A Game of Thrones: The Board Game
By Fantasy Flight Games
There is always a danger that tie-in products (be they board games, computer games or books) are just used as cash cows, simply created to take advantage of a popular brand. This seems to happen often in the world of computer games (with only the recent Batman and Lego brands being noted exceptions), thankfully it never seems to happen to the same extent within the wonderful world of the board game.
A Game of Thrones novel (along with the series A Song of Ice and Fire) is something of a phenomenon, originally written over 15 years ago it won the Locus Award in 1997 and was nominated for both the Nebula and World Fantasy awards. The novella Blood of the Dragon - which forms a part of the novel - also won the prestigious Hugo Award (best Novella - 1997). Not only has this book series been enjoyed by countless readers but in 2011 became an overnight TV sensation with the release of the show based on the series.
A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (2nd edition) has a lot to live up to, and the thing is - it does.
The land of Westeros is braced for war after the death of the King and the great houses of the seven Kingdoms that make up the land vie for control of the Iron Throne and with it rule over the land. Each of the 3 to 6 players (yes you do need at least 3 players) each take on the role of one of these Kingdoms and must attempt to gain a majority control of the land through diplomacy and warfare, through planning and strategy and ultimately some damn clever thinking. Each player begins with an army of footman, Knight, Siege Engine and Ship(s) along with a deck of unique House cards (representing characters of the House who are used as leaders of armies) and various tokens.
The winner is decided by the first person to gain control over 7 domains that contain either a fortress or castle; or failing that the player who controls the most land (again with castles or fortresses) at the end of ten turns. Each turn is divided into three phases - The "Westeros" phase, a planning Phase and an Action phase. The Westeros phase involves drawing one card from each of the three Westeros decks and carrying out the actions the cards describe. This can involve a number of different possibilities including the mustering of new units, an incursion by the dreaded Wilding or bidding for power and influence (amongst other possible actions).
The planning phase allows each player to secretly assign orders to all of thier units by placing an order token face down on each area under the players control that contains at least one unit. It's this phase that brings out the strategic part of the game. You can march into an unoccupied territory - or start a fight in an occupied area, you can raid adjacent lands - providing the ability to negate some types of opposing orders. You can defend and area - providing a bonus against attack or you can support an adjacent army in their own fight. Lastly you can "consolidate" an area and gain power tokens that play a vital part in the game (including leaving a power token within an area of Land to keep control after an unit moves on).
Players are encouraged to ally with others and make promises to each other and this planning phase is the perfect opportunity to betray such an alliance. After everyone has placed their orders it's on to the Action phase which allows everyone to resolve those orders; combat, movement, raids and such after which a new round begins.
Every so often players must vie for influence within the realm, bidding power tokens for control of the Iron Throne - which provides control of the outcome over non-combat ties, control of Feifdoms - providing the Valyrian steel blade which allows +1 combat strength once per round and allows the wielder to decide all combat related ties. Lastly bidding for the Kings Court track which grants a number of special orders and the Messenger Raven token which allows the wielder to either replace an order token after they have all been revealed or a peek at the top card of Wilding deck (which can then be replaced or discarded).
The board itself is designed such that conflict is pretty much inevitable if a player wants to win, each "house" is very well placed to allow some expansion and room to breath before any engagement is needed - which provides the opportunity to plan and build resources. This brings me to one of the most inventive parts of the game, that of Armies (which are classed as more than one unit within the same area). You can only built armies of a size and number that your Kingdom can support and this is decided on the number of supply barrels you control. These barrels are dotted around the map and control of those areas becomes very important strategically. So for example if a player controls territory that includes 3 supply barrels he can support four armies one of which can host 3 units with the remaining armies allowed 2 units each. This is a brilliant way of preventing any one player becoming too powerful or amassing one big unstoppable force within the same area. Combat itself works well, it's pretty straight-forward and fluid and doesn't make the mistake many board-games do of halting the pace of play. For those who like a bit more meat to their fights there is also the optional "Tides of Battle" cards which introduce unpredictable elements such as weather and moral making the outcome much less clear-cut.
The quality of the actual board, documentation and various pieces is superb and cannot be faulted in the slightest while the rules are well documented and easy to pick up. As far as play goes, the combination of influence ranks, power consolidation, Westeros cards and player-led alliances enriches the game without getting in the way, while the clear and well documented rules make for a pretty smooth learning curve.
I've never read A Game of Thrones book (although I've had it since it first came out in 1996) and I've yet to watch the TV series (despite practically everyone telling me to) and yet I enjoyed this board-game more than I have any other for years. It plays so incredibly well and lends itself to a strategic mind, it's just so incredibly well put together and above all is a great deal of fun. This is a game that I will be playing again (and again and again) - fan of the series or not any board-gamer should love this