19 September 2018
All minis must die
Westeros is no stranger to death, but it’s rarely been depicted with such intensity and scale on the tabletop as in this sweeping rank-and-file wargame. While it may be more interested in the direct spilling of blood than its plotting and scheming board game counterparts, though, the A Song of Ice and Fire miniatures game doesn’t forget about the characters that give the world its pulse.
There’s plenty of bloodshed to be had here, too. Even with close to the starter box’s full throng of 103 figures on the table, battles never end up feeling like, well, the wait for a new George R.R. Martin novel. A single round of combat can leave piles of plastic corpses, with the brutality of fights bookended by a simple morale system that can swiftly lead to cascading numbers of losses.
The designers’ non-miniatures experience is clear: although you’ll measure distances with a ruler, the combination of dice and card action otherwise has the speed and sheen of a board game, wrapping up in a tight hour or so. Even the miniatures arrive pre-assembled and colour-coded to the two factions, looking fantastic (and decidedly not bendy) – if not quite up to par with build-them-yourself figures. A selection of game modes – each named after one of Martin's books – support everything from objective-based sparring across the map to a castle siege out of the box, making the set feel even more pleasingly substantial as a self-contained experience.
The trays of models are cleverly woven into the gameplay, with the number of troop ranks remaining used to effortlessly determine how many dice you throw with each assault, giving a palpable feeling of desperation as squads shrink. In other cases, this is turned on its head in ways that keep the battles feeling wonderfully cinematic: for instance, Umber berserkers gain dice as their numbers diminish, making even a single survivor a potentially deadly foe. Terrain effects, flanking bonuses and various conditions are all present and correct, but have been streamlined in a way that avoids wearisome rule-checking while adding depth and strategy to the battlefield.
Using the game’s approachable army-building framework, Westeros’ most accomplished fighters can slot into a unit’s frontline, lending their particular special talents to open up more options in each skirmish. True to the unforgiving universe, even the most beloved heroes are often as fragile as their fellow John Does, but their individuality can be felt: The Mountain and his men will tear through scores of soldiers with ease, but can be outmanoeuvred by nimble fighters. Direwolf Grey Wind, accompanying Robb Stark, is fast and aggressive, but weak when cornered. The acts of moving and fighting have been polished to the point where they’re essentially invisible, allowing the personality of each unit type and more (in)famous combatants to deliver on the character-centric drama of the universe.
With its gameplay familiar to anyone with at least a passing acquaintance with throwing handfuls of d6s, it’s in these characters that ASOIF finds more of its own voice as a game. Each army is lead by a commander, who modifies a faction-specific deck of action cards with their own abilities. It’s an admittedly light amount of customisation, yet it does make your army feel less like a scattering of soldiers and more like a structured house with its own approach to conflict, be it through undermining the enemy’s morale with subterfuge behind the scenes or boosting your own troops’ traits via courage on the frontlines. After all, Westeros would be little without its signature political manipulation; here, it’s condensed into a shared board of tactical options selected by non-combat units working outside of the battlefield, such as Tyrion and Sansa, who can nevertheless provide crucial strategic opportunities, triggering unique powers as they vie with their rivals for control of the spaces.
Like the swords that make up its iconic seat of power, ASOIF manages to fuse together robust gameplay on the battlefield and the thematic presence of its characters to give a new perspective on Westeros’ violent clash of kings. It’s not as strategically sharp as the titans of wargaming or utterly captivating as the more socially ruthless Game of Thrones board games, yet ASOIF manages to find a snug seat in-between the two without sacrificing its own individuality. You might be surprised at how comfortable the Iron Throne can be.
The impact of characters both on and off the battlefield manages to elevate solid and slick – if familiar – miniatures gameplay in a promising fresh take on the fantasy world.
Designer: Eric M. Lang, Michael Shinall
Time: 45-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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