Category Archives: Game Reviews

Spec Ops: The Line, and Choices

Image result for spec ops: the line

Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game. It’s pretty short, maybe 10 hours long, with basic shooter gameplay, and it seems like it would be a very stereotypical experience. But its story is very subversive, not just for the genre, but also for the experience of gaming as a storytelling medium. If you haven’t played it yet, I’ll try to keep things spoiler free.

The basic gist is that you’re a special operative sent into Dubai in a near-future scenario where massive dust storms have pretty much destroyed the city, looking for survivors. A couple different factions are fighting, and you and your men get caught up in the middle of everything, trying your best to evacuate the civilians at first, then just to survive.

As I played through it, at first I was a little irritated that the game wasn’t letting me make choices that I knew should have been made by the characters and then blamed me for making those “choices.” This is deliberate: the loading screen text addresses you, the player, for what your character has done. I thought it would be interesting if they let you make other, better choices too, even if the game just ends when you do. Like you can have the “happy” ending by just cutting the experience short, even right after the very first part of the game before anything really bad happens.

But then I read an interview with the creator where he mentions that they actually thought of that, but chose not to do it because they wanted to draw players in through that sense of “maybe if I keep going things will get better” that is so common in real life. They didn’t want it to be that easy for the player, where they would have immediate confirmation that they made the “right” choice. The way to stop things from getting worse in the game is to just… stop playing. Put the controller down. Walk away. Which is so counter-intuitive to what it means to play a game that I think it really drives the point home, and took a lot of guts from the development team.

Usually when creators talks about how they wanted to set an experience that deliberately invokes anger from the player toward the creator, it comes off as just a cheap gimmick or excuse for laziness. In this game, I believe it, and it has made me re-evaluate other things I get angry at in games. Something fairly infamous in games is where they give you dialogue choices, and when you select one what your character says is something far more extreme than what was written. And you go “Well what the fuck, that’s not what I wanted to say!” But that’s life sometimes. You sometimes say things you don’t intend. Things come out wrong. What sounds reasonable in your head gets corrupted by emotions or poor communication skills.

Spec Ops game developers created a game where “winning” has consequences that the player does not intend, which reflects reality. Having objectives that you feel are right and justified, only to regret them later… where you make one decision after another, each which seems reasonable, but look back and realize you should have stopped a long time ago… that happens in real life all the time. Particularly to those who go to war.

If you feel like a game is ever “making” you do do things that you don’t want to do, it can actually be a great moment to empathize with people in situations where they feel pressured to do things for reasons far stronger than just wanting to see how a game ends. It’s the kind of experience that’s very unique to the storytelling medium of video games.

Review: Cultists of Cthulhu

Cultists of Cthulhu is a Survival Horror board game that combines exploration, social deception, risk analysis, and tabletop skill checks. The game it’s most similar to is Betrayal at House on the Hill, in that it’s a co-op game with a hidden traitor, but it has a few twists that help it stand out as highly enjoyable in its own ways.

Gameplay Overview

When you start the game, first all the players take the map squares and start forming the Miskatonic University campus and various buildings. Then, players take the roles of students or staff at the university, which have a variety of different stats and backgrounds. Then, each player is randomly given a role card, with either Academic or Cultist on it (only 1 Cultist is shuffled into the roles).

The Academics’ goals vary by the scenario chosen, but overall are working together to defeat whatever evil plagues the university. The Cultist, however, is there from the beginning to muck things up for the Academics, and if possible, kill them.

Play consists of turns where each player interacts with the academy in some way through event cards, requiring them to pass skill checks of varying difficulty. The game uses a unique dice system, and comes with 15 six sided dice of 3 colors: Green, Red, and Blue, each having 3 symbols on them.

Green dice have 3 Success sides, 2 Weird sides, and 1 Fail side.

Blue dice have 2 Success, 2 Weird, and 2 Fail.

Red dice have 1 Success, 2 Weird, and 3 Fail.

Every skill check or attack uses 5 dice. Character sheets will show 2 dice symbols for each skill in the color of the dice you use, while skill checks come in colors to indicate the rest of the dice. So if your character is great at Finesse, with two Green dice symbols on it, and gets a Blue Finesse skill check, you’d use 2 Green Dice and 3 Blue dice. If you’re decent at Reason, with a Blue and Green dice symbol, but get a Red Reason skill check, you’d roll 1 Green, 1 Blue, and 3 Red.

The scenario cards will tell you what the outcomes are. Usually the success is positive, and the failure is negative, but the Weird symbols have varying effects that can be good, bad, or mixed depending on what’s going on in the game. Now, normally dice rolling is one of my least favorite parts of games due to the random element it puts in, but this one does something clever with it.

