Righto, another ‘A Song Of Fire And Ice’ by George RR Martin inspired game published by Fantasy Flight Games, but not to be confused with any of the others. This is a board game, not a card based-game and as such comes with a pre-made board that you lie down on a table and play with. It is also worth mentioning that this is the second edition, which means the number of players has increased and likely reflects the widening of the world in the novels. It helps to know the world either by having read the books or seen the TV show ‘A Game Of Thrones’ based on the books, the mechanics and game flow make sense. As is customary for my reviews, this game was played in a pub over the course of about three hours. Cider did ensue.
The background to the game is that three to six players are required to take on the role of one of the great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, as they vie for control of the Iron Throne through the use mastery of resources, subterfuge and skulduggery. The game is played over the course of twelve rounds and the way to win is by gaining control of seven castles of strongholds, the first player to do it or the player with the highest number at the end of the game is the winner.
To begin the game, each player receives an army of Footmen, Knights, Siege Engines and Ship units, as well as a set of Order tokens and other necessary components. Each player also receives a deck of unique House Cards, which are used as leaders in battles against rival Houses.
Each round in the game is made up of three phases: the Westeros Phase, the Planning Phase and the Action Phase. The Westeros Phase represents special events and day-to-day activities in Westeros. There are three different Westeros Decks and each denotes a different global action, potentially affecting all players. Therefore each House will react differently to each Westeros card that is revealed. It helps to shape the game and throws in that random chance players cannot always cater for, but can still exploit if they are clever.
The Planning Phase is perhaps the most important. Here you secretly assign orders to all of your units by placing one order token face down on each area you control that contains at least one unit (Knight, Footman, Ship or Siege Engine). This portion of the game emphasises diplomacy and deduction. Can you trust the alliance that you made? Will you betray your ally and march upon him? Players may make promises to each other (for aid or peace, for example), but these promises are never binding. The result is tense and compelling negotiations, often ending in backstabbing worthy of the Seven Kingdoms.
During the Action Phase, the orders are resolved and battle is entered! When armies meet in combat, they secretly choose one of their House cards to add strength to the battle. Finally, the Houses can consolidate their power in the areas they control and use that power in future turns to influence their position in the court of the Iron Throne and to send help to the Nights Watch to stand against the Wildling hordes that are trying to invade from the north. This in itself is a cool little mechanic. If the Wildings do invade that turn, players must secretly decide how much support they give. If it’s not enough the Wildings are successful in their raid, but then a penalty must be paid…but perhaps by not sending resources to the north, that player has kept more power for themselves and the next turn. But then everyone knows that player cannot be trusted…
What is significant about this game is that there are no dice. The outcomes of battles are based purely on the relative strengths of the forces involved in the conflict, thus it is a zero sum game. If you can engineer the situation to your advantage, you will win. There is an optional Tides of Battle feature which does introduce a random element but we chose to play old school. Having read my description of the gameplay, some of you might recognise these mechanics from another classic game: ‘Diplomacy’. Just as in ‘Diplomacy’, only through manoeuvre, support and troops massed at one point can you win. But it is no easy task and you have to rely on the assistance of other players’ armies that are near you and your intended target.
So as a fantasy take on ‘Diplomacy’, this works really well. Unlike that classic but simple game, there is more substance going on which adds an extra level of complexity and planning. Like any good game, the eventual winner (damnable Lannisters!) won in the final turn by recognising and exploiting an avenue that no-one was able to stop. They ended up winning control of seven castles and strongholds, even though the Starks (me) held more land and had greater stores of influence. I started strongly but over extended…heard that before?
A point to note is that we had four players and the minimum is three. The maximum is six which allows all the territories on the board to be controlled by the player. The game dictates which territories are controlled depending in players. So with four, it meant the bottom third of the board – the Houses of Highgarden and Dorne – were treated as neutrals. This meant they could be attacked and their lands taken but they had no ability to attack themselves. So our winner, House Lannister, only had to move his forces south against non-player forces that were inherently poor at countering him. You could argue it is up to the other Houses to stop the Lannisters but as a first go, this flaw does work in House Baratheon/House Lannister’s favour as they are centrally located whilst House Greyjoy and House Stark fight it out in the northern portion of Westeros.
All in all, however, this was a truly fun game. The rules didn’t take long to master and there was a genuine dynamic going on in terms of who was going to screw who. If only we had had six players, this would have been an awesome game. I want to play it again!
(pub: Fantasy Flight Games. Price: £43.25 (UK); $59.65 (US). ISBN: 978-1-58994-720-7)
check out websites: www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=172 and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Game-Thrones-Board-2nd-Edition/dp/1589947207/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1371378376&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=9781589947207