Thursday, April 25, 2013

Boarding Pass, installment one: Game of Thrones board game review

This post originally appeared on the Dunkirk Free Library tumblr, also maintained by your humble blogger.

Game of Thrones Board Game (Second Edition)
Designed by Christian T. Petersen
Based on “A Song of Ice and Fire” books by George R.R. Martin
Published by Fantasy Flight Games

[Contains mild spoilers for the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels and Game of Thrones TV series.]

What are you into?  What fascinates you?  What do you love?

These are the questions you should consider when diving into any new artform.  If you want to get into non-fiction books, and you’re already an avid gardener, you might consider garden-based memoirs.  If the secrets of the universe fascinate you, then maybe poetry based on the ebb and flow of cosmic bodies will slake your burgeoning interest in that medium.

I’m a fantasy fan, so it’s not surprising that a game based on one of my favorite fantasy novel series should be the one to get me to seriously consider the artistic value of gaming.  Of course, I didn’t seek this new interest out; a normal night of fun with friends served as an unexpected entree into what is becoming an obsession with implications on my personal, professional, and creative life.

As I’ve gotten more and more into contemporary board gaming lately, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the twin features that set these games apart from the Milton-Bradley family fun diversions of yesteryear: theme and mechanics. It was the beautiful marriage of these two factors in a game that spoke to my pre-existing interests that has sparked my wider, abiding interest in this creative medium.  Please allow me to share with you my thoughts on Game of Thrones.  The game.

(Warning: the word ‘game’ is undoubtedly going to pop up in this review even more often than it normally would.  By the end, ‘game’ will no longer make sense as a word.  Game game game.)

Game of Thrones (the game) is titled after A Game of Thrones (the book), the first volume in the subversive epic fantasy opus “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin.  You might also recognize it as the name of HBO’s immensely popular Game of Thrones (the TV show), the first season of which is based on A Game of Thrones (the book) but which kept that title (Game of Thrones (the TV show)) so as not to confuse any fans of Game of Thrones (book, TV show, graphic novel, or even game).  It’s enough to make an RDA cataloger’s head explode, but I assure you, it’s all very cool.  (Game game game.)

The book and TV show are equally known for their dark, morally ambiguous treatment of the fantasy genre, with true heroes few and far between, villains complex and well-motivated, and magic a slowly-encroaching force out of legend.  These thematic complexities naturally give rise to complexity in any adaptation, most especially in board game form.  Remember ‘theme’ and ‘mechanics’?  The one usually helps dictate the other--to preserve the flavor of being in a particular world or context, you need to feel like the game actions you are taking fit in with that world or context in some essential way.

In Game of Thrones (the game), players vie for dominion of Westeros across a familiar-looking playing field as Houses Stark, Greyjoy, Lannister, Baratheon, Tyrell and Martell. They must choose when to invade neighboring territories to claim victory points, and when to negotiate with opponents to avoid damaging conflict. In addition, they must be crafty with their power to influence affairs, parceling out their clout between retaining territory, bidding for important titles, and confronting the threat of the Wildlings.

In this fun, interactive, hours-long playing experience, we have a twist on other familiar games--notably Risk and Diplomacy--giving us essentially a ‘conflict of nations’ style mechanic playing out on a map of the continent.  Players build forces through a number of related sub-mechanics, such as ‘mustering’ determined by random card draw, then place those units on the map-board and plan their movements.  In a nice departure from the Diplomacy style of free-form writing of orders, orders in Game of Thrones are determined by a series of tokens representing different types of moves (as well as bonuses to those moves).  These are placed face-down on the board so that all players can reveal them simultaneously, nicely capturing the thematically-appropriate feeling that you never know what’s coming around the bend; players don’t move from space to space linearly, but rather attack, defend, support and so forth with no obvious warning.  (Even better, if you really want to mess with people, you can lie about your intentions in hopes that opponents will let their guards down!  Fans of the books and show will appreciate that facet of the game.)

So to reiterate the central dynamic of modern gaming, a good game will do everything it can to immerse players in the game’s world through mechanics and theme.  In the case of Game of Thrones, the theme is not merely ‘based on a fantasy novel’--for which simple stylistic accoutrements might be deemed sufficient to capture the flavor--but rather the literary themes and particular hallmarks of that novel itself: moral ambiguity, shocking reversals of fortune, and the depredations of total war.  The mechanics of the game are in service to these themes, keeping players off-balance and on their guard.  A series of randomizing mechanics fulfill that need ably here: each round, three cards are drawn that determine some of the factors affecting all players equally during that period, such as restrictions on types of orders that can be placed or calling for the readjustment of units; a non-player threat is always gaining strength and could strike at any time, necessitating unexpected bouts of cooperation; and the simple requirement of diplomatic sessions, where players attempt to gauge each other for threats and strike bargains to divvy up neighboring territory, imparting a naturalistically randomized quality to the proceedings.  