After you roll your dice, you can choose any symbol you’ve rolled and reroll all dice of that kind. So let’s say you roll your dice and get 2 Success, 1 Weird, and 2 Fail. The card requires you to get 3 Success to get the positive effect, 2 Weird for the Weird effect, and 2 Fail is enough to get the negative effect. So a smart choice might be to reroll the 2 Fail dice. Hopefully, you’d get the 1 extra success you need and avoid the 2 Fail effect… but if the Weird effect is actually something you really don’t want to have happen right now,  it might not be worth the risk, and you might choose to just reroll the Weird, accept the two Fail, and hope that one dice will get you the third Success.

Mechanics like this help add a lot of nuance to otherwise rote gameplay, and is one of the strongest parts of the game. There are some genuinely hard choices it forces you to make, while also helping mitigate the downsides of a luck-based mechanic. I’ve had some great arguments erupt at the table as people try to decide which dice to reroll, and it’s all made more tense by the knowledge that one of the players is actually a cultist in disguise!

Once the player has finished their event card for their turn, they get 2 actions from a list of Move, Use Item, Use Room, or Attack. Some rooms have special effects if you use them, such as giving you an item or buffing one of your stats with a Green die. Another action that can be taken is Scenario Action.

Scenario actions are described on one of the 5 Scenario cards that you choose at the beginning of the game. Each one explains which Old God from HP Lovecraft’s mythos is invading the university, which monsters spawn, and what the goals of the players. Most scenarios require you to do specific skill checks in specific rooms, and reward you with artifacts or clues needed to defeat the various evils.

Once all the players have gone, the first player draws two cards from the Star Chart deck. They then look at these two cards (without revealing them to anyone) and choose one to resolve. Most of the cards have negative effects on them, so the player will try to choose the lesser of two evils… unless they’re the cultist, in which case they can pretend that they’re choosing the lesser one while royally screwing everyone over. Sometimes the card will have a beneficial effect on it, but increase the Star Chart by a large amount. After resolving the card (which can have a one time effect, a one turn effect, or a persistent effect) the player hands the First Player Token to their left and a new round begins.

The Star Chart has numbers on it going from 1-30, and along with going up from Star cards, various effects from Event cards and items can also cause it to increase. The higher it goes, the more there’s a risk of the Cultist being able to reveal themselves and summon various monsters. This acts like the reveal in Betrayal at House on the Hill, and is a turning point in the game where the players are now actively working against the traitor in their midst, while the individual cultist gains a huge boost in power that makes him a deadly threat to the other players.

A final note of interest is in the Madness and Wounds systems. Wounds are received as mystery tokens that have various effects on them. Some are straight damage, and if you accumulate too many of these, you die, while others are persistent negative effects on your various stats. And some wound tokens give you Madness.

Madness is tracked in three stages. On each Academic card, a list of effects relating to some mental disorder is there. The first is aesthetic, so if your character is in Stage 1 Madness, there’s no mechanical effect. But if their Stage 1 is something like “You start to feel clausterphobic,” in Stage 2, you might be forced to move toward an exit on your next turn, and if you reach Stage 3 you could be barred from entering any space with other players on it.

These provide interesting twists to gameplay, especially since the role cards that describe Madness effects are hidden from other players. So the disguised Cultist can take an action, like stabbing themselves or stealing from another player, and blame their Madness for “forcing” them to do it.

The game ends when either all the Academics are dead, or they have completed the Scenario Goals, such as closing the alien portal or stopping a summoning ritual. If the Cultist is killed, they can still continue to control the various monsters in the game, which until they are revealed, act in a more automated and less strategic fashion.

Verdict (Scale is not

Complexity: 1-2-345
Quality over quantity in mechanics.

Time Investment: 1-2-34-5
a quick game, but it doesn’t drag on.

Replay Value: 1-2-3-45
Lots of variability in playthroughs.

Cultists of Cthulhu is ultimately a well designed game with solid themes and entertaining mechanics. The art is great, and everyone I’ve played it with enjoyed it quite a bit. Game sessions took 2-3 hours, but it wasn’t hard to explain, especially to players who are used to other board games or tabletop RPGs.

The game is 1-6 players, and includes special rules for playing by yourself or with one other person. This is fairly rare in board games, and I give serious props to the designer for including a solo/duo mode. The rulebook does a good job of teaching the game, though there are some rules that are a bit unclear. I’ve asked the designer to clarify some edge cases, which are included below.

If you and your friends enjoy Betrayal at House on the Hill, HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, or are just looking for something new to try, I think you’d enjoy this pleasant romp of suspicion, madness, strategy and monsters. Enjoy!

Rules Clarifications:

Q: Do monsters take damage as pure numbers, or like everyone else, they get wound tokens that can be either wounds or debuffs?

A: Pure numbers, even if a player was turned into a monster.

Q: Are players expected to learn what each Academic’s madness possibilities are before the game starts?

A: It is a good idea to look over the madnesses before playing. You shouldn’t know which ones you’re playing with that game though.

Q: Star Spawn card showed 5 Green dice for combat, so we just kept using 5 green for it regardless of what the Combat card shows, right? And monsters can activate the Weird effect?

A: This is true for the Star Spawn because of its 5 green dice, but for any monster that does not have 5 dice there, it takes additional dice of the color shown on the combat card until it reaches 5, regardless of the symbol.

Q: How do the Weird effects on Combat cards interact with monsters?

A: Monsters can trigger the Weird effects, but some can only affect players, not monsters.

Q: When madness goes to 1 and they take more madness damage, do they take “wound tokens,” or just straight damage?

A: Wound tokens.

Q: The rules says each scenario action can only be done successfully once, is that per player, per game, or per turn?

A: Per game.

Q: How is “nearest wall” determined, exactly? What if there’s more than one?

A: A wall is a side of an indoor tile that doesn’t have a door or exit on it (and is adjacent to another tile). Distance is the same as moving to that tile. If there’s a tie, the player decides which.

Q: If a card says someone gets this event by starting on the same tile (Chemical Stench) does that person get two events on their turn, effectively? Or does it replace the Event they would normally get?

A: They get two events.

Q: Who rolls first in combat?

A: The defender.

Q: Three Night Gaunts just spawned at the same time: do we roll Power once for each and give them a different effect, or one for all of them and apply the same effect to each?

A: One for all, but if it seems more fun and you can keep track of their different effects, feel free to do one per Night Gaunt.

Game of Thrones Expansion: Dance with Dragons


Dance with Dragons is an expansion to the Game of Thrones 2nd Edition, and as far as board game expansions go, it’s simplicity meets elegance.  It brings the story up-to-date to the fifth book by providing 7 new House cards for each House to use in combat, along with placement cards to guide how each House’s units and influence should be set up.  In other words, it’s an alternate way to play the game that breathes some fresh air into it for veterans.

Warning: Unlike the last one, playing this expansion contains spoilers for those who have not read up to the fifth book, or watched up to the fifth season of the show.  That said, knowledge of the world is unnecessary to play the game, and knowledge of the story doesn’t give you any advantage.  Additionally this review will only make sense to those who know the core game: if you’re looking for a “how to play,” check out my previous article on it.

General Changes

First off, the game starts at Turn 4, which makes for a shorter game overall.  Also, most of the map is covered in units and power tokens, which jumps past all the normal build-up that takes place in regular games.


Or should I say Bolton.   The new effects and position of this House means it’s no longer meant to be played on the defensive “turtle then spread.”  With Winterfell, White Harbor, Moat
Cailin and the Twins already occupied, instead it rewards pushing contested areas early to secure more land before others reach it.  There’s a sizable Baratheon force along the Wall and in the eastern ocean, while Greyjoy holds the western waters and the spit of land to the left of Winterfell.

Stark’s new cards are also much more offensive: Roose Bolton is a basic 4 with 1 Sword, but Ramsay Bolton is a 3 that gets +1 and THREE swords if you have Reek in your hand.  Reek is a 0 that returns Ramsay from your discard pile, and if you lose the combat, returns Reek after combat too.  So you can bully your way through multiple combats with 4s, as long as you play Reek at the right moments.  Meanwhile, Walder Frey is a 1 that, true to form, shifts any support a third player is giving your opponent toward you instead.


Here’s a strange one.  House Baratheon has the vast majority of its units all the way up north, in the top two “Stark” areas, and the sea to the right of them.  Meanwhile it has one unit at its capital in Dragonstone, which is surrounded by Tyrell ships and units, and another at Storm’s End, which is surrounded by Tyrell and Martell units.

The new House cards are pretty strong for Baratheon.  Stannis as the 4 has the ability to cancel all support (including your own) in a given combat, helping assure your victory in a straight-up fight.  Jon Snow as the 3 can increase or decrease the Wildling Track marker (up to 10) if you win, which synergizes well with Mance Rayder as the 0, who makes your final combat strength equal to the Wildling Threat token.  Which can turn that lone, unsupported Footman into a 10, as a best case scenario: not enough to stop the most dedicated assault or defense, but not too shabby either.  And finally Melisandre as the 2 finally gets a power, and one that fits her lore too: she can “revive” a card from your discard pile by paying its Strength in Power tokens (so Stannis would be 4, while Mance would be free).


Greyjoy is another strange one.  With every ship they can muster already on the field, occupying the entire west coast of the
map, they’ve clearly got options in regards to unit movement.  They start with land units on Pyke, the Stony Shore up north, and the Searoad Marches down south.

The new Cards keep Greyjoy as powerful as ever, though in new ways.  Euron is a 4 with the unique power of adding +1 if the opponent is higher on the Fiefdom track.  Since Greyjoy starts with the Sword again, this is largely useful later in the game in case you lose it, to ensure that you might still win what would otherwise be a tie.  Aeron got a huge upgrade: still a 0, this time he lets you discard Power Tokens to raise his power, making him potentially the strongest card in the game.  He works well with Qarl, a 1 that, if you are attacking and lose, lets you gain 3 Power Tokens.  This can easily be taken advantage of with an ally you trust: just use a single footman to attack a place it can’t possibly win against, and have both of you use weak cads, so you can use Qarl for money and they can get rid of some trash and regain their hand faster.  Finally, Rodrik is a 2 that gives a very unique power: if you win, he can search a Westeros deck and put one of the cards on top.  Need a Muster? To the top it goes.  Need to consolidate Supply? Up with ye.  Want to force a bid on the thrones?  So mote it be.


