It’s surprisingly busy, being unemployed. But unimportant facts aside, yesterday I won for the first time in Game of Thrones, a board game I recently acquired. And now I’ll inflict my thoughts about it on you. If I would summarize Game of Thrones in one word, it would probably be ”ponder”. The game basically consists of making hard choices from start to finish. The thing is, everything is always open information. And that makes the game extremely exciting.
The game area represents Westeros, and is divided into provinces and sea areas. Each place can hold only one player’s units. Each province has either a power icon, a supply icon, a castle or stronghold, or a combination of these. The player who controls most castles or strongholds is the winner.
The game starts with some randomly-drawn events, which apply to all players. Then every player simultaneously give an order to every game are that contains their unit. After the orders are given, the players resolve the orders in turn order. When an army marches into an opposing army, a battle ensues. Both players calculate their combat value, which is derived from units and orders, get support from adjacent supporting areas, and finally play a card from their House characters, who give value and effect bonuses. The loser has to retreat. There is nothing I don’t love about this.
First of all, simulturn. While the orders are resolved in turn order, every order is given simultaneously. That is extremely exciting: To figure out what the opponent is going to do and to realize that he might be thinking the same thing. The outwitting and double-guessing makes it so much fun, and should be in every game that relies on turns.
Combat is also fun, since there are no hidden elements. You can always check your opponent’s hand cards and run every scenario through. That makes it possible to only attack places where you can get a guaranteed win. But if you overplay a combat, the hand card is discarded, and you won’t get it back until you have played the rest. That might leave you disadvantaged later on. Plus, especially in the cluttered centre of the board, the players can support other players’ attacks, to for example, open a way for their own invasion. And the loser does not necessarily lose units. You can defeat a strong army with cunning support and orders, but it might simply return the next round. Even a major defeat won’t necessarily knock you out of the game.
There are three tracks that decide what happens in draw situations. The first track decides the order in which players resolve their orders. The person on the first step has first strike, but the last person can overplay the others, as I showed yesterday. The second track decides draws in combat situations. You can be stronger against one house, but weaker to another. And the last track defines how many special orders you can play. It is an important factor, but not wholly necessary for victory. The tracks are a nice addition and give a certain hard edge to the game.
At the beginning of every turn three event cards are drawn. The first one usually enables people to either hire armies, or move the supply track which defines how large armies one can field. The next card may hold a very important card: Bidding on the influence tracks. When a bidding happens, people secretly bid some amount of power tokens (money of the game) for positions on the influence tracks. The biddings are fun times: Usually a good strategy is to aim for the leading position on one of the tracks and pretty much ignore the rest. But if other people have the same idea, then high positions can be bought quite cheaply. The final card limits the players somehow, by either imposing limits on the orders that can be played, or via attack by Wildlings.
Wildling Attacks are the only times when a player can use hidden knowledge, as the leader of the third track can look at the wildling attack card. When a wildling attack happens, the players bid their power tokens in secret. If the total bid is larger than the wildlings’ strength, the attack fails an the one who bid most wins a reward. If the bid is smaller, the attack succeeds and everyone loses something, while the one who bid least loses most.
I like Game of Thrones, since it is one of those games where you play the players, not the game. Everyone knows everything, so unless your position is unassailable, you are at the mercy of diplomacy and reading your opponents. There is one problem, though: When people are planning attacks, they need to see both sides’ cards. The following pondering and calculation tends to take long, and the players on the other side of Westeros do not like to follow a fight that does not concern them in the least. But that is the price to pay for a game that rewards the cunning and the ruthless.