Reviewed by Larry Levy
(Fantasy Flight Games, 3-5 players, 2-3 hours; $49.95)
There are two basic approaches to game design. The American school emphasizes theme and believes in tying the mechanics tightly to that theme, even if the gameplay suffers. The German school, on the other hand, centers around mechanics and gameplay and will often paste the theme on at the last minute. (Obviously, these are the extremes—most games fall somewhere in between.) For some time now, the Holy Grail of gaming has been to wed these two models together, to produce games with a strong theme that have clean, straightforward mechanics that nonetheless stem directly from that theme. Many have tried to reach this goal, with limited success. However, with the release of FFG’s A Game of Thrones, I’d say that designer Christian Peterson comes as close to sipping from that Blessed Chalice as anybody has. It’s an American themed game that looks, feels, and plays like a German game.
AGoT is based on the world described in George Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series of novels. It’s a medieval world, with a few elements of magic and fantasy thrown in. It’s also a very nasty place, where warfare, scheming, and betrayal are commonplace—in short, the perfect setting for a game. AGoT is basically a multi-player war game, but it’s the sort that should appeal to many who don’t like standard war games.
The gameboard shows the land of Westeros, which resembles a somewhat elongated Great Britain. The map is divided into a bunch of land and sea areas. Scattered amongst the land spaces are cities and strongholds (large cities), supply symbols (barrels), and power symbols (crowns). The object of the game is to control seven spaces containing cities or strongholds, or to control the most of these spaces at the end of the tenth turn. Each player represents one of the major Houses of the land. There are three types of units in the game (knights, footmen, and ships) and each House begins with a small pre-determined number of these in play.
On each turn, every player secretly and simultaneously assigns orders to their units. This is similar to Diplomacy, but there are some crucial differences. For one thing, you assign orders by placing a counter face down onto every space in which you have units—this is considerably quicker than writing them down. The counters have different orders on them and their distribution limits how often you can do the same thing. (For example, you can’t order units on more than three spaces to move, because you only have three “Move” counters.) Having to work within this restriction adds considerably to the challenge of the game. Finally, you don’t have to declare exactly what each unit is doing during the planning phase, only what its order is. So you might place a “Move” counter on a knight, but you don’t have to say where it’s moving to until the move actually takes place.
There are five kinds of order counters: Move, Defend, Support, Consolidate Power, and Raid. Many of these have values on them, which modify the strength of the action. The counter with the largest value in each category is marked with a star (more about this later). The effect of the Move order is obvious. The only way to attack is to Move into a space occupied by an opponent. Units that Defend get to add the value on the counter to their strength if attacked. Supporting units can add their strength to other combats in adjacent spaces. Consolidate Power adds Power tokens to the player’s supply (one for each crown in the space, modified by the value on the Order counter). Power tokens have a variety of uses, including maintaining control in an area when vacated (players who don’t expend a Power token lose control when they leave an area vacant). Finally, Raids allow the player to remove an opponent’s Support, Consolidate Power, or Raid token in an adjacent space. Raids are resolved before any other actions and can significantly affect play if the player guesses an opponent’s actions correctly.
Ships can automatically convoy land units across sea spaces as part of the land unit’s Move. In effect, the ship acts like a bridge, regardless of what order the ship is carrying out. This makes ships very powerful and maintaining an active navy is a big key to winning the game.
After everyone has placed their orders, they are all revealed. Raids are resolved first, then Moves, then Consolidate Power orders. During each phase, the first player resolves one order, followed by the second player, and so on, until all the orders have been resolved. When units move into an opponent’s space, a combat occurs.
Combat is resolved as follows. The strength of the attacking units is compared to that of the defenders. (Knights have a strength of two; footmen and ships each have a strength of one.) The value on the Move order is added to the attack strength; if the attacked units chose the Defend order, they add the value on that counter to their strength. Any units in adjacent areas with a Support order (regardless of who owns them) can choose to add their strength to whichever side they wish. (Incidentally, units with a Support order can influence multiple attacks on the same turn, another significant departure from Diplomacy.) Each player then secretly and simultaneously plays one of their House Cards. The players begin the game with seven House Cards. Each shows a character and has a strength from 0 to 3. Some cards also have special abilities. Each player adds the strength on their House Card to their combat total and the larger total wins. Some House Cards kill an opposing unit (some also block these kills), so the loser may suffer some casualties. But the usual result is that the loser simply retreats his units (the rules for retreat are straightforward and logical) and the winner now controls the space.
Played House Cards are discarded and can’t be reused until they’ve all been played, so players need to be careful not to use their best ones up too quickly. Because the range of values on the House Cards is so narrow, combats rarely come down to a guessing game (although a player with a guaranteed win can gamble that a lesser card will do the trick). Rather, they interject a little variety into what would otherwise be a deterministic combat system.
At the beginning of each turn, some Event cards are revealed. Some of these limit the player options that turn (for example, one of them says that Defend orders may not be played). But many of them are tied to some of the game’s most fundamental mechanics.
When a Supply event card is revealed, each player checks to see how many Supply symbols are on the spaces they control. This Supply level will remain in effect until the next Supply card shows up. Supply levels determine the types of groups of units each player can have. For example, a player might be allowed to have one group of three units in a space and two other groups of two units on the board; all her other units must exist singly in their spaces. A low Supply level can make it extremely difficult to enlarge or maintain a kingdom. I’m not what you would call a seasoned wargamer, but in my limited experience, this is probably the best supply system I’ve seen: it’s clean and easy to implement, but it has a significant effect on gameplay and really gives the feel of the importance of supply in battle.
Another event card is Mustering. Players can only build reinforcements after a Mustering card is revealed. Each player can build two strength points worth of units in each stronghold they control and one point in each city they control. However, they still must obey their supply requirements, which can often limit the number of units they can build. In addition, they are limited by the number and types of units of their color provided in the game.