Lannister has a fairly solid starting position, with a ship in The Golden Sound and control of most land between Lannisport and King’s Landing, but has no knights to start with, making early musters important if it wants to keep its territory from Tyrell or Greyjoy incursion. They also hold the Iron Throne rather than the Raven this time around.

Lannister cards seem weaker overall, and in many cases I prefer the original versions, but there are a couple powers worth noting.  Ser Ilyn Payne makes an appearance as a 2 that, if you win, lets you snipe an opponent’s Footman from anywhere on the map… and if it’s their last unit on a space, they remove whatever Order token is there.  Qybern is a 0 that lets you discard two Power tokens to copy the printed combat strength and combat icons (sword/fortresses) of any card in any discard pile, giving you another potential 4 or 3 to use.


Martell has another very solid starting position, with all “their” land already in control, and 2nd position on both Fiefdoms and King’s Court tracks.  Of course, Tyrell is right on their western border, Baratheon holds Dragonstone, and Greyjoy has a naval route directly into their lands, so what alliances they form, and where the choose to muster first, is still very important.

Of all the new House cards, Martell’s are the most disappointing.  Doran Martell is a 4 that gets -1 combat strength and gains 1 Sword and Fort for each card in your hand… so at either extreme, it can be a flat 4 with no Swords/Forts, or a 0 with 4 Swords/Forts, both of which are so situationally useful that the card is useless unless the stars align. Ser Gerris Drinkwater is a 1 that, if you win, lets you move 1 position higher on an influence track of your choice, which would be useful if he wasn’t a 1 or you didn’t have to win.  And ironically Quentyn Martell is potentially the best card, as a 1 that gets +1 combat strength for each House card in your discard pile, upping him to a possible 7.  Overall I wouldn’t begrudge any player at my table from preferring to use original Martell House cards rather than the new ones, especially the loss of their amazing 0… you can tell how little effort was put into this House when one of the cards, a 2 with a Sword icon, is named Big Man, the generic sounding nickname for the actual character Archibald Yronwood.


Tyrell has a strong starting position, with a high amount of units, land and water in a virtually unbroken line from The Arbor to Shipbreaker Bay, and positions 2 on Iron Throne and 1 on King’s Court. But those advantages come with having potential enemies on every front, with Greyjoy to the west, Lannister above, Martell below, and Baratheon to the east.

The new Tyrell cards are a fair shake to the old ones.  The loss of Loras is daunting for offensive plans, but defensively Margaery Tyrelll is a solid 0 that turns any army attacking your Capital or a space with your Power token on it into a final strength of 2, regardless of support or House card bonus.  The Queen of Thorns is a 1 that ignores all text abilities on opposing House cards, an invaluable counter card to some of the more nasty tricks opponents have, if you can properly anticipate them. And finally, Paxter Redwyne is a 1 that doubles the strength of your participating ships in sea battles, virtually assuring at least one naval victory with the three ships around Dragonstone.

Meta Strategy:

The replay value of Game of Thrones has a lot to do with the people you play with, and the alliances that are formed and broken from one game to another. Not only is playing as a different House a very different experience, but even playing the same House with different alliances leads to a completely different game.

Take Greyjoy for example.  Because they have access to the entire western coast, and some of the southern, they have tons of options on strategies to win. If they decide to join with Lannister, they can grab the Arbor easily on the first turn for some constant Power token income.  If they side with Tyrell, they can jump all the way down into Martell lands and start carving them up from beneath.  Or they can say “screw the south” altogether and just head north with all their units, fortifying the lands around Pyke’s waters or attacking Winterfell.

Baratheon has a much more defensive concern to their alliances.  Storm’s End is allowed the usually neutral garrison to help it not get immediately overrun, but with 3 Tyrell ships around Dragonstone, they can’t reinforce either position from the outside, and since they start at 5 on the King’s Court, they can’t muster initially either.  So Baratheon needs to ally with either Tyrell or Martell if it wants to keep them.   Of course, Tyrell and Lannister can easily decide to join forces, which secures King’s Landing for Lannister and frees Tyrell to deal with Martell.  Baratheon could theoretically ally with Lannister instead, as both have an easy common enemy in Tyrell, but this would free Tyrell and Martell to ally with each other, which would make things very difficult for Baratheon unless Greyjoy jumps in and messes with Martell, perhaps for some returned assistance up north.

