Review: A Game of Thrones (Second Edition)
Spoilers ahead for the Game of Thrones books and television series. However, if you haven’t read or watched either of those then the verdict for this game is that it is not for you.
Designer: Christian T. Peterson
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Player Count: 3 - 6
A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is a board game adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire book series. Despite being based on the books, A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is a perfectly good approximation for fans of the television series as long as they don’t mind being very confused as to who characters like Patchface and Ser Garlan Tyrell are. Full disclosure, I’ve only watched the television series and not read the books, so I have no idea who they are either.
The game is set around the end of the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire book series or the end of the first season of the television show. It sees players taking control of one of the great houses of Westeros and using brute force and shrewd alliance building to take the iron throne. Of course, being noble and trustworthy isn’t always the best strategy and often it’s players who can channel their inner Littlefinger rather than Ned Stark who will win.
Beyond its intellectual property theme, A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is an epic-length war game with a blind bidding mechanic to represent political intrigue.
How To Play
A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) comes with a thirty-page rulebook, including an entire page dedicated to special rules related to ports (these rules rarely ever have a large impact on play but it is almost guaranteed that some aspect of them will need to be referenced every game). As such, this how to play will just deal with the broad gameplay elements. If you want to fully understand the rules, the rule book can be found here, and a detailed explanation video is available here.
The game is played across a maximum of ten rounds. The aim of the game is to hold seven castles and/or strongholds at the end of a round, or the most castles and/or strongholds at the end of the tenth round.
The game is set up with each player choosing a house from the books to play as and putting a set number of troops in indicated provinces on the map. Three event decks, called “Westeros decks”, are shuffled and set aside. Three “influence tracks” are populated with tokens related to each player’s house, these will confer special abilities on players at the top these tracks. A “supply track” is also populated with tokens related to each player’s house, this sets the maximum size and number of armies each player can have. Players also get a deck of character cards, called “house cards”, unique to their house which are used for combat. Power tokens are distributed which have a dual use as currency for bidding on positions on the “influence tracks” and to indicate ownership of provinces on the map. Players are also given order tokens which are used to give units orders.
Each round one card from each of the three Westeros decks is drawn which cause a variety of events to occur. These include gaining new troops, updating positions on the supply track, bidding for the influence tracks, a Wildling attack, or nothing happening. Once these are resolved, a planning phase begins. Players place order tokens face down (so that they are secret) on each province or sea area containing a unit. These are then resolved according to player order on the iron throne influence track. These abilities are raiding, moving and/or attacking, defending, supporting adjacent combat, or gaining more power tokens. Once orders are resolved, a new round begins.
Finally, it’s useful to explain combat. When resolving combat, players add up the strength of the units involved. Adjacent units which have played a support order can elect to support one of the sides in the combat, adding their unit strength to the side they want. Certain order tokens will also add +1, +2, or -1 to combat strength. Finally, each the attacker and defender both pick a house card in secret to play. These characters have special abilities and a combat strength ranging from 0 to 4. The winner of the combat is the side with the bigger number when all the elements are added together, the loser is routed and puts their troops on their sides and retreats to an adjacent province. If the routed troops are attacked again that round they are destroyed. At the end of the round, all routed troops are readied again. A variant is included in the game to add a small bit of randomness to combat but I won’t go into detail about that here.
A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) broadly succeeds in capturing the feel of the early seasons of Game of Thrones. Strong alliances, and knowing when to break them, are key strategy considerations when playing this game. Furthermore, secretly playing order tokens does a good job of fomenting mistrust between allies, especially since you have to place a token in every province you have troops, even friendly borders. This leads to a lot of assurances that the token is just to gain more power tokens and people have no intention of attacking an ally’s exposed flank. Of course, when the moment comes to flip all those tokens face up, and someone has decided to betray their long-term ally, there will be an explosion of accusations and threats from the table (and someone is liable to say “the Lannisters send their regards” at least once per game). With the right group this is a strong positive in favour of the game but if you are playing with anyone who takes these things personally, maybe play a different game.
Strategic moves are very possible in this game and different units and strategies can be utilised effectively. For example, siege towers have a strength of 4 if attacking castles and strongholds but a strength of 0 at all other times. Furthermore, boats can vastly change the balance of power. Boats can very effectively be used to support land troops using support tokens. However, the real strength of your navy comes from the ability to launch lightening raids on your opponents’ coastal provinces. To do this, when a move order is played on a land unit they can move to and from a boat to reach another land mass. Multiple boats can be chained together meaning that if you control the entire eastern sea on the map, you can attack from a northern province, near Winterfell, all the way to Dorne in the South in one turn. Careful planning will lead to big moves that take the whole table by surprise, which is obviously very exciting. However, tunnel like focus on your big move can leave you exposed in some other way, which is frustrating in the best kind of way.
The Westeros decks are the weakest part of the game. While the random nature of these event decks might be exciting, it also can lead to wildly different levels of enjoyment from game to game. This is because several important gameplay mechanics only occur if certain cards come up. Chief amongst these are the mustering cards, supply cards and influence track cards. The mustering cards allow players to get new troops, if they don’t come up (and it can happen that they don’t come up at all) then players are stuck with the small number of troops they had at the start of the game. This effects strategy and generally leads to players being rather cautious while they wait for the mustering cards to come up. The supply cards and influence track cards also affect the game negatively if they do not show up, as players who start higher on these tracks will continue to have the benefits of these tracks with no recourse for other players. It seems crazy that these important mechanisms are left to random chance and ultimately it means players have no effective method to strategise around these elements, other than hope they come up when it suits you.
