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Subject: Game of Thrones VS Starcraft rss

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Tony Chen
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In this review I compare Starcraft The Board Game to A Game of Thrones (Second Edition).

The greatest and most important similarity between Starcraft and Game of Thrones is that they both use some sort of face-down token placement mechanism for assigning actions for the turn. In both games, action tokens are placed face down in territories during an assignment phase, and then resolved one by one in an execution phase. This secret token mechanism is the meat of both games. However, the two games have slightly different takes on this mechanism.

In Game of Thrones, the action tokens and the territories owned by the players have a one-to-one correspondence. Namely, each player assigns one secret action for each territory he controls.

In Starcraft, the players take turns placing action tokens face-down on planets. However, each planet may hold any number of action tokens from multiple players. A planet may have zero action tokens on it, or it may have three from multiple players. The later placed action tokens are stacked on top of existing ones.

In Game of Thrones, the action tokens are resolved in order by type. Specifically, all the Raid tokens are resolved, then the Movement tokens, and lastly the Consolidate tokens (for collecting “income”).

In Starcraft, players take turns resolving one top-of-a-stack action token at a time. As action tokens are resolved and removed, more action tokens become available for resolution. This means that the types of actions aren’t resolved in a fixed order (e.g. a Move token may be resolved before a Build token, or vice versa).

Neither versions of this secret token mechanism renders the other obsolete. This is not a situation of Caverna and Agricola, or One Night Ultimate Werewolf and vanilla Werewolf, wherein objective arguments can be made that the later version fixes something in the former (even if the ultimate preference for one game or another is subjective). This is closer to a situation of Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz, or Imperial and Imperial 2030, wherein the games in each pair are counterparts on “completely equal footing.” The changes give a different flavor, but don’t objectively improve anything.

The two versions of the face-down token placement mechanism give rise to excellent emergent gameplay, creating different kinds of problems for the players. (Wikipedia: emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in…board games…that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.)

In Starcraft, the order in which the action tokens are resolved can be gamed through “capping.” For example, Player A may have planned on Building units, and then Moving those units to an adjacent planet. Player B, sensing this, may “cap” Player A’s Build token with another token of his own, thereby forcing Player A to resolve his Move token before he has built anything to attack with. In another example, Player A may cap Player B’s Build token with a Move token. Since Player A’s Move token is on top of Player B’s Build token, Player A will get to attack Player B’s planet before the latter can build units to defend.

In Game of Thrones, its secret token mechanism and map give rise to an emergent gameplay with a spatial element. The spatial element is further enhanced by usage of passive action tokens, and their interaction with active action tokens. (Support and Defend tokens aren’t resolved on a player turn, and instead passively support/defend against other actions in adjacent territories.) For example, a Support token supports Player A’s attack in adjacent territories. However, a Raid token from Player B in an adjacent territory may remove said Support token. But then, an adjacent Raid token from Player A may remove the Raid token from Player B before this removes Player A’s Support token. This is where turn order comes into play, which is bid on with Power “coins” every once in a while (certain event cards will call for a bidding on turn order).

The “one revealed action token per territory” mechanism in Game of Thrones is well suited for usage of passive action tokens and spatial gameplay. Passive actions would not work as well in Starcraft as it would remain face-down until a player takes a turn to flip it.

Although order matters within each action type in Game of Thrones, the overall order of actions is not gamed to the extent it is in Starcraft. Indeed, all the action tokens in Game of Thrones are revealed at the beginning of the execution phase, so while there is second-guessing during the assignment phase, there is less mystery during the execution phase (regarding the action tokens themselves, combat cards may add uncertainty here). In contrast, uncertainty exists in Starcraft throughout the execution phase because action tokens remain face-down up to the moment they are resolved. This makes second-guessing in Starcraft more intense and extended, which I like.

Looking beyond the secret token mechanisms, Starcraft is generally more ambitious and has more content. One welcomed complexity in Starcraft is its income-production engine, replete with tech trees, building upgrades, actual harvesting and spending of resources, etc. This is done well and adds to the Starcraft theme (of which I am a huge fan) and the satisfaction of building an army of handpicked, specialised and upgraded unit types. In Game of Thrones, production and income is very abstracted and minimalistic. In this sense, Starcraft is more like Twilight Imperium and Eclipse wherein players actually plan how to build/upgrade stuff, and Game of Thrones is more like Rex and Blood Rage wherein players are mainly concerned with how to move his units.

However, every other complexity in Starcraft does less with more. Everything in Game of Thrones complements the secret token mechanism better and more simply.

