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Mother of Dragons, Pray for Us

A Review of the Third Edition Game of Thrones

by Lawrence Hung

Season Finale and Essos, the New Land

I played the first and second edition game with five factions back in 2004 and 2012. The first game, therefore, was played before the HBO mini-series. In fact, the first edition game was designed and released before the series. I should say, however, that my passion and interest in this game died down a bit after all these years, though not necessarily the same with the stories about Westeros themselves. It is mainly because the game is more about strategic operations in one map, while the actions in the TV series are much more tactical. The bond between the two is not as much as you would have thought. Of course, the strategic locations of the respective houses in the beginning still give you a strong sense of being there and the amount of research efforts to take  the book to a game authentically is still amazing as a start. The map is expanded in terms of the playable area with the "Essos" board when compared to the previous editions as the new houses come onboard. The units of the houses not picked by any player are still deployed as Vassal units on the map. Basically, they are controlled by the player(s) highest on the Iron Throne track and so control can change hand from turn to turn and so one more tactics to get involved. As Stark in this game of five, for example, I got to look after when the unplayed Arryn and Baratheon in this game change control as the forces of both are just positioned in front of the door of Winterfell. If they are not in control of your own hands, better watch your opponents moving them to foil your next game plan.

On Come the Targaryen and the Dragons

As in the first and second editions, the strength of A Game of Thrones lies in its solid basic design of the game engine, which leads to no gamey strategy or tactics. Different houses have their own agendas and ambitions in different stages of the war as their positions or spheres of control shifting and changing on the map. Victory point tokens are tracked to see who is winning and who is behind in terms of the number of areas controlled on the map. A player wins the game once he controls the 7th piece of land which contain either a stronghold or a castle, or, if he is the one highest on the Victory Track at the end of turn 10. Essentially, A Game of Thrones is about the control dominance of the seven kingdoms, though you don't necessarily have to control the lands of your opponents. There are many and enough "neutrals" in Westeros to gain control with. House Targaryen is a bit different. The house aims to build up its rapport in claiming the Iron Throne. They look for "hidden" supporters in the area when a card pn the Westeros IV deck is "resolved" by placing a Loyalty token on the designated area, which doesn't have to be an area containing a stronghold or castle. Again, Targaryen wins the game when they control 7 areas with such Loyalty tokens, representing a general uprising in Westeros against the Administration of King's Landing. Unlike other houses, the Loyalty tokens once claimed, they would not be lost even though Targaryen lost its control over the land later on (except for Targaryen's own home area, Loyalty token of which can be gained or lost). So the Loyalty tokens represent the hearts and minds of the people rather than the power conferred by the land grabs. The Targaryen have three dragons as military units. But first they have to be "grown" over time as their strength begins as 0 and increases on every even turn by one, to a maximum of 5. The dragons can fly to any land (yes, any) but they resolve combat like other land units normally. In our game, Anthony used Targaryen to win the game, which is not a surprise as nobody wins a game early enough with 7 land grabs. You can imagine the longer the game (hence the nearer to turn 10), the more powerful Targaryen you can expect.

The Iron Throne, Yours to Claim

I particularly like the initial planning operations for each area with a force where an operation token has to be placed. The operation tokens are revealed simultaneously once everyone has made their decisions, you therefore never know what your opponents are up to. Your plan to attack may, for example, be foiled by a Support order taken by the defender with naval “bombardment” support from neighbouring sea fleets. Other orders include Raid (to negate all other orders except for March), March (to move your units in one area to the adjacent area(s) and possibly fight the enemy already there), and Consolidate Power (to collect power tokens on the map together with the token itself). However, a caveat in combat is that you can only fight a house one at a time, meaning that you can't split your force in two and attack two different houses with the same March order token. Another point to note for the March order is that you can always move your units in an area being assigned with such order. Therefore, you can combine different forces into one single larger force as long by moving units to the adjacent area being assigned with a March order. Power token is established in an area once a House took control over it. Power token in an area prevents enemy units from retreating into it and can be used in bidding during Wildling Attack. Very tense game throughout with this innovative hidden order system, with a touch of fog of war, which still shines today more than 16 years after its original release.

Winter is Coming, the Wildling

While Wildling Attack is mentioned, the mechanism of bidding the Power Token should be explained here a little bit more. Some cards in the Westeros decks have a Wildling icon, indicating the number of threats (1 to 3) being added to the Wildling track. When the threat token on the track reaches 12, or as an event on the card, a Wildling Attack occurs. Each player bids for a number of Power tokens secretly as contributions to the strength of the Night Watch for defending the realm. The realm wins when the strength of the Night Watch is equal to or exceed that of the Wildling, whose strength is determined by the position of the token on the Threat track. The token is then reset to 0 on the track and the player who contributed the most earns "Night’s Watch Victory”. Otherwise, the victorious Wildling resets the threat two spaces back on the track (i.e. to 10) and thus the Wildling are coming back pretty soon. The player who bid the least amount of Power suffers a severe penalty while the other players suffer a lesser penalty as described on the Wildling card. The Wildling Attack mechanism is one of the sweetest chrome to simulate what would happen in the story of A Game of Thrones.


And so the Maester says

Overall, a marvellous design and a very good game with colourful maps and components, and a lot of possible strategic options throughout the entire 10 years (turns) of the game. It doesn't get a perfect score of 10 just because of the slow game pace. The game takes time to develop for a full out attack. Being the house of Stark in this session, I found the relative quietness out in the north, as it is quite rightly an isolated part in Westeros. But it was mainly because no one in our game chose to pick up a house, the House of Arryn and Baratheon adjacent to the Stark (well they are generally friendly with the Starks, aren't they?) I made it to the island of the Targaryen for an ambush but that became a distraction to me unfortunately, as Anthony took the opportunity to grab the last Loyalty token in the North needed to win the game. Otherwise, it depicted very well the "true" picture and general "history" of the novel and the land of Westeros.

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