Saturday, March 28, 2015

Plan, brawl and betray with Game of Thrones: The Board Game

Posted By on Sat, Mar 28, 2015 at 7:45 AM

click to enlarge NATE WARREN
  • Nate Warren
Love the feeling of standing at the brink of destiny, the enemy before you, behind you, to the side of you, a breeze in your face and a knife at your back? How about supply chain and financial difficulties to give it all some extra flavor?

Fantasy Flight’s Game of Thrones: The Board Game (Second Edition) puts you in charge of one of the fantasy realm of Westeros’ six major houses (Stark, Barathon, Martell, Tyrell, Lannister and Greyjoy) at the time of a succession crisis. You’ll raise armies, forge and break alliances and vie for critical influence over the course of the game. The winner is the house that first grabs seven castles on the map. That part is simple enough. Nothing else about the game is.

Let’s get this out of the way first: This game is not a quick learn, either mechanically or strategically. The rulebook is quite granular regarding the game’s many interlocking actions and phases; if you get this game, be prepared to invest some time reading this rulebook if you want to have a good experience. We sat down to play a few weekends ago and one of our friends pointed out three or four little procedures that we were still getting wrong after three years of play.

Think of a much, much deeper form of Risk and you can start to picture this nerve-wracking game. Take my recent experience commanding the forces of House Tyrell. Right off the bat, the Starks, Greyjoys and Lannisters all formed an alliance and announced that they would cooperate to push south together. I quickly formed a non-aggression pact with the Martells to take some pressure off my eastern flank and buy some time to deal with the building storm of aggression up north. But the Baratheons weren’t having any of that, arriving by sea to completely mop up my ally’s forces in just a few turns. I had potential disaster on two fronts.

Every turn, I had five kinds of orders I could give to my forces: movement, supporting other regions, defense, raids and power consolidation. To top that off, I had the challenge — as did the other lords — of building up supplies of power tokens to be used in blind-bid auctions that could move you higher on one of the game’s three influence tracks. (These tracks confer special advantages that can be quite important to the end game. My experience is that if it’s round five and you’re not at or near the top of one of them, you’re losing.)

I was able to keep the Lannisters honest by mustering a solid force around Highgarden, my capital. While I had some success skirmishing with the Lannisters on our borderlands and coasts, I could do nothing about the masses of Greyjoys and Starks building forces and gaining position even further north. I was a spectator for the game-winning moment when the Starks decided to betray their allies and rush down the middle to grab the winning castles.

This betrayal is de rigueur for a Game of Thrones. If you’re playing in the spirit of the game, any alliance you make will be discarded at the critical moment so you can grab the Iron Throne for yourself. The strategic question is when to do it, because if you break an alliance, you’d better end up on the throne, because whoever you left twisting in the wind will be looking to return the favor. Pair that with influence track pressure, money pressure and trying to raise and feed a decent army, and you’ve got a class-A brain-burner on your hands.

How well you get inside other players’ heads, forge alliances and twist the knife at the critical moment is the real driver of success here; the many bordering lands and sea lanes for attack mean the board is too porous for you to rely on simply bringing the other claimants to heel with pure might. Also, the amount of armies you can place in various regions is quite limited; you won’t be able to turtle in a corner of the board (like the Australian Strategy in Risk) and build up massive forces unmolested.

You’ve got to wheel and deal as you manage your armies, wealth and supply; this was House Tyrell’s downfall. I should have made a bid to drive a fissure into the Stark-Lannister-Greyjoy bloc or worked more closely with the Baratheons to slow them down. I didn’t and I lost. It’s a game as complex and unforgiving as it is rich and engaging. You’ll have to be more than a fan of the HBO series to enjoy this humbling and stressful game.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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