23 June 2014

Game of Thrones 2nd edition comparison review

Here's an unexpected return to a boardgame I never thought I would touch ever again - Game of Thrones, the second edition that is.

A long time ago I wrote about the first edition and how I didn't like it at all (you can find the post if you search for Game of  Thrones here on the blog). Since then a second edition of the game had been released, and since my girlfriend owns the game I gave it a try since I heard the updated edition was supposedly better than the original. And yeah it actually was. It's basically the same game, 3-6 players backstabbing each other in an attempt to conquer as many castles and fortresses in the fantasy realm of Westeros before the end of turn 10 (or an earlier instant win to the player who captures 7 castles/fortresses).

The core mechanics are still the same, players use power tokens gathered from their lands in order to bid on the Iron Throne, the Valyrian steel blade and the messenger raven and fight their opponents using a mix of units (meeple's) and "house cards" depicting various faction specific characters from the Game of Thrones series. And there is still the Wildling threat (barbarian tribes from the north occasionally raiding/invading Westeros). And yet there are changes that makes this version bearable for someone who hated the first edition.

Let's start with the obvious, the game board and the components look a LOT better than first edition. First edition in comparison looks like a very poor and cheap attempt to make a Game of Thrones themed game. The artwork on the battle cards and the map of the continent of Westeros itself are inferior to that of second edition. The game also comes in a standard sized Fantasy Flight Games box bow rather than the large, unwieldy and hard to storage box of first edition. The wooden flat painted meeples of first edition have been replaced with plastic meeples with a marble tint to them that look pretty.

The new  version of the map also features corrected borders to make the game playable for the Lannister and Stark factions, since their sea border with the Greyjoy faction is now shifted and doesn't allow either one of those faction to be turn 1 rushed by Greyjoy ships. The map also incorporates something that was introduced in one of the first edition expansions - harbors. A harbor provides players with a safe place to build up their fleets and offer a change to fight back a blockading enemy fleet where in first edition you were unable to place ships in occupied sea regions and there were no harbors.... So yeah, this is a major change that repaired a lot of the broken and frustrating moments in first edition.

Additional features that I like is that the Wildling attack cards now offer a bit more in terms of reward and punishment to the players if they overcome or fail to stop the Wildling attack. Now you have rewards to the player who bid the highest number of Influence tokens if the collective attempt to stop the Wildlings succeed, and a "highest/lowest bidder" effect if the Wildling attack isn't stopped.

Other balance issues of the game has been adressed with the following news:

1) Siege towers that add +4 to your combat strength if you are attacking an area with a fortress/castle. Siege towers cost 2 mustering points to build and are limited to 2 meeples per player. The siege towers are also worthless when defending and are destroyed if you are forced to retreat.

2) Mustering can now take place using the special (star) Consolidate power order. If placed on a fort you can muster 1 point, if placed on a castle you can muster 2 points without having to wait for the "Mustering" card to be drawn. First edition suffered from having no other options than to wait around for the Mustering to occur as a random event and often saw players just sit on their behinds and bide their time. Now armies or at least reinforcements can be built in between those events and offer a much more active combat round in the game.

3) Special Raid (star) order has been changed from raiding two areas to instead being able to remove the Defend order! This is also a big and in my opinion welcome change, as many stalemates are effectively removed with all three new elements to the game.

4) Additional combat cards have been added to the game, the rules for using them is optional but I HIGHLY recommend using them since them add 0-3+ to army combat strength and may also add additional Swords, Fortification and Skulls (instant killed enemy units) to combat. This new element makes the game less predictable when it comes to combat, and players are no longer able to calculate "automatic" victories which is a fresh breeze to the previously teeth grinding step of this game. Now there is a certain risk if you attempt to attack with too narrow margins, but it also allows to gamble with small armies and actually being able to pull off occasional victories in ways that were impossible in first edition of the game.