Otherwise, Stark and Baratheon are generally a safe bet for an alliance, as Stark and Greyjoy have much more to fight over, and is mutually beneficial for both: it frees Baratheon’s units to head south and try to support his castles, and in the meantime helps Stark kick Greyjoy out without worry.  Of course, late game Stark and Baratheon will likely be at odds over the empty spaces around the Eyrie, but by the last few rounds any and all alliances are generally accepted to be mutable anyway.

Overall I’d definitely recommend this expansion to anyone who enjoys the base game, as it adds a lot of extra replay value to what’s already a fairly complex and adaptable experience. May the gods be with you, Old and New.

Game of Thrones Board Game Review

“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” –Cersei Lannister

Like that line? Of course you do. Everyone does. It’s an awesome line.

Prepare to hear it so many times that you’re ready to commit regicide.  Welcome to Westeros:  Keep your sword close and bring your best poker face.  (Incest optional)

Before HBO adapted George R. R. Martin’s epic book series into a TV show, a board game with two expansions was made, and then streamlined into a comprehensive 2nd edition.  This review will be on the 2nd edition, which allows 3-6 players to take control of 6 of the 7 Major Houses in Westeros (House Arynn is neutral).

One of the great things about this game is anyone can play it. The game spoils nothing of the book or TV show’s plot, and those who have read the books or seen the show are at no advantage either: they’ll simply have extra flavor to draw on as they recognize the names of locations or character-cards. Another great thing is how little a factor luck is.  There are minor elements of luck in the game, but everything from movement to combat is all about strategy, politics, and bluffing.

The map of Westeros and its nearby islands is the centerpiece of the board, with various other things to keep track of around it.  The continent is divided into spaces, and each space has its own mix of bonuses that make it worth taking.

Space bonuses:

    • Barrel – Provides 1 Supply per barrel under your control when Supply card is drawn.
    • Crown – Provides an extra 1 Power token (currency) when a Consolidate Power disk is used on this space per crown.
    • Keep – Counts 1 toward the 7 needed for victory.  Can muster 1 Footman or upgrade a Footman to a Knight or Siege Tower. Can also muster a Ship in an adjacent, unoccupied water.
    • Castle – Counts 1 toward the 7 needed for victory.  Can muster 2 Footman or 1 Knight or 1 Siege Tower (or upgrade two Footmen to either). Can also muster 2 Ships in an adjacent, unoccupied water.
    • Port – Spaces with both a Keep/Castle and a Port may choose to muster directly into the Port, which allow them to assault or support enemy-occupied adjacent sea.  If there is at least one ship in a port, it provides an additional Power token when Consolidate Power card is drawn.

Each player starts with a number of units near their various strongholds: Winterfell in the north for House Stark, the island of Pyke to the west for House Greyjoy, the island of Dragonstone in the east for House Baratheon, Lannisport in the middle for House Lannister, Highgarden in the southwest for House Tyrell, and Sunspear in the southeast for House Martell.


    • Footman – Costs 1 to muster at any keep or castle.  Worth 1 in combat.
    • Knight – Costs 2 to muster. Worth 2 in combat.
    • Siege Tower – Costs 2 to muster. Worth 4 when Marching on (attacking) a Keep or Castle: worth 0 all else.
    • Ship – Costs 1 to muster. Worth 1 in combat. Allows units to travel by water.

Each unit counts as 1 for purposes of supply.

A game consists of a maximum of 10 rounds, within which each player takes multiple turns based on which orders they put down during that round’s planning phase.  One of the most unique things about GoT is its method of taking actions. Each player has fifteen disks, which come in five types: March, Defend, Support, Consolidate Power, and Raid.  There are three of each type, with one of those three being the Star (*) token, an even stronger version that can only be used in limited quantities.

At the beginning of every round in the planning phase, each player puts down a single disk face down on every space where they have at least one unit or influence token.


    • March – Move your units to an adjacent space.  If there are units from another House there, combat starts and the number on the disk is applied to your army’s strength. (*: +1 to Marching army strength)
    • Defend – If combat occurs on the space occupied by this disk, add the number on the disk to your army’s strength. (*: +2 to Defending army strength)
    • Support – If combat occurs in a space adjacent to this disk, you may add the strength of this space’s army to either army fighting in the adjacent space. (*: +1 to Supported army strength)
    • Consolidate Power – Collect a Power token at the end of the round, and an extra one for each Crown on this space. (*: If on Keep or Castle, you may muster instead).
    • Raid – Destroy an adjacent Support, Raid, or Consolidate Power disk. If Consolidate Power is raided, that player loses 1 Power and you gain 1 Power. (*: You may also destroy an adjacent Defense disk)

Once everyone has placed their disks face down, everyone turns their disks over and can no longer place new ones.  Disks are acted on in round-robin style, as decided by the players’ position on the Iron Throne track.  Any Raids on the board are always resolved first, then removed, until none remain.  Then Marching orders are resolved in the same way. After all Marching orders are resolved, then Consolidate Power orders are.  At the end of the round, all disks are regained.  One of each type of disk has a * on it to represent a boosted effect.  How many * disks you can use per round is decided by player position on the King’s Court (Raven) track.


