Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de

2nd edition


Christian T. Petersen


No. of Players:
3 - 6



Gamebox author Ralf Togler writes about the game:

George R.R. Martin's books are sometimes titled as "Lord of the Rings" for the grown-up. Why this? You would not exactly call the battles of the Lord of the Rings non-violent or child-orientated, would you? (especially after you have seen the blockbuster movie.) To my mind, it is rather a matter of the many covert and overt intrigues and the complex storyline which can be found in the book of A Game of Thrones. This should be a warning for all players, who grab A Game of Thrones: the boardgame from HEIDELBERGER unprepared. This game is mean, and you are more or less forced to forge alliances and brew treason at the same time. It is definitely no family game and you must absolutely trust your fellow players not to take your actions in the game personally. So, are these enough reasons to put the game aside? The elements of intrigue found in the game definitely are a temptation for a seasoned strategy gamer, and since the game now comes as a revised second edition (following a quite successful first edition with some expansions), this is reason enough for me to have a closer look at the game, especially because I have just read the first book of the series...

In the game we find six of the great Noble houses of Martin's books. Every player chooses one of these houses, which at the same time determines his home and starting territories on the map and his units at the beginning of the game. The map is the central element of A Game of Thrones: the boardgame. It shows us the whole area of the land of Westeros up to the land of the Wildlings and including the island of Dragonstone, where Stanis Baratheon prepares to reign supreme. The map is divided into a lot of land and sea areas where the units of the different houses can move to and battle for dominance.

A Game of Thrones: the boardgame starts sometime after the old king, Robert Baratheon, is dead. From that moment the players are allowed to act as freely as they wish. Other than in most of the games based on The Lord of the Rings, the players do not have to follow the storyline of the book. The game material does not do this either. So the player who has chosen the house Stark, still gets a card with the character Eddard Stark to use in a combat, although, if you would follow the books, Ned (his nickname) should have been murdered before having a chance to enter the battles. Anyway, as just mentioned the players are equipped with character cards of their houses, all of them unique and also very different in their effects.


Other than in simple war games like Risk, the game has a defined number of rounds. It ends after the tenth round and each of the rounds consisting of three phases: The Westeros-phase, the Planning phase and the Action phase.

In the first phase, the Westeros phase, one card of the Westeros cards is drawn randomly. This card has a lot of influence for the rest of the round. Sometimes it changes parts of the rules, so for example we cannot give any assistance to other players in a round and so our plans must be changed. Sometimes the cards also insert an additional phase, so we suddenly have to supply our troops (woe betide everyone who does not have enough supply symbols on the land areas he actually controls). In another Westeros phase we all of a sudden can recruit new men, so now it is important to have many strongholds and cities on the controlled land areas. All these necessary symbols (strongholds, supply icons and cities) are printed on the map and cannot be built or changed. All land areas featuring such icons have them from the beginning of the game and cannot loose them. So, the decision which new land areas should be conquered must be based on strategic considerations, otherwise you may end up with a big realm without having the possibility to supply your troops or recruit new men. Last but not least there is the special Westeros phase "Clash of Kings". In this special phase the players do a bidding round for the influences of the different houses in three categories: Iron Throne, Fiefdoms and King's Court. This determines the order of play, the power in battle (if it comes to a draw) and the player's ability to command special orders that are a little bit stronger than the usual ones. All of these powers have big advantages at the one point or another, so the players should always consider carefully on which category they want to invest their power markers. All bids go to the Pool after each bidding, so there is a big risk to invest too many power markers on the first category, because if you will not succeed there, you might have not enough power left to win a different category.

The Westeros phase also has one further function. On some of the Westeros cards we can find a Wildling symbol. Whenever such a card is drawn, the Wildling marker on the corresponding Wildling track is moved one step further until it comes to an attack from these strange men from the north. Then the players have to bid power markers to bolster the Night Watch which keeps watch over the border in order to prevent a more or less heavy loss of their possessions.