It is worth noting that A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is a long game. with games lasting several hours. As such, it requires a lot of forward planning, and punctual friends, to organise effectively. The length of the game further compounds the issue of the Westeros decks. Often a game of A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) will be significantly less enjoyable because of the bad card draws from the Westeros deck. It is also possible for players to make early mistakes that can be difficult to come back from. While there is technically player elimination, in practice this rarely occurs. However, given this is a long game, sitting through a game you know you can’t win can easily leave a sour taste in your mouth and the entire group. Despite all this, the long nature of the game means when it’s good, it’s very good, with players feeling very invested in the action.
Many people would have you believe that A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is only playable at the maximum player count of six. This isn’t true. It is definitely best with the full complement of players. The problem with less than six players is that some areas of the map are just given garrisons token with a defence strength number. If you attack with an army of a greater strength you take that castle. Thus, the theory is that, with less than six players, players close to the unused area can build a siege tower and take each castle with ease, one at a time. Yes, this could happen, but it won’t. If players are made aware of this, they will self-balance. Alliances, a key strategic concern of the game will form against a player that is doing this, because it is obvious when it is happening.
In any case, this is not a well-balanced game even with six. It is entirely dependent on alliances and player interaction, and these elements are better the more people you have playing and scheming across the table.
It’s best with six, but it’s fine with four or five people who really want their game of thrones fix.
Set-up variability is non-existent in A Game of Thrones (Second Edition). Each game begins with troops being in the exact same locations. This isn’t too much of a problem as the game board usually looks drastically different on turn three of each game you play.
There are six different houses to play as (Baratheon, Lannister, Greyjoy, Martell, Tyrell, and Stark), which allows players to experience six very different play styles and house cards which complement those play styles. I feel confident in saying that each house feels different to play and each house is enjoyable to play.
The bulk of the variability of the game comes from the Westeros deck and, as I outlined above, this can be a huge problem. The difference between a good game of A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) and a bad one can be as simple as whether the Westeros deck had draws that allowed the game to be interesting or not.
A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) definitely succeeds in capturing the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Whether this game is for you is largely based on whether you engage with and enjoy this world.
The secret order tokens give players scope to scheme, in keeping with key thematic elements of the source material. While you can’t betray an ally at a red wedding, or poison the king at a wedding, or join your houses by marrying off your house cards, there is plenty of scope to turn around and unexpectedly attack your ally along a shared unguarded border, in a way that would make even Tywin Lannister proud.
House cards provide a key thematic connection to the source material. Character abilities generally fit well with the actions of the characters in the source material. For instance, Robb Stark, being a tactical genius, allows you to choose where your opponent retreats to. While the Mountain will kill three opposing units if he wins a combat. These are welcome thematic considerations and really help players get into character as leaders of their respective houses.
The influence track auctions are an abstracted, but thematically satisfying way of determining who sits on the iron throne (turn order and determine non-combat ties), who has a valyrian steel sword (wins ties in combat and +1 in one combat per round), and who has the messenger raven (can look at the Wildling deck or replace an order token once all order tokens are revealed). The blind bid auction of power tokens fits well with houses exerting power to make moves at court, have someone poisoned, or make marriage alliances to sit on the iron throne. It’s abstracted but feels right.
Wilding attacks are one thematic element that entirely falls flat. Wildling attacks are resolved by blind bidding power tokens to repel the Wildlings, with the lowest bidder being punished if the players fail and the highest bidder being rewarded if the players succeed. This unfortunately feels like a thematic afterthought and rarely makes a real difference to the game. The Wildlings never seem like a real threat and there is no geographic significance or long-term effects to their attack, so it makes little thematic sense.
Art & Components
The artwork and components in A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) are beautiful and high quality. The pieces for units are abstract representations of footmen, knights, boats and siege engines that lead to the sensation of you and your friends, as lords standing around a battle plan at Dragonstone. These pieces are perfect design decision and fit the game far more than realistic plastic miniature would. This abstraction allows you to more easily inhabit the fantasy that is one of the main reasons to play this game.
The most striking component is the beautiful map of Westeros on the game board. The map is both aesthetically pleasing and also very clear from a gameplay perspective. However, be aware that the map is quite large so people with smaller tables in their homes may have trouble fitting everything else around the map.
Card art fits the aesthetic and is made of good card stock. Graphic design and symbols on components are clear and understandable across the board, while not jarring with the more artistic pieces on the game board and cards. Player screens are a low point of the components as they are a little bit flimsy and can sometimes fall over. This is a minor criticism however and rarely causes a problem.
If you’re looking for a very balanced war game, then A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is not the game for you. This game is for fans of the books and television series who want to live out their fantasy of being Cersei Lannister or Ned Stark. Those who choose to play A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) should make sure all players are on board with a very long game and should brace themselves for some games just not working because the cards came out wrong or something weird happened. When A Game of Thrones (Second Edition) is good, it’s amazing and will leave you with moments that you and your friends will talk about for years. But when it’s bad, it is a long, long slog. And if you’re first game of it is bad it may sour your group against ever playing this game again. If knowing this, you still want to give this game a try then do. I love it (when it works) and would definitely recommend leaning in and having a game of thrones themed evening complete with some of these cocktails.