03 June 2011

Game of Thrones the boardgame


For a change I will review a game not to endorse it but rather to keep anyone I can away from this boardgame. Especially since it is out of print and demand for this imo poorly written game is driven up by the excellent HBO tv series Game of Thrones.

To my knowledge there are currently two A song of Ice and Fire inspired boardgames out there. Game of Thrones and Battles of Westeros. Both games were released before the TV series was aired, and while Battles of Westeros is a phenomenal 2-player tactical combat gameplay Game of Thrones aimed to be a game of strategy for 3-5 players. It is also the older game by a couple of years.

It should be noted that this game has a pretty good BoardGameGeek score with 7.5. In terms of boardgame geek games rarely get to 9/10. So most games hang around with the 8-8.5 crowd. 7.5 in comparison makes most games pretty good. Don't let yourselves be deceived by this score!

So why should any reasonable person of good taste keep himself away from this game?

Let's start with a brief rundown of the game, it is quite simple.

Game of Thrones has 5 royal families named after families in the books of Song of Ice and Fire. We have the Lannisters, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Tyrell and house Stark. Each have a starting position on the board, you get a couple of starting units as well. Every player starts out with 5 power tokens which are used for bidding on the 3 political positions available.

These political positions are "The Iron Throne", the player holding this position goes first during each turn. This is quite an advantage as you can resolve your actions before anyone else, hit enemy regions before they attack yours - and in biddings you always decide the winner if the bidding becomes a tie.

The other position is "Fiefdoms", basically the same as above but focused on combat. The person with the 1st position always win against all other players in combat should it be a Draw. The winner of this position also gets a Valyrian blade icon giving him/her +1 in all combat situations once per turn.

Last position is "Kings Court".  The person holding the first position may change one of his order tokens when the orders for all players are revealed at the start of each turn.

Depending on how you fared in each bidding you will receive one of five places in each of these 3 categories. The further away from the 1st place you are the worse your situation becomes. You can end up going last after all other players, becoming the punching bag. You can end up last and always lose combat during Draws against all other players, and if you end up last in the kings court you will be very limited with the amount of orders you can place on the board..

The goal for all players is to capture as many castles and fortress regions as possible. A player with 7 such regions wins at the end of the turn automatically. Otherwise the game has a 10 turn limit, and the person holding most castle/fortress regions will win. If there is a draw you also take the amount of supply available to each player to determine the winner. if still a draw you go after the amount of political power each player has. Quite a simple setup.

What's next is probably the engine that drives the game forward. There are 3 event cards flipped each turn. These range from "Mustering" where you receive new troops up to your supply limit. "Supply" cards that allow you to adjust the amount of supply you have according to the supply markers printed on the regions you hold and cards that give a bonus or penalty to some actions during the remainder of the turn.
The actual fighting is done using 3 types of units - Footmen, Ships and Cavalry (costs twice as much but fights twice as good as a Footman while only taking up 1 unit slot in each army). To your aid you also have "house cards" with a printed combat value, and additional bonus to your combat information. These cards range in combat value from 3 to 0 but each card has some kind of impact on the outcome. You also have the order tokens placed at the start of each turn face down - the order tokens are turned up at the same time and then the players take turns to resolve each phase (raids/march order/political support) until all tokens have been resolved.

An example of combat could be something like this:

House Lannister wants to attack house Tyrell. Lannister have 1 Footman and 1 Cavalry. House Tyrell has 1 Footman. Lannister place an march order that gives +1 to combat. House Tyrell had prepared their region with a Defence +2 order.

Lannister total 1+2+1 : Tyrell total 1+2, this would Lannister have the upper hand by 2 combat points. Now both players pick one of their house cards and play it out. Let’s say house Lannister pick a card with the value 3 and Tyrell with the value 2. This would make the Lannister player win, and the Tyrell player must retreat his troops to a friendly adjacent region or have his troops destroyed. You very rarely actually kill any units in combat.

You can also support your attack/defense from adjacent regions (land or sea) by placing support tokens in those regions. Your attacks will  then take into account all troops supporting you as well.

That pretty much sums up the game, you bid for the positions on the 3 tracks and then try to take regions on the map.

Now let me explain why this game is completely broken and stupid.

1) Geography.
Depending on how many players you play the experience may vary BUT house Tyrell and house Stark located on the bottom and top of the map have a much more favorable position in all respects due to not being completely surrounded by enemies. They can simply focus all their stuff along ONE front. While Lannister, Greyjoy and Baratheon are always surrounded by enemies and will have to place many more troops in defense creating a bad balance. While Stark and Tyrell can allocate more troops to fighting the other houses will be hard pressed to even let one single Footman be at the wrong place to weaken their kingdom.
The way the borders of some regions are drawn makes the game extremely unbalanced for some factions. The Westeros continent isn't perfect BUT if the borders of all regions were to be redrawn with game balance in mind it would have worked better. As it is now it seems the regions were just drawn without any thought process put into it.

