Ed was back in town for the holidays again, so we went over to his place for some gaming. He, Shay, Dave, Kim, & I played A Game of Thrones, a game I’ve been wanting to play for a while but couldn’t bring myself to purchase. If you’re interested in a more detailed overview of the mechanics, RPG.net has a pretty good review by Shannon Appelcline here and you can download the rules from Fantasy Flight.
A Game of Thrones is basically Diplomacy. You have 5 (sort of) equal powers slugging it out for domination of the board, which is sort of a stretched-out England. You build up your armies, navies, and influence in much the same way as Diplomacy, making deals to work your way up the food chain. What makes A Game of Thrones interesting is that there is a lot more subtlety to the tactics of play. You have to amass not just cities (which produce armies), but supplies (which keep those armies in the field and dictate their size) and influence. Influence is used to acquire “offices” which influence the turn order, give you advantages in battle, affect what orders you can give to your units, and give you an edge in allocating those orders.
The orders system I think is a very interesting one – instead of the fully pre-written orders you have in Diplomacy, you instead place chits in each of your regions indicating what each will (try) to do secretly, and then everyone turns them up and acts on them in player order as dictated by their standing in court (bid on with influence). This is a lot easier than pre-recording everything (and so there are more options than just move/support, including raiding and influence-building), but it has a slightly unsatisfactory side-effect of producing some heavy badgering and whining all throughout the movement phase. Sure, you played that attack chit, but once it comes time to actually do it you (potentially) have to listen to the endless whining of the aggrieved trying to convince you to attack elsewhere (you don’t have to commit to a specific target) or to cancel the action. This is much less clean than the fire-and-forget treachery of Diplomacy, and if I play again I will suggest a pre-movement-phase diplomacy session, followed by a movement phase is which no discussion is allowed.
The other major unsatisfying thing I found during the play was the “end of the world” syndrome; the game ends after 10 turns, and whoever has the most cities on the last turns wins. So we had the usual land-grab bash-the-leader thing going on during the 10th turn, which I don’t care much for.
Anyway. The interesting thing about A Game of Thrones was that I actually quite enjoyed it while we were playing. It was fun, there are lots of choices to make, resources to manage, and the concept of a more subtle, less time-consuming Diplomacy was an appealing one. Unfortunately, it wilted somewhat under the post-game analysis. There was too much randomness, I thought, for one. When the influence auctions happen (which has a huge effect on the game) is random, so all the players who were hoarding influence in the hopes of winning those auctions were hosed when no auction occurred for the first 9 turns. Everyone then spent their massive stores in acquiring the powerful advantages conveyed by the offices, only to be screwed again when on a fluke they were auctioned off again the very next turn, so when everyone had only 2 influence to bid with, the player who broke ties (the winner of one of the bids last turn, who turned out to be the only one who hadn’t been able to amass much influence) wielded immense power and won two of the three offices. Likewise recruiting & supply checks happen randomly, and we had only one supply check, which happened early – so people were unable to expand the size of their armies for most of the game. For the last two-thirds of the game there was essentially no recruitment. Now, I have no problem with chaos, but this was a bit much – the run of the cards can completely invalidate a perfectly reasonable strategy. One player (Ed) said that in his last game, no recruiting at all occurred for the first 7 turns – which to my mind would lead to something of a non-game.
The final complaint is, interestingly, that the game isn’t long enough and the victory threshold is much too low. In order to win, you need 7 cities. The reality is, that isn’t all that hard to get – a two-player Diplomacy-style alliance could carve that out of one neighbor without too much effort, if they stick together. So despite the good stuff, you end up with a game that has the same flaws as Vinci, The Napoleonic Wars, Throneworld, Kill Dr. Lucky, Attika, or any of the other of these types of games … the players are more than able to stop anyone from winning, alliances break as soon as one player makes much progress, and the game develops a huge amount of inertia. The winner will therefore be the one who either sneaks in for the win because nobody was paying attention or because everyone tapped themselves out stopping someone else. This is, to me, wholly unsatisfying. When we began play, I was envisioning a Diplomacy-type game; the players would sit down, work some deals to carve up their neighbors, and whoever was good at persuasion, tactics, and deal-making would set themselves up for the second round when the geopolitics have changed, when you have to shift alliances with the changing situation. Sadly, there is no second phase; it’s just a race to 7 cities which nobody can really win, then the unappealing land grab on the last turn.
To be honest, though, the underlying game here is, I think, pretty good. I think it’s just tweaks (albeit admittedly a number of tweaks) away from an almost-classic game. For one thing, I would suggest that perhaps instead of doing the auctions randomly, they should be done every 3rd turn. The card decks should be reshuffled less often, so the distribution of the different types of event is more even. You won’t find me saying this often, but it also might well pay to lengthen the game by upping the victory conditions and the length, to give the diplomacy more of a chance to play out; I’d rather play the game to it’s logical conclusion than deal with the end-of-the-world syndrome. Otherwise, at the end of the day, it’s just too much like Vinci with chrome. It does make you appreciate the success of the few really good games of this type, though, like Dune, Republic of Rome, Successors, or even Intrige (not to mention Diplomacy – playing A Game of Thrones helped me appreciate just how subtle a game Diplomacy is). It really is quite difficult.