"When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." - A Game of Thrones
True to the nature of George R.R. Martin’s most famous work, A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is epic, complex, and will soak up a lot of your free time. At its most basic it’s a war game that sees you trying to control the castles and strongholds scattered among the territories of Westeros, but there’s a delightful amount of backstabbing, false alliances, and just generally screwing your friends over. It’s a good game for groups of friends that like to argue with each other loudly and often, preferably while drinking copious amounts of beer.
Three to six people can battle as some of the the biggest houses in the series- Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Tyrell and Martell. Some of the houses are blocked off unless you’re playing with a certain amount of players- because you don’t want to be the poor sucker that’s fighting Baratheon and Lannister if you’re a Tyrell. Cause really, no one wants to be Tyrell. You know their motto? “Growing Strong." That tells you that they’re obviously they’re not quite there yet. Bunch of glorified stewards, worshipping a false King...
Anyway, this is a Fantasy Flight game, so it’s got layers upon layers of intricacy, although it doesn’t look too hard at first. There are only three phases for each of the ten rounds in the game after all; draw three Westeros cards and do what they say, place order tokens on all of your territories, and then flip over the tokens and resolve them. But there are dozens of little variables, lots of things to watch out for as you spread your armies across the continent.
Much of the game revolves around the fairly straightforward combat system. You have a handful of plastic units you use to build armies in your territories- Footmen, Knights, Ships and Siege Engines. Footmen and ships are worth a point, knights are two, siege engines are worth four but only when attacking Castles or Strongholds. Each player participating in the battle (other houses can support one of the two houses fighting if they would like to get in on the action) looks at their armies and picks a card from their deck of characters. Each House’s unique characters have various strengths and abilities- you add his or her bonus to the army’s strength and whoever has a higher number wins. That’s it. There’s no dice or anything else, as ties are determined by whoever is currently sitting on the Iron Throne.
"Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them." - A Clash of Kings
Oh yes, because one of the players is a king at any moment during the game. There’s an Influence Track on the board that grants people various bonuses for holding one of three fiefdoms, perhaps the coolest being a little cardboard cutout of the Iron Throne. Sit on that sucker and grab the dorky cutout and everyone will want to be your friend, because you can choose the victor of any tie in the game. There are many opportunities for one to use these powers quite cruelly, if one so desired. One likely will, if one is playing the game of thrones right.
Another fiefdom gives you a Valyrian Blade chit that’s worth a +1 bonus in one combat each round (a great boon to anyone on the warpath), and the last is a Messenger Raven, whose chit thankfully doesn’t come bundled with a voice box (“CORN!”). The holder of the raven can play stronger order tokens and swap out an order token for any of his unused ones, allowing for some really dirty, sneaky moves.
There’s an awesome little bidding system in place to take control of these fiefdoms. Over the course of the game you’ll amass little power tokens and sometimes you’ll have to use them to bid against your friends. Whoever bids the most for each of the three fiefdoms gains control of that power. You’ve got player screens to hide your tokens behind so you’re never sure how many each person has, and you all lift them when bidding and scream at your friends for being assholes and overbidding or worse, not putting any tokens in at all and making you waste yours.
“Small men curse what they cannot understand.” - A Storm of Swords
To be honest, I’m really skimming over a lot of the mechanics here for fear of scaring people off. There are also Wilding attacks, supplies for the armies, and all kinds of things can happen when you draw Westeros cards at the beginning of each round. It’s a bit to get your head around, but it’s not Arkham Horror levels of complexity. Expect your first game to run around three hours, and to keep that (32 page!) rulebook on hand.
This is actually a revised second edition of a game that came out in 2003. The original edition had two expansions, some elements of which were incorporated into this one, like siege engines and House Martell. The rules are mostly the same, with a couple of minor changes to make gameplay flow a bit smoother. The components here are pretty beautiful. Some people miss the wooden components but the new plastic units have a nice marbled look to them.The map is also much improved, and a lot clearer than anything you’ll find in those books... you'll have a much greater feel of the layout of the continent after playing this game. Some of the art choices are a little surprising (a friend pointed out that Catelyn Tully looked pretty damn good for pushing out all those kids) but for the most part they’re excellent.
"The worst isn't done. The worst is just beginning, and there are no happy endings." - A Feast for Crows
After the first play things get a lot easier, although there are a couple of concerns people have with balance. You’ll find that certain Houses have stronger starting positions, like the Starks, who pretty much have the North to themselves. The Lannisters have enemies all around them and a tougher time getting started but they are a bunch of pricks, after all.
Do you need to have read the books to enjoy the game? No, but it does make for some fun trash talk (whoever plays Stark is destined for a lot) and really, that’s what this game’s all about- smiling at your friends and making deals with them while planning your next move that completely destroys them. Our very first game I won by suggesting to a (former) friend that he attack another (former) friend instead of me, because the latter friend clearly had a stronger position in the game. Next turn, as I took over the last stronghold I needed to win the game, I knew they’d never trust me again.
And isn’t that what board games are for, anyway? Bringing friends together so you can betray and kill each other over and over again?
"The ship groaned and growled beneath him like a constipated fat man straining to shit." - A Dance With Dragons