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Subject: A long review - also covering the basics rss

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mads l. brynnum
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A Storm of Swords - review

A Game of Thrones is one of the best board games in the world. Periode. This is a review of the second expansion, A Storm of Swords, and the question is, of course, if it manages to make a good game even better?

One of the games that really got me into gaming was A Game of Thrones based on George R. R. Martins book of the same navn. Earlier this year we saw the second expansion to the basic game and it does not only bring lots of new features to the base game (as did the first expansion), but also an almost brand new game which focuses on a different part of the war.

I A Game of Thrones you each player takes control of a noble house struggling for the throne of Westeros. The game features three different kinds of troops (footmen, knights, and ships), it has no dice, but lots and lots of action and ample opportunities to backstab each other. Not unlike in the books by the way.

About the base game

A Storm of Swords is in many ways similar to the base game, so readers unfamiliar with both games can start here.

The goal of AGoT is to conquer seven cities or strongholds (marked on the board) or to be the player with most of these on the end of turn number ten. In my experience the game will usually end around turn seven or six after some two and a half or three hours of play. Most of the game is based on placing secret order tokens on your troops, but you don’t start moving them until everybody’s finished placing their orders. The orders are march (move and attack), defend (which will give the units a combat bonus if they’re attacked), support (which makes it possible to “lend” the units’ strength to combat in adjacent areas), consolidate (the way in which you “harvest” poser – that is: political influence), and finally raids. The effect of raids takes place before the other orders and can among other things be used to remove you opponents’ support orders. After raids all march orders are played one at a time including combat, and finally you harvest power. An important detail is that though you may tell your opponents which orders you place where, you may not show them before all orders have been placed. In other words your neighbors can never feel safe until he actually sees your orders.

Combat is resolved by comparing army strength (ships and footmen are strength 1, knights strength 2), and in addition you play one of your house cards with a strength of 1 to 4 adding this value. Furthermore some of these cards, that show characters known from the books, have a special ability – for instance allowing you to instantly kill one of your opponents footmen. Each player has seven cards and since it’s open information which one you’ve used, combat is best described as a sort of advanced – and quite nerve wracking – rock-paper-scissors.

Finally each turn begins with the so-called Westeros phase in which you can gain new troops, adjust your supply level (which shows how many and how large armies you can support), and futhermore there’s a chance of an auction in which you bid for The Iron Throne (turn order), Fiefdoms (who wins ties over whom in combat), and King’s Court (shows how many orders tokens you can use). In addition the top ranked player in each area of influence gets an extra benefit such as breaking political ties. You use your power tokens gained by consolidate orders for this auction.

What’s new?

The new stuff in A Storm of Swords is first and foremost of all a new board focusing on what is the middle of the old one – The Riverlands. Four houses vie for power (Stark, Greyjoy, Lannister, and Baratheon), and as a new thing crossing the rivers can be dependant on the weather which can change during the Westeros phase. The expansion also adds new house cards; tactic cards that are played in the beginning of your turn and for instance will make you better at defending or attacking; allies representing some of the lesser houses; and finally leaders. The latter are known characters from the books (and from your house cards) and can now move on the board and aid your armies. With exception of the weather and allies everything can be used in the base game as well. But do note that you have to use the units and tokens from the base game when playing ASoS.

Another new thing is the victory condition. Instead of conquering cities you have to have claim. This is gained by holding cities, but also by placing power on the so-called claim track symbolizing how much support you have backing you claim on the throne. This is achieved by support from certain ally cards, but also by bidding on a position on the claim track much in the same way that you bid for The Iron Throne and so on. And since the political game concerning turn order and whatnot it goes without saying that power is even more important in this game – a thing I find quite interesting.

But does it work?

Taking a closer look at the new things I think the leaders are by far the most exiting one. They are in a manner of speaking a march order that gives extra strength to the units, but a march order which is triggered by another order. That means that some leaders – and thereby the army they’re placed with – can move with a raid order and thus attack before all other players, and some with a consolidate order that isn’t activated until the other players have finished their march orders. This makes it even more important how and where you place your orders, but also makes the game even more dynamic because you have more ways of moving your troops. And even better the leaders can be taken captive and exchanged between players adding lots of extra diplomacy. And having your favorite characters from the books on the board adds an extra layer of thematic flavour which is definitely a plus.

The question is whether it’s really a new game or just a version of the old with some new cards. I’m in favor of the first opinion – among other things because the political game is so much more important. Unfortunately, I think, this means that you rarely win by pulling of a superb military move and thus my biggest complain is that there’s too little action on the board itself. There’s simply not enough claim on the board to fight over and therefore not quite enough reason to go to war. And after four or five plays with Baratheon as a winner I think the game might be a bit unbalanced. But this is not necessarily a problem and can as well be a result of mine own or the other players’ incompetence.

But all that being said it’s important to say that the game oozes atmosphere. Even if you haven’t read the books, it’s impossible not to be caught op in the feel of the game which is perfectly mirrored in the mechanics. And though I haven’t tried it yet, I’m certain that especially the leaders will add new life to the base game and thus making one of the best games ever even better.

Finally I should say that all components are of a very nice quality and that of course there’s more to both the base game and A Storm of Swords than what I’ve covered in this already quite long review. As the game plays now it’s a solid eight, but I’ve recently played it with a variant in which we played to nine instead of eight claim and got a claim for each river crossing we controlled both sides of. This added a lot of action and made, in my opinion, perfect thematic sense since it is after all a game about the battle of The Riverlands. I still have to test this variant a few more times, but as things are now it makes the game a personal nine or even a ten.

mads
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I really think the base game is superior to ASoS, but that was before I read your final addendum about the variant. (Though I do like the Tactics cards and new House Cards, though if playing without leaders they House Cards probably need an additional sword or two.)

I'd rate ASoS a 7 or 8 for a variety of reasons... it's a pretty good game, but I just think Leaders, while interesting, add additional time, and just lead to some things me and other players don't like.

However, I might have to try the River-Crossing variant, since while the political game should be important... the battlefield should be much more so, if for no other reason than that most of the time spent playing the game focuses on the battlefield!
 
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mads l. brynnum
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I understand how you feel about the leaders - I've never tried playing with the one-time orders from A Clash of Kings for the very same reason. But the great thing about leaders is that they add theme and mobility. The latter meaning that you have the possibility of doing something entirely unanticipated which is quite nice. I do think, however, that leaders can make for a quite short game when playing with six players. That you only need six cities/stronholds to win has for instance meant that we've often seen Stark pulling off a win in ACoK through the house card that allows him to make an extra attack, and I think the leaders might have a somewhat similiar effect.

But concerning the variant I found it - based on one play only, however - a huge improvement. The center of the board saw more action, Baratheons position became a bit weaker (because he's the player farthest away from most river crossings), and it added conflict between colours not normally opposed (that is Baratheon/Stark and Greyjoy/Lannister). I was going to write a session report, but I think maybe I've forgotten the details and so I'm going to wait until next time we play.

mads
 
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