In Game of Thrones, combat is resolved by comparing the attacker’s strength from his Move token, moving units, supporting units, and combat card, to the defender’s strength from his (potential) Defense token, defending units, supporting units, and combat card. In Starcraft, battle is resolved through a convoluted skirmish mechanism. To be fair, the skirmish mechanism does give rise to some interesting emergent gameplay of its own, but the rules-to-effect ratio is simply too unfavorable. Can an assist unit (a specific type of units) lead a skirmish? Can a surviving assist unit defend a territory? If a Zealot (ground to ground unit) faces a Scourge (air to air unit) supported by an Ultralisk (super ground to ground unit), the Zealot can kill the Ultralisk with a cheap shot because when a unit “kills” another unit which it cannot target, the unit supporting the untargetable unit dies. It’s a mess, and I am not saying that the skirmish mechanism isn’t interesting. In fact, it is interesting and the decision points do come through during gameplay; it is also not developed and streamlined as much as it could have been.

Extending the discussion about combat, in Game of Thrones each player has a hand of seven combat cards with varying strengths (and different special abilities). In Starcraft, players also have a deck of combat cards, which are “bought” (when executing Research tokens), played (during combat), discarded, and reshuffled in a Dominion-like manner. Again, this is a great opportunity for creating an interesting mini game, and it actually does; but not as much as it could have nor as streamlined as it could have. Game of Thrones accomplishes more with a third of the number of combat cards.

The map in Starcraft is more complicated and less interesting than the streamlined counterpart in Game of Thrones. Do I have to have units in a territory to harvest its resource (no, as long as you own the planet in general), or to earn its victory points (yes, even if you own the planet in general). Also, map-wise, the computer game Starcraft actually plays more like Game of Thrones, with emphasis on maneuvering in a two-dimensional terrain instead of planet hopping.

The event cards in Game of Thrones are more straightforward, relate to the secret token mechanism better, and matter more.

Finally, the minimalistic engine of Game of Thrones includes a brilliant “triple track system” (whereby players bid for turn order, combat tiebreak, and number of star action tokens--more powerful versions of the standard ones--available to each player per turn). This mechanism is thematic (without going into details, I’ll just mention that it involves a Throne, a Sword, and a Raven), and fits exceptionally well with how the rest of the game works. For example, one “problem” in Game of Thrones is that combat often results in ties. Bidding for combat tiebreak efficiently turns a problem into an emergent gameplay. Starcraft would have solved that problem with some fiddly rules.

All in all, both games are great because of their secret token mechanisms, which provide emergent gameplay in spades (one geared more toward a spatial element/adjacency, and the other toward a timing element/order of execution). However, the rules in Game of Thrones are much more efficient, by far. As ambitious as Starcraft is, and as much content as it manages to create, it has even more loose ends hanging. Starcraft is what one’d get if he took Game of Thrones, made it better with more content, topped it with a brilliant capping mechanism, and then made it worse by Battle-Star-Galactifying it.

I have to give a nod to Game of Thrones for being the superior design. The efficiency of its rules is nearly perfect (99%), really complementing its secret token mechanism and making said secret token mechanism shine.

However, even with all its faults, I personally place Starcraft on an equal footing as Game of Thrones, with one caveat: I will only play Starcraft in a 2v2 or 3v3 setting. Under a team setting, the secret token mechanism of Starcraft shines through by itself, in spite of its other inefficient rules.

Assuming I am down for gaming, I’ll rarely turn down either game. I love both. Specifically, I love Starcraft more, but I also hate it more. The edge to one or another comes down to circumstance: Game of Thrones is a free-for-all affair that is best with six; Starcraft is a team game best played 2v2 or 3v3.

In summary, Starcraft is better if you (parenthesis indicating my personal preference):
-have four players and want to play something 2v2 (circumstance specific)
-like the theme of Starcraft, and cool minis (yes!)
-want a complete production engine and tech tree (yes)
-enjoy complicated games (no)
-like Battlestar Galactica (4), Twilight Imperium (7), and Eclipse (7)
-appreciate gaming “which secret actions cap which secret actions” (yes!)

Game of Thrones is better if you:
-have six players and want to play something free-for-all (circumstance specific)
-like the theme of Game of Thrones (no)
-enjoy movement and posturing of armies (yes)
-appreciate efficient rules (yes)
-like Blood Rage (8) and Rex (8)
-appreciate gaming “which secret actions are assigned adjacent to which secret actions” (yes!)

You can follow me on Twitter @drunkenkoalaBGG
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Matteo Angioletti
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drunkenKOALA wrote:
However, every other complexity in Starcraft does less with more. Everything in Game of Thrones complements the secret token mechanism better and more simply.

Nice analysis!

Agreed on every point of your comparison, especially the quote above.

I'd also add that Starcraft is way more fiddly and a little bit more luck based than AGoT.
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Salman Qaisar
United Kingdom
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drunkenKOALA wrote:
Wikipedia: emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in…board games…that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.

Thanks for that definition - I love Cyclades for this very reason!

Great write-up!
I just played 2nd game of AGOT 6-player - lost as lannister player (how the heck can lannister's do well if noone is willing to ally with them??)

Regards, Sal
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