Designer: Christian T. Petersen
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2011)
Game Of Thrones is best described as a 4 hour roleplay where you climb into the mind of a Manic Depressive, experiencing all of the vivid swings of emotion and passion of a seriously ill individual. Key moments in the game will have you grinning ear to ear one moment, and banging your forehead against the pavement in an effort to numb the pain the next. It’s glorious, it’s brutal, and it completely embodies its source material.
Mechanically, GoT is a “dudes on a map” game like the ubiquitous Risk or the more modern Cyclades. You vie for resources on the board in the form of Castles (allow you to muster additional troops), Supply (allow you to retain larger armies), and Crowns (allow you to acquire Power Tokens). Spreading your troops across Westeros you take on the role of one of the prominent houses in the book series, violently claiming territory and forming fleeting alliances.
The heart of the game is the Order system, which has you placing a face down Order token on each territory where you have a unit. Orders range from offensive and defensive maneuvers, to Raids and Consolidating Power. You are limited in the quantity of Orders so you are unable to March with every army or put up impenetrable walls of mass units. Combat, which will occur pretty frequently, is deterministic as each player chooses a card from their hand which offers a Strength and usually a special effect. The higher Strength wins, although losing units typically retreat unless the victor’s card had one or more sword icons on it (each kills a single unit).
A selection of combat cards, Strength shown in the top left corner.
Other key mechanisms include the political tracks which measure each House’s grip of the Iron Throne (determines player order and breaks non-combat ties), the Fiefdoms (breaks ties in combat and the head of the track receives a special combat bonus), and the King’s Court which is the most crucial (allows you to place additional “star” Orders which are more powerful). Jockeying for these positions is accomplished at random intervals in the game (due to event card draws) and each player blind bids Power Tokens for each track. The tracks intersect with the main board mechanics in interesting ways and play a large part in the overall strategy of the game.
The game will play out across 10 turns unless someone manages to occupy 10 Castles prior to end game. If this occurs, the game ends immediately, typically in a jarring yet climactic battle as someone swoops in from some unforeseen location and plays a crucially timed battle card to seize the win. The decisive maneuvers in this game are incredibly memorable and epic in scope – quite fitting to the source material.
Components are gorgeous in typical Fantasy Flight fashion.
This is one of those games that delivers moments of unabashed awesome with a healthy side of utter frustration. On any given day my opinion of it may swing wildly from love to hate and it always elicits a vocal response. What GoT does so well is push players into alliances and double-crosses in a subtle and non-intrusive way. With limited Orders you can’t possibly defend every territory and occupy every map location. Resources are scarce so you better get to the juicy spots first, or at least trample your Stark buddy’s bloody corpse into the mud.
One of the genius elements is that the Order tokens are placed face-down simultaneously and then executed after everyone has finished placing them. This requires you communicate with your neighbors (“Don, you’re not pushing on Harrenhall this turn are you? We need to worry about Baratheon, as he’s close to 10 Castles”) so that you can effectively determine where to place your precious March Orders and where you can afford to Consolidate Power to grab those needed Power Tokens. Each agonizing decision hinges on your fellows not encroaching unexpectedly or performing a brutal Raid on one of your approaching actions. Because you cannot prepare for everything you must win the game of negotiation to narrow your threats and spread your limited maneuvers accordingly. It just works and it’s goddamn slick.
What can grate on my nerves is the fact that players can be all but eliminated somewhat early in the game (likely due to their poor decision making) and the game offers no way to get you involved or help you up by your bootstraps. This is frustrating because the game should really only be played with 6 players, in which case you are looking at 4-5 hours of backstabbing and trash-talking. The 4 and 5 player game is poorly balanced due to positions on the map being distributed unfairly. It’s also quite obvious to most players that Lannister has it extremely rough. After many games I have yet to see them win, although I have seen them ground into the dirt and spat upon by the Iron Islands many a time.
Lannister – Greyjoy’s bitch since 2003.
The pace of the game can also be somewhat plodding if dealing with one or more players suffering from analysis paralysis. We once spent 20 minutes waiting for a single guy to finish his Order placement and had to heckle him for several minutes to get the game moving. The decision making process being quite difficult and requiring careful preparations while trying to understand all of your opponent’s options can make this a bear to suffer through if someone really wants to try and unwind the myriad options in their head. Imagine being dealt Lannister in this game, getting tentacle raped by Greyjoy in the early mid game, and then having to sit for 2 more hours while some guy you used to enjoy hanging out with stares at the muted board while fondling his unplaced Order tokens and mumbling about who he should steamroll next. But oh no, you can’t possibly give up and leave because then the two Castles you have left in your control will be undefended and the balance will be thrown out of whack. You will sit in Lannisport and you will like it.
A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame is ultimately a great design with epic scope. However, it occupies a rough niche with beautiful yet imperfect company like Twilight Imperium 3 and Diplomacy. Playing this game requires some preparation and ultimately commitment as it will take out a large chunk of the day. This is not a game for weaklings or novices, as blood will be spilt and friendships will be shredded. If board flipping and drunken cursing is as nostalgic to you as it is to me, then pick up this game and relive your broken childhood with a clever modern design.