5 Dec, 2012
Board games are a rare pleasure for me. I always see them through the prism of nostalgia: as artifacts from a distant time when the only other family entertainments were three channels of TV, a ramshackle back garden and a box full of plastic toys. They have never been cheap things, so households round us would only ever have a few each, purchased around Christmas time every few years. It was always a treat to go round someone’s house and discover something new in their games cupboard.
Fast forward thirty years, and home entertainment is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tastes vary for everyone (as you’ll have seen in the pages of Geek Syndicate) but it gives me joy to discover that there’s a segment of Geekdom who have continued to develop, produce and play board games in spite of the dominant force of digital entertainment.
I’m a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song Of Ice & Fire’ books (televised by HBO as Game Of Thrones) so I waved my hand like a lunatic and put on my biggest puppy-dog eyes when the chance came up to review the Fantasy Flight board game. There’s a variety of such games out at the moment, of varying complexity and quality, so be careful when you make your purchases. Fantasy Flight are a company renowned for their high production values and treasured for the variety and depth of the games they put out. I’ve had a little experience with them before, having played their Mansions Of Madness board game and their Elder Sign app. A Game Of Thrones is true to their previous form – which is both a good and bad thing. Find out why below.
Part of the glory of a good board game is the physical design and the tactile qualities they have. The weight of the box promises much, and the contents truly deliver. Zoom in on this image and you’ll see the map of Westeros, a Risk-like playing zone filled with gorgeous detail. It’s enormous, so you’ll need a decent sized table to lay it out on. Sure, you could use the floor, but that will get uncomfortable very quickly. Aside from the map area there are various ‘tracks,’ used to illustrate how the balance of power in the game is shifting (more on that later), to monitor the supply lines and to keep an eye on the time. There is also a ‘Wildings’ section at the top which adds an extra twist to the game (again, more on this later.) There are innumerable tokens to press out, playing cards to admire and playing pieces which are easily identifiable, simple and pretty.
It’s at this point that you see the size of the rule book and begin to panic a little. Here is my critical piece of advice – get to know the game well in advance of inviting your friends around. I had several play tests on my own and latterly with my wife, just to get the feel of play, begin to digest the rules and figure out how best to communicate them to my friends. This is a subtle, complicated and extremely difficult game to just pick up and play on the fly. You will find your time well rewarded if you persevere, though.
Westeros is a continent in strife. The old king has been deposed and the feuding factions are in bitter conflict over who will succeed to the Iron Throne. This takes the form of both physical and political wrangling, which are both represented in this game. Each player takes control of a ‘House’ – a leading family, with supporters (or ‘Bannermen’) they can call upon for aid. The game is primarily a military one, moving small armies across the map to try to take control of key locations, whilst protecting their own interests.
Political wrangling is represented in two ways. Directly – by bidding against each other on the Influence tracks, and more subtly – by players advising and cutting deals with each other. A wild card is ever-present; the threat of the Wildings. They are a barbarian force who threaten the whole continent. Every so often they invade, and have to be beaten back. For that the players must join forces, bidding their mutual support at the possible cost of their own campaigns. This balance between in-fighting and working together makes for a thrilling and unique experience. Ultimately, the players have a set time (10 rounds) to win the game – by gaining control of seven key locations, or getting the closest to that level of power.
This game captures the complexities of a medieval-style campaign beautifully. Everything from political wrangling, neutral forces and external threats are represented, along with the rigors of military logistics. The god’s-eye view may lack the immediacy of individual combat, but it gives a great sense of the ebb and flow of a large-scale land war.
It’s a game which broadens and deepens as the players come to understand the subtler possibilities available to them, in disrupting their opponents plans, betrayal and the use of ships to transport troops. Whilst every game begins the same, the variation in strategy between players and the different Houses give longevity to the game – an essential quality for any potential purchaser who finds themselves concerned by the price-tag.
It truly is a labour of love, with real thought gone in to how to effectively transfer the complex web of intrigue and violence across from Martin’s superb books into a playable game form. The attention to detail is admirable and, as previously mentioned, the artwork on the box, board and cards are simply stunning.
The best games combine a simplicity of design and play with many possibilities of strategy. The game takes a long time to set up and put away, which adds to the perceived value, but is a bit of a bind for the host. The sheer complexity of play makes this a very tricky game for beginners to learn, and when you couple this with a pretty opaque rule-book (see below) it becomes a hard sell to anyone not in a dedicated gaming group. Don’t be too put off though. Much of this is negated by dint of a little perseverance. Get your head round it, get properly prepared and you’ll be fine (see my pre-game advice at the very end).
For all the painstaking work and artistry that has gone into creating the game, it is rather let down by the rule-book. It looks great, but the contents lack finesse. It attempts to take the player through the game in chronological order, but continually trips over itself and pauses in order to explain every odd little wrinkle. Have a brilliant brain for wrapping around rules? Add another .5 to my rating. For my money it would be far better if the objective and the basics were given first, then descriptions of the various tactics you can use to bolster yourself/undermine your opponent, then finally how to deal with special circumstances such as the Wilding Threat. To be fair, Fantasy Flight do include Quick Reference Guides with the game, but they do not contain the particular information that I would have found most useful.
Suggestions and pre-game advice:
Get the board set up before your friends arrive. They may be a little intimidated the first time they see it, but it saves one hell of a lot of time. At the end of a game separate and bag up the starting pieces & tokens for each individual player to make future set-ups quicker and easier. (Cloth bags would look splendid, but I just use money bags from the bank at the moment.)
It is not made that obvious in the rulebook, but there are certain factors that are utterly crucial to the game. Firstly, Action Tokens. They are a precious resource, required for holding land in the early stages, bidding on the Influence tracks and also against the Wilding threat. Make sure your players understand this. Secondly, the size and reach of your armies are completely dependent on your Supply Lines. This forces you all to shape your strategies accordingly to maximise your supplies. Finally, make sure you all understand what the benefits of the various Influence tracks are.
If there is anyone out there who has created their own Quick Reference Guides, which clarify things better, please post a pdf below. Send a copy to Fantasy Flight Games too. They’re pretty good at updating their website with game add-ons and improvements.
Similarly, if anyone is skilled with the creation of apps there is a gaping need for an equivalent of the rule-book stuffed full of hyperlinks to enable quick searches, remind players of the order of play and the special circumstances. Again, contact Fantasy Flight. You never know…
All in all, I’m very pleased with the game. I’ll be testing it out with a larger group at Christmas, and I’ll post my experiences on the comments section below afterwards. If you have any comments about the game or about my review then post them down there too. Similarly, if you are a member of a board gaming club and you want to attract new members in your area, this may be a good place to mention it. You could have a fellow enthusiast just round the corner.
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak