With Game of Thrones coming out on HBO, Bob Gallo and I decided to take a look at some of the games that have been made about the series. Most of them have a focus on politics, which is fitting given the nature of the books, but Battles of Westeros is focused completely on war. Fans of the series will love the focus on specific characters from the series, but even those who haven’t read the books or seen the TV show will find a lot to like in one of the best tactical war-games in the historical/fantasy genre.
We’ll start with the components, which are top-notch. The board is beautiful, the tokens thick and meaty, the enormous pile of toy soldiers gorgeously cast in an impressively firm plastic, allowing them to hold good shape and fine detail. I go so far as to say the pieces are some of the best of their scale on the market, for the price, though if someone knows of better I’d love to hear about them.
Battles of Westeros is “A BattleLore Game,” which is means it is part of the Commands and Colors series, which means it’s based on a very simple, very popular game engine designed by Richard Borg. Other games in the series include Memoir ’44, set in World War 2, Commands and Colors: Ancients, set in ancient Greece and Rome and similar eras, Commands and Colors: Napoleon, where you can probably guess the setting, and BattleLore itself, set in a wacky fantasy version of the Hundred Years War. Each of those games follows the same basic pattern: the board is divided into hexes, which can be covered with little tiles of terrain—rivers, forests, hills, and so on—either based on a scenario or designed by the players. This battlefield is split into three main sections, left, right, and center, and you move your army from hex to hex based on cards; on your turn you get to play a card from your hand, such as “order three units on the left flank.” Combat is resolved with dice, and you refill your hand at the end of the turn. This tactical battle system is simple enough that my seven-year-old can play it with me, and yet interesting enough that adults love it as well.
There are, however, some problems with the system. If you don’t have the right card—or, in the worst case, any cards at all for a given section—your battle plans can be destroyed. This can be seen as a simulation of battlefield uncertainty, where commands can’t be relayed properly, and you have to manage your hand carefully to avoid it, but it’s still a big turnoff for a lot of people. This is why Battles of Westeros is such a fantastic evolution of the system, thanks to three key improvements that not only smooth it out but make it better.
First: commanders. Instead of just abstracting the presence of commanders on the field, you get actual figures to represent the characters from the book: Jaime Lannister, Robb Stark, and more. They give special abilities to their unit, plus they have once-per-game abilities that mimic powerful order cards, so even if you don’t have the right cards in your hand your commanders can still step in and lead their forces. The commanders add a lot of personality to the game as well, since each comes with his or her own set of order cards that you can shuffle into the deck; this way an army led by Jaime Lannister will play very differently than an army led by Tyrion. The flavor this gives to the gameplay is really fantastic.
Second: command zones. Instead of ordering your units based on sections, you order them based on how close they are to one of your commanders, and many of the orders have an increased effect based on how good of a commander they’re close to. What this does is give you the same limited utility the base system provided (you can only order certain units at certain times), but attaching it to a resource you can actually control (the positioning of your commanders). Is a group of archers flagging behind? Send your commander over to bring them in line. Do your horsemen need a little boost in their glorious charge? Send a cavalry commander to lead the charge in person, to help give the order a little extra punch. Your commanders really are your personal envoys on the battlefield, and without them your ability to command your army completely falls apart.
Third: order tokens. At the start of each turn you roll the dice and get a limited number of order tokens based on the result; these tokens allow you order units who are too far away from a commander to be of any use. In part, this is just a way to help you order the units you need most without suffering too dearly the whims of the cards; more than that, though, it’s a way of representing the hand of fate in everything from orders to formations to morale. It’s a small thing, but it smooths out the gameplay immensely.
If you enjoy the game there are already several expansions to bulk out your forces, including boosts to the Starks and Lannisters, and ally armies such as House Tully and the upcoming Tribes of the Vale (featuring the Black Ears, the Red Hand, and so on). Presumably the future holds more of the major Houses, such as Baratheon, Targaryen, and the Dothraki. These offer not only extra units but extra commanders; my favorite character has always been Tyrion, of course (isn’t he everybody’s?), so The Wardens of the West expansion was my first choice for him alone. The ally expansions are especially interesting because they offer the possibility of homemade “What If?” scenarios—obviously Tully is allied to Stark in the books, but what if they allied with somebody else for a change? You can mix and match allegiances as freely as you like, playing out whatever stories you want, canonical or imagined.
War is an important part of the Song of Ice and Fire; though it doesn’t always take center stage, the threat of it is always lurking in the background, breathing heavily on heated conversations, biding its time to strike. With Battles of Westeros you can bring all of that potential to life in a way few other tactical war-games allow. I highly recommend it.