2) Randomness of the event cards.
Usually I don't mind random events, in some games it is meant to add a layer of uncertainty. However, this is a strategy game - where you can't plan shit because you don't know what lies in wake for you. For instance the adjustment of supply and recruiting new units is completely random. You can play 5 turns without adjusting supply which means that all your conquered regions with lots of supply remain WORTHLESS until a supply card appears.
Likewise you can be stuck in endless defense due to the lack of troops as no recruitment card appears.

3) Combat.
Combat falls apart for many reasons. First of all there is a limit of markers, you get 4 cavalry, 6 ships and 10-12 footmen. When you have built 4 cavalry you can't have any more.  What's worse is that the supply limit cripples combat even further by making the maximum army stack be 4 units large. Most "armies" are just 2 often not more than 3 units large. Take into account the support order tokens in the "right" place and you can safely guard the entire frontline with 1 piece of cavalry . Breaking through a region is hard as hell, winning combat is hard as hell, killing units is almost impossible and the house cards once used cannot be used again until your entire hand has been used up at which point you are allowed to pick up all used cards and start over. This part means that you may spend your best combat card during turn 3 to win a region, only to lose the same region in turn 4 since you now only have cards with the value of 2 or less on your hand while the enemy still has his/her 3-value card!

How it all falls apart like a house of cards.
The humongous problem of this game is that every single thing is broken in either a small or a big way. You can't fix the game by simply rewrite or change one single thing. I doubt this game was beta tested anywhere near as much as most FFG usually are. Let's face it Fantasy Flight Games logo is a brand of quality more often than not. This game however suffers from really stupid design choices.

With the randomness of troop recruitment, with the extremely limiting army size and supply values (also given to you randomly), the few troop markers available, the very crappy and inefficient combat this game is extremely frustrating. We have played this game a couple of times in our boardgame group, we picked it up again yesterday after over a year and added a few changes from the expansion (adding harbors and redrawing the coastal line of house Lannister in one sea region. The game was pretty much as we all remembered it.

Broken/badly balanced, pretty boring, completely lacks anything that I would call a "theme" and in no way allowing you to make a proper long term battle plan. The only thing that has to do with the book series this game was based on are the names of the houses and you get some familiar faces on the house cards. However, the house cards don't relate in any way to how those characters work in the book series - you can have sea captains affect a combat situation on land and vice versa. There is one game mechanic called "Wildlings attack" in which the players have to make a bidding to overcome the threat value with their political points. At the end of the day though, this barely adds anything of thematic value and actually cripples the game even more since you have to spend your valuable political tokens on this crap bidding, if players lose the bidding against the threat value each player will lose 2 units, the person that bid the lowest will lose an astounding 4. Imagine the insane impact in a limited game like this!

Diplomacy was raised as one counterpoint, but there is no game mechanic for diplomacy, that is purely something between the people playing this game. There are no guarantees about holding a promise or anything locking 2 players in a non aggression pact like in other games where diplomacy is an integral part of the rules.

I don't mind the unit markers being as simple as they are - but - taking into account how expensive this game was/is it doesn't make any sense. It's not like they add any flavor at all either.The visual connection with the books is only on the house cards and the board itself.

My advice is to stay clear of this game, don't fall for the hype of the tv series just because this game bears the name of the show. It is bad, and doesn't convey anything of the Song of Ice and Fire world in the gameplay. It is broken and frustrating, and damn expensive on top of that.


Our group just can't understand how this game is supposed to be any good, we discussed at length last night all the improvements it would need and such, but we all agreed this just didn't work in its current state.

15 comments:

  1. I hope to review the other strategy game my buddy Daniel owns "Runewars" as it has some similarities with Game of Thrones but handles the options and card mechanics MUCH better giving you decent control of the actions and being an allround superior strategy game.

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  2. Love the series and books, never knew about this game but I hear what you're saying.

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  3. My advice is to wait for something more proper - there is no way Fantasy Flight Games will pass the opportunity to release something better in terms of a multiplayer strategy experience set in this universe with the TV show now airing and being extended with at least a second season.

    In the meantime, the Battles of Westeros is an excellent 2-player tactical game.

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  4. Have you played Diplomacy? This is simply Diplomacy with a bit more chrome. For these reasons, comparisons to Runewars and some other games are not appropriate. They are intended to be different.

