Sunday, 28 January 2018

Why is the acting in Firewatch so good?

I asked Yogesh Raut for a blog topic this time around. Yogesh wanted to know what made for a good acting performance. Without any further intent on my part to seek clarification from Yogesh as to what he meant by that, I went ahead consent-free and decided to write a blog post about the acting in Campo Santo's award winning mega-smash Firewatch and that was that. In return for my brash sloppiness, I've included a link to his occasional but almost always excellent blog The Wronger Box which contains among many other details, incredibly well analysed and researched posts on quizzing subcultures, popular culture, movies, and TV. It's a better blog than mine is so I'm quite happy to sacrifice some of my attention economy if it benefits his. Go read. Abandon this.

Leave. Go to here.

Still here? Your loss. Let's talk Firewatch

Actually no, let's talk about human (theatrical) actors in video games first. Then we'll get back to Firewatch.

Games have the dubious luxury of not requiring human actors to be present at all. The actor's voice can be replaced by system audio, the actor's body and movements by sprites and 3D models, and the stage is built by artists and programmers working in sync. Further, you don't even need to leave the house. You don't even need to consume the whole story in one complete session. Games by their very nature are theatre without theatre. Games are the dark dual. A void auditorium.

It sounds gloomy but take the much beloved Undertale by Toby Fox. The skeletal comedian Sans is compelling as any character you would have been likely to see in gaming that year. Yet Sans does not have a human voice, or any mo-cap human presence, nor a physical stage to act on. I also consumed it over the course of a week in user defined chunks of time, denying some level of directorial influence over my experience in linear time. Yet through all this, Sans left more of an impression on me than Ultron did in Avengers 2: Man of Steel, which was also released that year.

Although I'm not the biggest anime fan it must be said.

So completely doing away with human led acting isn't all bad, but critics of the medium would be right to point out that games have yet to match cinema, literature, and the theatre in their ability to help us explore the human consciousness. Commentators often boast that games have the inherent advantage that they have the potential to encapsulate all other forms of storytelling, but this potential comes with a cost. It is a lot easier explore complex topical themes at the theatre than it is to produce a game that does it as well in a timely manner. Games are slow, complex, and high-risk. Theatre can be produced a lot faster, a lot more cheaply, and more often than not gets there first, and gets there better when it comes to the challenges of our times. Plus it's cool as shit, and sexy people go to shows.

Proposed Moral: Have hope that games will catch up and enlighten us all in new and exciting ways, but support live entertainment and be in the same room as content creators that are plying their trade and finding their voice.


It is lazy to say that games aren't for the purpose of delivering human performances. Yes, there is a huge uncanny valley to traverse before we can approach anything like the magic of cinema, and a further barrier yet to live theatrics... although the lines between gaming and live entertainment have long since been blurred by innovators. We must remember that it is not an intractable task to deliver compelling human led acting in video games. We've come a long way since Tidus and Yuna laughing after the Blitzball arc in FFX, and we will continue to make progress.

The sound is in your head now

But how do we get there? There are pitfalls in the way and the most obvious one is putting narrative first. As a somewhat experienced junior game dev I can tell you that every project, big or small, is a political struggle that lasts until the game ships or dies, and every dev, board member, client... (whoever!) is a political actor striving to shape the game in the way that they see fit. Sadly, narrative design is usually the department that tends to submit to the greater gods of Tech, Art, Business, and Systems Design.


If we want to tell better stories with the same impact that human actors have in theatre, cinema, and of course, TV, we need to actively facilitate the narrative storytelling aspect of gaming. Some have dubbed this interaction between gaming and storytelling as 'ludonarrative'. I feel that this a perfectly nice word, but I will not be using it in this analysis because I just can't use that word without feeling like a tool, so I shan't.

The question of how we facilitate in-game narrative required us to first ask ourselves how much you want your game experience to serve narrative in the first place. Is it window dressing and mere flavour? Or is it the core of the experience.

In the specific case of human led acting, we need to ask how important that is to the experience.

Say you want to make a game like Firewatch, where the narrative, plot, and characters are the main things that you as the developer expect players to take away from the experience. You would prioritise these features such as the combo system, cutting edge shader tech, or the competitive online meta. You want to tell a gosh darned awesome story like Firewatch does.

Well first you'd have to remember that you're telling a story about people. Firewatch is an intimate tale of two people crossing paths and sharing a lonely and fateful slice of their lives together. First we have to prioritise which aspects of human acting we try and humanise, and how much we don't. This decision is very project specific but we can use Firewatch as a case study here.

Here are some observations about the role of human acting in Firewatch:
  • There is no human-led face acting in Firewatch. The few times we do see any human faces at all, they are represented in stylised cartoon form.
    • From an artistic view, the Firewatch is a tale told through environment and radio messages, so additional face acting (through human or asset) would not contribute meaningfully to any themes.
    • It's also a huge overhead to get any kind of face acting right in video games, and it's really jarring when it isn't state of the art. So it wasn't included.
    • The camera is always first person, and the writing avoids practically all encounters with a third party. Therefore no bodywork needs to be done by human or asset actor.
      • However, the player-character Henry often feels slow and heavy due to some clever camera work, subtle audio cues, and walking physics, lending Henry a sense of age and weight as the player inhabits his mind and body.
  • The voice acting in Firewatch by contrast is some of the best you're likely to find in modern games. 
    • This is helped in no small part due to the voice actors themselves. Henry and Delilah carry the emotional weight of the majority of the experience and elevates the game from walking simulator to an interactive piece of cinema. 
    • Keeping the character list to two main characters, plus some talented extras, allowed Firewatch to remain focused on its human led voice acting direction, which is crucial because entire lines of dialogue were always at risk of being rewritten or discarded, as is the case in most writing in games.
    • Having a small cast list allows for re-writes, redesigns, and other unforeseeables without compromising on quality and minimising risk.
    • It also allows for more investment in recording many alts.
That's the extent of the analysis I can give about the acting in Firewatch without dissecting the performances themselves. I'm in no position to make informed judgements on voice acting, but what I do know is that developer Campo Santo created a game design that facilitated an environment within which a human story could be told with human voices, to the exclusion of everything else about human acting bar some occasional nods to face acting and bodywork to complete the illusion of a human character. 