After this first phase all players simultaneously assign orders to their troops in the Planning phase. For this we have a given number of order tokens and some special order tokens which we can use if we have enough power on the King's court influence track. This phase probably is the most important one in the game. The orders are secretly assigned to each of our land areas with at least one unit. Next to offensive orders like a March and a Raid there are also defending orders like the Defence and the Support. Because the other players do not know what you really play on the board, there is a lot of negotiating, bluffing and betraying. For example you might promise another player to support him if he comes under attack and for this you play one of your order tokens to the area you talked about. But, instead of placing a Support you play a March order that gives you other possibilities in the next phase, but - of course - you will not be able to support the other player.

This possible and sometimes even necessary measure of betraying other players is reinforced in the Action phase when the orders are carried out. In the order given by the category of the Iron Throne (remember this is the track you bid on in the Westeros-phase Clash of Kings) the players carry out the orders they assigned to their troops one by one. This leaves room for even more strategic considerations, since the players do not have to decide where they want their troops to march, whom they want so support and whose land they want to raid before they take the order token off a specific land area. So you see, your real target may change due to the activities on the board and so your promises might break, too. This can be very mean if - for example - you pledged an alliance to support the house of Stark and then, after the Stark player announced an attack on the house of Lannister, you all of a sudden support the Lannister player (probably because he promised you to give up another land you cast a covetous eye on).

A Game of Thrones: the boardgame uses a simple but effective battle mechanism. There are four types of units with strength from 1 to 4. The strength of all attacking (respectively defending) units and march or defending order modifiers are added up. Then all other players that have support orders nearby may add their strength to the one or other side. And finally the attacker as well as the defender can play one of his house cards that will give him another bonus, sometimes even with a special effect. The player with the highest sum wins the fight. The defending player must retreat and - depending on the outcome of the battle - looses some of his units.

Some words must be said about the harbours you find on the map. In the first edition of the game, this element was not available in the base game, but only in the first expansion. In the second edition now the harbours are already included in the base game. This was a very good choice, because I think that the harbours are an important element in the game and play a big part in contributing to the many strategic decisions of the game. Without the harbours a player with a powerful fleet would easily control the Sea. In a harbour however you can recruit new ships and so build up a fleet for a counter-attack, even if the neighbouring sea area is occupied by your opponent's ships. Thus, it is still possible to plan an escape from a cut-off region on the board.

The second edition of A Game of Thrones: the boardgame is a mighty, very tactical and strategic game. The playability begins with three players, but more players will do the game much better. In fact, only in the six player game you are allowed to use the whole map. Of course, with more players it becomes more important to pledge alliances at the right time and it is also of higher importance to support other players, but on the other hand betrayal also plays a major part in the game and should be used whenever it makes sense. However, as all traitors will know, it will become very difficult to find new alliances if you betray your fellow players too often, and so the players will have to weight short-time gains against the loss of credibility which they will inevitably suffer. Still, the rules for giving hidden orders and the changing alliances between the players are the factor which makes the game highly enjoyable, and especially fans of Diplomacy, the ancestor of all strategic negotiation games, should enjoy this much more sophisticated newcomer.

Knowing the books of George R.R. Martin helps to identify with the one or other house and the characters of the game, but it is not really important or necessary. In fact, some fans of the books might be disappointed that for example alliances between the Lannister and the Stark house are possible and in many situations even necessary. I did not care about these inconsistencies concerning the story background and was happy that there are no such limitations. And I even think that all this meets the standard of the books, because in these the changing of sides is quite popular, too.

The rules are a little bit longer than normal family gamers will like, but there are a lot of excellent examples, so it took me no more than about 20 minutes to explain the game. The game itself lasts about two hours. In the first rounds new players will have a lot of questions, but this quickly dies down because the game follows strict and coherent rules. I personally loved to play the game very much. Too bad that I seldom have enough players who also like to play a game like this, because with only three or four players A Game of Thrones: the boardgame loses some of its attraction without losing the playability.

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Copyright © 2012 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany