Lies, Bloodshed, Betrayal! Power and influence, secrets and whispers, fragile alliances shattered in heartache and death! Also, lots of intense, weird sex. These are the things I think of when I think of Game of Thrones.
Loaded with bloody battle and shifty-eyed intrigue, Christian T. Petersen's A Game of Thrones: The Board Game has all of that stuff. Well, except for the weird sex. But that's OK. It's still a really good game.
A little while back, I wrote a post about the promising-looking game, but I hadn't yet played it. Last weekend I remedied that, sitting down with four friends to play.
The rules are far too intricate to relay in their entirety here, so if you'd like to know more about the specifics of play, you can read the first edition rules at the Fantasy Flight Games site.
I'll mostly be talking about why the game is cool, and how it uses its design to brilliantly channel the vibe of the series. For other takes, I recommend checking out the great review at Shut Up & Sit Down, as well as the page at Boardgamegeek.com.
Spoiler-Related : In this post, I won't really mention much outside of the first book or so. As far as the game goes, if you've read the first couple of books, you'll have enough information to make sense of everything, though of course, it's more fun if everyone at the table has read all of the books and can talk openly without fear of spoiling one another. But the game itself is mostly spoiler-free; it doesn't even share any of the events of the first book, come to think of it. Just the names of some characters.
The challenge of writing about this board game is that it is very, very complicated. I'd say "Don't let that scare you off," but if the idea of a super-duper complicated board game that requires four to six hours to play and many more to master turns you off, well, then maybe this isn't the game for you. But if you're up for it, A Game of Thrones: TBG is not only fun, it's a damned accurate encapsulation of everything that makes George R.R. Martin's books so enjoyable.
A game involves three to six players, each of whom represents one of the major houses from the books. In our game, I played as House Stark in the north, my friends played as Greyjoy in the west, Lannister to the south of him, House Tyrell in the southwest, and Baratheon in the southeast. Martell would have been in the far Southeast, but we were missing a sixth player.
The game is part war-game (units do battle on a map) and part diplomacy (in fact, one of my fellow players was telling me it's actually somewhat based on the board game Diplomacy). The goal is to win the Iron Throne and take over the kingdom. This can either be accomplished by sitting on the throne at the end of the game's 10 rounds or by taking over seven castles on the map, which immediately ends the game. Units advance and defend across the board, doing damage based on a points-system.
In our game, House Baratheon rampaged through the south (we didn't have anyone playing as Dorne to curb his attacks) and won by taking seven castles while the rest of us were too occupied kicking Lannister arse in the middle of the map.
It wouldn't be Game of Thrones without betrayal and deceit, and this game has both in spades. In fact, lying and betrayal are built into the very fabric of the game, and it's shockingly effective at breeding distrust amongst its players. Before you know it, you'll be ganging up on your friends, lying to your neighbours, and doing everything in your power to manipulate the other players into acting in your best interests.
Secrets, Whispers and Betrayal
I love multiplayer games that aren't so much about skill as they are about knowledge. And boy, is the titular Game of Thrones ever that kind of game. Much of A Game of Thrones: TBG revolves around planning, secret alliances and betrayal. During every turn, players place order tokens onto their units -- the kicker is, the orders are placed face down, and flipped at the same time. I had land units next to a whole bunch of my friend's Greyjoy units, and had convinced him that it was in his best interest to strike south at the Lannister army. I believed he'd do this, but it wasn't until that fateful moment when we all flipped our order tokens that I knew for sure. He did, at which point I could have easily stabbed him in the back and attacked his unprotected flank.
There are many such fateful-feeling moments in the game; whenever you bid to move your tokens along the three influence tracks, you hold out your bid with a closed hand, and everyone reveals their bid at once. Every time you bid to fight off a Wildling attack, it's a similar process. The result of all of this is a game that breeds distrust and shifty looks. You don't want to waste power-tokens on an overly high bid, but sometimes the lowest bidder gets punished, so you also don't want to go too low. What does your neighbour want? How is he going to try to get it? Play this game, and you will find yourself mistrusting even your closest friends.
The Threat in the North
In George R.R. Martin's books, there's this underlying doom and urgency to everything happening. That's in part because the powerful families of Westeros are duking it out and in the process wasting time, lives, crops and resources that they'll desperately need to survive the long winter. But also, there is a threat looming in the north, one that will destroy them all without some sort of unity. And most of them fight on, utterly ignorant of how screwed they most likely are.