    That aside, I am not convinced this is a good game as it is (after studying, but not playing the base game). The Storm of Swords expansion makes AGOT much more game-y and in my experience it was quite good (very much like many other FFG games), but probably for you this would be throwing good money after bad.

    Also, the AGOT LCG is quite heavy but awesome.

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  5. Yes I've heard good things about the cardgame, not really a cardgame fan myself but I think my friend had bought it. Might give it a try.

    And no, none of us is really prepared to invest more money to fix a crappy core game. Not heard about diplomacy, but this game lacks any such options haha. Runewars plays much more differently BUT - you still recruit and adjust your resources using cards. The difference is you choose when and what to do while GoT just hurls you around in random directions throughout the duration of the game. You also have a smimilar feature of random event cards for each seasonin Runewars but they play out differently in relation to the game as a whole than the way it is handled in GoT.

    We've played this game roughly 6 times, this last time we added a few expansion rule tweaks like adding harbor to certain regions and re-drawing the Lannister/Greyjoy sea border. Didn't help much although at least it allowed for the ships to be built and stockpiled for a push out to sea where in the core game you can't build and place ships in a sea zone with enemy ships which is another game breaker early game against some factions.

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  6. thanks for the heads up i will stay away.

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  7. Good to know - FFG's more recent offerings seem to be a little better IMO

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  8. The goal for all players is to capture as many castles and fortress regions as possible. A player with 7 such regions wins at the end of the turn automatically. Otherwise the game has a 10 turn limit, and the person holding most castle/fortress regions will win.

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  9. Interesting. I played a game of this yesterday at a friend's place and I absolutely loved it. Many things you mention as problems are in my opinion actually strengths.

    1) Geography
    While it's true tha Tyrell and Stark are somewhat isolated, Greyjoy and Baratheon make up for it with naval supreriority (very powerful!), and Lannister has immediate access to some high quality new teritories.

    2) Randomness of the event cards
    I suppose this is a matter of personal preference. Personally I wasn't bothered at all and even enjoyed the tension this created but I think I can see where you're coming from on this. At least they affect everyone equally.

    3) Combat
    In my experience the combat is actually very good. The limitations of army size, unit numbers, and house cards only serve to make the choices I make as a player all that more important. It elevates clever play above simple brute force and also serves as a balancing mechanism that prevents a single player from spiraling out of control. Nobody ever becomes powerful enough to take on two enemy players at once so diplomacy and good timing are crucial.

    I also like how there are no set rules for diplomacy. In my opinion being left entirely to the players just opens up more options and as a bonus it fits the spirit of the books. It can lean more on the rutheless and cut-throat side, but since I happen to enjoy that kind of thing that's just another plus.

    I'm not trying to dismiss your review as irrelevant, I just wanted to share my own, very different experience. I would recommend people to actually give it a try before making a final decision on whether to purchase the game or not. Judging by the 7.5 score the majority of players seem to like it. ;)

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  10. No problem at all sharing your opinion Dragatus, especially when written in such a good way. I think this is one of those games that isnt for "everyone". Either one likes it or goes crazy over the design decisions. I finished writing a review for Runwars earlier today, a game which fits my taste much better as the randomness is toned down and the balance is amped up.

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  11. Hi all,

    As a long time fan of both A Song of Ice and Fire and 'epic' board games I'd like to share my own experiences of AGOT:TBG. As both Dragatus and Anatoli have mentioned above, this is not a game for everyone - it takes a number of hours to play through even for an experienced group (substantially longer for newbies), and is particularly prone to 'pre-made alliances' (usually a couple in my experience) turning the whole thing into a stalemate.

    AGOT does indeed follow a Diplomacy type mechanic of fixed army values rather then a form of randomisation (ala Risk), however, what has not been mentioned is that the 'House Cards' which allow a player to influence the outcome of a battle are public knowledge right up until the moment that the player's have to pick which character to send out to fight a battle. This adds a a whole additional level of complexity into the interactions between players who are engaged and playing to win - knowing your opponent has a character who will win the battle against any of your cards may lead to you 'throwing away' a poor card to preserve your better characters, your opponent, anticipating this, may then send out a weaker character one of your own characters could have beaten - this cycle of "I know you know I know.." can become a very complex and engaging part of the game.

    A final point to make on 'balance' is that the Greyjoy/Lannister positions have been acknowleged as unfair in the opening stages of the game and an official FAQ is available from Fantasy Flight to correct this.

    Overall if your a fan of epic games, hate dice, and actually have gaming friends who try to win I'd very much recommend this. If you don't have these tastes and luxuries there are possibly better bets out there.

