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26 January, 2012

Games of Thrones

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I have been playing the Game of Thrones board game for many years now. I would also describe myself as a big fan of the books, though I have not yet gotten around to reading the most recent one, and I eagerly look forwards to the next season of the TV adaptation, but the board game was my entry point into the franchise. I think it’s fair to call it my favourite board game. Two expansions exist for it, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, though I only have the first one myself. I have tried the second one, but did not really care for it as much.

The game came out in a second edition not too long ago, incorporating several of the expansion features in the core game, and with all new artwork. Before Christmas, I ogled the box in the store, considering purchasing it to replace my trusty old first edition, but decided not to at the time. I recently had the opportunity to play it, and while I did enjoy it, it convinced me that not buying it was the correct decision simply because what is new in it isn’t different enough from what I already have to buy it again.

That sounded very negative; let me try again by looking at the differences instead, and giving my opinion on them. As I am not too familiar with the Storm of Swords expansion, I am not entirely sure which features are taken from that and which are brand new, but I will try to navigate it as best I can.

The most obvious change from the old edition is the new artwork, and mainly the new board. The whole map has been redrawn, and the data tracks along its side have been redesigned. The new map is darker than the old one, and looks slightly more … realistic, I suppose is the word. The labels on the various areas are smaller, and in my opinion each area felt more crowded. While it is a very pretty map, I think I prefer the old one, as I find it clearer – clarity being more important than photorealism during a game. In addition, the new game pieces are not solidly coloured in the new edition, and I found that they could easily end up disappearing on the board, blending too well in with the map.

On the plus side, the map now incorporates the ports from the Clash of Kings expansion, printed right on the map; a big improvement from the port tokens of the old edition. It also uses the expanded south from the same expansion, letting the game support six players from the get-go. These are great advantages, in my opinion. While the borders have been redrawn, I think it is only general shapes which have changed, not which areas border which, so the game balance has not changed. The redesigned data tracks also look good, and the addition of a victory track made it easier to spot who was approaching a win. All these things I liked.

All the tokens have been given a new look as well. I liked the tokens for neutral forces, and the way they incorporated information on when they were to be used on them. I did not so much care for the new Order and Power tokens, which seemed to me both darker in hue and less crisp, and even smaller in size than the old ones. I also prefer the old Messenger Raven token to the new one. The House Start Cards have been done away with entirely, replaced with the new House Screens, which were perhaps my favourite innovation in the new edition – they were much more useful as a reference and useful for hiding your tokens from your opponents. They also looked very nice.

There are some new cards, as well. The House cards have been replaced – or at least, they are not the cards from either the base game or the Clash of Kings expansion. It is possible they are based on cards found in A Storm of Swords. In any case, the mechanic is the same as ever, and the new cards work well enough, though I did not examine all of them. There is a new deck, the Wildling Deck, which I have been told is also a Storm of Swords feature, which alter the outcome of a wildling attack. This adds an element of unpredictability to wildling attacks, which I can appreciate; it makes gambling on the outcome of an attack more risky, and also makes the Raven token more valuable, as its owner can peek ahead at the next card in this deck. The wildlings now attack automatically upon reaching their full strength, rather than waiting for the card that unleashes them, a mechanic than can potentially lead to more frequent attacks. They are also not reduced to zero if they win, but simply lowered one space. All in all, it seems attrition from wildling attacks is much more likely in this edition

An element of unpredictability I did not care as much for were the new Tide of Battle cards, which I believe are a second edition innovation. Drawn at the end of a combat, they add a random number to each side’s combat strength, as well as sword or fortification icons. They also include the possibility of immediately killing one of the opponents forces outright, win or lose. I appreciate that many people enjoy a random element, and as seen above I like it myself on occasion, but the iron clad predictability of the combat mechanic has always been one of the main selling points of Game of Thrones for me. With full knowledge of your opponents forces, and which cards he might potentially hold, it all comes down to the tactics of the situation (no boon for me, really; I am a dreadful tactician), and the support you can persuade neighbouring armies to give you. I understand that the Tide of Battle cards encourage gambits in play, and increase attrition further, but I remain sceptical. I believe they are an optional rule, however, so the game could still be played without them, if you can find a group who agrees.

Finally, a word about some of the rules changes. With the increased attrition, it was nice to be able to muster at will using the starred Consolidate Power order, and it was an order I found myself placing often. I am still a bit ambivalent about it though, the rarity of the mustering card and the potential wait between each appearance of it gave each game a unique flavour – you could end up with every unit on the board within a few rounds, or you could go the whole game eking out existence with the bare minimum of troops. Overall, though, I think this might be a good change. The change of the starred Raid order – no longer capable of two raids, but instead empowered to remove a defence order – did not really come up during our game, so I have no idea how that change plays out.

Some of the Westeros cards have been replaced with cards where the holders of the three great tokens decide the effect – choosing for instance between a mustering, a supply count or no effect at all. This also makes the great tokens more valuable, increasing the reward for bidding high when the opportunity arises, and I have no objection towards that. The garrisons now protecting each of the players home bases are also an interesting and welcome touch.

