Monday, 8 August 2016

How To Win At The Game Of Thrones Board Game: Part 1- Territory Control and House Cards

With the current Game of Thrones obsession still holding strong after several years in the limelight, and the season 6 finale having been and gone, a lot of people will be looking for a way to expand their Game of Thrones experience. Sure, you could turn to the books, and many have, but my first port of call will always be the first medium in which I encountered Westeros; the board game.

On the scale of “casual” to “hardcore”, the Game of Thrones board game by Fantasy Flight Games definitely tends towards the latter value, being a 3-6 player game that normally takes 3-4 hours to play. Whilst that can certainly be an intimidating prospect it is definitely worth the investment, as it is a deep and highly strategic game that holds up to a lot of replays, not least because each of the 6 houses opens up a different game.

"What do you mean 'no House Tully'?"- No one.

I'm not going to go through the basic rules or mechanics, as I think Fantasy Flight themselves do an excellent job of explaining them in both book and video form; rather, I'm going to focus on the key elements of strategy that allow a player to bring peace and/or tyranny to Westeros. I am writing in regards to a 6 player game, but the majority of this is also applicable to a 3-5 player game as well. I have split my thoughts of the game into 6 articles, consisting of 9 areas of discussion:

1. Territory Control
2. House Cards
3. Combat
4. Managing Troops
5. Power Tokens
6. Specific House Strategies
7. Taking the Win
8. Meta-Game and Alliances
9. Alternative Setups and "House" Rule Suggestions

Before reading through this I would suggest that you play the game at least a couple of times. I would also advise that you have a look through the following:

  • Board set up (large image here)
  • House cards (large image here)
  • Westeros cards (list here)
  • Wildling cards (large image here)

Furthermore, in true strategist style, I have started each section with a quote from Sun Tzu's Art of War, so we can all feel profoundly intelligent whilst fighting tiny plastic battles.

1: Territory Control

"On entangling terrain,
If the enemy is unprepared,
Go out and defeat him."

- Sun Tzu on Forms of Terrain

Since GoT is a territory control game, naturally this is the first port of call. Generally on turn 1 most players would be looking for an initial land grab to prepare for a Supply or Mustering card. This is certainly the case for Greyjoy and Tyrell, as they cannot muster on turn 1, but is generally true of most other houses, as there is nothing more frustrating than mustering on a home territory on turn 1 at the cost of taking a stronghold, only to have a mustering card come up immediately afterwards.

After the turn 1 land grab, most players will then continue to push for any unoccupied territories. Whilst this might seem like a logical extension of turn 1 it can actually be harmful. For players in the middle of the board, such as Lannister and Baratheon, grabbing extra unheld areas will likely spread you too thin, whereas players with uncontested areas, such as Stark and Tyrell, should pick these up to farm power tokens for upcoming influence track bids.

The golden rule with territory is to not take anything that cannot then be held. There are two reasons for this; firstly, it is a waste of time and resources trying to take areas that are untenable, as there will be an inevitable backlash which will most likely cost units. Secondly, there is normally a point around turn 6 where one player is moving away from the pack, which causes everyone else to rally against that player and take territories from them. You do not want to be that player, as it is almost impossible to successfully defend against 2-3 players' aggression in one turn and come out of it on top.

A good rule of thumb is to aim to take, and hold, a new area every 2 turns. This may seem conservative, but if you consider that after turn 1 most houses will hold 4-5 territories, including seas, taking 5 more areas for a total of 10 over 10 turns is likely to be a winning move. So turns should generally alternate between taking a new territory on one turn, and then defending it on the next.

2: House Cards

"Which general
Has the ability?

Which side has
Heaven and Earth?"

