It has been a long time since I have sat around a table with a group of friends to play a board game. Upon opening the box for Game of Thrones I was very scared indeed. There are just so many pieces and different card decks that I was genuinely thinking, what the hell have I signed up for!
After sitting down with the rule book for a while I realised that this game was going to take some time to get to grips with and also thought that the best way to learn was just to play with the rulebook on hand.
With that said however, all the pieces did eventually fall into place and all of us that played it found it to be a very enjoyable experience.
To make this review much easier to digest, I am going to break it down into sections. Starting with what kind of game it is, explaining the pieces, cards and game board, how a turn plays out. Then I will finish with what I liked and disliked about it.
Game of Thrones the board game is a strategy war game based on the popular “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin. The board itself at first glance is reminiscent of that of the board for Risk, how you move and hold territories is also similar but this is where the comparisons end. The longer you play Game of Thrones you realise there are so many more factors to consider.
The game is played across up to 10 turns and is designed for three to six players. The aim of the game is to control the most castles and/or Strongholds. Whoever has the most at the end of turn 10 wins the game, the only variation being that if someone reaches seven then the game ends.
Setting up the game took a long time, there are a lot of things to put in place before you can even make your first move; so if you have a game planned in advance then I recommend setting up before everyone arrives.
The first thing to do is to assign each player a house. It is entirely up to you how you do this but I personally think the fairest way is to deal these out at random as each house has various starting conditions; Some much more appealing than others.
This is because of the influence tracks. There are three of these and the higher your house is up in each of them will give you a stronger chance of getting out of various situations.
These tracks are; The Iron Throne, The Fiefdoms and The King’s Court. The person at the top has the strongest influence in this track and receives a special token to signify this and can also use it once per turn to exploit its perks and receive the benefit of having the highest influence.
The Iron Throne primarily dictates the turn order. This may not sound like much but it is a huge advantage as it allows the player in control to play as they want to and not have to adapt like a player who is fourth in the track may have to.
Also this player is able to determine the victor of all tied bids in the game (I will get into this later). This is a huge advantage as this is something that happens quite often and if you play smart you can keep your closest rival in check. This of course with the exception of combat as this is determined by The Fiefdoms Track.
The Fiefdoms Track is primarily about combat, the higher up the track you are the better chance you have of winning in combat. If a combat phase results in a draw then the player who is higher up this track will be victorious. The player who controls the influence of this track also receives the Valyrian Steel Blade token. This token can be used once per turn and will give a plus one combat boost to that player for that particular encounter. A huge advantage considering that they already win any tied battle.
Finally the King’s Court track determines how many special order tokens are available to each player during each phase and as you have probably already guessed. The higher up the track you are, the more special order tokens you are allowed to use in your planning phase.
Controlling influence in this track will give that player control of the Messenger Raven token. This token allows that player to do one of two things each turn. Either replace an order token after all of them have been turned over; this is great because if an opponent has done something you didn’t anticipate it allows you to remove your own token and replace it with another that is better suited to the situation. Or you can take a look at the top card of the Wildling Deck. The player can then decide whether to place it back at the top or bottom of the deck. It is also at their digression whether they tell the other players what it said or even what it didn’t say as deception is a big part of this game as well.
I must stress now that everyone should be wary of the Wildling deck but I will come back to that in a minute as first I need to talk to you about the three Westeros Decks.
The Westeros Decks are in my opinion the best part about this game as they have the power to literally turn the game on its head. This is brilliant as it constantly forces everyone to adapt to the changes they bring.
These decks come into play from the start of the second turn and are played again at the beginning of each turn to follow. Each is resolved in order from deck one to three. For example from the first deck you could draw “Mustering” This allows players to place new units in each of their areas which contains a castle or stronghold. From the second deck you could get “Game of Thrones”, this card will soon become the most detested by those who are currently in control of any of the influence tracks. This is because it completely resets the influence tracks and players then have to bid influence tokens on each of the three tracks. You do this by selecting a number of influence tokens you have at your disposal and concealing them in your hand; everyone then reveals their bid at the same time and the highest bidder takes control of that track, the second highest bidder goes second on the track and so on. This continues till all three tracks have been bid on. In the event of a tie anywhere in bidding the holder of the Iron Throne before the bidding determines which position each of the tied players ends up on the influence track.
The Third Westeros deck generally affects commands. For example it could say no Support cards can be played during the next planning phase. Or no Defense, Raid or Consolidate power orders. This can drastically affect upcoming strategies and any player that is currently in a weakened position could be crippled by a no defense order.
Another feature of the cards in the Westeros decks is that some of them have a wildling icon on them. For each one you see on the three upturned cards you must move the Wilding counter up the Wildling Track. This track goes up to 12 and when that number is reached a Wildling attack must be immediately resolved. The only exception to this is if the ‘Wildlings Attack’ card is drawn from the third Westeros Deck.
Now I warned you before, be afraid of this deck. Its only intention is to cause pain and smash any control you thought you had over the board.