    Happy Trails

    /Z

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  12. Thanks for your input Zarl, very nice and informative post :-)

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  13. Do you have the first or second edition?

    It may be that some of these issues have been fixed in an update perhaps?

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  14. Hi All!

    This game really requires a lot of attention, and several tries to understand. In my first 5 plays I was just trying to understand the possibilities and the useful tactics (although I won 2 of my first 5 games).

    Now I'm well after my 25th game, and this review sounds like something I would have written after 5-10 games - you list problems that are not really problems if you start to see things more clearly. Of course we have different tastes and preferences, but it is not appropriate to call the game broken.

    The Lannister-Greyjoy problem is really present, but there are good solutions listed even in the core rule book, and also other ones you can find in FAQs. (However, this is also not a problem if you are playing with "professionals", since in the long term it is not worth it to launch a direct attack on the Lannisters at the beginning of the game.)

    Except for that I really think that the army size caps, the hero cards and the random events only add to the experience.
    Actually, without the randomly appearing Muster and Supply cards the game would not be really replayable, those are the factors that keep the game really dynamic.

    The geography in my opinion is very carefully designed. What can be really disturbing is that seas are extremely strong, but I think that was the intention of the creators.

    Maybe I am wrong about these things, but of 1 thing I am quite sure, and that is that the game has actually pretty much to do with the books! The logical actions on the map is usually the same decisions the houses made in the books. If a region is very important in the book, it is very important in the game as well, and if it is almost impossible to take if it is guarded (just like the Neck in the books), then it will also be almost impossible to take in the board game.

    There are also steps which seem beneficial and logical, but if you make those steps just like the houses did it in the books, you will end up shorter - just like in the books.

    The review about the game mechanism was really good, however, thanks for the post.

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  15. I think this review is off, probably because it suffers from a combination of inexperienced playgroup, and using the base rules of the game. Adding ports and the adjustment that removes the star order from Greyjoy, and the game played by experienced players, this game really shines.

    First, I should reiterate what was said by some above. This game isnt for everyone. The tactical dimension of the game is very deep, and mistakes are punished in a brutal fashion. Players of different playing strength cannot really play it together, as the weaker players will suffer terribly. Much like chess, a game between a new player and an experienced one wont be fun for either.

    Many strategy games require doing a single thing, focusing everything on it. AGOT is nothing like that. Balance wins AGOT every time. Fortune with getting muster or clash or such when going for it is sweet, but not enough to compensate the devastation when things go wrong.

    At the same time, its basically impossible staying on the offensive on the map all the game through. One needs to find a way to move forward when having the upper hand, and be firmly stuck in a defensive position in weakness, waiting for the opponents advantage to expire. Going defensive all the time, or offensive all the time are equally likely to lead to disaster.

    Amongst the houses in a six player game (the expansion adds Martell in Dorne, south of Baratheon), likelihood of victory according to experienced players is typically rated 1) Greyjoy 2) Baratheon 3) Lannister. if Lannister or Greyjoy manage to wipe out the other, they're in a golden seat to pull off a win. Greyjoy has the edge early on, but if the game goes on, things turn much more in favor of Lannister. Lannister needs to play patiently and eliminating mistakes. The clock ticks in their favor.
    But curiously, thats the three houses in the middle of the map! I have less experience of the five player game, but personally I would then rate them 1) Baratheon 2) Greyjoy 3) Tyrell. Not too much different, its still the middle houses having a better chance.

    I think this is based on a combination of things. In experienced groups, the use of support orders gets much more refined. The support also helps the three middle houses more than it does houses on one end of the map, making them proportionally stronger as experience levels increase.

    Another thing which fundamentally changes the game is when the group has enough experience tostart playing aggressive. New players tend to go straight at the territory they want, and spend the best card to win it, then look for next territory and use the second best, then get stuck with bad cards and take a serious beating until they get new cards.
    Experienced players attack all over the place, often losing more battles than they win. Sometimes for no other reason than to get rid of a weak card, sometimes to scare the opponent into spending a good card. Just like in the books, life is cheap, and footmen are a very expendable commodity compared to house cards.

    The final balancing step is the diplomacy, and predictions. You can never trust anyone, but you can trust they dont want to give someone else a win. It is very unlikely someone will want to help Greyjoy defeat Lannister, for example. Hence Tyrell rarely picks a fight with Lannister. In fact, I dont think I ever saw a game where Tyrell attacked Lannister and held on to Lannisport for long. When Lannisters defense breaks down, Greyjoy quickly sweeps in and drives Tyrell back from the shore. When people knows such things, it helps keeping them in check, but in new groups, Lannisers position can rather quickly get ugly.

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