A Game of Thrones Boardgame

23:55 Tue 20 Nov 2007. Updated: 16:39 23 Aug 2009

I played the A Game of Thrones boardgame by Fantasy Flight, based on the George R. R. Martin novel of the same name, on Sunday. I enjoyed it, despite doing poorly in both games. I tend to do poorly in games with more than two sides (although the Illuminati boardgame may be an exception). A Game of Thrones is fairly intricate, is quite different from other games that I play, and each game took about three hours to play (we played twice). I’m not sure that knowing the rules better would shorten the game, because I think the extra time would be taken up with political dealmaking (it’s harder to make deals if you just don’t know what actions make sense).

The game is about taking control of Westeros, the Britain-like land that is the primary setting for the Martin series. Each player controls one of the Major Houses (Stark, Baratheon, Lannister, Tyrell, Greyjoy and in the Clash of Kings expansion Martell). To win, a player must either control the most cities and strongholds at the end, or control seven or more at any time. There are only ten turns in the game, which still seems odd to me even though it’s about the right about amount of time. The game involves both ordered and simultaneous elements, in that all unit orders are deployed at once (in secret) and revealed at once, but are then executed in turn order. Going first has both advantages (you could eliminate a key unit supporting an enemy before that enemy gets a chance to attack you) and disadvantages (going first gives you less of a chance to react to what’s already happened), and I wasn’t sure which was really better by the end of the session.

Combat doesn’t involve random elements, which is a plus, but does involve hidden elements: each player involved in a battle reveals one of a set of their seven cards, and it’s always possible that your opponent’s will trump yours. Especially when you’re playing for the first time and you don’t know what the cards can do.

There are three influence tracks, which broadly speaking control turn order, combat tiebreakers, and logistics/information. Superiority on each track provides certain advantages, but in order to keep it you have to bid on it, possibly several times per game. The bidding was interesting, and different players clearly valued the tracks with a lot of variance.

The game is focused on moving units around the game board (which is a map of Westeros). Each turn, however, brings semi-random conditions at the start, with a card being played from each of three decks. I like the theory of these cards determining timing unpredictably, but didn’t like the fact that it made it very difficult to plan for some basic functions, such as adding new units and being able to support more (or fewer) units, both of which are determined numerically by control of sections of the board but only take effect when the decks deliver those cards.

The simultaneous-order system gives the game a certain Diplomacy-like feel. We didn’t take that aspect of the game far enough, again because we were trying to figure out what was going on most of the time.

In the first game I played Tyrell, and I think they’re a strong House to start with, but I really didn’t know what to do, and was largely ineffectual. In the second game I played Stark. I thought that was harder, and didn’t help my case by becoming overly defensive and focused on making sure nobody could take the Moat Cailin chokepoint away from me.

Both games were won by players who simply accumulated seven cities/strongholds without the other players noticing. That was anti-climactic, but I don’t think it’s a problem with the game per se, just with our not being quite familiar enough with it to keep track of everything.

Overall, I think the game has a lot of promise, and would like to try it again sometime, possibly using some more of the optional expansion rules, and with a time limit per turn that encourages more conspiring between players. It seems like a game where each player having a laptop and using IM or IRC to communicate would make it ideal—that way everyone could stay at the board while plotting.

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