Yom Kippur is come and gone. Like every year I had grand plans of taking a serious, contemplative look at my life. Instead, I played the Game of Thrones board game.
If you play board games pretty regularly, or have friends who do, you might have heard rumor of this game. The rumor would likely be something about it being very long and very complicated to play. It’s all true. I spent almost six hours on it last night (and lost, badly).
The GOT board game struggles a little because it wants to maintain all the basic elements of a strategic territory expansion game, while still giving due to the core story elements form the books and show. It succeeds in parts, but the devotion to story elements is part of what makes the game so cumbersome to learn and play. The game’s initial set-up is still forced to stray from the story’s political dynamics, partly in order to give players freedom to form alliances and rivalries as they see fit, and partly for more obscure reasons.
Broken down, the elements of the game go something like this: each player plays one of the major houses and starts out with a roughly equal number of starting territories. Each territory adds one battle or supply action per turn. All actions on the board are revealed simultaneously, and acted out according to the order of the political power metric, which has a fixed initial setup and is periodically reshuffled.
To add an element of chance, cards are drawn at the beginning of each round to generate random events, such as Wildling attacks. The game goes on for ten rounds, or until one player conquers seven different castles. In our case, as I said, almost six hours (the full ten rounds).
Each of these elements has a few layers of added complexity. There are three different metrics for political power, which allowed each of us three players to start on top with some kind of advantage. Now and then there would be a kind of auction where players bet power tokens on each of the three, to reorder the power dynamics and hopefully gain an edge. Battle and supply actions are divided into five kinds (movement/attack, defense, support, raid and supply/recruit), and then further subdivided for increased complexity. Battles are acted out using weighted character cards to supplement troops.
Honestly, that only covers about 40% of the complexity of the game. Or convolution, I should say, because that’s an important distinction. Tactics, strategy, logistics even — those are welcome kinds of complexity, because they vary by the playing styles and experience levels of the players. Mostly, though, this games adds complexity via memory tricks and rules-lawyering, with an added luck element in drawing three random cards per turn.
Our game started auspiciously and overall went quite well, but would have been more fun and less wearying if I, as the newest player, didn’t get as confused about which stage of the turn we were in and what was supposed to happen next. I played House Lannister and almost immediately formed an alliance promising not to invade eastward past a certain point. Then I started stockpiling, while my two co-players bickered over the same bit of sea throughout most of the game. The strategic element then is brought in by the players, which is about right. From then on, the game pieces and cards restrict the player’s ability to enact their strategy, which is also, in theory, how it should go. There were just… too many nitpicky little bits getting in the way.
A good conquest game, as far as I’m concerned, should only have two phases to each round. First there is a logistical phase in which resources are recruited. Then there is a tactical phase in which attacks for the round are determined. The GOT board game has many more variable parts than that. For example, increases in supplies are not calculated immediately, and power tokens are used not just to mark territories, but also to bid for political power on a separate part of the board, and to fight a third party on another part.
When I laid out some of my criticism, a fellow player asked if I would rather the game be “boring, like Risk”. I answered that I think there’s a great deal of middle ground between the two. Part of the added complexity is supposed to add an element of political intriguing that goes beyond troop movements and conquering territory, but mostly manages to support the battle portions of the game and otherwise be wearying. Any “diplomatic” elements are brought in by the inclination of the players to form temporary alliances, or not.
All in all, I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. Although parts of it were immensely frustrating, I did exit the game feeling like there was a reason I lost (other than being a first time player), and that if I played again, I might win. But I also left the game trying to figure out if there was a way I could house-rule the board and pieces to a more manageable proportion, so that future games would have the same amount of fun, but less frustration.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.