It is worth stepping back from the human performances of Firewatch and talk about the incredible amount of less obvious decisions that have been made and the work that has been done to enable these human performances to resonate in the first place.

Even a great actor struggles to spin gold from a bad script, but Firewatch has its world, characters, and plot at the front and centre of the experience. Every play sequence is designed to engage you in its pocket universe. There is a great economy of play time, which is a very brave thing to do in a world of entitled consumers and ruthless Steam refunds. Firewatch respects both your time, and the story's time, and there is next to no filler material here.

The assets in Firewatch aren't ground-breaking, but they are well chosen, and well used to create a hauntingly lonely forest location, complete with a lookout tower so lovingly assembled with the attention of a set designer. By the time you've played through the opening visual novella's interactive mini-scenes your suspension of disbelief is assured. You are in Wyoming and you are an embittered man. This is all before you hear one line of dialogue. The human performances serve to keep you locked into that mindset.

Firewatch delivers an award winning narrative, and they do so on a modest budget. Campo Santo did that by applying all of their resources strategically to deliver on the core emotional ideas, sometimes called 'pillars' of the experience. This game is a lesson that the ever increasing triple AAA budgets aren't necessary, or at least could be applied better, when trying to tell a story that resonates with people.


In a more complex product, the importance of human performance needs to be decided very early, and then subsequent decisions need to be made as to what is essential to deliver on the performance. Do you need to see facial movements in conversations? What tone do you need to set with the voice acting? How many characters do you absolutely absolutely need?

Can you then guarantee that these essential aspects can be paid for and delivered well? What if timelines and budgets change? Will you protect the human performance aspects of your project, or will it be among the first things thrown overboard? You should know this if you don't already. Have those conversations!

As increasingly more money is thrown at marketing games to people, and as brand bubbles begin to burst, gamers will be the ones who ultimately decide which kinds of experience survive the crash that is to come and a vital segment of the vast church of gamers will be looking for compelling stories to be told. Human acting is not necessary to tell poignant human stories with games, but ignore the role of human performances in games at your peril, because they still matter. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Emotional Core of Geese

I'm currently in the regretful habit of 'doing requests' for blog content. I asked my good friend Judy for a suggestion in good faith. I've known Judy for years. We have a good strong friendship that will last until the end of time. I trusted that she would offer me a suggestion in the true spirit of jolly cooperation.

Judy's suggestion for a blog topic?


Here's a picture of Judy. Think of her face as you judge her.


Rather than let her revise her decision, I've spent weeks researching a good angle for a game design blog post which centres around the theme of "Geese". I finally found something that spoke to me on a profound level.

The Emotional Core of Geese.

Or more specifically, the emotional core of a single goose.

Before we can get to The Emotional Core of Geese, we first need to talk briefly about emotional design. Real briefly.

Emotional Design is a bit of a semantic rabbit hole, and it's easy to get lost in it. Be my guest. However, the commuters and busy people like me are going to keep reading, ta.

I don't know what this is.

In a nutshell, Emotional Design is a type of design approach which tries to specify a certain target set of emotions, and work backwards from there to elicit those emotions.

Amazon might start with 'The material world is at my fingertips' and attempt to work backwards from there.

Coca-Cola might start with 'I am drinking the most authentic cola there is'.

The Sega Genesis might start with 'I am not playing a kiddy console like those Nintendo nitwits' and try and build a brand out of that.  

Here's a few examples from games themselves. Try and think of the right hand side of these three equations as a crude statement of the Emotional Core of the game.

Candy Crush Saga === "I want to make progress without having to think too much"

The Witcher === "I am Geralt of Rivia, the Batman of Magic Poland"

Agricola === "I want to feel the harsh reality of being a peasant farmer"

You get the idea.

Once you've stated the Emotional Core of the game, it is then incumbent on the designer to deliver on that Emotional Core by creating experiences which elicit the desired emotion as much as possible.

If Candy Crush ever gives the player too much cognitive load, it fails because you're making the player think too much.

If you want to feel like Geralt, the game has to make you feel like a freelance monster hunter that uses potions, debate, and sexual prowess to get what he wants. Just like the books!

In Agricola you have to plan, scheme, and feel worried that you won't have a sufficiently good harvest to feed your family without begging. If you don't feel like a desperately poor farmer, the game doesn't satisfy the Emotional Core.
That's more like it!

If the Emotional Core is not delivered, you might end up with a perfectly functional game. You might even end up with a really fun game! It just won't be the game you designed for emotionally.

Okay... now let's relate this to the Untitled Goose Game by studio House House

Watch this trailer. -- It's got a goose in it!

Think about what you have seen... does it make you feel any... *sunglasses* ... EMOTIONS??

I assert that the Untitled Goose Game is trying to deliver on...

The Emotional Core of Geese

Or more specifically, the emotional core of a single goose.

So what is the Emotional Core that House House are going for?

Here it is: "There is a goose, and the goose is you"

So how do you elicit the emotions associated with being a goose?

Well first off, you need to get the basics right.

The basics are "If it looks like a goose, and sounds like a goose, and waddles like a goose..."

