A Game of Thrones: In the Game of Thrones You Win or You Pay for the Pizza
George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” has reached quite a peak of popularity in the last couple years, stemming from the arrival of the HBO television series. For fans of the series like myself, this was great in a number of ways. First, we got to see our favourite book series brought to life on a quality station. Secondly, more people were being exposed to the series, giving us more people to talk about it with. And of course, for those fans who are also board gamers, it meant that the out-of-print Game of Thrones board game would be returning for a second edition.
As a fan of the books, I was looking for not only a great gaming experience, but a strong tie to the Westeros theme. The Game of Thrones board game exceeded my expectations. Not only does it pay great homage to A Song of Ice and Fire, but it delivers one of those deep, rich, and incredibly fun group gaming experiences.
This is a great board game for inviting a group of friends over, settling in for the evening, and having a great time. There’s lots of interaction in the game with lots of room for alliance making and breaking. And if your friends are also fans of either the book or TV series, it gives plenty of opportunity for discussions and in-jokes It creates one of those nights where you get together, bring a case of beer, order a few pizzas, and have a great time.
The game that Game of Thrones mostly closely echoes would be the classic war game Diplomacy. It uses secret troops orders which are assigned to your armies and then revealed simultaneously. However, where Diplomacy has each player write down their orders, Game of Thrones makes it easier by having two-sided tokens which are simply placed by each unit and then flipped over. The secret orders create for some great player dynamics, since it allows for secret pacts between players and hidden strategies.
Each player plays one of the great houses (Stark, Lannister, etc.) and tries to win by conquering seven castles. Battles between armies are easy to perform as its really just the number of troops and then a secret card reveal adding more strength. The cards have military leaders which are characters from each house, adding another level of theme to this game.
So the war game aspect is great and works pretty smoothly, but so what? There are a million games like that. But where Game of Thrones sets itself apart is through two more mechanics which add a lot to both strategy and theme. The first are the three influence tracks for the Iron Throne, the Kings Court, and the Fiefdoms. Players are assigned positions on these charts, but can move up through a bidding process at various points throughout the game. Those who are higher up on the chart get certain advantages over the others.
The other cool addition is the Wildling track. Every so often, the wildlings will attack the wall and each player must send support to the Night’s Watch, again through a secret bidding process. If the wildlings are defeated, whoever lent the most support gets a reward. If the players are defeated, who ever sent the least gets a penalty. All of these bidding tracks in the game give it that extra layer of social dynamics and add a lot of flavour.
The second edition printing of A Game of Thrones is a smorgasbord of great artwork and components. The board itself looks fantastic and is a great representation of Martin’s Westeros. The artwork on the cards are also great, as each house is given seven cards, each representing a character from the novels. I like that they avoided making the characters look like their TV counterparts while still managing to make most characters look like I imagined them in the book (with the exception of a few, like Sallador Saan). Each special ability also seems to match the characters personality, adding even more to the theme.
The army and navy bits are great. They are plastic pieces in the shape of men, horses, boats and siege towers, but they are marbled plastic and very sturdy. All of the other bits such as the order tokens, supply tokens in the shape of wooden barrels, and score tokens in the shape of castles all look great as well. And the game even comes with individual player screens which also have great artwork and a great reference for how each player should be setting up their game.
A Game of Thrones is a wonderfully constructed game both visually and mechanically. There is only one downside and that has to do with balance. In a four player game, the player who plays as the Baratheons is mightily overpowered and is much more likely to win. This is simply because the southern part of the board is more open while the Lannisters must worry about the Greyjoys. But this can be fixed by adding a fifth or sixth player or by having the fourth player play as the Tyrells instead of Greyjoys.
But if you are playing right, it’s not really going to matter because A Game of Thrones is more about the social experience. It’s about a group of close friends being able to attack each other with plastic pieces and cardboard tokens. It’s about quoting lines like “A Lannister always pays his debts” and “winter is coming… for you!” and having a good laugh. And it’s about making the loser pay for the pizza when it arrives.