In A Game of Thrones: TBG, this is represented by the "Wilding Threat" track, where a token moves higher and higher from 1 to 12 as the rounds pass. If the Wilding token reaches 12 or a "Wildlings Attack" card is played, every player must pool their power tokens to fend off an attack. The thing is, you bid a number of your tokens with no idea how many the others will bid, so it's entirely possible that a bunch of cheap players could fail to fend off the attack. If that happens, the lowest bidder is punished by the card, often severely.
The upshot is that while you play, there's this constant sense of a threat to the north, and every time you do battle or make a power-play, you're sacrificing some of your ability to successfully ward off an attack. It channels that same feeling in the books to a remarkable degree -- in my joke version of the game, a seventh player would occupy the wall, and would simply sit there and watch everyone else fritter away their resources while yelling impotently about the threat to come.
In the game, the threat is only Wildlings -- there are no "Others" in the game, partly because they would be one system too many, and partly, I'm guessing, because the game doesn't want to assume that readers have gotten past the first book or two.
Watch the Throne
The battles play out on the map and the Wildlings advance towards attack in the North, but all of that takes place according to three "influence tracks" that run along the side of the board. The "Iron Throne" track determines move order, while the person sitting on the throne (at the top of the track) gets to decide all non-combat ties. As in the books, sitting on the throne isn't always the best thing, since you have to make your moves first, which isn't usually the most strategically advantageous setup. However, if you're sitting on the throne when the 10th round ends, you win the game.
The "Fiefdoms" track establishes military might, and is probably the least useful of the three tracks. This says a lot about how true A Game of Thrones: TBG is to the series, particularly given that the "King's Court" track, which involves knowledge and intelligence, is the most powerful.
Think about who really had the most power in A Game of Thrones. Certainly not Robert, and not Ned. No, if I had to say who the most powerful person in that book was, there'd be a strong argument for Varys The Spider, the scheming eunuch who knows all and sees all. If your token gets to the top of the King's Court track, you basically get to be Varys (sans castration, thankfully). You are given the option to switch out one of your Order Tokens after they've all been revealed, and should you choose, you can also look at the next Wildling Card to know what kind of an attack it will be, and what its rewards and repercussions will entail.
As far as the game goes, the King's Court track is by far the most beneficial to climb. The mantra "Knowledge is Power" is reflected throughout most facets of the game, which feels entirely in line with the Game of Thrones we all know and love.
A great deal of care has gone into creating a geographically unbalanced map that still allows for balanced gameplay. It'll take a bunch more games for me to know how balanced it really is, but for our first game, I was struck with how totally different each house's position is.
I was house Stark, and so I arrayed my powers in the north, free from the fighting in the south but constantly worried about overextending my troops. Stark's supply allowances start out lower than everyone else's, so you can't maintain armies of the same size as the families whose castles are closer to Westeros' supply lines. And always, to the west, the Greyjoys, a threat that must be either co-opted or neutralised.
Standing over the map, staring down at the forces colliding in the south, eyeing the forces gathering in Pyke and Ironman's Bay, being vaguely aware of House Baratheon marauding through Dorne but being much more concerned with the Lannisters and the Greyjoys… well hey, this is what Rob Stark must have felt like.
On just about every level, A Game of Thrones: TBG just "gets it". The art, design and look of the game are all lovely and appealing. I spent the first half hour or so after unboxing it having a bit of a fangasm, looking through the awesome character cards, ogling the map and the screens that each players uses to hide their cards, which feature evocative images of each family's home castle. All of the character cards feature fantastic art and offer a cool alternate version of the fictional characters we've all come to know so well.
A lot has been made about how Narrative and Gameplay are different things, and how the stories told by playing games are entirely different than the stories told via cutscenes and dialogue. What's so cool about A Game of Thrones: TBG is how its design is so expressly influenced by the events of the books without requiring us to act them out or observe them. In fact, each game tells its own version of the story, with an entirely different outcome than the books; the game's design is less a story than a story-based infrastructure for you to tell the tale yourself. It is both hugely informed by Martin's books and entirely able to stand on its own. It's remarkable.
Fans of A Song of Fire and Ice have been hankering for a video game that encapsulates the series, but we haven't quite gotten it yet. Cyanide Studios' A Game of Thrones: Genesis RTS mostly concerned itself with a prequel of sorts, and we don't yet know enough about their upcoming RPG to say for certain how true to the series it will be.
In the meantime, I think I've found the ultimate playable version of Game of Thrones. If you've read A Song of Ice and Fire, or even if you're just a fan of the TV series, this game pulls you into that world more effectively than a video game action-RPG could hope to.
It's all war and betrayal, secrets and whispers. No incest; no hate-sex. Just a board, some pieces, and a whole lot of deceitful fun.