Here is a goose

House House deliver on this in their trailer. The goose appears gooselike when still, whilst in motion, and in the way it sounds. That's a goose to the senses.

That delivers on the 'There is a goose' part of the Emotional Core

But what of the 'the goose is you' part?

Well that's where the mechanics and goals come in.

The idealised comedy goose is at least these two things:
  • Anarchic
  • Obnoxious
And the trailer allows you to realise to inhabit these elements of goosedom.

Imagine you as goose.

You as goose obeys no master, you as goose can do act without the social consequences that man must. You are goose in the way that you wish to be as goose.

You're a terrible piece of shit as goose. You grab the sandwich and throw it in the lake. You ruin crops and confound the landowning class with your lack of respect for their hegemony. You as goose are a radical element and by your very being offend and frustrate the harmony. The joker in the gaggle. 

Perhaps a weakness of the Untitled Goose Game is that it has a checklist of goals. I find these to be more suggestion than requirement. I don't know how you are as goose, but I as goose respects no man, even the man telling me to respect no man. 

I will steal lunches on my terms when it suits me as goose, and so it should be. For the goose knows no master but itself.

*and scene*


Well I hope that was enlightening in some way. I guess I could provoke you all with the following exercise.

Go study a very popular piece of media that you know in your heart that you despise.

Something that clearly isn't for you. 

For me it is the TV show Mrs. Brown's Boys (Too much has been said about that show already) and the X-COM strategy game series (It feels too much like my day job) 

Go check it out and ask yourselves... 

"What Emotional Core is this production delivering on to achieve its undeserved popularity?"

And with that question I bid you adieu.



NB: X-Com is a well designed game. It's just not designed for me.
NBB: Just because something wasn't made for you, it does not mean that is was not well designed.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

How Seasonal Events in free-to-play service games work

I have a friend called Mateusz, and we have a very special relationship which allows him to punch me in the face while I'm dressed as the architect of Britain's ultimate doom.

Image may contain: 2 people
The greatest swordsman who ever lived is just out of frame. I move in lofty social circles

But when I asked him what he'd like me to write about when I was fishing for blog ideas, he was desperate (desperate!) for me to talk about seasonal events in video games, so here we fuckin go.

What's a seasonal event? You've probably seen 'em. Christmas, Chinese New Year, All Hallows Eve. Maybe just something specific to that game's fiction. Whatever the seasonal theme happens to be, the game gets varying degrees of special features and aesthetic dressing centred around that theme. However it tends to be service based games (free to play, MMOs, and e-sports) that get these seasonal events as opposed to boxed product style games. More and more boxed products are also choosing to include microtransaction type elements in their design, but I'll just forget about those for the sake of this discussion. 

Here's some Christmas content from Best Fiends

Basically, boxed games already have your money. In theory they shouldn't have any business trying to get any more money from you. Okay they sell DLC and other add-ons but they certainly don't need you to spend any additional time playing it. If every customer just bought these boxed products and add-ons and never played them, the suppliers of these games would be happy.

That's not the case for service games.

Competitive online games like Destiny and Hearthstone. Free to play games like Clash of Clans and Marvel: Contest of Champions. They need you playing their game actively. If the audience for Hearthstone gets too low, the motivation to get to legend, the motivation to own all the fancy card backs, and the motivation for influencer channels to support the game in their content will wane. The fickle public will move on to something else. RIP revenue stream.  RIP game.

The people who run these games know that each individual only has so much attention and time to give to their leisure activities and that this attention is hotly contested. There's never been a greater dearth of entertainment options for those looking to play games, and there's even more entertainment besides (YouTube, Netflix... Facebook) so these games can't afford to merely be excellent. They have to be effectively demanding your attention as often as they can. Seasonal events are but one tool in the game designer's toolbox to achieve this.

Artist's impression of me deciding which TV show I want to watch this weekend
How do they work? They appeal to several key motivations of players. I'll list them in what I perceive to my top 5 motivators, in no particular order. There are plenty besides.

  • Social level FOMO (Fear of Missing Out): Even if the individual player isn't drawn in by all the hubbub of the holidays, chances are that their friends most definitely are. Christmas comes but once a year, so if your MMO (for example) is doing a limited edition series of festive raids that year, nobody wants to be the only one in the social group that missed out on it.
  • Holiday Spirit: Certain holidays command a desire to be involved in all things related to that holiday. It's easy to get swept up in spooky things at Halloween, and you're in the minority if you don't get a little excited about some aspect of Christmas. If you have three favourite games, and only one of them is doing something to celebrate a holiday you're genuinely excited about, odds are that you'll be playing that game over the other two. Simple as that.
    • For bonus points, some holidays usually coincide with culturally conditioned bouts of excess and spending in combination with extended holiday time (Christmas and Chinese New Year) so the average player will be more inclined to spend their money, and their time, in your game than usual... if yours can be the game that they want to play of course.
  • Individual level FOMO: Not everybody is a socially motivated player, and I count myself in that category. But that doesn't mean people like me don't want to miss out on what's going on with the seasonal updates. It's worth noting at this point that not all seasonal updates have anything to do with traditional holidays. It can be as simple as the next chapter of an ongoing narrative in a game, with one-time special prizes to compete or grind for. The all important aspect is the time limited nature of this content. Once it's gone, it's gone. I have to come into the game if I don't want to miss out on the event forever.
  • Curiosity: An app icon changing in your phone screen is something you're going to notice. The phone that you're more likely than not to check within minutes of waking up. The phone you check more than ten times a day. That phone. If the Mario icon on your Super Mario Run game is suddenly winking when he wasn't before, you're going to want to check that shit out.
  • Superfan Commitment: Every game has its die-hards for whom all of the above is par for the course. The effect of any of the above goes double for this segment of the game's audience. A new card back or special character in Hearthstone might not always get my attention, but you can bet that the hardest of your hardcore fans will notice.
The problem with everybody catching on to the seasonal events formula is that the water level quickly rises again. It's not merely enough for your game to be excellent, and have plenty of seasonal support. Not if your next nearest competitors are also hitting the same beats as you during the holidays. What makes your seasonal update any more special than the others? Savvy consumers will recognise when a game has just slapped some spooky art assets and pumpkin themed prizes around the appropriate time of year. Yawn. Leverage your IP, lean into the particular fantasy or need that your particular game provides better than anybody else's.

