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I've been meaning to do this for sometime...a paean (song of praise or triumph) to one of my favorite games of all time; A Game of Thrones (first edition). Yes, this review will be exceedingly positive, you have been warned!
Great cover, and the first of many great artwork in the game. Here Jon Snow marches off to protect us all against the Wildlings. Ah, you know nothing Jon Snow.
AGOT was a game that I acquired right when it first came out in 2003. I had recently discovered the books and when I heard the game would use combat similar to Diplomacy and had character cards similar to Dune that was all I needed to hear. We played every week for months. Eventually most of my playing group moved onto other things or in life in general, but not I. I still drop nearly everything to play it and continued to play multiple virtual games at a time for years to come. Yes, its that good.
So as many of you will likely know, this game is based on GRRMartin's hugely popular book series A Song of Ice and Fire, which the first novel of which, A Game of Thrones, this game is called after. The setting is pseudo medieval with a dash of fantasy, and is very obviously influenced by English history and geography (Warrior kings, the wall, Wars of the Roses, etc.). All good stuff, making for a broad appeal.
Books. Really five so far, this set has broken a few up into smaller chunks. But be warned, GRR Martin is ruthless. His books were the only ones I have ever thrown against a wall in shock and yet were so good, that I kept going...
Here is where the game absolutely shines!
"Winter is Coming."
You begin each turn (except the first) by turning over three Westeros cards. These cards represent random events to a certain degree.
They are often critical, as the best plans can be laid low by Autumn Rains, Sea of Storms or Storm of Swords for instance, which all render certain orders unusable for the turn. The first two decks are most important because you cannot gather supply or muster new units without the correct cards coming up, and if you were lax in collecting power the Game of Thrones can help here to generate power (equal to the crowns on map you control) because if the Clash of Kings come up, the whole balance of power can change...but more on that later.
If muster comes up, all players can place new units on the board equal to 2 points worth per citadel and 1 points worth for each city. Boats may be placed out to sea, making turn order an issue if both wish to place into an empty adjacent sea. The piece limit is absolute.
Alas, no mustering for you.
Some players will not like it when their options to put new units into play are limited by the turn of a card, but I love it. Its simple and effective. You can go grab all the castles you want, but without Muster coming up you will not get the troops out of them! You must temper your plans against what may come up in the cards, and to a certain degree you can base this on what has come up so far, although the Winter is Coming (reshuffle the deck) can mess with even that estimation.
The end result is that you are forced to make tough decisions here with what you want versus what you may get. A risk/reward analysis. The expansion and later edition tempered this with special muster orders and consolidate power options that were unnecesary imo, and serve only to mollify those that complained about this, and ruin this mechanism.
The other common first deck card and limitation on how you muster and move units is supply.
Roll out the barrel....
The size of armies (units clumped together in any one single space) is limited by supply, which is based on your controlled barrels on board. Single units are fine, they can live off the land. Anything bigger is limited by number and size. In the image above, Greyjoy at 1 barrel is limited to 2 armies, one of 3 or less units, and one of 2 units.
If you are forced to retreat into a situation where you are exceeding supply, the unit dies!
"Fear cuts deeper than swords."
Now you set about taking your order tokens and placing them secretly and simultaneously facedown wherever you have units. You are limited in using star orders by the Kings Court track, and if you have too many units you many not have enough orders for every territory where you have units. Again, tough choices must be made!
From left to right, these orders enable you to; raid enemy support and consolidate orders, consolidate (gain) power, support (any!) battles in adjacent areas, defend in combat if attacked (the only orders to all have positive combat modifiers), and finally march (move and attack) with your units.
This phase is critical to the game. This is where you must plan out your turn and try to anticipate all the things your opponents may do, and try to devise a plan that is offensive, defensive, or both. Do you cover all bases or risk it all on an all out gamble? Or do you pause and try to recover, perhaps gathering all the power you can for when that next bid comes up? Again, the Westeros cards results may play a factor here.
This phase is absolute bliss and torture at the same time! You can even discuss and negotiate with your neighbors, but very much like diplomacy, you will never know for sure if they will follow through until the simultaneous reveal of orders, and even then it might come down to the very resolution of a single raid, march or support order! Delicious opportunities for all sorts of machiavellian planning and plotting abound here.