    • Iron Throne (Throne) – Decides turn order.  The player in first place also gets the Throne board piece, which allows them to decide all non-combat ties. This gives them enormous political power, as no one wants to piss off the King or Queen and lose ties to other players.
    • Fiefdoms (Sword) – Decides who wins combat ties.  A higher position means you win against more players in ties.  The player in first place also gets the Sword board piece, which can be used once per round to add +1 to your army strength in a single combat. This gives them enormous military power, as other players would need to beat their army’s Strength by 2: one to overcome the potential Sword’s effect, and another surpass the tie (as 1st place would win all combat ties).
    • King’s Court (Raven) – Decides how many * disks a player can use per round. The player in first place also gets the Raven piece, which allows them to switch a disk once per planning phase after everyone has revealed their disks, or allows them to look at the top card on the Wildling deck.  This gives them enormous tactical advantage, as they can take advantage of a weakness or defend against an oncoming attack or raid.  Knowledge of the Wildling card is also often used as a bargaining chip when forming alliances (however temporary) or currying favor to the holder of the Throne.

When one House’s units move into a space occupied by another House’s units, the strength of the Marching side’s units is counted (modified by their March disc and any Support disc in spaces adjacent to battleground), and the strength of the defending side is counted (modified by a Defend disc, if present, and any applicable Support disc adjacent to battleground).  If Support discs are nearby that are not owned by either player, they each may ask the third (or fourth) party for support for their side.

After army strengths are determined, both the marching player and defending player choose a card from their House and lay it face down. Every House has 7 unique cards portraying a different major character from the House.  Once both cards are down, the players flip the cards over.  The number on top of the card is added to their army’s strength.  Then whatever special effect is on the card takes place.  If the winning side’s card has any Swords on it, they may destroy an enemy unit for each Sword, minus any Fortification icons on the losing side’s card.  Remaining units are turned on their side to indicate they are “routed” and move back to a space of defending player’s choice.  When a player uses their last card, they get all the other cards back to their hand.

House Cards are the major distinguishing mark between Houses, besides starting position on the board and on the three Tracks.  Some have very powerful brute-force cards, like Victarion Greyjoy or Eddard Stark, while others, like Tyrion Lannister or Margaery Tyrell, give low power bonus to armies, but have unique special abilities that can utterly swing a battle, or even entire round, in your favor.  Guessing which card your opponent will play and deciding on the right one to win the battle without wasting a high card on overkill is one of the many marks of a skilled player. But beware the bluff!

The other part that will put players on edge is bidding. Each player starts with 5 Power tokens, which are used to claim land that you March from so you can retain ownership of it.  They are also used as currency to bid for the 3 Tracks when the Game of Thrones card comes up.  Each player hides their total Power behind a screen, and puts a number of them closed in one hand, then raises it.  Once all payers have raised their closed fist, they open them to reveal how many they have chosen to bid. The highest bidder gets first place and the Throne piece, second gets second place, and so on. Then the bid Power tokens are discarded, and players bid on the Sword. The same process is then repeated for the Raven with whatever Power players have left.  All ties in bidding is decided by the keeper of the Throne: even the bid on the Throne Track, until they lose it.

When the Wildling card comes up is the other time bidding occurs. This time, all players are joined together to beat the number on the Wildling Track, anywhere from 2-12.  Each wildling card has two effects, which are not revealed until everyone bids.  If the total bids of the players exceeds the Wildling Track, the Victory side of the card takes effect, and the player who bid highest gets a special reward.  If the total bids are less than the Wildling Track, the Defeat side of the card takes effect, and everyone suffers a negative effect, with the player who bid lowest getting an extra negative effect.  This can occur as often as every other round, or only once or twice a game, and these event cards are the only truly “random” factor in it.


Complexity: 1-2-3-4-5
High. Moderate amount of moving parts, and many layers of gameplay.

Time Investment: 1-2-3-4-5
Huge. Easily takes up a whole night.

Replay Value: 1-2-3-4–5
Great! Different starting houses gives lots of variety to playstyles and outcomes, and the level of skill involved lets you improve the more you play.

GoT is quite a few steps above most well known strategy games like Risk. Learning the game takes at least half an hour with an experienced player there to explain everything, and unpacking the pieces and setting up the table can take another fifteen minutes unless you keep things carefully divided (I recommend little plastic zip-locks).  Games themselves usually take about an hour per person playing, so plan accordingly.

In the end though, it’s well worth it.  By far one of the funnest war games I’ve played, my favorite part is how little a factor luck is.  The game hinges on social pressures between players (trading offers for alliances, currying favor with whoever owns the Throne, bluffing each other over bidding wars and which card your opponent will play) and tactics on placing disks that anticipate what opponents (and even allies) are putting down.

Each House plays very different due to their geographical location and cards, some favoring constant assault, others a turtle and slow crawl to victory.  And with the expansion, there’s even more variety in both starting positions and House decks.  Overall an awesome game for both fans of the books/show and those without knowledge of it.