To conclude, seasonal events actually don't do all that much to help the fortunes of a game that people don't already love. Did you check out the September event in Pocket Mine 3? Of course not. You weren't playing it to begin with. No amount of spooktacularity will change that.  

Monday, 10 April 2017

Fail Fast, Often, and Early with Paper Prototyping

Developing a game is a lot of work. Multi-disciplinary work at the very least and it's so very expensive. Whether you're making a physical game or a video game, using a paper prototype to answer some basic questions about your game first will save you a lot of time and money. It's certainly more efficient to iterate extremely quickly and often on a paper prototype for a short time and explore a lot of options than it is to spend a months going through the same process with a live build.

What question are you trying to answer with this prototype? Defining what you're trying to show should be what you establish first. Are you trying to show how your puzzle mechanic works? How about how your UI generally holds together? Maybe you want to see how the economy of your real time strategy game holds together in the first few minutes. Whatever it is, keep it focused and keep it small. If the paper prototype ever feels like it's becoming too big and trying to answer too many questions, chances are that it probably won't be answering any of them.

Image result for paper prototyping games
It can even be as simple as testing map designs

As an aside I'd probably say that one thing a paper prototype is not ideal for is figuring out whether the basic 'game feel' of your controls is working out. If there's one thing that you want to get working in your live build first it's the basic interactions the player will be making. If you're making a digital card game, making the act of playing cards onto the board feel good is far more important than toying around with rulesets and specific content.

Image result for paper prototyping games
Much better to mock something up and print it out than to actually code this up.

You'll want to spend a little bit of money on materials. The 'paper' aspect of this business is somewhat misleading. If you can get wooden cubes, toy dinosaurs... bits for people to play with then it'll go a long way to making these tools useful for communication, especially if you're a core design strike team trying to talk to the wider team. If you're in a more professional setting, it might be worth splashing out on laminates and a high quality art finish to bring your final argument home.

Use components from other board games, get an ample supply of pens, post-its, scissors and everything from your primary school art lessons. Make a mess. If it seems like a bit of an expenditure, just remember how much time (and therefore money) you are saving by doing this. It will become extremely apparent how efficient this approach is once you're on the fifth iteration in as many hours.

Another side note: If you're game jamming, you'd be remiss not to dedicate the first morning's design time of a two-day jam just doing paper stuff and it's also a great way to involve inexperienced jammers in something very pivotal to the project.

Don't be afraid to abstract or simplify other aspects of your vision if it's not pertinent to the question at hand. If you're trying to show how your experience and levelling mechanics work, don't stress too much about the battles and simulate them with simple dice rolls. If your random loot experience can't be adequately captured on paper, don't feel too squeamish about faking it. Just be clear to your audience where you've simplified or deviated from the vision in order to keep the message concise. Don't let this thing bloat out.

Image result for paper prototyping games
You're not actually building the full game here after all...

Finally, use this opportunity to goof around with ideas. Paper prototyping is about as cheap a method of mucking about with wild ideas as you're going to get. Your crazy power-up that turns all enemy combatants into roosters most likely to get the floor time it deserves (or doesn't) while the stakes are only as high as having to throw away a few rooster doodles rather than a week of full dev time. It's a really low-risk space so have as much fun as possible with it while you can! Now get designing!

Monday, 12 September 2016

How To Win At The Game Of Thrones Board Game: Part 6- Taking the Win, Meta-Game and Alliances, and Alternative Ways to Play

Hello, and welcome to the final part of my guide on how to win at the Game of Thrones board game. If you have missed any of the previous parts, they can be found below:

Part 3- Stark and Greyjoy
Part 4- Lannister and Baratheon
Part 5- Tyrell and Martell

7: Taking The Win

“In War.
Prize victory,
Not a protracted campaign.”

Sun Tsu, Waging of War

So, having discussed general strategy and potential issues for each house I am now going to look at making the winning move. There are two ways to win; take a 7th castle, or hold the most castles at the end of the game. Depending on the house you are playing is as the best option will vary.

Obviously taking 7 castles is a safe and instantaneous win, but you are unlikely to be able to reliably do this. Since hitting 6 castles makes you a big target you should try to hover around 5 castles and then aim to take two in one turn. Obviously this means splitting your resources more, and requires careful timing of housecards to give guaranteed or probably victories. Bear in mind that ties are initially broken by number of strongholds, followed by supply track position. This has an important bearing on what each house should attempt. For example, if Greyjoy are sitting on 5 castles, 3 of which are strongholds, and every other player is on 5 or fewer castles, they are probably a strong contender to win the game in turn 10. Conversely, if Martell hold 5 castles they are unlikely to be holding more than one stronghold, meaning they should probably push for a 6th or 7th castle.

The best time to make the push to 7 castles is turns 8 or 9, as other players will not necessarily be prepared for this when compared to turn 10. Another great time to do this is if the Westeros cards deal a “no support orders” card, as this allows territories considered “safe” to be taken (Crackclaw Point, Storm's End etc). If making the push for 7 castles it is important to put the rest of your orders down in a defensive strategy that mitigates risk; unless you can be certain of the victories required to take your final castles then you need to prepare for the worst.