Sun Tzu on Making Plans

Of course, there are times when you should enter combat into a territory you do not think you can hold or even successfully take, and one of the reasons to do that is to manage your house cards. Since most combat in GoT is very marginal, effective use of house cards is often what decides the eventual winner. After a few games with a group of players everyone will be familiar with each houses' house cards, and as such you must assume that players will try and second guess what you are playing. When choosing a house card for a combat, you should decide what the point of the combat is, as below:

  • Win the combat to conquer/defend a territory- play a high power card
  • Damaging your opponent- play a card with swords or a disruption effect
  • Baiting out your opponent's strong house cards- play a defensive card

It is everyone's instinct to try to defend every territory tooth and nail, but a key part of GoT strategy is drawing out your opponent's strong house cards whilst playing weaker cards yourself. This means that when it comes to the battle you have to win that you have an automatic card advantage, and sometimes this can mean losing a territory to then take it back with a stronger position.

To put this into context, imagine you (Green) have a knight and a footman next to another player's home area, which contains their two strength garrison and a single footman (Red), meaning you have equal forces. Let's say they have opted to consolidate power, and you have played a march + 0, meaning you have equal strength forces, and let's also assume you both have all your house cards.

A good strategy would be to complete the march with your entire force. What this does is declares a very strong intent on taking their home territory, which is naturally very damaging for any player. In this situation the defending player has no choice but to play a strong card, perhaps even their 4, to ensure they don't lose. This means you, as the attacker, should opt to play one of your weakest cards, let's say a 1. This means that you will lose the combat and have all your cards except a 1, whereas your opponent has lost their 4. This means that next time you have a key combat that you both need to win the strongest they can play is their 3, whilst you still have your 4.

Of course, to combat this move as the defender you should push to use swords to punish an attacker for making such a move. Even if you lost your 3 strength as the defender by playing Ser Gregor the attacker would probably regret the move, as losing a footman and a knight to draw out your 3 strength wouldn't be worth it.

Overall you should aim to hold on to your strongest/scariest house card for as long as possible, as one of best defences is giving an opponent reluctance to act. No one wants to go into a combat that they think they will definitely lose, and could result in losing 2-3 units as well. The cards to hold on to are as such:

  • Lannister- Ser Gregor Clegane
  • Tyrell- Mace Tyrell/Ser Loras Tyrell
  • Martell- The Red Viper
  • Baratheon- Stannis Baratheon/Salador Sahn (see Baratheon strategy)
  • Greyjoy- Victarion Greyjoy/Balon Greyjoy

The exception to the rule is Stark, which relies on timely deployment of Roose Bolton to bring back Eddard and any other cards to your hand. To maximise this effect you should always play Eddard, and most likely Robb and Greatjon before playing Roose, as even a calculated loss is still a loss.

Roose "Big fan of the Starks" Bolton

The last thing to say on house cards is what is known as cycling through your deck. This consists of starting a battle you intend to lose for the express reason of getting your deck back. This can be harder than it sounds, as what you intend to be your 7th/13th combat might not be, as there is always an unexpected march that scuppers your plans. Whilst you should always hold on to your strongest card for as long as possible, the final card you play should always be your weakest, so you are keeping your next hand as strong as possible. The bottom cards for each house are below:

  • Lannister- Cersei Lannister
  • Tryell- Margaery Tyrell/Ser Axell Florent
  • Martell- Nymeria Sand
  • Baratheon- Melisandre
  • Greyjoy- Asha Greyjoy
  • Stark- Catelyn Stark

So, for example, here is a card order that might be played for house Tyrell:

  1. Randyll Tarly- Attacking, attempt to kill a unit
  2. Ser Axell Florent- Attacking, attempt to bait out a stronger card whilst protecting your own unit
  3. Garlan Tyrell- Defending, punishing a player for attacking with a weaker force
  4. Queen of Thorns- Defending, using her effect to mitigate a support order to even out your forces
  5. Ser Loras Tyrell- Attacking, making a push into enemy territory
  6. Mace Tyrell- Attacking, following up on Ser Loras
  7. Margaery Tyrell- Defending against the counter attack after Ser Loras

This order means you are causing damage with swords early whilst always keeping your stronger cards as a threat. The other great thing about this ordering is that, if needs be, you can play Mace as soon as you get him back, meaning you get to play him twice in 3 battles if necessary.

Of course, whilst effective house card management is the focus of combat, how you attack and defend is just as important, and can be used to engineer the most effective situations for each of your house cards. In the next article we will go through Combat, Managing Troops, and Power Tokens.