A Game of Thrones: The Board Game has become my absolute favorite table top game. I have never played another game that so satisfyingly combines strategy, combat, alliances, bluffing, and bidding. Its greatest strength is also the thing that probably turns off a lot of casual board gamers: it’s so confoundingly complex that it takes half a dozen games before you even figure out exactly what the hell you’re doing. The sheer number of variables to keep track of, from other players on your borders to bidding for influence to fending of wildling attacks, can be overwhelming. But navigating all these variables and pulling off a win despite the chaos surrounding you brings a satisfaction like no other.
The game is for three to six players, but in my opinion it’s not worth playing without at least five. Fortunately I have a group of friends that has been playing it a lot lately and thoroughly enjoys the hours-long event that is a session of the game. Unfortunately, the back-stabbery and cluster-fuckery that comprises a session is exactly the kind of thing that ruins friendships.
Rather than spend a ton of time going over the rules (there are many videos on Youtube that explain it more succinctly than I ever could), I’m going to record my experiences of our most recent game to give an idea of what a typical session does to one’s fragile psyche. Suffice to say this: the object of the game is to control seven castles within ten turns, which is harder than it sounds. We don’t even finish all ten turns usually (we started this session around 7:30 and ended around 11:00 and only played eight turns).
We like to randomly assign Houses, and I ended up with Greyjoy, the most aggressive and pointlessly violent of all Houses, which was cool because I’d never played them before. Greyjoy’s immediate threat is the filthy, incestuous House Lannister, played in this session by my pal Jared (who may or may not be filthy and incestuous himself, jury’s still out). The squids and the lions are immediately abutting each other’s seas, so the only choice for them is ally or die. And alliance can be profitable because it frees the squids to go after Stark in the north, a nice juicy target, and opens up the Riverlands for an all-out Lannister assault. Of course, alliances can only go so far before they get broken.
What was interesting here is that last session I was Stark and the squids and lions immediately allied. I was fending off a belligerent Greyjoy (played by Jared) for most of the game, and ended up winning when the lion’s support finally went sour, leaving Greyjoy without much sea power, having ceded it to their ally. So we both knew from that experience that an alliance between squid and lion was especially tenuous given the Greyjoy affinity for the seas. It also meant an alliance was out of the question. One of us was claiming the sea, and the other was going to a watery grave.
House Stark was played by my friend Andrew, who immediately did the thing the foolish Starks are best at: he left the North and marched down the neck. Since I was locked in a death struggle with the lions, I offered the wolves safe passage past my territory if they left me alone. Unfortunately, the wolves didn’t see the benefit of that arrangement, and soon enough I had enemies on two fronts. Those Stark sons of a bitches infuriated me to no end with their nipping at my heels, preventing my rightful conquest of the Lannister scum!
The Tyrells, Martells, and Baratheons were busy screwing each other over down south and east of me, so I didn’t worry about them much, which ended up being a mistake when the sand-humping Martells, played by my friend Steve, suddenly became the dominant power on the board later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lannister and Greyjoy are fairly evenly matched at the start. Greyjoy has the benefit of Valyrian steel, which grants +1 combat strength once per turn, but Lannister has the messenger raven, which lets them issue more orders and change one order at the start of the turn. These are both pretty awesome advantages if used correctly.
All orders — march, defend, consolidate power, support, and raid — are placed face down simultaneously at the start of each turn. After flipping them over, they get resolved based on a player’s influence over the Iron Throne (which is bid on at certain intervals, and is part of what makes the game so maddeningly complex). Lannister has the advantage in acting first and issuing orders, while Greyjoy has brute force on their side.
The first turn made things crystal clear: the lions and squids were going all out to murder each other. It was an epic back-and-forth struggle, with the heroes of both Houses coming out to play. In every combat each player plays a card from their hand to add to their military strength. These all have cool art and a lot of them have sweet effects, like increasing attack or defense in certain situations. Anticipating which cards are coming and keeping track of which ones have been played is an important part of the game.
In the end I managed to hold off the dirty, treacherous wolves (and that fucklord Roose Bolton), who had their hands full with the Baratheons in the east (played by my friend Pete). The Lannisters got distracted by the forces of the rampaging Tyrells on their southern flank (played by my buddy Mike), and weren’t able to stop my bloodthristy ironborn marauders from pillaging their way through the Golden Sound and taking Lannisport as their rightful prize. Unfortunately, our knock-down, drag-out fight left me too occupied to expand much beyond my starting position. My sea power was unmatched, but my land power was wimpy compared to the others. There was nothing I could do to stop Steve’s back-stabbing, gout-ridden Martell bastards from cruising to victory.
It doesn’t help that the squids are handicapped by a lack of power tokens from the very start (used to bid on influence), and can’t play as many orders as the others. Brute force only goes so far. Playing to the strengths of your House and compensating for its weaknesses are the crux of the whole game, and you’ll find yourself losing very quickly if you don’t adapt. No strategy stays on course for very long, and that chaos is what I love so much about the game.
It also doesn’t help that we screwed up the rules several times and had to constantly consult the guidebook to make sure we were playing right — and this is a group that has played several times before. So it goes. In the game of thrones, you argue over the rules or you die.
Final thoughts: if you like adult board games (Candy Land this ain’t), give A Game of Thrones: The Board Game a shot. It will confuse and infuriate you, but that’s the point; it’s confusing and infuriating all your opponents too. Like any good Westerosi activity, it’s best enjoyed with strong drinks on hand and ready to be quaffed. Give in to the chaos and have fun screwing over all your best pals in the most despicable fashion. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, also, there aren’t actually any dice; I just thought the title sounded clever.