The last aspect of endgame to talk about is turn 10. Turn 10 is different to the rest of the game, mainly because no one has anything to lose. As such, players will be much more reckless and will throw units and house cards at any problem. How you respond to this will depend on your position; if you have a comfortable lead you should play defensively and aim to prevent all attacks. If you are slightly behind you should prepare to march on the loser in any large battles. A particularly good strategy can be suddenly mobilising units that have existed all game as power token farmers. A sudden march from the Arbor or Dragonstone can be unexpected and allow you to easily taken an undefended castle.

I had to get a picture of Stannis in somewhere, and here is as good as anywhere.
Generally if you are in a strong position you should be aiming to end the game in turn 9 and avoiding the unpredictability of turn 10, as it is easy for the rankings of all players to change in the final turn.

8: Meta-game and Alliances

“Words of peace,
But no treaty,
Are a sign
Of a plot.”

Sun Tsu, On The March

One aspect of the game that is often linked to it that I have hardly touched on is the table game, including alliances and deals. Obviously this is not a formal part of the rules, but is thematically encouraged. Depending on the group you play with will depend on how often alliances come into play. That said, once two players make an alliance in a game it is only a matter of time until other alliances form to counter this (for more information, see World War 2).

Generally the most effective alliances are not made between neighbours. Greyjoy and Lannister may make an alliance in good faith, but having a large military presence on your doorstep is something that can only be ignored for so long. Rather, alliances can be mutually beneficial between houses that lack common territories. This could include:


All these focus on a “pincer” attack on a common enemy. Of course, if you find you cannot trust other players with even this kind of alliance, another option is an alliance that only lasts for a certain time. For example, an alliance up until the start of turn 6. This means both players are aware of when aggression is acceptable whilst not worrying about being the one to be stabbed in the back.

"I did warn you not to trust me"

How alliances work will likely develop between any group of regular players. Another aspect that normally develops between a group of people who regularly play together is a local metagame. This means that there are certain strategies or moves that become the expected move amongst that group. This, in turn, leads to those moves losing value due to being predictable. For example, if a group always used my suggested Lannister opening then the Greyjoy player would likely use a different opening in response to this. This is something that will inform your strategy when playing with this group; how this manifests depends entirely on who you play with.

9: Alternative Set-ups and “House” Rule Suggestions

The last area I would like to discuss is some suggestions for alternative ways of playing that either give the game some variety or help address balancing issues. These are of course not official set ups but give variety to the game.

Rumble In The South (4 players): Block off Pyke, Moat Cailin, Greywater Watch, Flint's Finger, and everything north of them. Houses in play are Lannister, Baratheon, Martell and Tyrell. This set up lets Tyrell have the Valyrian Steel Blade and puts Martell second on two influence tracks, making Doran a more interesting card, as well as giving each house limited space to work in. This also works for groups who want to use Tyrell and Martell but don't always have 6 players.

No Salt Or Sand (4 players): Block off Pyke and Dorne (Prince's Pass, Yronwood, Starfall, Salt Shore, Sunspear), and have Lannister, Baratheon, Stark and Tyrell in. This is less claustrophobic than Rumble but does not give any one player too many resources. It also means Lannister have some breathing room without having too easy a time of things.

All But The Lion (5 players): Block off Lannisport and remove Lannister. This 5 player set up keeps the middle of the board empty, meaning that Baratheon, Tyrell and Greyjoy expand further than usual and get into blows with each other. Since Lannister do not have a lot of uncontested territories this does not substantially change the goals for any house, but does remove the house that suffers most in a 5 player game.

Custom House Decks: The Dance With Dragons expansion adds a new set of house cards for each house, and this can be used to create custom decks. The most balanced ruling is that each house chooses a 4, a 3, two 2s, two 1s and a 0 from the two decks, and these are not publicly announced until the cards have been played. This allows for a lot more strategy and planning for players, who can tailor their house to their play style. This can create some ridiculously powerful house decks, which can put a greater focus on combat. A second alternative to this is to randomise which house gets which cards (e.g. Baratheon use Lannister cards etc).

Army Building: Each house in the base game starts with either 5 or 6 mustering points worth of units. This set up allows players to choose how these are deployed. Each player in turn must place a land unit on their home territory. They can then place on any territory they own or any adjacent territory (with boats required when crossing the sea). Each player places a unit each turn until they have used their mustering points up. Players cannot place into a territory that contains any unit belonging to another player. This allows players to mix up the starting set ups, and thus the starting moves. There is also strategy in deciding how much land to take versus having a stronger army.

Pre-Game Influence Bid: Rather than using the usual influence track positions, each house is given 10 power tokens and a round of bidding occurs before turn 1. This means each player can decide what they want to prioritise, as well as how many power tokens they want to hold on to. This gives some variety to the opening of games, as well as giving each house different opening options.

Messenger Ravens: One group I play with came up with the idea of using “messenger ravens” to send messages in secret to other players. These are written on scraps of paper and handed directly to the player you wish to message, with all players seeing who is messaging who but not the content. This creates a lot more depth to the table game, as alliances and coordinated moves can be created in secret. One optional rule with this is to only allow players to use ravens on alternating turns, meaning private communications are limited.


That is about everything I have to say about the Game of Thrones board game. Due to the size and complexity of it it is a game that allows for a lot different ways of playing. I haven't really discussed either of the two official expansions, nor have I talked about the innumerable fan expansions that seek to add various houses. I hope this has been useful and provoked thought and discussion. Thank you for reading, and thank you to all the people who put up with playing this game with me and helping form this article.