Review: Eclipse – Rise of the Ancients

Rise of the Ancients

Eclipse: Rise of the Ancients is a Sci-Fi board game expansion to Eclipse, which combines resource management, exploration, technological advancement, and upgrading spaceships in preparation of ship-to-ship combat.

The expansion adds 4 new races, new technology, new enemies to fight, new social options, and more.  Be aware that this review will only really make sense to those who are already familiar with the core game, the review of which can be found here: Eclipse Board Game Review.

New Races

Rho Indi Syndicate

A mix of rogues and renegades, this ragtag rabble of rowdy raiders razes other races in a ravaging rush. (Okay, stopping now).  The new “war” race, the Syndicate is a great choice for those who want to win by combat, and lots of it.

With two starting interceptors, the ability to gain extra Money per ship they destroy, and an unprecedented FOUR ship movements per Move action, this wretched collection of scum and villainy excels at striking quickly and in large numbers, and reaping additional rewards from combat.  In addition, they trade Money down at a rate even better than Humans: 3->2, rather than the usual 3->1.

Of course, these benefits come with their drawbacks. They only have two Colony Ships, so populating planets is a slow process for them.  They have no Dreadnought ship: there’s a big, empty hole on their mat where the blueprint is supposed to be, replaced with nothing at all.  Which makes sense, as they are not a proper “nation” of any kind, and their advantage lies in moving a large number of smaller ships at once.  They also only have two Ambassador Tiles.

Which might not be that big a problem for them, in the end: Did I mention they also don’t get -2 Victory Points if they hold the Traitor Card?  Happy hunting!

Enlightened of Lyra

Like the Hydrans of the core game, the Enlightened of Lyra are a race that just want to be left alone and advance their civilization… THROUGH SCIENCE!  A defensive team (for the early game at least), the Enlightened can build up and build up, and then either win through sheer tech advancement points, or unleash a wave of pain late game to steal the win.

Instead of having advantages in research like Hydrans, Lyran players will be able to build unique structures called “Shrines” every turn near planets that correspond to their colors (white allow any).  These shrines cost Material, and there’s one of each planet color that costs 2, 4 and 6.  If you build all three 2 cost Shrines, you get a bonus technology automatically: Wormhole Generator.  If you build all three 4 cost Shrines, you get an extra Influence Disk.  And each 6 cost Shrine you build gives you an extra 3 Victory Points.  This is on top of the extra 1 Victory Point they get for each Shrine built.

In addition, the Enlightened can flip Colony Ships over to re-roll a die they throw in combat.  Combined with no other negatives besides the usual non-Human 2 movements per Move action and 3->1 conversation resource rate, these golden… samurai… bug people?… are fairly versatile.

The Exiles

These fish/lizard people are among the most defensive-oriented in the game, and make turtling look utterly badass.  How badass?  For one thing, they can start off building Orbitals.  Pretty sweet, right?  An extra Economy/Science planet per system is nothing to sneeze at for 5 Materials each, and allows them to be fairly isolationist, but keep up with others in resource gathering.

But wait, there’s more. Those Orbitals? They’re also Star Bases.  Yeah, The Exiles saw a Star Base and thought “Why would I build a ship that both can’t move, and doesn’t give me resources?”  So they combined both.  They have no blueprints for Star Bases, and instead that space on their board details their Orbital’s blueprints.

What’s that? More you say? No, surely not! Each Orbital they control also gives them +1 Victory Point at the end of the game!  The Exiles may not like being excluded from the Council and the rest of galactic civilization, but with advantages that favor playing defensively so well, they’ve gotten damn good at it. (Can you tell this is my favorite new race?)

Wardens/Sentinels/Keepers of Magellan

The new “humans,” these three alien races are functionally identical to each other, and are on the back of each of the other three unique race boards. They have a number of advantages and disadvantages that allow them to suite a fairly versatile and adventurous play style, rewarding Exploration and Research.

They receive a free Discovery Tile when they reach the 4th space in a Technology track.  In addition, they get 1 Victory Point at the end of the game for each Discovery Tile they flip, making the extra resources, technologies or ships they can alternatively provide much more beneficial.

They only flip one Colony Ship instead of 2 with each Influence action, but may flip unused Colony Ships for an extra resource of any kind. And as usual for non-humans, they may only move two ships per Move Action (or one ship twice) and trade resources at a rate of 3->1.

Other stuff

New Ancient Enemy ships, a new Galactic Center tile (with a vastly more powerful guardian), new secret technologies, advancements, and the ability to form true Alliances with other players (able to move through each other’s spaces, participate in combat together, or share victory/defeat), and more make this expansion well worth the investment for veteran players that want to spice their games up.  There’s even a rule for concurrent turns, so game-play moves faster—which, let’s face it, with up to 9 players in a game, is sorely needed.

