Review: A Game of Thrones

Recently, I managed to get a group of friends together to play A Game of Thrones. I had played it once before, and had wanted to give it another try for a long time – hopefully this time with the full player count of 6. Here’s how it went.

A Brief Overview

Just to give a little background for those who aren’t already familiar, GoT is a game of area control that blends politics with military strategy. Six of the Great Houses of Westeros are vying for power in the wake of the King’s death. To perfect their claim, a House must be the first to assume control over seven castles or strongholds.

When giving orders to fleets and armies, the rulers place order tokens on the map face-down. This is the crux of GoT’s intrigue, as neither allies nor enemies know their neighbors’ plans before they are all revealed at once. Perhaps the Lannisters will consolidate power in the west, while stationing some defensive forces to protect against Greyjoy raids. Or maybe they will mobilize, marching a large force east towards King’s Landing and taking their Baratheon allies unaware.

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As if there wasn’t already enough opportunity for treachery, Houses may give a ‘support’ order, allowing an army to provide aid in any adjacent battle, to their own bannermen or those of another house. The recipient of the aid need not be announced until the battle takes place. So you never knowwhether that allied army is going to cooperate or stab you in the back… until it’s already too late.

In addition to amassing armies and land, power tokens can be gained and spent to jockey for position on the three influence tracks. The rankings on each of these tracks can be extremely valuable, determining turn order, breaking military stalemates, and granting a number of special order tokens. Furthermore, there’s an additional bonus granted to the House at the top of each track.

Winning the Game of Thrones will require shrewd negotiation, wise management of resources, and the willingness to do whatever it takes. The Iron Throne is only big enough for one, and in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. (Just to be clear, don’t worry you don’t actually die, it’s just a line from the books/show.)

My Experience with A Game of Thrones

I love the idea of this game. An epic game of negotiation, intrigue and strategy, all set within the exciting IP of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. When I purchased this game back in 2014, I had grand visions of friends flocking to the table to engage in an epic battle, riding the wave of HBO Game of Thrones hype.

That’s not exactly how it turned out. I played A Game of Thrones once when I first got it, with four players. We went in blind, having not even opened the box ahead of time – let alone learned any of the rules. My wife still refers to that game as one of the worst gaming experiences she’s ever had. The game was an all day slog, filled with constant references back to the rule book as we repeatedly realized we’d been doing THAT wrong too all this time?

And so A Game of Thrones went to sit untouched on the shelf for quite a while. But I still held out hope, that one day I’d get a group of six players together, and we’d all learn the rules ahead of time, and we’d experience this game the way it was meant to be played. Occasionally I would float the idea to fellow GoT fans and/or gamers, but the idea never got enough traction. Until January of this year.

Finally, the stars had aligned, and five other friends from my game group all expressed eagerness to try A Game of Thrones. We sent out a Doodle poll, scheduling a weekend day that worked for all of us a month ahead of time. Everyone agreed to watch the Tutorial Video from publishers Fantasy Flight Games. I sent out thematic emails to the group, and made plans to cook a big brunch for everyone. We even had a wait list in case someone needed to drop out.

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When the day finally came, I was all ready. The game was completely set up on my dining room table, with every little army and token carefully arranged. I was preparing the bacon and the eggs on the stovetop, as the biscuits rose in the oven. Then I get a text from one of my friends, saying he woke up feeling ill and can no longer make it. A few texts later, and no dice with any of the backups. It’s late notice, and they’ve made other plans.

That’s fine, and totally understandable. I’ll just put House Martell back in the box, shift a few things around, and we’re good to go. There’s the doorbell! Time to put on the Game of Thrones soundtrack music and serve up the food.

As the five of us finish breakfast, we randomly select houses. Drawing the last token out of the bag, I receive House Lannister. Surrounded on all sides, I know I’ll need to talk my way out of this one.

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First things first, I forge an alliance with House Greyjoy, with the threat of mutually assured destruction encouraging us both to cooperate. I turn southward and blaze a path toward Highgarden, picking up valuable resources along the way. Things are going well, and I emerge as one of the early leaders.

But then, I make a key political blunder by refusing to lend influence tokens to combat the wildling threat. Tyrell uses this ammunition to forge a counter-alliance with Baratheon, and together they batter my forces back to the West. The only thing keeping me alive at this point is the surprising trustworthiness of the Greyjoy fleets.

Just when all appears lost, I manage a shocking naval victory with Gregor Clegane, who torches three Tyrell ships in one fell blow. This turns the tides, and Tyrell begins to focus his attention south to Dorne, with the hope that I’ll just leave him alone. Meanwhile, House Greyjoy begins to overpower House Stark to the north, and House Baratheon quietly grows, relatively unchecked.

Five hours have passed, and the Stark player has to leave. We decide to set the northerners with defensive orders to keep the game going. It’s just as well, because even Greyjoy must turn their attention south to Baratheon, who has suddenly captured his sixth castle. In the final battle, Stannis Baratheon just manages to overpower the defending forces at Harrenhall, thereby earning the mantle of Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.

Conclusion

In the end, it was truly an epic game day. A fun time was had by all, both in victory and defeat. I am really glad that I was finally able to get this one back to the table for a shot at redemption.

But would I recommend that you purchase this game on a whim? No. As my story illustrates, it can be quite difficult to get this game to the table with exactly six players, which most agree is when it really shines (as confirmed by the BoardGameGeek community). It takes work to organize a time to play and to ensure that everyone knows the rules well enough. In our game last month, even with all of us studying the rules ahead of time, we still realized we were making a few misinterpretations midway through.

If you’re willing to put in the necessary work to prepare and organize, or if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who owns the game – by all means, enjoy it! But if you purchase this game and expect that opportunities to play it will simply materialize… you know nothing, Jon Snow.

 


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