The Game of Thrones event card lets each player add a Power token to their supply for every crown they control. And those Power tokens will come in handy for the Clash of Kings event card. There are three Influence tracks on the board and the players are rated from first to last in each one. Each player’s initial ratings are based upon the identity of their House, but whenever a Clash of Kings comes out, the game is interrupted while they bid for their positions on the three tracks. Bidding is done with Power tokens (this is their principle purpose) and takes place via three “in the fist” auctions. The first track determines the turn order; in addition, the player ranked first gets to resolve all non-combat ties (even if he isn’t one of the tied parties). The second track is used to break ties in combat and the top spot lets the player add one to their combat strength once a turn. The third track determines how many of the starred order counters the player can place a turn (and since these are the most powerful orders, this is quite significant). The player ranked first in this track gets to swap one of their counters on the board with one they hadn’t placed after they get to see what orders everyone has placed. Each of these rankings is important and becomes particularly crucial during the endgame.
The game ends immediately if a player gains his seventh city/stronghold. Otherwise, whoever has the most cities and strongholds at the end of the tenth turn wins the game.
I know it’s reverse chauvinism, but as I was playing my first game of A Game of Thrones, all I could think was, “I can’t believe this is an American design!” The game is full of clever touches and the design feels meshed, streamlined, and fully complete. The supply rules are a stand-out for me, but they’re just one of the game’s many admirable mechanics. For example, the event cards don’t overwhelm things, but they do do a very effective job of ensuring that the game doesn’t fall victim to standard openings, a common malady for such strategy designs. They also mean that virtually no two games of AGoT are ever the same.
The order selection is the heart of the game and it works very well. One of the principal lessons of German design is that reducing choices can increase the skill level and Peterson definitely takes this to heart. With only three of each kind of order (and a limit on how many starred orders can be played), there’s an interesting tactical problem facing you every turn. Limiting the advance programming only to the order type not only speeds the game, but introduces some very nice maneuvering. Finally, the choice of orders gives the players some deliciously tense choices. Do you order a space facing a certain attack to defend or do you support it from elsewhere? What if your opponent tries to break that support with a raid? And how can you find the time to Consolidate Power to pick up some badly needed power tokens? Very good stuff indeed.
The board play is equally inspired. The different land features (cities, supply, power) are well balanced and give the players different temporary objectives. Each House has different strengths and weaknesses imposed by the geography of their starting position. Navies can be incredibly powerful and make lightning attacks a real possibility. Despite the reasonably simple rules, surprise moves are not uncommon, giving the game a very welcome dynamic feel. And the House Card combat system works very well, with the cards’ special abilities adding just the right amount of spice.
Before you run out to nearest game store and grab a copy, I should note a few things. This is quite an intense game. You’re liable to play most of your first game in a fog, as the positions rapidly get complex and the number of choices can seem bewildering. The light bulbs should go off after a while, but it may take a couple of games before you become comfortable with the strategy. In addition, this is a fairly long game. Count on at least three hours for your first game and even those familiar with the system will probably take that long for games that go the full ten turns. I’ve played with both four and five players and the game works fine with both numbers, but I’m not sure how well the three-player game would play. On the positive side, it is by no means necessary to have read Martin’s books in order to enjoy the game. Those familiar with the novels will no doubt appreciate the familiar names they encounter, but the game is certainly good enough to exist outside of this layer of chrome.
Another thing A Game of Thrones has in common with most German fare: it looks great. The board in particular is a treat—a beautiful oversized affair that shows all the many features of the map (as well as the Influence and Supply tracks) clearly and stylishly. The combat pieces are stylized wooden figurines and look quite nice. The only problem with them is that when the board starts to fill up, it’s hard to see the different symbols in the spaces (particularly when the order counters are in place). Until the players become familiar with the board, the only real option is to pick things up and check. The rest of the components are all top notch as well. Best of all, the rules are clearly written, with numerous examples and illustrations—another lesson learned from Germany. I have but one complaint. In order to keep your orders secret, it’s necessary to keep them hidden (either face down on the table or in your hand) while you assign them to your spaces. Searching through fifteen different counters is time consuming and frustrating and can make the Order phase drag unnecessarily. FFG really should have included some racks or cardboard shields so that the players could keep all their counters in view while they assign them. I highly recommend that anyone playing AGoT steal racks or shields from another game and give one to each player. You’ll find it really helps the game to move along.
If you do pick up the game, there are a couple of variants you may want to consider. The first is actually now the official way to play the five-player game and has been blessed by FFG: switch the starting positions of Tyrell and Greyjoy on the last influence track (King’s Court, which dictates the number of starred orders you can play), leaving Tyrell in fourth position and Greyjoy in fifth. Without this change, it’s possible for Greyjoy (Black) to make a devastating attack against Lannister (Red) on the first turn, effectively putting Lannister out of the game. The simple switch on the King’s Court track seems to take care of this possibility. The other thing is that if the Event cards come out in a crazy order at the start of the game, it can skew the gameplay (since this might mean the game goes several turns without new supply levels, reinforcements, or different influence track placements). Probability being the unintuitive science that it is, these crazy orderings occur more often than you’d think. Not everyone agrees this is a problem, but there have been several suggestions for dealing with this. If you’re interested, here’s a link to one that I think should work pretty well: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/20759.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the game industry today is how many new American publishers are releasing quality games. Most of these are reprints from Germany, and having English language versions of these fine games is certainly a good thing. But even better is the fact that the U.S. is creating completely original games like A Game of Thrones. If events continue at this rate, the synthesis between American and German style gaming may very soon be something less than The Impossible Dream – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Larry Levy
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Spring 2004 GA Report Articles