Monday, 5 September 2016

How To Win At The Game Of Thrones Board Game: Part 5- Tyrell and Martell

In this article we will look at the strategies for the two remaining houses, Tyrell and Martell. If you have missed any of the previous sections they can be found below:

Part 1- Territory Control and House Cards
Part 3- Stark and Greyjoy
Part 4- Lannister and Baratheon


One of the great things about the Game of Thrones board game is the focus on strategy over luck. That said, luck is of course a factor, and nowhere is this more obvious than with Tyrell. Starting with abysmal placings on the influence tracks, Tyrell can't do much about their lot until the right cards come up. If they don't get a mustering or a influence tracks bid they can't get any new units. The same is true of Greyjoy, but they at least have the Valyrian Steel Blade, giving them a substantial edge in combat. Tyrell therefore must start with a defensive set up with a focus on building up power tokens and capitalise once the cards turn in their favour.

In terms of positioning Tyrell are in a decent position. The Redwyne Straits provides a position for a strong naval defence, and Oldtown is effectively free, meaning Tyrell get 4 muster points from Highgarden and Oldtown each mustering which will almost certainly never be threatened. There are also plenty of barrels and printed power tokens for Tyrell, meaning they are not short of resources early game.

The Tyrell house cards are simple but strong. Margaery and Ser Axell are standard 1 strength cards, and Randyll Tarly and Garlan Tyrell provide decent attacking opportunities. The real strength of Tyrell is their more tactical cards. The Queen of Thorns is fairly situational, but is the only 0 strength card that can actually deliver a win by cancelling support. Obviously this requires a specific situation, but being able to cancel a large support is very damaging. Even if it does not deliver a win itself, by cancelling a support it can set up for a stronger march later that turn. It also works brilliantly for taking out consolidate power orders (ideally a starred one). Mace Tyrell is also excellent, as when used correctly is effectively a 5 strength card. Being able to deliver a guaranteed casualty is very dangerous and will disincentivise a lot of marches against Tyrell. And then there is Ser Loras Tyrell. 

Although not having the reliability or brute force or Mace, Ser Loras' effect of being able to move a march order into a conquered territory can win games by itself. Effective use requires careful planning, but he is a lethal card for several reasons. Firstly, assuming you win the first combat you are likely to be able to march on the routed army immediately afterwards, meaning he can kill off a lot of units without a single sword. Secondly, he can reach areas that would normally be out of reach, making him very hard for other players to defend against. Finally, if used as the penultimate card in a house card cycle, Tyrell can initiate another combat elsewhere to refresh their hand, and then march with Ser Loras again, meaning they can move a single army across 3 areas in a single turn. Again, if used at the right time this move can push on to a winning castle amount. The only thing Ser Loras needs to fear is Arianne Martell, as the ruling is that her effect cancels his, meaning he is effectively wasted in any combat against her.

The Tyrell strategy is very likely to involve conflict with Martell sooner or later. Similarly to how Riverrun eventually tends towards Greyjoy, Starfall tends to fall towards Tyrell, as it is in a difficult position for Martell to defend. This is particularly dangerous for Martell, as once Starfall is taken Ser Loras can make a quick march on Sunspear, effectively taking them out of the game. Once Starfall and the Reach are taken Tyrell need to consider where to make their push. King's Landing is a possibility if Baratheon don't get set up early, and Lannisport is only a Ser Loras double march away. Lannisport is actually one of the easiest home territories to take, due to the above issues Lannister have with Greyjoy. This can open up Harrenhal and even Riverrun if Lannister are flailing; perhaps the best approach is to take the Blackwater and see where Lannister's defences are weakest; if they are in a strong position use this as an opportunity to attack Baratheon

Tyrell should play an initially conservative game, as they have a reasonably defensive position which allows for easy farming of power tokens from the Dornish Marches, Prince's Pass and the Arbor, as well as an easy 5-6 barrels. Tyrell should then focus on reinforcing their position until they can grab position on the influence tracks. Overall Tyrell are one of the most straightforward houses to play as, and, aside from their terrible opening positions on the influence tracks, have no major weaknesses.

Suggested Openings:

Redwyne Straights: Support (no other march orders available)
Highgarden: March 0, knight into The Reach, footman into Oldtown
Dornish Marches: March -1 into Prince's Pass


Redwyne Straights: March -1 into West Summer Sea
Highgarden: March 0, knight into The Reach, footman into Starfall
Dornish Marches: Consolidate Power


Whilst not always the most exciting house to play as Martell rarely do terribly either. They have decent influence track positions and average resources. One thing Martell lack are options for expansion; unless Martell play an exceptionally aggressive navy they are unlikely to expand more than 1-2 territories away from Sea of Dorne for the whole game. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as the Sea of Dorne makes every area around it very defensible for Martell. As such, Martell's first focus should be building a strong navy there, whilst also having single boats in the East Summer Sea and the Sunspear port for raiding and consolidating respectively.

The Martell house deck is one of the least tactical, consisting almost exclusively of swords and forts. The two cards that do have some strategy are Arianne and Doran Martell. Doran is a great threat to other players, working in a similar way to Patchface, although maybe not quite as dangerous early game. Whilst Baratheon losing the Iron Throne does not directly benefit Martell they will be keen to not lose it and as such will normally delay aggression towards Martell until necessary (also fearing the plethora of swords). Arianne Martell is probably the best defensive card in the game (sorry Blackfish), and is best saved for siege engines and Ser Loras, ideally both. If used carefully she can also be used to effectively march your units for free when retreating whilst also not conceding territory by retreating them into a new area.