This attack can be easily averted if everyone has enough influence tokens. For example let’s say it’s a full scale Wildling attack, meaning their track has reached 12. All the players then have to bid influence tokens to try to stop the attack. If the total bid is equal to or higher than 12 then the wildlings are defeated and the game continues, the highest bidder usually receives a bonus as well. If the combined bid does not reach 12 however then it is declared a Wildling victory and the consequences on the card must be resolved. This could be for example; every player moves down one place in the supply track, the lowest bidder moves down two. This could be absolutely devastating as your supply track determines how many armies you are allowed and how big they are allowed to be. By being forced to drop in the supply track you could be forced to sacrifice a lot of your units. In short: Fear the Wildlings!
Okay now we have all that out the way, let’s start playing the game.
The game begins exactly the same way each time. Each player has a house card which explains to them where they are positioned on each of the influence tracks, and how many of each unit need to be positioned in certain areas on the game board.
At the beginning of the game it is house Baratheon that holds control over the Iron Throne so it is them who will go first.
There are three phases to each round; The Westeros phase, The Planning Phase and the Action Phase. As this is the first turn the Westeros phase does not happen and you go straight to the planning phase.
During the planning phase every player places orders on each area of the map that they have units. There are five different orders you can assign but you only have a limited number of each at your disposal. These are: March, Defense, Support, Raid and Consolidate power.
The numbers on each of these tokens determines the boost or even deficit to its effect. For example March plus one will increase your combat count by one, this count is determined by the number of units in that area. This is also the same for defense and support orders.
Raid orders allow you to remove either a support, consolidate power or raid order from a player who is occupying an area next to yours. Successfully doing so will reward you with an influence token which are used for bidding.
Consolidate power orders gain you an influence token for each you have played.
After all these tokens are placed face down in secret they are then all revealed at once.
This is where the action phase begins. You go through the orders in turn order as dictated by the Iron Throne track. First orders to be resolved are Raids and Consolidate powers. After these have been resolved it is time to resolve March orders and also begin the combat phase.
This is also where I have to introduce you to yet another deck, but I will explain it when it needs to be played during this phase.
Combat is declared when an army marches into an area occupied by another house. The winner of this encounter is determined by combat strength. There are a number of things to take into consideration for this. The first is how many units there are in the initial battle, you then add up any units that have been given support orders that are in the adjacent area to them. If a player is in possession of the Valyrian blade token then that will increase their combat strength by one.
Now here we go; the house cards. Each player has a deck of seven house cards and it is during combat that they come into play. This is where the strategy of this game really goes into overload as this is where a walk over victory can quickly have you retreating with your tail between your legs. Each card features a member of that house and each has different attributes and effects. Each one has a number at the top which will be added to the total combat count, these range between zero and four. So if on the surface you appear to be losing, by playing the card with a four you could potentially turn the tide of battle if the other player opts to save his higher cards for a battle he feels he is going to lose. It is also worth noting that once you use this card it then goes to a discard pile till you have used all of them. So if you play all your strong cards early, you could face trouble later on.
The player with the highest Combat strength after all of these elements have been summed up is the victor. Only the loser receives casualties. These are determined by the house cards that were played. If the number of sword icons on the victor’s card is greater than the number of fortification icons on the losers card then the loser must remove the difference in units. Any remaining units on the losing side must then retreat to an unoccupied area but if there is nowhere to retreat to then these units are lost as well. Victory really is king in the Game of Thrones; the consequences for the loser in even the smallest battle could ruin their entire strategy. After this phase is resolved the game then goes to the next turn and everything begins again.
Now I really hope all of that made some kind of sense to you all. It is an awful lot to take in and believe me I was scratching my head for the majority of the first game I played. But believe me when I say it does all fall into place and even begins to take on a nice rhythm when everyone knows what they are doing.
I highly recommend that you play this game with five to six players as despite the game saying it’s playable with three or four we quickly found that the players who occupied the areas near the empty board pretty much controlled the game as they were able to wander into unguarded territory and bolster their supplies and castles that way. It kind of broke the game to be honest. With five to six it is brilliant though if you can convince and gather enough people round for a night of table top gaming.
That’s another great thing about this game; you can finish it in one sitting. It may sound like there’s a lot going on but it’s amazing how quickly you reach turn 10 when you start to get into it.
Another thing we found was that once we all started to get comfortable with it we were forming alliances over the table to take down the player who was currently winning the game. This play is encouraged as you can even use support orders to help other players. But just remember, there is only one throne and only one person can win so sooner or later alliances have to be broken and that’s when its starts to get really intense.
Everything about this game is just so beautifully presented. From the board to the beautiful illustrations on all of the cards. A lot of love has clearly gone into making this game and it shows.
And finally the best thing I have taken away from this game is what has influenced my final score the most; is the discussions we found ourselves having after the game. About key turning points and wishing we had acted sooner on something. We have more play dates planned for the future.
So switch off those consoles for the night and get your friends and family around the coffee table for some table top fun but remember… Beware the Wildlings!!
MLG Rating: 8/10 Release Date: 14/11/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game for review purposes by the distributor. The title was reviewed over the course of one week. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.