Game Of Thrones: The Board Game is, frankly, so good at making people loathe each other that it should be quarantined lest its energies seep out and ruin even the deepest of friendships. Despite this, it's one of my favourite board games. Should that scare me?
With Game of Thrones’ Eighth (and final) Season nearing release, what better way to build up our collective hype than to talk Game of Thrones: The Board Game from Fantasy Flight games – a beast of an experience that’s traumatic as it compelling. Is it worth playing? Is it like the show? Can you go back to a time where Ned Stark was still fighting-fit and a complete human man? The answer to all of these questions is, I think, yes! Come with me, dear reader, on an adventure into 4+ hours of cardboard treachery, and sublime thyself in the vile soup of deceit that is to follow.
Game of Thrones: The Board Game is a 3-6 player competitive territory-em-up in which you and your friends duke it out over a gorgeous reproduction of Westeros, with aim of garnering 7 castles. Now, the rules get a little hairy, so stick with me here! Each turn consists of three phases – the Westeros Phase, the Planning Phase and the Action Phase, although you skip the Westeros phase on the first turn so let’s jump straight on to the planning phase, shall we? In the planning phase, players put different kinds of order tokens onto each of their territories – march, raid, defence, support, and consolidate power. Each one has an associated action – so march allows you to move your units from one space to another, and the modifier provides a bonus to the attacking player in combat – but we’ll get to that later, because that system is kind of tricky – and support allows you to support that combat, or indeed other combats, contributing the strength of those units to the embattled area. Unless they are raided by the raid order (still following? great!), which cancels out support orders and consolidate power orders and the special version of that token gives you the ability to cancel defence orders, which is useful but its limited by the number of special orders you can give, which is dictated by your position on the king’s court track. But we’ll get to that later, and then, lastly, the consolidate power token either gives you power tokens that you can use for bidding later or for placing on territories to keep control over when you leave them (but you don’t get them back when you move back onto the territory) or instead you can gain a muster point with the special version, so you can muster a unit but you’ve got to keep under the supply limit which is dictated by the number of little barrel icons printed on areas you control, but only when the Westeros card comes up so we’ll go over that later and then, of course, you have house cards which add their strength to combats and do special effects unless of course there’s a combat in a garrison, and then there’s routing and ports and mustering and bidding and tides of battle and wilding and fEatUres and COMpONents anD aNd MEcHaniCs and Oh mY goD whEN DOES IT END?!?!
… The point being, Game of Thrones is quite a heavy game, and one that might not exactly be the best introduction to people who like the show, but don’t really play these kinds of board games. It also has plenty of small, irritating rules that even people who have played the game many, many times will often fail to fully explain to new players, slipping through the cracks of their oftentimes lengthy explanations. Its systems are fairly simple on their own, but seeing how they interlock and interact with one another is what produces a fairly daunting rulebook. 30 pages of rules, in fact, that normally takes the same number of minutes to really, thoroughly explain to your group if you have even one new player! Combine this with the sheer length of the game (the box almost mocks you with its suggestion of a 2-4-hour playthrough – a 6 player game will most likely will stray towards 5 or 6 hours total) and sitting down with the beast seems like a daunting task; one that most people will shy away from. It’s not a great first impression.
But if you gather the right people in one place, people that are excited by the prospect of 4 hours of hating each other’s guts, then Game of Thrones is fantastic in so, so many ways. Firstly, Game of Thrones: The Board Game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The board is wonderful, coated in colourful, chunky pieces and the art on the individual player screens and house cards is also really, really great. Alongside this, the little power tokens and hulking great sword and throne tokens are great little additions, tactile, fun and thematic – it’s wonderful, and can be taken a step further with a spot of additional ambience – may I perhaps suggest a candlelit experience? Maybe even a costume or two? When a game looks this good, it entices you to play, and maybe even… eat? (Look, the soldiers look a lot like boiled sweets that your grandmother might have in a tin for special visitors, don’t judge me, okay?*). Nevertheless, the game’s theming is top-notch in getting you into the mindset of the power-hungry denizens that inhabit books and tv show, so much so that every time my group gets to playing it, they hum the Game of Thrones theme tune as they turn their pieces over. It’s brilliant.