"Come on baby; don't fear the Viper..."
The major disadvantage Martell have is a lack of strongholds. The nearest ones are King's Landing and Oldtown, which are likely to prove very difficult to take. This means Martell will often be mustering fewer units than other houses. As such, an early priority is grabbing 4 castles to reinforce their position, and then mustering from Sunspear as often as possible. Yronwood and Starfall are both easy for Martell to grab early, although Starfall will need reinforcing eventually. Storm's End should also be taken as soon as possible. Having a single boat in the East Summer Sea gives raiding opportunities against both Tyrell and Baratheon, which helps hold Starfall and Storm's End. This is particularly useful for the latter, as Martell can still support from the Sea of Dorne, making it very difficult for Baratheon to take it as they cannot rely on naval support.

After taking these 4 castles it is a long way for Martell to take a 5th. The obvious choice is the Reach, although it will take effective and sustained aggression against Tyrell to push them back. Also, the Reach is not easy to hold, so should either be taken suddenly and then abandoned, or ideally taken as a 7th castle. As already discussed, Martell cannot practically reach 7 castles without taking a home territory, and the Tyrells are probably the easier target. Martell should try to push aggressively into Tyrell lands early in the game, as if Tyrell fail to set up properly, as above, they may lose too much ground and not be able to recover. This would put Martell in a strong position to take the win. Alternatively, Martell can offer an alliance with Stark against Baratheon; this works well for both players, as they have no common lands but a common enemy, and a coordinated naval assault can be devastating for Baratheon, opening up Dragonstone, King's Landing and Crackclaw Point as possible castles for Martell. Without northern support this attack is unlikely to succeed, but Stark have nothing to lose by siding with the opposite end of the board.

Martell are another average house, and as such there is often a back and forth between Martell and Tyrell that does not go anywhere for either player. Martell are very unlikely to take 7 castles, and as such should make their corner as defensible as possible whilst making calculated attacks on Tyrell.

Suggested Openings:

Sunspear: *Consolidate power (muster two ships into Sea of Dorne)
Salt Shore: March +1 into Starfall
Sea of Dorne: March 0 into East Summer Sea


Sunspear: March +1, knight into Storm's End, footman into Yronwood
Salt Shore: March -1 into Starfall
Sea of Dorne: March 0 into East Summer Sea

In the final part we will look at taking the win, allances, the meta-game, as well as some house rules and alternative ways of playing. Thanks for reading and see you then.

Monday, 29 August 2016

How To Win At The Game Of Thrones Board Game: Part 4- Lannister and Baratheon

In this article we continue our look at the specifics of playing as each house. If you missed any of the previous articles, they can be found below:


Thematically enough, Lannister are undoubtedly the most controversial house on the board. A lot of people feel that, due to the strength of Greyjoy, Lannister cannot resist them, and will quickly be pushed back (and, as in the previous part, once Lannister lose Riverrun they are on the back foot). Moreover, Lannister are the most central of the houses, with pressure from Baratheon and Tyrell on their doorstep. The Lannister player must therefore predict their opponents' aggression and give them cause to tackle their other neighbours.

Lannister hold a very flexible house card deck, and although it can't quite match the Greyjoy deck it is still a strong basis for combat. A tactical use of Kevan can swing an unexpected combat, and is ideal to use as a counter against Balon, since it adds power unrelated to house card strength. Tyrion is also an exceptionally tactical card. He is best saved until an opponent has used most of their cards, either to force them to play a strong card last (and thus lose it for the next cycle of house cards) or return their last card to their hand, effectively making them lose any house card bonuses. He is also excellent at countering situational cards; for example, sending Victarion back to the Greyjoys during a naval battle.

The other key asset Lannister start with is the messenger raven. Although only guaranteed for the first turn, it is reasonably likely you will hold it for at least a few turns, due to you deciding all “Dark Wings, Dark Words” cards. The other great use of the raven is the potential for riskier plays. Examples include putting consolidate power tokens on Riverrun, and then swapping to a march or defence in reaction to Greyjoy. It also allows safe pick ups of The Blackwater and even Crackclaw point, since you can see what Baratheon and Tyrell are doing and tactically aim for the holes in their defences. This, along with acting second in turn order, should form the basis of the initial Lannister setup.

Firstly, Lannister need to do what they can to mitigate Greyjoy, and the key territory here is the Sunset Sea. Since Greyjoy cannot afford to burn their marches taking it on turn one, Lannister should seek to move their ship there, and then muster two ships into the Golden Sound from Lannisport. This sets up the Golden Sound supporting Riverrun and Lannisport whilst Sunset Sea continually raids Greyjoy support. Of course, sooner or later Greyjoy will get sick of this and attack with Victarion, but this draws their energies away from the land, as well as creating a strong naval defence for them to fight against.

After setting up in anticipation of Greyjoy, Lannister need to consider their game plan, as Riverrun and Harrenhal are the only straightforward castles. The strength of taking the Sunset Sea means Lannister have a claim on Flint's Finger, which is a strong claim if the support from Ironman's Bay is raided. A Stark-Lannister alliance can be used to take down Seaguard, but even more effective is a march on Stark after taking it, as they likely move away from their support and won't have an order placed. As discussed in the Greyjoy strategy; it is likely that a strong Lannister means a weak Greyjoy, and vice versa, so if you succeed in the above setup it could spell the beginning of the end for Greyjoy.

Greyjoy should also watch out for rickety bridges.

In terms of the south and the east, Lannister have a very mixed bag. On the one hand, they are likely to hit 6 barrels fairly reliably, and can pick up a lot of printed crowns as well, with Stoney Sept being a key focal point for both support and consolidate orders, depending on the situation. On the other hand, the next castles are a long way off. Once Baratheon have their navy set up Crackclaw Point becomes very hard to take, since Baratheon can support from both Shipbreaker and Blackwater bays. A more effective strategy is to set up an army in the Blackwater and Harrenhal as if moving to take Crackclaw Point, and then taking a stab at King's Landing, since it gets less naval support and is more likely to be under pressure.

