed to the previous 3-5 player limit. Personally, I recommend playing the base game with this particular expansion as you see fit, as the modular aspect of it, coupled with the more balanced influence tracks (more on these later) for games with a smaller number of players, makes for a strong addition.
The board itself consists of 4 areas that track gameplay. The first is the map of Westeros, which is divided up into provinces, and clearly shows the location of cities and strongholds. Above the map is a track that monitors the relative strength of the Wildling forces which occasionally make incursions into the kingdom. The supply area keeps track of each house’s relative supplies as depicted in the amount of troops they are able to support. Finally, there is the influence track, which monitors the level of influence a player has within the King’s Court, the Fiefdoms, and finally, the Iron Throne itself. Characters who are at the first position garner particularly strong abilities, and those that sit at the Iron Throne are King. Setup is fairly simple as each noble house starts with a card telling them what units start where, the status of their supply chain, and the strength of their current influence. After everyone is set up around the table, the game begins.
A normal turn consists of two phases, and a game of ten turns. The first phase is the Westeros phase. During this phase, the top card of three small decks set alongside the board are revealed. This is the only random aspect of the game, and serves a number of purposes. It can advance the strength of the Wildling forces, call for a muster of troops, a consolidation of supplies or power, and finally it can initiate the game of thrones.
During play, players can consolidate their power to earn influence, which they then stockpile. When the game of thrones starts, they hide their influence and bid on the three influence tracks in turn, secretly. The first track is the Iron Throne. The player who bids the most influence is crowned King. The benefit is twofold: this player always goes first (until he is dethroned), and they are also given the ability to decide ties. That’s right. If you want draws to be decided in your favor, you had better get your bootlicking face on. This includes the rare instance when two players bid the same amount and tie for first place in the Iron Throne track. The previous monarch chooses his successor. After this resolves, the Fiefdoms track is next. Having the top spot here gives you a powerful blade which you can use to your advantage in battle. The order on the track also determines how ties resolve (in military battles only). The third track is the King’s Court track. This determines the amount of special action you can take in a given turn. The person in the top spot also has the option to change one order they have issued after it is revealed to all players.
The second game phase is the orders phase. Everyone places an order token face down on each of the provinces they currently control. Once that is complete they are all revealed and then resolved in the order shown on the Iron Throne track. Battles may break out, power may be consolidated, and alliances formed just minutes ago might be shattered completely as someone who thought their friend was protecting their flank now finds that protective force moving in. The game cannot be won without at least some military might, as the victory conditions are to control a certain number of strongholds and cities before the game ends, or to have the most when it does.
Of course there are more mechanics to deal with and learn that make the game more interesting, but the most important thing is that your ability to form solid alliances and manipulate other players is the key to victory in this game. Those who enjoy deliberate planning and subterfuge will find a lot to like, but even if you just find yourself to be a military master and don’t wish to spend your precious time in the court of the King, you can still perform admirably.
In a six person game we played a couple of months ago, JM played an aggressive early game as House Greyjoy, securing the throne with his sudden increase in influence for most of the game, but being spread so thin and having made so many enemies he was swiftly beaten back once his bid for the throne finally failed him. David, as Lannister, was hit particularly hard, and chose to throw his lot in with the Tyrells, played by myself. Soon, with Lannister guarding my flank, I made a supposed bid to push the Greyjoys from the Riverlands while also befriending Ashlee’s House Martell, who had made a strong showing and secured King’s Landing for her own. After pushing Greyjoy back, I unleashed my true plan, which was to come down on King’s Landing like a hammer and take it for myself in one of the game’s final turns. Unfortunately, I failed, and Ashlee, who had played a very subdued game until the last few turns, backstabbed House Baratheon, played by Junelle, securing a stronghold and bringing her score equal to mine as we went into the final scoring. We tied, but due to her supply chain being stronger, she was declared ruler of Westeros.
This game really is about making alliances, being crafty behind the scenes, and making a show of force whether you are bluffing or not. I love the game for the lack of randomness, and for the dynamic it creates. It is very close to the source material, but never feels bogged down in it. If you have never read the Song of Ice and Fire series, you can still really get into this game. Additionally, once you learn the rules, the turn limit keeps the game from going on for too long. This is really a strong title and probably one of the best in the Fantasy Flight catalog that I have played. I highly recommend this one. Better yet, make sure it’s winter, the lighting is dim, and you have set a feast of cheese, fruits and wine before you gather your friends to play. Really get into it. This is a game that begs to have the player immerse themselves into the Game of Thrones.