King Robert Baratheon goes out on a hunt overly drunk by an extra potent wine he’s been given with the meanest of intentions. Steaming through the forest he decides to take on a wild boar…alone. Well, the rest is history or ermm, fantasy? Now that the King is dead, Westeros plunges into civil war and this is where we start with A Game of Thrones: The Board Game.
Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) first released this game 15 years ago, when the series was not out and maybe half of our readers were still on their diapers. The game has survived time and actually aged quite well, getting even better just like a fine whisky. Its second edition, released back in 2011, came with a much more pleasant to the eye art while addressing balancing issues. But you know what? “Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.”
What’s A Game of Thrones: The Board Game about?
In A Game of Thrones second edition you’re still fighting for control of the most castles and strongholds. The game ends immediately if anyone gathers seven of those but if by the 10th round no one’s done it, whoever’s got the most wins.
Each player will be controlling a different asymmetrical house: Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, Greyjoys, Martells or Tyrells. This means you’ll be starting with different resources, at different places on multiple game tracks and you’ll have to deal with benefits and caveats of your geographical position - which will play a great deal in shaping your strategy.
Well, a typical area control game with variable player powers right? Hold your horses my friend. Maybe A Game of Thrones could be just that but there is a lot, I mean, A LOT going on in this game. This is an ambitious design with auction, card drafting and hand management mechanics. Most resources/benefits are up for grabs and can be, and most definitely will be, conquered or negotiated throughout this game.
Did I mention negotiation? There is tons of it! You’ll be negotiating your way to the Iron Throne. A somewhat restrictive supply track that determines the size of your armies will hamper you from just growing a humongous army and crushing everyone else. And when you need the help of others to move forward and you're faced with scarce resources there is a lot of backstabbing.
Yes my friend, this is a game famed for ruining friendships and relationships. I reckon, however, that it all depends on how you wanna play it, there is as much deceiving as you may want and even betrayal can be sweet enough if you’re an elegant backstabber. So don’t be scared but be warned this is not for the faint hearted.
How Does it Play?
A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is divided in three phases: Westeros, Planning and Action phases.
- Westeros Phase - This is supposed to represent the passage of time on the isle, but game wise it’s the chunky part of admin. It will introduce an element of chance/chaos by setting Wildling attacks and changing your relative power. You’ll be drawing cards from three decks that will impact on the supply track, enable you to muster units or bid on the influence tracks and acquire dominance tokens.
- The Influence Track - This track is certainly the most sexy one and will give you very interesting abilities. If you draw a Clash of Kings Card you’ll be able to bid on the three influence tracks and hopefully get one of the dominance tokens. Those are literally special powers you’ll be bidding upon and to do so you’ll use power tokens. Let me give you an example, if you’re highest bidder on King’s Court Track you’ll get a Messenger Raven token, which means you may either look into the Wildling deck and this way anticipate a future attack or replace any one of your order tokens after everyone’s tokens have been revealed - which nobody else can do! Your position on this track also determines how many special order tokens you can use during the planning phase. Let’s put it this way, all of the best orders tokens are special orders which include the ability of mustering units without relying on chance (card drafting). How powerful is that?
- Planning Phase - A game where you have military units dwelling over map locations may sound a lot like Risk, but this is more of a Diplomacy descendant. However, instead of playing with notebooks, putting pen to paper with rudimentary commands, you’ll be using a more interesting system: order tokens! At every planning phase you’ll place orders on your domains with armies. You can ask them to raid which basically destroys some of other players orders, to march, to support another army/location, to defend or to consolidate power which gives you power tokens for bidding like mentioned above.
- Action Phase - Needless to say that the Action Phase plays out as revealing and resolving all of those orders placed by players right? This is when you realise how dirty your friends can be. Did they place the orders they told you they would after hard fought negotiations? And if they did, are they really going use them as they said they would? A Game of Thrones can be harsh sometimes but this mechanics for me is where all the beauty in this game lies and what makes it a tense, sometimes nerve-racking but ultimately very interesting game to play. But don’t worry, a deck of house cards may rescue from losing combats when your friends turn their backs on you. In A Game of Thrones' second edition you'll be able to add a house card out of your hand with variable strength and some special powers in order to win a fight.
So, is this for me?
This is by no means a flawless design. A Game of Thrones sometimes feels a bit like it's trying to do many things at a time. The game could certainly be streamlined and since it wasn’t it is a bit longer than it should be. Though FFG says 2-4 hours, I’ve played many games that lasted some good six hours and I've heard of eight-hour games elsewhere. Experienced crews will be done under three hours but that is still a lot for some.
I am also not a huge fan of the combat system. Though House cards infuse some flair on a somewhat Cartesian combat resolution system, I am not so sure a extremely small seven card deck that will only let you use every card once is the right answer. Players will count your cards and most times know in advance what you can play. That sort of defeats the purpose right?
Also, Wildlings attacks and its penalties and rewards are underwhelming to the bone. It makes way more sense just saving power tokens to bet on the influence track. And although FFG did try to address balancing issues, some Houses are still a lot more powerful than others.
Having said that this is my go to game with my group of friends and we've had countless evenings of amazing gameplay. What A Game of Thrones does best is just so good! They’ve designed a great balance between diplomacy and conflict, striking a chord to both players that like political games full of negotiation and those that just want to get into combat as much as possible.
The betting system plays marvellously while being so embedded with the theme reflecting the constant shifts of power in Westeros. Bluffing and deception never played better in an area control game like it does with these simple but efficient action tokens. The art is so much better than the previous game, House Cards are just beautiful, the board is a real looker and components are a lot better than average.
So, if you’re not phased off by a game that is somewhat long and a bit complex at first, and if player elimination or pseudo-elimination is not a no-go, this may be just a great game for you. Moreover, if you’re a big fan of the books or series (both!?) and you like strategic games this is a no brainer.
Just be watchful on who you’re going call for a round of A Game of Throne..... “Some old wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word.” Have fun!