Combat is also left nicely difficult to predict; the strength of units can be bolstered by special orders, and each combat session requires the use of a character card representing important figures from the source books that add further strength to an attack or defense.  A canny player might be able to keep track of an opponent’s unused characters to determine the best time to strike ("House Starkhas already used Eddard, Robb and Rodrik, so they will be helpless when I attack with Tywin!").  Even then, victory cannot be assured, because players are always able to ‘call for support’ from their own nearby troops, or from another player’s troops, provided the right kind of order token is in play.  Such aid could cement alliances and open up new fronts in the war.

Another interesting feature of the game is the function of ‘power’--thematically, the level of clout a player enjoys due to his successes and accomplishments, represented mechanically by tokens bearing each faction’s family crest.  The accumulation of these tokens is necessary for the retention of unoccupied territory, for bidding on three ‘titles’ that impart special abilities and affect turn order, and to combat the non-player terror from the north.  A player has to keep a careful eye on his power pool or risk being caught flat-footed when it comes time to bid or to defend the realm (failure to do so having dire, randomly card-determined consequences).

The goal of the game is to occupy the most territories marked with strongholds, a sensible endpoint for a board game but one with which I have to quibble: in the books (and the show), the point is never merely to hold the most land, but rather to seize the coveted Iron Throne and thus hold dominion over all of Westeros.  One could argue that these strongholds merely represent the support of enough vassals to effectively wrest control of the throne, but I long for a somewhat more visceral victory condition; there gets to be a point toward the end of the game where minutes are taken counting and re-counting territories held across the cluttered board, the thrill of victory somewhat diffused by math (simple though it may be).

Another thematic criticism I’ll level is that two of the most important factions have been left out of the proceedings entirely.  The game covers the threat of the Wildlings, a population of ‘uncivilized’ folk living beyond the northern limits of the realm and who engage in raids to the south--that’s the non-player threat that players have to come together to face now and then.  But the books establish an even more terrifying and existential threat from the same quarter, a race of zombie-birthing ice demons whose slow advance is becoming more obvious as time goes on; one would think that this rather iconic and central antagonist would make its way into the game.  Also absent is any mention of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled survivor of a deposed royal family who is building support in the east on the strength of her three dragon hatchlings, the only living in the known world.  Though working her in, remote as her storyline is, would be a challenge to the board game medium, it seems strange to elide one of the essential storylines and fan-favorite characters completely.  I don’t presume to know how to fix these omissions, but I know there must be ways!

Somewhat easier to imagine including would be some kind of seasons mechanic.  One of the only obvious indications that the book series takes place in a fantasy universe is that seasons last for years, with fertile summers followed by brutal, seemingly endless winters that affect the whole continent.  It would seem a simple matter to incorporate a randomized ‘season changer’ into the game, imparting bonuses during the summer and imposing penalties during the winter.  But perhaps that would have been a (Frey-controlled) bridge too far for an already very complex game, with its multiple phases per round and intricate system of interwoven turn orders.

Along with matters of theme and mechanics, I’ve become familiar with design and genre as considerations of contemporary board games.  In terms of genre, Game of Thrones definitely fits the bill for an “Ameritrash” game--a game full of complexity, a million parts you’re destined to lose, and slavish hewing to a theme.  I think that’s a pretty awesome set of characteristics for a somewhat sneering name.  As far as design, Game of Thrones is beautiful and functional.  The board game is big and bold, with regions well delineated despite all the little icons present on many of them, and the non-map areas of the board--victory and population tracks, title tracks determining turn order and tie precedence--coming clear after a few rounds’ play.  The other bits and pieces, like power and order tokens and various player identification markers, serve to clarify and entrench some of the more byzantine of the rules, helping with iconographic reminders of a given token’s function and value.

Game of Thrones is the game that got me into gaming games.  (Game game game.)  For me, the hook was the theme--it fulfilled all my expectations of living in the world of a beloved novel for a few hours.  The interplay between that theme and the mechanics that determine players’ actions and behavior got me excited to try the next modern board game, and the next one and the next.  It goes to underscore that central question when you begin considering where to start with any new medium: what are you into?  What fascinates you?  What do you love?  A novel, a time period, microbiology, economics--if you can name it, there’s a game for it.  Game game game.


Readers! How do you think this game could have gotten Daenerys into play somehow? What do you think of that 'Ameritrash' genre title? And what modern games have you been enjoying?

1 comment:

  1. Some etymology on the "Ameritrash" label, please? I *so* do not know how I feel about it.