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Game of Thrones: The Board Game, Second Edition is a territory control game by Fantasy Flight based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. It would say that it is based on the TV show of the same name, except that the art in the game does not reflect the characters depicted in the TV show, and there is nothing in particular with the story of this game that mirrors the plot of the show. It is not, like Battlestar Galactica, an opportunity to embody the characters you see in the show and face the same sorts of challenges they face. It is a territory control game with some names you'll recognize.
The Object of the Game
There are 10 rounds. Some territories have castles in them. The first player to control 7 castles at the end of a round, or the player with control of the most castles at the end of the 10th round wins.
Each of the 6 houses has a capital, and a set number of units that they command in set places at the start of the game. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The Starks are more removed from the other players, giving them an opportunity to grow before coming into conflict, but having farther to travel. The Greyjoys are isolated on an island, but there are a lot of wealthy territories nearby on land. The list goes on.
The Phases of the Game
Each round (except the first, which omits the Westeros phase), has three phases: Westeros, Planning, and Action.
In the Westeros phase, three events are selected at random from three different decks. If "winter comes" it means that deck gets reshuffled. I'll talk more about what the various events are later.
In the planning phase, each of the players secretly gives orders to each of its territories with units. These orders remain hidden until all of them have been issued.
In the action phase, the orders are resolved.
The orders that can be issued are March, Support, Defend, Consolidate Power, or Raid. Once revealed, they are resolved in the order Raid, March, Consolidate Power. Support and Defend orders are activated by the actions of neighbouring units, and don't need to be actively resolved. A raid order allows you to remove the support, consolidate power, or raid token on a neighbouring enemy territory. March is a movement, or an attack if the movement is into an enemy occupied territory. Consolidate power allows you to use the units to generate power.
Raid, March, and Consolidate Power are all resolved in the turn order, one order at a time. So the first player resolves one raid, then the second player resolves one raid, then the third, until there are no raids left. Then the same for marches, and the same for consolidate powers (which can effectively happen simultaneously, as the order doesn't matter).
You are limited to your starting units until a "mustering" card is drawn during a Westeros phase. Then, each castle (or stronghold, if it is a two-story castle) generates new military units. The units are footmen, knights, boats, and seige engines. Footmen and boats cost a single point (small castle), knights and siege engines can only be generated by a stronghold. The units appear on the castle that paid for them. Footmen and boats have attack and defence values of 1. Knights attack and defend at 2. Siege engines attack at 4, and do not defend.
Boats, in addition to being able to attack and defend sea territories, also act as bridges, essentially making land territories adjacent to one another. Land units can use boats for transport in this way at no cost.
Armies and Supply
More than one unit in the same territory makes an "army". You are limited in both the number of armies you can have, and their size. At no point in the game can you have an army larger than 4 units, and then only one of that size. The number and size of armies you can have are determined by your supplies, which are indicated by barrel icons that appear on the territories you control. However, your available armies increase or decrease only when a supply action happens, again, at random from the Westeros phase. So you can occupy a great deal of territories with supply icons, wait for a supply phase, then vacate all of those territories and hope that another supply phase doesn't come along until after your armies have achieved what you need done. If a supply phase comes along and you no longer control enough supply icons to have the number of armies present, your units starve, and are removed from the board, until you have only the armies you are allowed. A single unit by itself is not an army, and is not subject to the restrictions.
The limited number of armies also has an impact on how you defend your castles. Leaving units there is good for defence, but when mustering, new units must fit into the available armies. Leaving your units in your castle territories therefore reduces the number of new units you might get if a muster happens.
You start with 5 power tokens. In order to continue to benefit from the supply, and consolidate power tokens in those territories, you must leave a power token behind when your military units vacate the territory. Tokens can be gained with the consolidate power order, which generates one, or two if there is a consolidate power icon on the territory. Consolidate power can also happen randomly from the Westeros phase, in which case it applies to all players and all territories, and you gain one power for each consolidate power icon you control.
The power tokens are also used for the influence tracks. There are three influence tracks. They are determined by bidding. Highest bidder gets the highest influence. The iron throne influence track determines turn order. The person who is first in turn order also breaks ties in combat and bids. The valerian sword influence track gives a one-per-round one point military bonus to the holder of the valerian sword. The third influence track determines how many special orders (which are indicated with a star on the order token) you can issue each round. The ability to issue special orders makes it possible to issue orders that give a bonus to your units, or simply to issue more orders of a certain type than would otherwise be available. The person first on this track also gains the ability to change one of their orders after orders have been revealed, or to look at the top of the wildling deck.
Bids for each of the influence tracks happen at random in the Westeros phase. The black crow player also has the opportunity to force them on certain events.
One of the random things that can happen during the Westeros phase is a wildling attack. The wildlings also increase in strength randomly during Westeros phases. When a wildling attack is resolved, all the players secretly bid power tokens to defend the south from the wildlings. If the total number of power tokens bid is higher than the strength of the wildlings, the night's watch has won the battle, and the wildlings are weakened. Otherwise, the wildlings have won, and they are strengthened. If the night's watch wins, something positive usually happens to the player who contributed the most. If the wildlings win, something negative happens to the player who contributed the least.
When a march order is resolved as an attack, the player making the attack adds the strength of their attacking units, any bonuses from the attack order, and adds the strength of any friendly units adjacent to the attacked area with a support order, plus any bonuses from the support orders, and that is their attacking strength. The defender does the same with units, defence, and support orders from adjacent friendly territories. Each player then has an opportunity to play one card from a 6-card house deck, each with an attack bonus of between 0 and 4, icons that cause or prevent the losing side's units from being destroyed, and other special features. These cards are where the characters from the novels appear. This bonus is added, and the higher player wins the combat.
The losing player, if the units are not destroyed, retreats to friendly territory if it can. Otherwise, the retreating units are also destroyed.
This hero card mechanic causes a couple of interesting strategies. One is to wait to attack your opponent until they have wasted their best cards on another enemy. Another is to intentionally attack a number of enemies with no chance of success just for the purpose of getting rid of the rest of your attack cards and regaining the whole deck to play with.
You are limited in the number of armies that you can have, you are limited in the amount of territory you can control, you are limited in the number of units you can have, you are forced to balance the amount of territory you control with whether you can play special orders or get attack bonuses, or play first or break ties, or fight off wildlings. In Game of Thrones, you are constantly finding yourself a unit short and a turn late.
No one can do it on their own in this game. You must, must, must get the help of your fellow players, whether it is in the form of a mutual truce, or an agreement to attack the leader to prevent them from running away with the game. It is the forming and the breaking of these allegiances between the houses of westeros where the "fun" lies. That is what brings the game drama.
The game is also one of pace. Like a rider in the tour de france, you must recognize that winning conditions are possible to attain, but that anything near winning conditions are impossible to hold. The only winning strategy, therefore, is to stay with the pack, and sprint at the finish. That pacing doesn't become apparent until you have played the game once or twice.
And unfortunately, all these nice things that you learn having played the game once or twice will make you question whether you want to play it again, because it takes FOREVER. I have played two games, with relatively experienced board game players, though only half of us are strategy enthusiasts. Both times it has taken approximately one hour per player. And this is not, like other games, a game in which every player's turn involves something for the other players to do. So there are periods of sitting around waiting for the other players to choose hero cards. This is made less serious by the fact that the action phase switches players relatively quickly. But sitting around waiting for other people to decide is just not fun.
For my play group, this was intended as a replacement for Battlestar Galactica, which had been a huge hit. However, the fact that everyone is doing something on everyone else's turn in BSG is not here, and the playing against one another that is forced on the players in BSG is merely optional good strategy in Game of Thrones, and so those for whom backstabbing comes less naturally are less engaged in the game, and win less, and enjoy it less.
I have to say that the rules around boats are also extremely difficult to understand, based on the manual. Ports in land territories behave differently than land territories and differently than sea territories. I've played it twice, and I still don't understand quite how they work, or why.
If your idea of a good time is sitting down with some friends for a 6-hour game of axis & allies or twilight imperium, and you don't mind lying to your friends or being lied to over a board game, then you're going to love Game of Thrones. If that doesn't sound appealing to you, Game of Thrones is probably not the game for you.