Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne review


15 February 2017
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HBO11_layout-15891.jpg Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne
We find out whether the Cosmic Encounter spin-off can stand up alone

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Cosmic Encounter, the iconic strategy game of bluffing and negotiation wrapped up in sci-fi-themed hand management mechanics, yet the title feels just as fresh and current as it did decades ago.

It’s likely to be with some trepidation, then, that fans approach The Iron Throne, the recently released Game of Thrones spin-off heavily based on Cosmic’s core gameplay. If the original ain’t broke, why fix it – except to cash in on the popularity of the fantasy television series? Happily, The Iron Throne ends up being far more than a simple reskin.

Yes, the foundational gameplay that made Cosmic such an icon of modern board gaming is still here, pitting players against each other in battles to spread their influence across the universe – literally in Cosmic, figuratively in Game of Thrones’ land of Westeros. Just as in Cosmic, a central deck of cards dictates which faction the active player will have to attack that turn. In the case of The Iron Throne, it’s the warring Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Targaryen and Tyrell families, each with their recognisable roster of members – leading to plenty of jokes about which characters are most likely to not be long for the world based on their fate in the show.

The images on the character cards and leader sheets are screenshots directly taken from the TV series, rather than the fantastic illustrations seen in other Game of Thrones titles such as Hand of the King, which stand in stark (pun unintentional) contrast to the glorious original artwork of Cosmic – but the designs are otherwise clean and functional, if a little lifeless.
Once a battle has been declared, the attacker and defender draw a house card and move one power marker – adorable plastic crowns – to one of their four characters. Then a single character from each house is selected to go head-to-head with their opponent. This is where the game’s magic starts to happen.

Other players can choose to lend their support (rather than being asked as in Cosmic) to the faction on either side of the fight, risking the same rewards or losses depending on the outcome. This is crucial, as winning a battle as an attacker allows the spread of influence – shift all five tokens from your board and you win. However, support can be refused – stopping more powerful players from racking up influence without opposition. 

The crux of The Iron Throne’s gameplay is – surprise, surprise – in the encounter phase. Each active player lays down a card from their hand, denoting either hostility or a truce. This takes place after much discussion over the potential outcomes of the battle, as a truce can be beneficial for both sides if agreed to – but if one player actually plays a hostility card, it leads to a betrayal. In the case of two hostility cards, it’s a straight numerical battle of power on each side, calculated by adding the crowns on the participating character to any additional power provided by specific hostility cards. This means that bluffing can be vital in order to convince other players to join your side if your hand is weak, or to scare your opponent into a truce. No matter the outcome, losing halves a character’s power level – hit zero and they die, removing them from the game permanently. Should all four characters on a side end up dead (like the show, it’s a common occurrence), it’s game over and the most influence wins.

Complicating diplomatic efforts are hostages, which can be taken by winning hostility battles or being the victim of a betrayal. At the start of a turn, they can be released or cruelly tormented to deal four damage to their matching character. This makes hostages an important bargaining tool, which can be used to leverage truces through trade or devastate an opponent’s strength.

As you might expect, The Iron Throne is best with as many players as possible, to allow for a greater variety of alliances and betrayals. It’s a slicker beast than Cosmic, playing in around half the time and resulting in more strategic outcomes than Cosmic’s often unpredictable chaos due to its shifting of focus away from powers onto tactical use of hostages and the ability to kill characters.

MATT JARVIS

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CONCLUSION

By introducing completely new mechanics and evolving Cosmic Encounter’s core gameplay in a way that fits with the fantasy politics of its source material, The Iron Throne rises above being a mere rebrand to offer a unique and gripping experience.

Buy your copy here.

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Price: £46.99

Genre: Hand management

Players: 3-5

Time: 30-60 minutes

Age: 18+

Website: fantasyflightgames.com

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