Game Review: Eclipse

Eclipse is a Sci-Fi board game that combines resource management, exploration, technological advancement, and upgrading spaceships in preparation of galactic combat.

Basically it’s got everything you could ask for in a space themed board game. 

Gameplay Overview

War rages across space, and multiple factions vie for dominance.  The basic game comes with 6 player mats, defined by color. Each mat has two sides: a human faction, and an alien race.  The 6 human factions are mechanically identical, and have the fewest special rules (beneficial or harmful).  The 6 alien races (though technically one race are robots) are all unique, in everything from varying ship power to construction costs to research bonuses to movement penalties to exploration options, and much more.

Overall this provides 7 unique playstyles for up to 6 players to choose from (the expansion adds another 4 playstyles and allows for up to 9 players).  Beginners are recommended to choose human factions until they grasp the basics of the game, and then can choose an alien race to specialize in the strengths of those races.

Play consists of round-robin style turns in which you can choose to explore the galaxy, populate planets, research technology, upgrade your ships, build ships, or move ships.  The player with the most Victory Points at the end of the 9 rounds (which can consist of many, many individual turns) is victorious, and you can gain Victory Points by conquering explored systems, researching technology, winning in combat, and more.  In this way there are multiple paths to victory, allowing the different races to play to their strengths and have very different priorities, but still ultimately win the game.

Each player starts with one hexagonal tile, spaced out from each other around a middle tile.  When you explore, you flip a numbered tile over from a stack, and place it somewhere around your tile where warp gates match up.  If there are planets on the tile, you may colonize them for sweet, sweet resources (Money, Science, or Materials, color coded by planet type as Orange, Pink or Brown. White planets are wild, so you can choose what resource they will give you).  If there are Ancient Ships, you must first fight them before you can conquer the planets.  Combat is done through d6 dice rolls, with 6 or higher (from modifications) being a hit.  The amount of damage you do is modified by the weapons your ship has, and there are upgrades for ships to add to your dice roll results (targeting computers) or subtract from enemies’ (shields).

Eclipse GameplayResearching technology costs Science, and allows you to permanently acquire everything from upgrades for your ships, to new structures to build, to new resource gathering methods, and even Warp Field Generators to traverse systems without matching warp gates, or Neutron Bombs to eradicate entire systems you’ve invaded.  Once you have researched the proper ship upgrades, you can then Upgrade them for better weapons, hull, shields, targeting lasers, engines, or energy sources.  All upgrades automatically apply to all your ships, of which there are 4: Interceptors, Cruisers, Dreadnaughts and Orbital Defense.  The bigger ships cost more, but have more spaces available for upgrades.

Once you have sufficient Materials, you can use them to build more ships in any system you have conquered.  You can then Move those ships into other systems to fight the neutral Ancient Enemies that have been discovered, or invade enemy player’s systems once they’ve been conjoined.  If two players ever move onto the same system, they are at war with one another.  If they agree to diplomatic relations before that occurs, they exchange Diplomacy Tiles (which gives a Victory Point and acts as a White Planet for both players).  Attacking a player who has your Diplomacy Tile brands you as a traitor, and not only do you lose their tile, but you get a Traitor Card that gives you -2 Victory Points at the end of the game. The most recent person to betray a diplomatic relation gets the card (which can result in highly amusing “hot potato” flurries of backstabbing near the end of the game).

Each turn you do something (Explore, Research, Build, Move, etc.) increases the Money tax you must pay at the end of the round.  The end of the round is also when you collect resources from your planets, so rounds are limited in turns by how much money players have available.  The first person to pass their turn will go first the next round, but if you have enough Money to pay a higher tax at the end of the round, you can get ahead by taking more turns.  Resources can be traded at a rate of 2->1 for humans and 3->1 for aliens (4->1 for one race), so good resource management is well rewarded.


Complexity: 1-2-3-4-5 Not for the casual gamer.

Time Investment: 1-2-3-4-5 Make a night of it!

Replay Value: 1-2-3-4-5 Tons of variability in playstyles.

Eclipse is ultimately for a very specific type of gamer: learning the game takes anywhere from half an hour to an hour with an experienced player there to explain everything, and setting up the table can take another half hour in itself.  Games themselves usually take about an hour per person playing: less if you use concurrent turns, which is for advanced players.

My only personal gripe is the luck factor: despite the many upgrades and strategizing you can do to prepare for it, combat is ultimately decided by dice rolls, and a bad streak of exploration early game can be crippling. Negotiating friendly house rules can mitigate the latter, and as for the former, I can hear the mutters of “Well duh, it’s a board game!” to which I reply “Game of Thrones. Recognize.”

That said, if you love dozens of moving pieces (literal and figurative) and almost endless metagaming, you’ll probably have tons of fun with Eclipse.  The races are varied enough to keep recurrent games fresh, while the social aspect reminds us of what makes board games continue to shine in the digital age (speaking of which, the game has been made for tablets now). If you’d like to read more about eclipse check out the review of the expansion: Rise of the Ancients.