Monday, May 27, 2013

A Game of Thrones: The Board Game!

So I sort of expected I'd be writing a Weekend Review post today.  There I was, fresh from hanging out with my buddies over a rousing moderately frustrating game of Illuminati, expecting to watch "The Rains of Castamere" and bask in the ensuing warmth of the internet exploding.

And then I found out they were taking a week off.  Dammit, HBO!

Fortunately, I was still able to get my fix of Lannisters and Starks thanks to A Game of Thrones: The Board Game.  It's something I'd purchased back around 2004 or so, and in the intervening near-decade, played a grand total of twice.  Each attempt was marked by frustration, confusion, and the realization that we'd horribly screwed up some fundamental aspect of the game by skimming over one very specific sentence amidst the walls of text and not-particularly-helpful diagrams in the game's manual.  Fortunately, after the last failed attempt several months ago, I'd taken the time to do some research on the game, and felt I had a decent grasp of the rules this time around.

GoT: The Board Game is basically an amalgam of Risk and Diplomacy, mashed together on a map of Westeros.  Each player takes control of a noble house--the Starks, the Lannisters, the Baratheons, the Tyrells, or the Greyjoys (and the 2011 Second Edition adds House Martell; if you only watch the show, you haven't really heard of them yet, but you will)--and sets out with the goal of controlling the largest number of cities and fortresses by the end of the tenth turn.

Last night, it was just me and two of my friends trying to conquer Westeros; my friend Noah got the Starks, Andrew took the Baratheons, and I claimed the Lannisters.  This is the recommended setup for a three-player game, as it gives each faction a good amount of room to spread out and flex their muscles before the war begins in earnest.  In a five-player game, the southern half of the continent tends to turn into a massive, ongoing maelstrom of violence between the Lannisters, Baratheons, and Tyrells, while the Greyjoys troll the Starks.

Prepare yourself; description is coming.

Also, the player who holds the Iron Throne
gets to punch this little douchenozzle in the
There are five primary statistics for each House.  Supply determines how many armies a House can field, and how big those armies can be.  (Army size is determined by point value; a knight is worth two, while footmen and boats are worth one each.)  Power is generated from provinces with crown icons, or by using the Consolidate Power action on a province.  It's used to claim territories, to fight off Wildling attacks, and to bid for position on the three influence tracks: the King's Court, the Fiefdoms, and the Iron Throne.  A higher position on the King's Court lets you use more Special orders during the planning phase (more on that later), and the person in first place has the ability to change one of their orders after everyone's are revealed.  The Fiefdoms track determines how ties in combat are broken; if two armies end up with the same total point value, the side that's got more influence among the lesser nobles comes out on top.  The side leading the Fiefdoms track also gets the ability to add 1 to an army's combat score once per turn, and considering that they then also automatically win a tie, it's far more powerful than one might expect.  Finally, the Iron Throne track determines the order in which actions are resolved, and whoever controls the Throne has the ability to determine the winner whenever there's a tie in bidding; if two people bid five Power to take the Fiefdoms, for example, the Throne gets to decide who wins.  In a five-player game, he who sits the Iron Throne is someone you desperately want to suck up to, but in a three-player game, as I discovered, it's not exactly as influential.

And that?  That's just the stuff happening in the background.  The meat of the game comes from giving and resolving orders, of which there are, again, five types.  Each house has a stack of order tokens which they can issue to any province they control.  Some of the tokens are marked with little stars; those are the Special orders I mentioned above, and the number you can use is dependent on your position on the King's Court track.  Everyone places their orders face-down on the board at the same time, and once everyone's done, they're flipped over and revealed.

Raid orders are resolved first.  These let you disrupt any Support or Consolidate Power orders your opponents have played in adjacent squares.  Ships can launch raids against other ships or against land, though land units can't screw with ships.  The player in control of the Throne resolves one Raid order first, then the person in second place on that track resolves one, then third, then so on.

Really, all she needs are like three boats and a
few March tokens, and Westeros is screwed.
Once Raids are done, Marches (and combats) begin.  March tokens come in three varieties: -1 (the forces attack with a -1 penalty), +0 (no penalty), and a Special token that grants +1 (a bonus).  March tokens are required to move your units around; even if you're not getting into a fight, you still need to tell your dudes to March if you want them to be somewhere else.  March tokens can be chained, allowing a single unit or army to move across multiple provinces.  Also, March tokens placed adjacent to a sea area which contains boats of your faction can be used to transport units to any province connected by the boats, and the boats themselves don't count against the movement.  That sounds complicated, but here's the upshot: boats are basically magical, teleporting bridges for ground troops, and if you've got boats in multiple adjacent sea zones, you can, for example, move a Knight from Highgarden all the way up to the Wall with a single March order.