Once orders are revealed the holder of the Raven (top of the Kings Court track) can change out one order for an unused order. Then all raids are resolved in Iron Throne order. Remove an opponents adjacent raid or support or consolidate order, gaining one power in the case of the latter.
Then one by one players resolve their march orders, again in order. A single march order moves a single force, although not all need move, and not all need move together, although only one battle can result from a single march. And as you can move land units down a chain of boats to a territory adjacent to the chain, or move units into a territory with another march order so that those units can march again, or into another territory with a support order so they can throw their weight around where it was not expected, the possibilities are myriad. The game is very chess like here, and its hard to anticipate everything. When you do, its very rewarding.
"When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die."
Units are represented by wooden (and in later editions, plastic) pieces. There are no counters with small text or numbers to decipher. A footman or boat has one strength, a knight has two. Combat is resolved by comparing the strength of forces present and any units providing support, modified by positive or negative numbers on the relevant march, support or defence orders, and whoever has the highest total wins, simple and easy to see at a glance and very determinative, no dice rolls here.
If you were marching into one of the neutral force areas (the Eyrie, Sunspear, or Kings Landing) that would be it, equal or exceed them and the tile is removed, giving you control of that land. But against players? You'll have to do better than that.
Each side now selects and chooses a house card to play into the battle, adding between 0-3 strength and modifying some factors or results with special text in some cases. Here are opportunities to feint, bluff and bluster! Setup a very strong attack, and you can even guarantee a win with a lower card. And why not? You worked hard to put yourself into that position didn't you? Alternatively, feint somewhere with a soft attack and try to lure your opponent into playing a higher card than necessary, leaving you free to rampage elsewhere (but possibly at the expense of a lost unit). Heck you might even negotiate with your opponent so that you can both get rid of low cost cards to recycle your hand even faster!
Add together your units strength, order modifiers, and the numeric value on your house card played to find your total combat strength. Beat your enemys total (or tie if you are higher on the Fiefdoms track) and you win!
Or did you? There is one last wrinkle. The top player on the Fiefdoms track holds the Valyrian blade token. Once per turn, he can forfeit the token to get a +1 modifier to his total where he is in combat. Where you thought you were beating him by one, could suddenly turn into a loss because of course, he wins *all* combat ties!
Whoever wins takes the territory. Now a comparison of sword and castle icons if any, on the house cards comes into play. Winner inflicts unit losses equal to sword icons minus number of castle icons on the losers house card. All losing units retreat to where they came from (if attacking) or to any adjacent friendly or neutral territory (if defending), and may use a boat chain here to go further. Place all retreating units on their side to show they are routed. They will move no further this turn and if forced into combat again have no combat strength and will die if forced to retreat. Wily players may will plan for this with multiple march orders and unwary players may find their armies smashed and destroyed.
Once all march orders have been resolved, resolve all consolidate power orders. Receive power tokens equal to the consolidate orders plus one for every crown printed on the map territory where those orders are. Why is this important? Well now...
"A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone."
I have left this for last because it is a game unto itself, and doesn't happen in the first turn. Whenever the Clash of Kings card comes up in Westeros deck two, all players bid for positions on the influence tracks. I have mentioned how important the Kings Court can be in terms of orders and Feifdoms in combat. You want to be higher in those for sure. But don't neglect the Iron Throne...the holder of which breaks all noncombat ties (important when bidding!) and positions on that track determines play order.
Bottom right are the tracks. Notice the stars on the Kings Court track.
Each track is resolved one by one, by all players holding out a secret bid in power tokens in their closed fist. House power totals are public until bidding begins. Bids are revealed, highest bidder takes top position on the track and the relevant special token, and the rest are filtered into position based on their bids. Ties are broken by the current Iron Throne holder.
It is important to go after only what you need when bidding, and judge what other players need as well. Dont overbid yourself and find yourself locked out of other tracks, or you may find yourself at or near the bottom of one or more of them. Dont simply split your bids though either, or you may find yourself spending more than necessary on a position you could have gained with less power, or find your opponent for the coming turn taking a key track and token above you. Each round of bidding will be very situational, depending on the board, your goals, current city count, etc. Also dont disregard negotiation, here it can be quite beneficial to agree not to bid against each other, or even seek out other players with high power counts and agree to more or less split the tracks between you. Beware being out of power though should another bid happen on the very next turn, as an Iron Throne holder with very little power can easily manipulate his way into high positions in all three tracks in that case.
