Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Game review: Game of Thrones

This week I am reviewing the Game of Thrones boardgame from Fantasy Flight Games. This is the second edition of the board game and I really like it. The game has six families from the books and you can take control of their forces and strongholds to stake your claim for the throne of Westeros.

Game summary:
Each of the families has an army of swordsmen, knights, siege towers and boats. You also receive a hand of cards each of which has a power rating and many have special rules associated with them. Each card is a character from that house and its retainers, for example Gregor Clegane adds three swords to the combat which allow you to kill the opponents forces as opposed to forcing them back. The cards generally follow how the characters behave in the books, some are great for combat, others reduce support and a select few do random things that can alter the course of the game totally.

The game is for 3-6 players, it self balances by allowing in certain families in order, the first three are Baratheon, Stark and Lannister. After this it is in order, Greyjoy, Tyrell and Martel. The goal of the game is to control seven castles or the most castles by the end of turn ten.

There are three influence tracks in the game that effect how it plays. The Iron Throne, dictates player order and the highest player on this track holds the Iron Throne counter and gets to decide issues of ties outside of combat.
The second track is Fiefdoms which designates the combat order of the players, if you draw with another player the person higher on the fiefdoms track wins the combat. The person highest on this track holds the Valyrian Steel Blade, this can be used once per turn to add +1 to the combat score of the holder and to add a sword to their combat total.
Finally the last track is the Kings Court track, this track is often overlooked by new players but if vital. Your position on this track dictates how many starred counters you may place as marching orders each turn. These starred orders have special abilities and can improve the outcome for your army. The highest placed on this track holds the Messenger Raven, this allows the holder to look at the top two cards of the Wildling deck and send one to the bottom of the deck while placing the other at the top of the deck. This player may change an order counter when they are revealed each turn.

The game turns begin with the planning phase, each player puts a counter in each of his territories that is occupied by men. This order can be to march, defend, raid, support or consolidate power. March orders move units from one territory to another this is your main means of attack and to re-order your forces. Defend orders add one to your unit's combat score but they may not do anything else this turn. Raids allow you to remove support or consolidate power tokens in adjoining territories. Support allows you to add your combat strength to an army that is in an adjoining territory. While finally consolidate power allows you to pick up influence tokens in territories with crowns.

After everyone places their tokens face down the players flip them over and the tokens are dealt with in order of the Iron Throne tracks beginning with raids, followed by marches and finally with any consolidate power orders. During this time combat may happen and the game deals with this by totaling up the combat score of each side. This is the total of the units value, the order they have placed on them, any support that they receive from their own or other players forces and finally one of the cards from the players hands. When the total is found the units from the loosing side retreat and the victors take the land. If anyone plays a card with a sword or used the Valyrian Blade and they win the combat the looser will loose that number of troop counters. The swords can be countered by cards with towers on them or by just winning.

After the order phase the Westeros phase occurs and the top card from each of the three decks are turned over. These cards have different effects which can lead to gaining troops, changing the supply track, calling for votes on the influence tracks, advancing the Wildlings tracks or causing the Wildlings to attack.
If the Wildlings attack the players must secretly pay influence to equal or beat the value on the Wildlings track or bad things will happen.

Influence is the currency of the game, you use it to hold territories that your troops have exited, to bid on the influence tracks and to spend to defeat the Wildlings. You gain it by playing consolidate power or if the westeros decks allow you to collect it from your controlled territories. While it is not the most important thing in the game it can be very helpful.

How it plays:
The game mechanics are very crisp and I find that the game is easy to pick up. I have played it with a few beginners over the last few weeks and they seemed to get to grips with it quickly and easily. As this is the second edition of the game I also thing that it has been made faster and more balanced than the previous edition.

The game allows for a huge amount of politicking; the Iron Throne allows you to give favour in bids, you can give support to one player in a combat over the other to limit their expansion, deals and deal-breaking are the way to win. It can also be vital to create deals with players to ensure that you don't waste time fighting them while you should be fighting everyone else. The most fun thing about the game is that it can be surprising when a victory comes, especially in larger games. If you don't pay attention to where everyone is positioned and how many castles they control it can be a real shock, it seems that in general the game seems to have a player or two capable of winning in the penultimate round. This makes playing it again so interesting as even if you are winning you don't have it sewn up until the last castle is yours.

The game scales very well from the three player game all up to the six player game, the time taken to play is mostly limited to how well people know the game. I played with four friends who had played it once before and we managed to get it done in two hours. Increasing the number of players doesn't impact the game speed as you are still limited to a maximum of three march orders a turn and most people are snap fire in their march order. This game will take you the labelled times of two to four hours to play but it is a good way to spend the evening. It has become very popular in my local gaming club and unlike the previous edition people actually want to play it.

The game has some optional rules, you can add in a "destiny" deck of combat cards that add more randomness to the combats. These cards can increase the combat number or add sword and towers to your total. This can be very interesting and adds a lot more to the game, it reminds me of the "fate deck" in Warrior Knights. Fantasy Flight make both games so it's probably no surprise. There are some game decks that you can buy to swap out the cards with those belonging to characters important in the newest book but I won't be touching those until I have caught up on all of my Song of Ice and Fire.

This is a game worth playing, it has good mechanics and is easy to pick up. I have played a few games of it with lots of different people and I am yet to have a bad game. There is a lot of replay in the game and each house offers a very different starting position. How you conquer the seven kingdoms is up to you; you can move your forces along the land, take the coast with your boats or storm castles with your siege towers. Every house has it's strengths and can make a reasonable go of taking control of the seven kingdoms. In the end the game boils down to one thing; when you play the game of thrones, you play to win.

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