Boardtalk Empire - A Game of Thrones!
Welcome to another installment of Boardtalk Empire, the series in which I endeavor to sum up just how amazing and accessible board game truly are! See that guy over there? He might be into board games! That girl? Her too! People are flocking to the world of board in droves, but that guy? He's a jerk who thinks board games are for jerks, and he kicks puppies. Don't talk to him.And speaking of unnecessary cruelty, let's get down to looking at today's game: A GAME OF THRONES!
Many of you will have seen the HBO series, and many more of you will have read some or all of the books by George R. Martin. George has a propensity for glorious, complex and terrifying cruelty, a live view that translates staggeringly well to this... well, let's say 'conflict heavy' game.
In Westoros, the world in which A Game of Thrones takes place, power is what people want. More than that, they seem to need it, to be genetically hardwired to lust after it. Martin essentially paints this incredibly nuanced, detailed and fully-functioning world, complete with an ocean of characters with independent drives and motivations, then he opens the door to power just a fraction. Then, everyone goes absolutely batshit mental trying to be the first through the door. It's a bloody, undignified, and bloody tangle of stories in which every action has a consequence, and every allegiance can come back to bite you.
The game board here is literally a map of Westoros, divided into different areas, which will be fought over or passed through during the game. Each player assumes the identity of one of six great houses - Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Tyrell, Martell and Greyjoy - and from there, endeavors to screw the other players as hard as possible. Each house has a starting area on the map, each area hobbled or blessed by various strategic weakness and strengths. The Starks, for example, have a wealth of troops and land, but they're bottlenecked between The Wall (an impassable wall holding off the wildling hordes) and The Neck (a tiny bridge of land connecting the north and the rest of the continent).
Every house has similar peculiarities which shape the way you'll play them; more than one house starts the game surrounded, which instantly makes those players more aggressive, as they instantly feel threatened by other players. House Greyjoy has excellent naval powers and is based on an island, but they, too, are surrounded, meaning people playing Greyjoy will likely find themselves acting like a true kraken. Incidentally, to act like a kraken in this context is to be an absolutely psychotic bastard. Just FYI.
Unlike board games I tend towards, A Game of Thrones places everyone in the same boat: the crap one. Everyone starts with an equal chance at victory, because everyone is allocated their house randomly. But where A Game of Thrones truly becomes a terrible and unique beast is in its alliances. You see, the game actively encourages you to make the kind of seedy, flimsy and fraught alliances that happen constantly throughout the books, and you're actually allowed at any time to call to another player, or indeed players, head into another room in the house, make plans, and return grimacing confidently.
But perhaps that bathroom break an hour earlier involved you texting a secret counter-plan to the only person you didn't invite into your war council, and perhaps this new alliance has been forged specifically to screw everyone else in it. You see, you have several options with troops in this game; you can do things like pillage adjacent lands, invade, and defend, but you can also support. At the start of each turn, everyone places a command token face down in each territory containing their troops, and on the count of three, every person simultaneously reveals their tokens. This is when people show their true colours; alliances fall apart and dissolve into heated yelling matches. Double-crosses are revealed, and long-standing bitterness begins to fester.
You see, just like in the books, in order to win the Game of Thrones, you need to tread on people. And you also need to navigate an ocean of preconceived ideas; perhaps that one person in the group who tends towards creepy backstabbing behaviour in every game they play has changed their ways. I mean, they're playing House Stark. Maybe they'll get into character and foster good relations with the other players. You'll essentially have to deal with real, actual bastards in this game. Hell, you'll probably have to become one, which really does become one of the A Game of Thrones.
Here, by the way, is a dry but brief look at the mechanics and actual pieces of the game. The dryness of said video has prompted me to do this exact kind of video myself, starting two issues from this one.
There's also one more wonderful mechanic I should mention before wrapping this up. The Wall, as fans will know, holds back the impending threat of a wildling invasion. The game has many complex mechanics I don't have time to discuss at length, ranging from bidding for powerful tools of office each turn, to changing the shift and order of play with underhanded abilities. But eventually, the wildling track will reach maximum capacity. At this point, everyone needs to chip in a certain amount of coin, so to speak, to provide troops to stop the invasion. This is done with closed hands. Here's the kicker, though: the highest bidder gets a bonus if the invasion is halted, but they've also just burnt off crucial tokens. So it becomes a massive game of poker, with players promising one another that they'll put in the required tokens, some players betting nothing because they think the amount of outbidding for highest contributor will cover their lack of tokens, and in the end, everyone is either relieved or incredibly angry.
It's a stressful game, and the stress certainly isn't alleviated by the typically six hour session time. After six hours, you'll be either mad as hell, or utterly exultant and reveling in your deftness of assholery. Either way, it's an absolute work of boardgaming art, and whether or not you're a fan of the source material, you'll love it.
You'll hate your friends for a full week afterwards, though.