That being said there are yet one additional thing to the second edition I like, and that is the expanded amount of "Neutral force" tokens. These are used to plug holes on the map if you play with less than the full number of players (3-5 instead of 6). These tokens come in two versions, either the area provides a defense value and can be conquered using troops - or it is impassable and unconquerable (mainly in 3-4 player games). The blocking off certain areas balances the game with fewer players where first edition failed because there it was too easy to expand into unguarded southern regions with certain factions when the game was played with fewer than the max amount of players.

Overall the second edition is a remarkable improvement and actually turned a game that I hated into a game that I can play without objection (though still not my favorite boardgame).


Now for those of you that have not played the first edition and want a short summary of the game here it goes.

This is a 3-6 player game, each player controls a faction with its own unique combat cards (faction characters with various strengths and abilities) and the aim to control the largest chunk of the continent of Westeros that is in the middle of a civil war. Through deception, wheeling and dealing and cunning players attempt to capture areas on the map containing fortress/castle icons - the player with most such locations at the end of the game wins. An instant victory is also awarded to the player that captures his 7th castle/fortress.

Combat is performed with a mix of order tokens that add -1 / 0 / +1 to the combat value of your army where meeples are divided into Footmen (strength 1) , Knights (strength 2), ships (strength 1) and siege engines (strength 4 when attacking). Army units can be stacked, but the number and size of armies depend on how much food you have in your realm - thus capturing food resources to supply your armies is as vital as capturing victory locations. Do aid your armies you have 6 characters in a "combat deck" for each faction which can either add combat value or special abilities to your attack against an enemy, (sometimes they add both a combat value and a ability). Combat situations in one region can also be supported by nearby friendly troops that have been given the "support" order. Players not directly involved in the combat can also aid the attacking or defending player by pledging support with their own units that are in nearby regions.

Beside managing the "Supply" resource in the game and attempting to capture the victory locations there is also a power struggle for the Iron Throne, the (Fiefdoms)/Valyrian Steel blade and the (Kings Court)/Messenger Raven. On several occasions there will arise a bidding situation prompted by event cards that has players bid "Influence" tokens for each of the three titles. These influence tokens can be gathered from the board by consolidating power, and regions with crowns painted on them are extra valuable when it comes to gathering influence. The more influence a faction has the more likely it is to either win the bids for the three titles, or place itself high up on the track.

The titles give really good advantages to the owner, the Iron Throne allows the owner to rule in any situation (except for combat) when two players see a draw - for instance during the bidding for titles on the influence track.

The Fiefdoms/Valyrian Steel blade allow the owner to either add +1 bonus to his attack or change the additional combat card drawn from the stack so that a crappy +0 card can if all goes well turn into something more substantial. Perhaps the most valuable title is the Kings Court. Additionally, during combat situations when the battle is a draw, the player higher up on the Fiefdoms track wins over those lower on the same track.

The winner of the Kings Court/Messenger Raven is allowed to change one of his order tokens when everyoen has revealed their orders at the start of a turn, or take a look at the upcoming wildling attack card. Furthermore, placing in the top tier on the Kings Court track allows players to play more special orders during a turn than t hose on lower levels.

Influence tokens are also occasionally used to beat back Wildling invasions from the north, so it is often good to have a few at hand saved up for those random events.

And so  the game goes, players raid and attack each other, wheel and deal with their opponents to come up with alliances, backstab and bid their way to power and victory over a game that lasts 10 turns (or less if someone manages to capture 7 victory locations). It's not that difficult a game when it comes to rules, much of the strength and weakness of the game is tied up in the players taking part in the gaming session. Playing with people that are too kind and never attack, or playing with overly agressive players can ruin the game. You have to be able to reason with opponents, and occasionally be able to rely on their word, otherwise the verbal diplomacy part of the game is pointless and the game can become 6 players waiting around to make opportunistic actions in a otherwise deadlocked situation. Thankfully, many of the boring and frustrating parts have been fixed in this revised Second Edition of the game, enough so that the importance of player character doesn't impact on the game as much as it once did.

Game of Thrones: Second edition, 7.5/10 

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