Winter is Coming: A Review of A GAME OF THRONES 2nd Edition

By Doug Mann 2016

A Game of Thrones 2nd Edition (2011), from Fantasy Flight Games, is a game of political intrigue and military conquest based on George R. R. Martin’s Westeros novels. It’s a 3-6 player game that takes 2-3 hours, depending on the number of players and how quickly the event cards are resolved and each player decides on their order tokens. It takes about ten minutes to setup.

In a nutshell, A Game of Thrones is a mashup of Risk, Diplomacy, and chess, with just a hint of Kemet-style combat. Each player plays one of the noble houses of Westeros – Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Tyrell and Martell (the last two are excluded in a four-player game) – who use political intrigue and military force to attempt to dominate the continent. It’s set in the time frame of the War of the Five Kings, Seasons Two and Three of the TV show.

Each turn is divided into three main phases. In the Westeros Phase, cards are drawn from three decks. A wide range of events could ensue – players could muster new troops, vote on the three Influence Tracks, or defend against a Wilding invasion. This is followed by a Planning Phase, during which orders are secretly given, then an Action Phase, when these orders are carried out.

A Game of Thrones is an area-control game with land provinces and sea zones, castles, strongholds and ports on which players maneuver their footmen, knights, ships and siege engines. The point of the game is to control seven castles or strongholds: barring this, it goes ten turns, and the player with the most castles and strongholds wins. The map is asymmetrical: about two-thirds of the castles, strongholds and supply sources are in the rich south, while the Starks and Greyjoys fight over the other third in the more barren north.

Each turn each house assigns a secret order token to each of their units during the Planning Phase: defend, support, march, raid or consolidate power. These are resolved one at a time in the order determined by the Iron Throne track. Defenders get a 1 or 2-point bonus for defending, while supporters can support forces in adjacent provinces (armies) or sea zones (ships only), including those of allied powers. Marchers can enter empty areas or attack adjacent enemy forces. Raiders can cancel other raids, support orders or power consolidations. The “consolidate power” order gets you those vital Power tokens that you can use to control empty provinces, fight off the Wildings, and bid on the three influence tracks, with certain areas giving bonuses (e.g. King’s Landing gives consolidators a total of 3 Power).

Battles are easy once you get the hang of it: footmen and ships are worth 1 combat point, knights 2, and siege engines 4 against castles or strongholds only. To these totals each player adds any support garnered from troops in adjacent areas, including those of allies, along with any attack or defence bonuses printed on their order tokens. Third, each side chooses a House Card representing which leader will lead the troops, adding this to their total: these ratings range from 0-4, with many having a special ability. Then the owner of the Valyrian Steel Blade can add +1 to his or her total. The highest total wins, with the loser retreating, with sword icons on House Cards killing losing units unless countered by castles icons. Losing units are routed, of no combat value until next turn. No dice or magical victories for much weaker forces. And no dragons, though one can sense Dany’s presence emanating across the sea from Essos.

The theme of Martin’s novels and of the TV show comes out nicely in a variety of ways. On the battlefield, the Lannisters and Starks can slug it out at Harrenhall with Tywin Lannister and Ned Stark leading their forces. Yet the Thones theme comes out the strongest at the start of each turn but the first when three Westeros (event) cards are drawn.

It could be something as dull as a supply update, when players count the number of supply barrels (representing fertile fields and fisheries) in their empire to determine their new supply rating, which determines how many armies of 2, 3 or 4 units they can have. It could also be mustering new troops, when players add new forces to their castles (1 mustering point) and strongholds (2 points). Footmen and ships cost 1, knights and siege engines 2.