Secondly, the mechanic of those little pieces turning over is disgustingly good. It’s the heart and soul of the game – what creates the intrigue and excitement and disappointment. The soaring highs and crushing lows as you discover your friend has lied to you through his teeth, or that your sworn enemy left himself completely open for an attack whilst your orders show a plain defence; it’s tense, dramatic and simple. Combined with this is the combat system in the game – there’s no dice rolling, just cold hard numbers paired with a slice of timing and a twist of positioning – making it tremendously satisfying when a well-planned attack goes well, or terribly dramatic when someone clinches victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s spectacle, but with tremendous depth – as the hero cards in each players hand with their tide-turning special effects add yet another layer of strategy – when one of your limited pool of heroes is used you have to wait until you’ve used all of them before getting them back, so a secondary, meta game appears over the top – when do you use your most powerful card and when do you hold back? You find yourself asking these questions as you eye up your opponent, who will most likely be furiously sweating over much the same decisions as you are. All of this is slathered in deals, negotiations and promises that are as ruthlessly snapped in half as quickly as they are made – it’s a system ripe for exploitation and gives you a an authentic Game of Thrones tang. But as much as you hate your friends, the constant, unseen threat of the Wildlings causes snippets of co-operation. The ticking-clock of when they will strike causes everyone to save a couple of their precious power tokens for moments of bidding to, hopefully, do a bit of damage control. If victorious, the highest bidder gets a bonus, but if you lose, everyone gets a bit screwed, the lowest bidder especially – so it’s a unique additional mechanic that adds just another layer to this gorgeous roast-dinner of a gaming experience.
Most interestingly of all, to me, is the morbid fascination of watching your friends slowly come apart as they play the game – starting off relaxed and laid-back around the table, and slowly learning further and further inwards as the game progresses, with every single order token resolving a tiny step of their own personal master plan whilst simultaneously ruining someone else’s. The core of the game is held here – in the feeling of elation that you’ve one-upped someone, and the resulting upset when you dash their plans against the rocks. It’s addicting, and hence I’ve probably played Game of Thrones more than any game in my collection.
But having played the game so many times, its flaws gradually start to reveal themselves over multiple playthroughs – some of which I’ve mentioned above, but none are quite as evident than its slightly off balancing. To me, the Lannisters seem to be the butt of the joke every single game, with no real bonuses to help them out from the get-go and a hell of a lot of exploitable weaknesses. This is especially important considering their instant border-rubbing with the Greyjoys, who I would strongly recommend get the ‘Most Powerful Faction’ badge – they have a seemingly endless supply of unique and powerful house cards as well as a near-impenetrable home base, with the Starks in the North often starting too weak to properly pose a threat to them. The Starks, also, are often lumped with tackling the Baratheons, who, in a 4-player game, have the bottom of the board completely wide open to their machinations. And 4-players is perhaps the preferred way to play the game, as 6-players can sometimes push sessions into Twilight-Imperium-style 7-hour sessions that crawl along in their final moments as people constantly blockade each other from winning. On top of this, the ‘Tides Of Battle’ cards are a ridiculous modular addition – increasing drama, perhaps, but taking away the calculated victories that the game shines with – and hence they are never even considered for use when we play these days. Lastly, there are problems in how dramatically accessibility is linked with balance in this game. If you’re lucky enough to be situated next to someone who isn’t quite so hot with board games, you will have the luxury of demolishing their entire territory in one swift motion – which is brilliant for you but, as expected, pretty depressing for them. More so than other games where players who are less experienced can sort of float along, Game Of Thrones is ruthless – by design, perhaps, but it leads to strange situations in which you end up not making the “correct” tactical decision because you’re worried about hurting feelings, souring the mood and turning people off playing the game in future. Even if you do end up making the decision to really beat them up, there’s sometimes a strange feeling that your victory feels a little hollow – and much the same feeling arises when you ‘sneak’ victories by clinching a few unprotected castles in quick succession. It’s a strange balancing act that takes place in every game, and one that there’s no obvious remedy to.
As much as I have a heap of concerns about this game, I can’t help but feel as though those concerns arise from just having played it quite so much – because the tangible joy that exists on first-timers faces (after that hurdle of a rules explanation) is perfect. Regardless of my balancing complaints, Game of Thrones: The Board Game feels just like actually being some kind of despotic ruler or warlord in George R.R Martin’s lovingly crafted universe, its tenser moments perfectly replicating the drama of the show, for better and for worse. I think this game is, contrary to all I’ve said about its strange balancing and accessibility, a pretty great gateway game too, but only for the right kinds of people. Those people are perhaps those who aren’t particularly into the idea of establishing train lines in Ticket to Ride or trading sheep in Catan, but do get excited at the dramatic Risk-esque experience that Game of Thrones offers, and understand that hey, board games are pretty cool, whodathunkit? Personally, I’ve introduced this game to plenty of different people over the years – some sort of dismissed it as a one-off experience, but others began to seek more experiences like Game of Thrones: The Board Game on their own after playing – and there are few games that have that same power to turn people into fans. As much as it can induce a rages state unlike any other game, with the right people, it can be a lasting addition to the table – it was one of the first games I introduced to my group, it still gets played today, and we’ve branched out into all sorts of wacky experiences like Pandemic Legacy, Descent, Twilight Struggle and more since. For all its shortcomings, Game of Thrones: The Board Game manages to pin down what makes board games such great pieces of entertainment – the shared experience, storytelling and excitement that comes with your own microdrama on a Sunday evening in. It’s messy, sprawling and unbalanced, but it’s a great experience, and for that, it has to be recommended.
*they taste bloody awful, if you were wondering
Game Of Thrones: The Board Game is available now via Fantasy Flight Games.