The final change I can think of is the change in four player games – Tyrell has become a neutral force, while Greyjoy becomes the fourth player. This means that the pressure normally faced between Greyjoy, Lannister and Stark in a five player game is maintained in a four player game, making the riverlands hotly contested from the very beginning. To compensate for the now wide open south, a large number of neutral forces are placed there, but even with the presence of these, it seems to me that Lannister and Baratheon have a fairly free range to mop up a great many castles virtually unopposed unless Greyjoy and Stark work together for much of the game.

I’ve gone on for too long now, so I’ll wrap up. As I said, I do not think I will be purchasing the second edition, simply because the changes made alone are not worth the price of admission, given that I already have the first game. The changes that I liked the most can easily be applied to the old game without too much effort – in the case of the altered star orders, no effort at all! I think I can make my own house screens, and maybe even new neutral force and garrison tokens if I really want some.

A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is an excellent game, and it remains an excellent game in its second edition, and for those who do not have the first edition – or even those who have the first edition but none of the expansions – it would certainly be worth the money.

5 Comments »

  1. While I find it somewhat amusing how many of the additions you say you liked are from Storm of Swords (the new Westeros cards increasing the value of the no. 1 spot on the influence tracks, the Wilding deck, the garrisons), which you start out by saying you were unimpressed by, this was a highly informative and interesting post, thank you. :D

    From reading this, I must say I am overjoyed at some things (better neutral forces, integrated ports, added use of the Messenger Raven), indifferent to others, and skeptical to a handful. The Tide of Battle-cards sound downright nonsensical to me, but the game has always included optional variations and expansions to include more random luck, so subduing my obsessive compulsive need to use Everything and simply leave those unused in the box should be par for the course. I also sort of dislike putting who is in the lead on a chart, as the psychological factor of being told who to grind on by the game itself seems like it would undermine diplomacy, but I can see arguments in favour of this innovation too, and so I am on the fence about it. More troubling by far is the muster-at-will (an intriguing addition, but one I worry could undermine the game as I know and love it – I much preferred the muster-at-will from Clash of Kings, as that one was rule-locked into only being used once per game), and of course the four player set-up. It sounds deliciously good to have Greyjoy in the mix, but leaving the entire south unprotected should give an already slightly overpowered Baratheon a much too easy free-for-all. If every game becomes about banding together to stop Baratheon (and secondarily, an un-harassed Lannister) to go south unopposed… that sounds trite and repetitive. I’d be highly curious to hear someone who had played a few four player games on this board tell me their experiences with it and what, if anything, that has been done in the game mechanics/set-up to keep that from happening.

    A question, by the by, does this second edition include siege engines and fortifications? How are the new unit designs looking? I know you said they were not quite clear enough on the board, but purely aesthetically, are they nice?

    Thanks for reviewing, I looked forward to this post!

    Comment by Loki — 26 January, 2012 @ 15:38

  2. I think maybe it was the alternate board with its variant game that soured me on Storm of Swords.

    Mustering at will did feel like one of the most dramatic changes, and as you can see, I am ambivalent about it. With the increased attrition, however, it might be necessary.

    And, yeah, even with almost every southern area having neutral forces (except, bizarrely, Highgarden), the South becomes too easy a fruit to pick, it seems to me.

    It did include siege engines, but not fortifications. The unit designs are mostly the same in shape – the knights have changed a little. The colours are definitely pretty from an aesthetics point of view, but I would prefer practicality here.

    Comment by Obdormio — 26 January, 2012 @ 15:53

  3. The increased attrition – you’re only referencing the Wilding attacks here, right? Wow, I have a tough time imagining that taking such a toll, but that cannot be a bad change if it does. Cool!

    Yeah, I do recall you not liking the variant game and board on SoS. Unsure why, I thought it was a great game – not as good as the base game for 5 or 6 people, as that is (for me as with you) my favourite game of all time, but much better than the base game for 3 or 4. Same basic mechanics, but so many cosmetic changes it was an entirely different experience. Would not mind replaying that many times more. The tactics cards in particular were intriguing.

    Between the new Westeros cards, the added Raven-use on the Wilding deck, and the powered-up star-orders, I must say I worry that the bidding for the Raven is going to overshadow the other two tracks by quite a lot. Is that just in my head, or did this happen in the game? Making the Throne more powerful is exclusively a good thing, as it is far too often tactically sound to tank the bidding on that track as it is, but the Raven, that is worrying me a tad.

    Do the Tides of War affect combat with neutral forces? That – meaning continued risk of casualties – could be the one thing I can think of that could maybe make southern plunder less tempting for the Stag.

    Comment by Loki — 26 January, 2012 @ 16:06

  4. No, the Tide of Battle cards were only ever used in an actual battle. One change I think I forgot to mention is that it is now possible to have a battle without units – that is, if all attacking or defending units are killed, the battle goes on with the cards added up to determine victor anyway, instead of immediately being won.

    As for the bidding – The sword also has a Westeros card effect, but otherwise remains the same. I have always considered the raven track the most valuable in my bidding, and as I have only played once, I have no idea how the statistics are affected. Some players did bid heavily on the sword in our game, though.

    Comment by Obdormio — 26 January, 2012 @ 16:13

  5. Indeed, particular contexts aside, I’d say the raven track is the best one, which is why powering the star orders up worried me a tad – the game is remarkably balanced, anything that potentially upsets that seems scary.

    Also – damnit, that was the ONE possibly good thing about those Tide cards I could think of. Grr.

    Comment by Loki — 26 January, 2012 @ 16:25

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