But it could also be a Wilding attack, when players secretly bid power tokens to defend the realms of men. If you lose, everyone loses something, with the lowest bidder being punished the most harshly. Things get even more exciting when players are asked to secretly bid on the three influence tracks. The Iron Throne track determines turn order, with the King (the highest bidder) breaking all non-battle ties. The Valyrian Blade (or Fiefdoms) track breaks battle ties and gives the top dog a +1 in one battle per turn. The Raven (or King’s Court) track determines the number of starred “special” orders one can use each turn (a key factor in many battles) along with allowing the winner to change one order each turn after seeing what everyone else has done.

gane of thrones club 01
Eddard Stark Faces the Chaos of the South with a Grimace on his Face

So what do I think of it? Standing at #50 in the Board Game Geek’s overall standings, it should be no surprise that I think it’s an excellent game, with a few caveats. It has the typical Fantasy Flight polish in its components: a beautiful map and art on the House Cards, marbled plastic game pieces and extra-thick cardboard counters, though the siege engines should have been bigger and uglier so they stand out better. It is in essence a game of pure strategy once you know a bit about your opponents’ resources, so kudos for that. It even has a bit of Eurogame-style resource management. And the rules are not too hard to understand once you get the hang of the rulebook, though I would strongly recommend watching Fantasy Flight’s slick video tutorial first.

My caveats are twofold. First, its length: you need someone who is paying attention and who knows the rules to handle the events decks, which can be complex events (e.g. a Wilding attack or mustering) that take up to ten minutes to resolve, or can be nothing (“last days of summer”), allowing the players to move on to orders. And there’s a tendency for players to engage in analysis-paralysis when playing order tokens, e.g. agonizing over whether to raid the Lannisters or attack the Greyjoys. On top of these issues is the problem of new players having to absorb fairly unique rules concepts. I think that if played with a core of veteran players, you can easily cut a half hour off its playing time, and seriously increase the game’s playability.

Second, players tend to forget that it’s only half a military game. The other half is politics. The game is clearly designed to make players negotiate alliances and offer support on the battlefield. The latter didn’t happen even once in the first six-player game I played after buying the game. The support mechanic is a key one, since that way two declining powers can team up against an ascendant one. The Tyrells may be ravaging the Dornish Marches and the Reach, but if the Baratheons and Martells make a blood oath to fight as one, they can be stopped. Indeed, the political maneuvering is what makes A Game of Thrones so fascinating as a story, and the game reflects this to some degree (though sadly without any dragons).

So here are my ratings, out of 6 (see the explanation of my ratings system in my Tikal review):

  • Complexity: 5 Hot (new players), 4 Warm (veterans)
  • Strategy: 6 Blazing
  • Luck: 1 Frigid (except when the Wildings attack)
  • Aesthetics: 5 Very Good (a point off for those boring siege engines)
  • Player Interaction: 5 Hot
  • Level of Conflict: 5 Hot
  • Strength of Theme: 6 Blazing
  • Main Meta-Themes: Military Conflict, Political Intrigue (with a bit of Economics)
  • Overall: 6 Excellent (with decisive players), 5 Very Good (with slowpokes)

Summary: A must have for fans of A Game of Thrones, a strong optional buy for those who enjoy middle-level complexity strategy games with lots of player interaction, a probable miss for those who don’t like games that last more than twenty minutes or are afraid of Wildings.

And yes, winter is coming.

Appendix One: A Game of Thrones for More than Six Players

If for some strange reason you have more than six players wanting in on a game, pair up the least experienced excess players in teams of two. One player plays the “prime minister” of the House in question, the other the “general”. The former is the political leader, the latter the military leader. Play all six houses with all standard game rules.

The General places all orders during the Planning Phase and carries out all raid, march and support orders during the Action Phase, including battles. But nothing else.

The Prime Minister does everything else, including handling all events related to the Westeros cards – bidding on the Influence tracks, on Wilding defenses, and making mustering decisions. The PM also does all negotiation with other Houses, so should be a good talker.

Appendix Two: Blinging Up the Siege Engines

One minor issue with the components of A Game of Thrones is that the siege engines don’t exactly stand out on the board. To avoid this, go to your local dollar store and buy a small craft glue gun and a package of small gems or crystals that are flat on one side. Glue a gem or crystal to the top of each siege engine. Et voila, you’ve got diamond-studded catapults!

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