Whew.  So.  In addition to March orders, players can place Defend and Support orders.  Defend orders grant a bonus to units stationed in a zone (usually +1, +2 with a Special token).  Support orders allow any military units in the zone the order is placed in to reinforce any adjacent allies with their full strength.  They can reinforce both attacks and defenses, and can reinforce any number of adjacent zones each turn.  In certain situations, Support orders can be ridiculously powerful, although there are some caveats: they can be disrupted by Raid orders, and you can't reinforce a province that doesn't already have military units present.  (Otherwise, I guess, the Supporting soldiers get there too late.)

Pictured: Consolidate Power, personified.
Finally, there's the Consolidate Power order, which gets you an extra Power token from each province you play one in.  Not terribly exciting, but useful.

Combat is resolved without any dice rolling, unlike Risk.  It's instead reliant entirely on point values.  As mentioned, a Knight is worth two, a Footman is worth one, and an army's maximum size is dependent on that House's Supply.  March, Defend, and Support orders all modify this number.  Additionally, when two Houses are fighting, each selects a General from their House Deck.  (These are characters from the books like Jaime Lannister, Ned Stark, Loras Tyrell, etc.)  Each General has a big number in a shield at the top of their card; that's how much they add to their army's score.  Additionally, some Generals have other abilities; a Sword icon on their card means they inflict one point's worth of casualties on the enemy army, whether they win or lose.  A Tower icon, on the other hand, prevents a casualty.  So when Tywin Lannister (two swords) and Ned Stark (two towers) meet, the result is going to be a largely bloodless stalemate.  Once a General is played, you discard them; once you've played all of your Generals, you get 'em all back.  Ironically, the board game doesn't really kill off your favorite characters.

Combat tends to be pretty nonfatal (at least in terms of army composition) without the use of sword Generals, but it's still possible to wipe an army out without one.  An army that loses a fight is forced to retreat to a zone it controls.  However, thanks to the Supply cap on army numbers and sizes, an army that retreats into a zone with a friendly army already in it and that, thus, puts this newly combined army over the House's size limit, is forced to disband units until the units present in that zone are back under the cap.  In layman's terms: the Starks attack the Lannisters at Moat Cailan, and send their Knight and Footman packing.  Thanks to the Baratheons swiping land around the Eyrie, the only place they can retreat to is Seagard.  Unfortunately, they already had a Knight stationed there, meaning that this newly combined army is worth five points.  Their Supply score caps their largest army's size at three.  Thus, one of the Knights is disbanded, since the Lannisters can't move enough materiel to Seagard to keep all of their warriors paid and fed.  It's a bit abstract and maybe somewhat unrealistic, but it puts the focus of the game on careful resource management and keeping clear lines of supply and retreat.

Wait, why are we keeping the hot redheads out,
Finally, there are the Wildlings.  In the three games I've played, they've never really been more than a nuisance, but they have the potential to be a huge game-changer.  At the beginning of every turn, you see, you draw three Event cards.  Every card marked with a mammoth symbol advances the Wildling track by one, increasing the strength of their next attack.  This keeps building until a Wildling Attack card is played, at which point Mance Rayder and his pals come a-callin', and it's up to the Houses to stop the horde.

In order to stop the Wildlings, the Houses need to pool Power equal to the Wildlings' attack strength.  However, this is a blind bid; everyone picks how many Power points they want to contribute, holds them in their hand, and then reveals them all at once.  If the Houses are feeling generous (or have the Power to spare; it's possible to draw a Clash of Kings card, which sparks a bidding war for the Throne, Fiefdoms, and Court, before the Wildings attack), they send enough troops and resources to the Wall to hold the line.  If not?  Every House loses two points' worth of units.  This can be a single Knight, two Footmen, two Ships, or any combination thereof.  But that's not all!  The House who bid the least loses an additional two points' worth of dudes.  (And in the event of a tie for that prestigious honor, the holder of the Iron Throne decides who gets screwed.  Again, suck up to that person.)

There are yet more rules--we haven't even talked about Mustering yet--but everything else is relatively simple and straightforward.  This game is complicated as all hell, but at the same time, it's really freaking fun.  It's a tense game of resource management, negotiation, subterfuge, and not a little luck, and it does an admirable job of simulating the feel of the books and show.  The Second Edition is supposed to be even better, adding new stuff like Ports and Siege Weapons, and I'm eager to pick it up when I've got the chance.

Of course, your first time (and second time, and third time) playing it, you're likely to run into a few rules misunderstandings that would have completely changed the nature of the game.  I'm sure there's more out there, but here's what we've found:

1) Armies are defined as two or more units in the same zone.  This means that you can station a lone Footman to guard zones you don't plan on passing through.  However, it also means that, contrary to what we thought, you can't mass your Ships together to create Death Armadas of Doom; two or more ships count as an army, too.

2) You claim a territory by placing a Power token on it after you move any units stationed in that zone off of it.

Sorry, Robb.
3) You can't use Generals when taking over neutral zones like Sunspear or King's Landing.

4) You can only use the +1 combat bonus granted from being first in the Fiefdoms track once per turn.

5) You can't disband armies at will.  Nor can you "give up" claimed territories to take Power tokens back.

6) The Starks always lose.


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