Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Game of Thrones, The Boardgame

Some time ago I discovered George r.r. Martin in connection with his novel The Armageddon Rag. The book was considered an out-of-print secret gem and sounded exotic and mysterious. I eventually tracked the book down and over time read most of Martin's work. He's been a prolific writer with a lot of talent but little visibility until quite recently. Now, of course, his Game of Thrones series has received lots of exposure through its presence on HBO and the franchise has generated a number of games.

Which is to say what a fiction-forward person I am, Heh.

I actually find the Game of Thrones series to be self indulgently lengthy and the body count amongst the main characters eventually makes you distance yourself from any emotional investment in the story. Further, it seems like each critical event in the book is accompanied by one or more characters displaying jarring intervals of carelessness or stupidity which allow hugely telegraphed traps and treacheries to take away yet another likable character.

Back to the games. I got a chance to play the Game of Thrones boardgame several times recently and it's a lot of fun, perhaps even more fun for someone who dislikes the books. In the game you take the roles of one of the warring factions in the game world. Your job is to conquer a good portion of the island of Westeros and prevent your opponents from doing the same. Much of the game mechanic is similar to Risk- you move tokens representing armies around the board and, generally speaking, larger armies defeat smaller ones and take territory. Like Risk, the GoT boardgame features some diplomacy as you try and convince your neighbor to leave you alone or expand in some other direction and eventually some backs are going to get stabbed when these little deals go awry.

The GoT boardgame expands on Risk in a few ways. Players have combat cards that add to their fighting strength. Some cards are better than others but you need to use them all before using any given card again. Thus, you have to decide whether to use a great card or wait for a more important battle later, and your opponent is doing the same. Further, there are several decks of event cards that impose random restrictions or cause game events to take place. The cards don't unbalance the game once you know what they can do- you simply accept a bit of chaos into your plans and sometimes even hope for it.

I enjoyed the GoT boardgame immensely. The combination of diplomacy, strategy, and luck is well balanced. Each faction has some strengths and interesting playing qualities. If you like the books then it's exciting to pretend to be one of the Starks or Lannisters. If you dislike the books it's equally fun, I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's fun to poke at such a serious and humorless series.

The only possible drawback to the game is that once you start falling behind I don't think there's much of a chance to catch up or have a huge effect on the game. The players may pile on the leader and a new leader will emerge but it's unlikely to be a player who's lost a lot to start with. If you're going to play GoT then you have to be OK with the possibility that you'll spend an hour or two losing, or at least definitely not winning. For some people that can be demoralizing, myself for example.

I think the Game of Thrones boardgame is a great choice for people looking for a longer game with lots of players that combines military strategy and diplomacy. Basically, if you want to move on from Risk this is a great choice.