First Impressions - Game of Thrones: Mother of Dragons
Based on one play with 7 players. This article assumes some familiarity with the base game, a review of which is available here.
Designer: Jason Walden
Publishers: Fantasy Flight
Player Count: 3-8
Mother of Dragons is the third expansion for the Game of Thrones board game (second edition). Our review of the base game game be found here. Mother of Dragons ups the max player count from 6 players to 8 players. It adds two new houses, House Arryn and house Targaryen (who have dragons and a unique win condition) and an additional game board representing Essos when playing with the Targaryens. The expansion also adds the ability to gain special powers in the form of loans from the Iron Bank of Bravos – with interest paid each turn in the form of power tokens. Mother of Dragons also adds rules for non-player factions. If you are playing with less than the full complement of players rather than block off portions of the map or add garrisons to parts of the map, as done in the base game, instead unplayed houses are set up with more starting troops and territory and the highest players on the iron throne track are given the opportunity to control them each turn.
The full rulebook can be found on the Fantasy Flight Games website, here.
Mother of dragons, like the base game is an unwieldy, long, and at times magical experience. For the most part the expansion improves upon the base game however some quirks and negative points need to be addressed.
Firstly, the expansion makes drastic changes to the viable player counts. One key critique of the base game is that it only works with six players, any other player count is unbalanced. While, I think this criticism of the base game is somewhat overblown, it seems to no longer be the case. While this first impressions review is based off a seven-player game, I got the impression that the new mechanics would improve lower player counts substantially. The vassal houses mean that there are no longer empty areas of the board that adjacent players can invade without challenge and players that are far apart on the board can still interact with one another if they gain control of distant vassals. Unfortunately, while my seven-player game gave me insights into how the expansion might help lower player count games, at seven players the vassal house (there is only one at that player count) unbalanced the game significantly. Since only one player could have a vassal, that player had a huge advantage. This was particularly true as the vassal was house Baratheon and the player controlling them was house Lannister. This created a powerful band across the middle of the map. Furthermore, the Iron Throne was only bid on once in the course of the game, due to the randomness of the Westeros deck (just as can happen in the base game with mustering and changes in the supply track not occurring) which compounded house Lannister’s advantage. I feel like this issue is a quirk of the seven player games and would be less severe at lower play counts and non-existent in an eight-player game as there are no unplayed houses.
(One caveat to this criticism is that we made a minor rule goof when we played – somewhat inevitable given how many exceptions and clarifications this game’s rules have. The house controlling the vassal used all four order tokens each round instead of just two. I’m not sure how much more powerful this made the Lannister player, but it meant they could play a march order +0, defence order +3, a support order +1/ raid order, and a mustering order/ defence order +1 every round instead of having to choose. This may mitigate some of the above concerns somewhat).
The second issue with the player count is that it makes a long game longer. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it does mean players need to be committed and know what they are getting themselves in for. Each turn is longer as players may be essential playing two house during the simultaneous order placing phase, the iron bank adds new decisions, and the 4th Westeros deck (related to house Targaryen’s victory condition) needs to be resolved each turn. Again, this is a neutral point and it is up to players to decide how it will affect their enjoyment and how often it can be brought to the table.
The new houses definitely add to the game. While house Arryn isn’t necessarily a game changer mechanically, it does balance the map better, putting more pressure on houses Stark and Baratheon. House Targaryen on the other hand drastically changes the game. The dragons, which become more powerful every second round (as they grow) are thematic and add new strategic decisions for both the Targaryen player and their opponents. Furthermore, house Targaryen’s victory condition of collecting loyalty tokens, placed all over Westeros by the 4th Westeros deck, is an interesting and engaging puzzle for the Targarean player. This new mechanic also means that nowhere in Westeros is safe. Dragons may fly to and attack anywhere on the board and the external nature of Targaryen threat adds an almost semi-cooperative element to the game for the other players. In fact, the presence of the Targaryen player evokes a feeling of how the fear of a Wildling attack should feel, but never does feel, in the game. As the dragons got stronger and house Targaryen edged closer to winning, the other players came together to resist a shared threat (while still stabbing each other in the back at every opportunity). This is exactly how game of thrones should feel and is probably the strongest addition in the new expansion.
Finally, the expansion adds the Iron Bank of Bravos and Essos game board. These are only used when playing with house Targaryen. The Essos game board is a nice addition although in our seven-player game it acted solely as a staging area for the Targaryen threat. The decision to only use the iron bank with house Targaryen is a curious one and I wonder if that rule was only implemented because the iron bank special power market is attached to the Essos board. The Iron Bank adds more interesting decisions to the game. Early on loans are expensive, since you will be paying a power token a turn in interest for the rest of the game, and the early game did not see many trips to the iron bank. As the game went on more people were interested in loans. However, since loans are taken in player order and the market is not refreshed until the end of the turn, the first player (who also controls the vassals) has another advantage by being able to pick the cheapest or best loan and leaving other players having wasted an order token.
Ultimately, this expansion adds a lot of interesting mechanics to the game. My impression was that it is unbalanced at seven, but this was based on one play and perhaps I would feel differently after another play. I’m interested to play again at a lower player count where I feel the vassal mechanic is more likely to shine.