Moving south does not give Lannister many more options, short of an out and out offensive against Tyrell. This is not as unreasonable as it might seem, depending on where Tyrell puts it's energies. Again, the best hope Lannister has is catching a Tyrell player off-guard; holding the Searoad Marches with a solitary footman is seen as a peaceful but secure position for Lannister, but also opens up a chain march (march into a friendly area with another march in) of a much larger army from elsewhere into Highgarden. This also opens up the Reach as an option.

As is probably clear by now, Lannister's biggest weakness is their board positioning, as they can end up in combat with almost every other house. As such, it is vital that Lannister expand slowly but surely; they should focus on constantly mustering from Lannisport and Riverrun, and taking advantage of their easy access to barrels. By doing this a careful Lannister player can secure the centre ground and wait for the right opening from other players. Whilst their board positioning is a problem, it can be turned to your advantage, as you have access to most of the board, meaning you can wait until a player leaves an area undefended and then march on it. Although certainly a challenge in a 6 player game, a Lannister win is definitely possible.

Suggested openings:

The Golden Sound: March 0 into the Sunset Sea
Stoney Sept: March +1 into Riverrun
Lannisport: *Consolidate Power (muster two boats into the Golden Sound)


The Golden Sound: March 0 into the Sunset Sea
Lannisport: March +1, knight into Riverrun, footman into Stoney Sept
Stoney Sept: March -1, one footman into Harrenhal, one into the Blackwater


If Lannister have a slight disadvantage overall it is probably fair to say that Baratheon have a slight advantage. The biggest aspect of this is the sheer number of options Baratheon have; they can focus on holding the centre ground and go against Lannister and Tyrell; they can go south and attack Dorne; or head north and take the Vale and the Stark lands. Moreover, they have an excellent naval position, as having a strong navy in Blackwater Bay not only gives strong unraidable support to King's Landing and Crackclaw Point but also provides support to ships in Shipbreaker Bay. This means it is effectively impossible to take due to the strength of the Salladhor Saan house card.


Another big advantage Baratheon has is very strong access to power tokens. After taking King's Landing on turn one they can effectively farm five power tokens each turn, which helps them get a massive lead. Also, since they will likely hold King's Landing and The Kingswood at the end of turn one they can collect four tokens each time there is a “Game of Thrones” card effect. This easy early access to power tokens feeds into another advantage Baratheon have; the Iron Throne. Whilst it may be tempting to deliberately lose it at the first Clash of Kings to power up Stannis, Baratheon should aim to have it as long as possible, as being able to break ties combined with lots of power tokens means you can very easily end up on very strong positions on the influence tracks.

The Baratheon house cards are functional but not great. Salador Saan is, as mentioned already, a superb naval deterrent that means Martell and Stark are basically incapable of marching into Baratheon waters. Stannis and Renly have very situational effects which are nice if you can get them but most of the time they are effectively blank cards. Ser Davos is a strong card, as there is never a reason not to use him after Stannis and effectively have a second 3 strength card. Brienne and Melisandre are both average, but Patchface is probably the best 0 strength in the game. There is no counter players can make against him, and he is one of the few cards who is great in both a “definite win” and “definite loss” situation. He is best used early to remove cards that are likely to give you issues (The Red Viper, Ser Gregor, Eddard, Roose Bolton) and take the edge off opponents' house cards.

In terms of overall strategy, Baratheon have lots of choices, and can attack with relative impunity due to their strong defensive position. Priority number one should be setting up 3 ships in Blackwater Bay and 1 in Shipbreaker bay. The Blackwater ships can continually support as above, making Crackclaw Point and King's Landing almost impossible to take. The Shipbreaker ship can be used either as a second supporting unit or to raid Martell or Stark. Once this is set up Baratheon should look to take either Storm's End or the Eyrie. Which one should be based on the situation; if Stark are not focusing on the Vale then a march, either by sea or land, is definitely a safe bet. Martell should take Storm's End but may get embroiled with Tyrell, which can make it an easy castle to take. If not Salador can be used to take out any support from the Sea of Dorne and push Martell back. If Baratheon manage to take Storm's End they should focus on building up a supporting army in the Kingswood, as this can bolster Storm's End and King's Landing whilst also helping to take the Reach.

Another option is an attack on Lannister against Harrenhal. Good times to do this are after a failed attack on Crackclaw Point or when Lannister is focusing on defending Riverrun. If things go in your favour Baratheon may even be able to pick up Riverrun, particularly if it has just changed hands between Greyjoy and Lannister. This should ideally be as a 7th castle, since Baratheon are unlikely to be able to hold it.

Generally Baratheon don't have any major weaknesses due to their flexibility. The lack of readily available barrels can quickly become a problem, which is one reason why moving into either the Vale or the Blackwater should be a priority. Hitting a resupply before doing this can be very damaging to Baratheon, as Tyrell and Lannister are likely to be sitting on 4-6 barrels with little effort. Otherwise Baratheon do not have to take many big risks to be a forerunner for the win.

Suggested openings:

Shipbreaker Bay: March -1 one ship into Blackwater Bay
Kingswood: Support +1
Dragonstone: March 0, knight into Kingswood, footman into King's Landing


Shipbreaker Bay: March -1 one ship into Blackwater Bay East Summer Sea
Dragonstone: March 0, knight into Kingswood, footman into Crackclaw Point
Kingswood: March +1, knight into Storm's End, footman into The Reach (unless held by Tyrell)

In the next part we move down to the south of Westeros and discuss houses Tyrell and Martell, and have a look at what is probably the most dangerous house card in the game.