There is another bid to be wary of in the game, and that is the Wildling Attack. When that card comes up and is resolved in deck 3, all players must bid against the current wildling attack strength which is tracked on the board. This starts the game at 0 (and strangely can even attack at 0) but will go up as Westeros cards are turned over with little Wildling mammoth symbols on them.
A secret and simultaneous bid of power tokens is held, simulating support and supplies going to the Nightswatch who hold the wall. If the players as a group bid equal to or higher than the Wildling attack strength, then the wildlings have been defeated. As a reward, the highest bidder can return a previouslly played house card to his hand. If the wildlings are not defeated, then all players must remove 2 points of unit strength from their onboard units, and the lowest bidder loses 4(!).
Obviously you do not want to lose units nor be the lowest bidder in most situations, nor have your opponent next to you pick up his 3 card in the middle of an ongoing war against you. But there is plenty of room to be devious in between...you may wish to bid low but not low enough to lose 4 units if your opponent will likely be going after a house card, and all the better if he bids high on a wasted bid...
"The Iron Throne is mine by rights. All those who deny that are my foes."
"The whole of the realm denies it, brother."
Victory is achieved by holding seven cities and/or strongholds. This is an automatic victory. If no one can do this, it is the player with the most cities/strongholds at the end of turn 10.
"A Lannister always pays his debts."
There is a reason I have been using Lannister images in this post. Although I enjoy playing all houses, it is the Lannister mindset you must get into the most when playing this game. You must be devious. You must crave power. You must be at turns cautious and at others bold. Let no misdeed go unpunished, let no favour go unrewarded. Unless of course, you can win the game. Then all bets are off!
As I already alluded to, I absolutely love this game! It focuses wonderfully on two things; planning and plotting.
You must take great care to plan your turn in the orders phase, but the westeros cards current and future can mess with those plans greatly, not to mention the other players. You must also be prepared to deal with future or current bids, as those can upset the balance of power greatly, to be used against you or for you. All the while, the plotting of players to make or break deals can sway things greatly!
I rate this game a 9/10.
There are only really two things that keep it from being a 10. Although a more accurate nod towards seiges and capturing of characters could be fun, that is not necessary and the addition of chrome can take away from the great core mechanisms of the game rather than add to it.
The first most common complaint (besides mustering issues which I have addressed above and I have no complaint with) are powers being locked into their lands by losing their boats and not having the opportunity to ever get boats back in the game if their opponent stays on their shores. The ports in the expansion fix this and is one of the things that second edition gets right.
The second is what I call the support knots. Because support orders are not removed after use like other orders (except for defence) there are some very powerful positions on the board that once locked in and thus immune to raids, make it very hard to dislodge people. This makes the call for support subphase of combat largely routine, as players will always support themselves and almost always support allies. Were support orders to be removed or limited to their first support choice then these decisions would be more critical and open the game up a bit more. Still, it should be no barrier to playing and enjoying this game.
There is a second edition of this game. But don't bother. First edition is the best, Seriously. No I didn't miss-capitalize that word.
The only thing second edition gets right is the addition of ports as mentioned. It doesn't address the problem of support. Well it could be said that it tried, in the addition of seige engines, but as these apply wherever they are (assuming a city/stronghold in the battle area) regardless of support, they aren't a solution to the support knots and instead become the tac nukes of the medieval age, which is just silly.
The second edition also adds a 6th player which adds to the playtime and last I checked, the War of the Five Kings involved five houses, not six. The new edition also added a lot of pointless chrome; a city track and tokens (really, you can't count the cities on the map under control?!), more wordy westeros cards, a whole deck of wildling attack result cards, needless player shields, and a mustering option for consolidate power orders. They also changed how raids versus consolidate orders works, actually stealing a power from the raided player, which is unnecessarily punitive given that the player already lost what power he would have gained. Finally, the house cards were changed so that they range from 0-4 with some pretty powerful text effects. All of this messes with a great balanced game that when left largely to its stripped down mechanisms, is an absolute joy to play.