April 9, 2015

A Game of Thrones Boardgame - Win or Die

Surprisingly, when I talk about A Game of Thrones during this blog post, I'm not referring to the HERO situation, Lannister-esque as that whole deal is. No, instead I'm talking about the board game published by Fantasy Flight, the company known for high production value and high price tags. I dropped the $60 on it last weekend in preparation for my company's Borad Game Night on April 7. I knew a small amount going in, but had purposefully read only enough to convince me it was worth the price tag. So when me and four others gathered around, chose our Houses and began vying for control of Westeros, I wasn't sure how it was going to play out. So, you ask, who ended up on the Iron Throne? I'm afraid you'll have to wait eight years for that reveal.

Just kidding, George.

First of all, this game is huge. It has hundreds of tokens, units, and various other doo-dads. Make sure you have a boardroom table at the ready before you buy it. That's pretty typical for Fantasy Flight games, so I knew to expect that. I have to admit that while it was all packaged very, very nicely and neatly, there didn't seem to be a lot of thought into repackaging it with the same level of care. That was sort of disappointing. The next time I decide to play, the first 20 minutes is just going to be picking out all the tokens from the haystack (tokenstack?) and ensuring everyone has all pieces they need.

But once everything was organized, we picked our houses. Total available houses include Stark, Baratheon, Lannister, Greyjoy, Tyrell, and Martell. I picked Baratheon. I had read somewhere it had natural advantages and, hey, this is the game of thrones we're talking about here. I'll use every dirty trick I can get.

Since we had five people rules dictated that House Martell weren't available for play, much to the disappointment of fellow coworker and mercenary Alekseyev Karrde. He ended up with Tyrell.

The game's mechanics are fairly straightforward, but there are nuances to almost all of it. You win the game by having 7 strongholds or castles or, at the end of 10 rounds, having the most. Any ties in regards to the winner are decided by who currently sits on the Iron Throne, whether they're a party in the tie or not. See? Already finding nuance. There are three phases: Westeros Cards, Planning, and Action. You skip the Westeros Card phase the first round, but the game round progresses each time the Westeros Card phase comes thereafter.

There are 3 Westeros Cards which are drawn in order and have different actions, or non-actions, that must be resolved immediately upon drawing. These cards can have fairly simple effects such as a specific player determining that certain actions can't be taken in the round, or that nothing at all happens, or that everyone gets to muster new troops. Or it could cause the wildlings to attack.

The real meat of the game is during the Planning Phase. Each player has a number of Order Tokens that they place face down in the areas containing their units, and optionally any areas they control with no units. All of these tokens are then simultaneously flipped over once they've all been placed. You can issue move orders, consolidate power orders, defense orders, support orders, or raids. Each type of order is resolved in particular order - confusing sentence - based on the Iron Throne Influence Track. Moving units into another area with another faction's units causes a battle. Battles are resolved immediately and have their own set of rules. Raids remove certain types of orders in adjacent areas, etc etc.

Oh, I haven't explained Influence Tracks? It's important, but I haven't even finished explaining orders yet!

I think you get the point here - the rules are fairly straightforward on the surface, but there are levels to each. There's definitely a lot of skill in manipulating orders cleverly. But you may have already noticed the really interesting part here, is that everyone issues orders to every unit in secret. The game encourages players to make alliances - and break them at their convenience. So if I make a deal with another player, saying we won't attack one another, the only thing we can offer one another is trust. So we have to trust each other that when we place order tokens on our units in neighboring areas, those order tokens aren't movement orders, and if they are, they're not targeted towards us.

So say I'm honorable and I place a consolidate power token down in that area (which means that nothing untoward happens to anyone else due to that area's orders), my neighbor doesn't know that. I can't tell him what my order is. Likewise, he places his token down and I have to trust his word that it's not a movement order. When we flip them all over, much to my surprise, I curst his inevitable betrayal as I see a movement token for his army and, sure enough, he uses it to attack me.

That's the real beauty of this game, it captures the feeling of the books. You build alliances, you scheme, you plan, you plot, you try and manipulate other players to do what you want by showing them one thing and then doing the other suddenly, without warnng, when your time is ripe.

There's also an element of risk and reward outside of just springing your traps at the right time. Those influence tracks I mentioned earlier? You have to bid on those with Power. Power's used to control territory you don't have units in and you have to consciously use an order token to gain it, typically. The trick to bidding is deciding what Influence Track is most important to you and trying to get it without over committing, because you lose whatever Power tokens you bid, no matter where you end up on the track.

The Iron Throne gets to decide all ties in non-combat situations. For example, let's say you currently own the Iron Throne and the time comes to bid on the influence tracks. You want to keep the Iron Throne so you bid high, but end up tieing for first place. As the current holder, you get to decide the winner of the tie! The Iron Throne Owner even gets to choose the winner of ties regarding the winner of the GAME!

The Fiefdom track grants the The Valryian Blade to whoever is highest on the track. The owner gets +1 combat strength once per round which is pretty useful. Ties in combat are also determined by placement on the Fiefdom track, so placing high can be a big deal.

And finally The King's Court grants The Raven. The Raven lets the owner, once per round, change one order after all the orders have been revealed. That's pretty big. He can also look at the top card on the Wildling Deck and choose to do whatever he wants with that information: tell you, keep it to himself, or lie about it. That can also be pretty big. The higher you are on this track, the more "powered up" order tokens you can place, too.

But if you bid too much power on one track, you may not have enough power to retain a solid position on other important tracks. Wheels within wheels. It's awesome trying to juggle your entire army, its supplies, everyone else's armies, their possible motives, their REAL motives, the wildlings, and retaining enough power to be in a good position when the time comes.

And you really do have to be careful in your juggling. Take Alek's moves from last night's game. He and I had an alliance going for a short time and he decided to betray it earlier than I was able to, and he ended up taking a couple of castles that put him in a pretty decisive lead. But it was too early in the game! He had shown his hand with way too much time left for him to solidify and retain his position. So naturally we ganged up on him!

I'm happy to say that he did not win with House Tyrell. Neither did I with Baratheon, but I did help ensure the winner claimed his seat upon the Iron Throne with relative ease, surely gaining favor in his court of House Greyjoy.

All hail House Greyjoy! King of Westeros!

Until we play again...