25th Sep2018

‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

song-fire-box

Despite the sad decline of Warhammer: Fantasy Battles, fans of rank-and-file miniatures combat have perhaps never been better served. Aside from the more serious tabletop wargaming systems like Bolt Action that allow the use of custom sets of miniatures, there are now more complete, boxed battle games than ever before. Only last year, we reviewed Rune Wars, whilst there are plenty of others willing to fill the void left by Games Workshop’s longstanding fantasy epic. The latest of these is A Song of Ice and Fire, which (in case you haven’t guessed) is based on George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones universe. I should also mention at this point that A Song of Ice and Fire is produced by Cool Mini Or Not (CMON) and co-designed by Eric Lang, so it’s fair to have high expectations.

And without skipping too directly to the punchline, CMON, Lang and his other co-designer, Michael Shinall have not failed to deliver. A Song of Ice and Fire is presented in a huge, rectangular box which is at least one unit per side more generous than most of the similar games I’ve played. There’s a general sense in this market that so-called Starter Sets are intended to provide just a taste of the real experience, with the publisher hoping that players will become hooked and spend all of their disposable income on new units, upgrades and other expansions. And, of course, CMON want you to expand A Song of Ice and Fire as well, but at the very least, the base game includes enough stuff to make the battle feel at least a little bit epic.

The current Starter Set that I’ve been playing is subtitled as Stark vs Lannister and indeed it does feature a red Lannister army consisting of four large units, including: two units of twelve Guardsmen, a unit of Halberdiers and a unit of great sword-wielding Mountain’s Men. They are joined by four character models in The Mountain as well as the Lannister trio of Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion. If you’ve raised an eyebrow at the idea of the latter two being seen on a battlefield (although Tyrion did famously appear at The Battle of King’s Landing) then don’t sweat too much, because A Song of Ice and Fire also introduces a number of political actions that thematically take place away from the battlefield, but affect the way troops perform on it – more on that later.

Opposing the Lannister force is a Stark army led by Robb Stark with on-field support from Greatjon Umber. The Stark army features fewer models, but has one more unit and consists of two units of Sworn Swords, a unit of Umber Berserkers, a group of four Cavalrymen and Grey Wind, the Direwolf. Off the field, Sansa and Catelyn Stark provide political support in much the same way as Cersei and Tyrion. Across both the red Lannister side and the blue Stark side, A Song of Ice and Fire comes with over one hundred miniatures, each of which is larger than those in most games and far, far more detailed. The sculpts in A Song of Ice and Fire are incredibly detailed and there are two or three sculpts on each unit, which makes for a varied, exciting look when the armies are laid out on the battlefield.

Speaking of which, you’ll need quite a sizeable play area to make the most of A Song of Ice and Fire. Four feet square is just about the minimum and I should hasten to add that the photos in this review were taken on a surface that is actually only three feet wide. These pictures demonstrate a mock up of the game that I setup to show you how the game looks, but in reality I’ve played most of my games on the much less attractive living room floor. Players with a dedicated gaming space are unlikely to find this a problem, but I felt that it warranted a mention. In short, A Song of Ice and Fire has miniatures so large and so numerous that where I could “get away” with a smaller table when playing Rune Wars, I simply couldn’t on this occasion. I can only imagine the space you might need as more units are added.

The need for this space is mostly about width, since A Song of Ice and Fire uses simple, yet nonetheless quite formal rules for unit movement. Anything less than four feet makes it very difficult to angle units and move them around each other, which can make units like the Stark Outriders or Grey Wind (that rely on flanking) somewhat redundant. The depth of the battlefield is really all about ensuring that units meet roughly on (but not before) turn two. Each player takes the first six inches of the battlefield on their side to setup, effectively making the distance between each army about three feet (or thirty six inches.) The game includes a range ruler for each side that reaches twelve inches, which is (at least in this Starter Set) the furthest distance that any unit might move in a single turn.

When it comes to ordering units, A Song of Ice and Fire does away the usual initiative or command based approaches that games like Rune Wars favour and returns to a model that’s not dissimilar to the original Warhammer. Simply put, players take turns to activate a unit either on the battlefield or off it, which is where the political figures come in to play. Keeping the focus on the battlefield for a moment, then the active unit has effectively six possible actions, although it’s likely only two to three of them will be available at any given time. The first action is to Maneuver, which simply allows the unit to pivot, move four to six inches (depending on the unit) and then to pivot again. The second action is to March, which simply allows the unit to move twice its normal four to six inch range and pivot at the end, but with no ability to change direction before setting off.

After these two most common movement actions, the remaining options all relate to combat. Firstly, if you believe that an enemy unit is in range, you may Charge, whilst allows the unit to move its normal distance plus a number of inches equal to the roll of a D6. Rolling a one will always result in a disorderly charge, which removes normal charge bonuses unless mitigated by the ability of a commander, tactics card or similar. Players may use an Attack command to continue a fight that is already underway, at which point a unit that was engaged in the rear or flank may re-position. The final combat order is to perform a Ranged Attack, although there are no units with ranged abilities in the Starter Set. Finally, an engaged unit can retreat, which works the same way as a charge but allows a unit to exit from combat.

When it comes to the political actions, things do get quite interesting, although it’s a little bit of a stretch of the imagination to link the events at King’s Landing to a battle that’s already in progress. As a longstanding fan of the Game of Thrones books and series, I didn’t find it too hard to fill in the blanks to be honest, and it’s nice to have some slightly unusual things to think about. Political actions are powerful (for example drawing two of the powerful tactics cards, or forcing an opposing unit to take a panic roll) but they do use up your entire turn. This introduces elements of both immediate and long term decision making that isn’t usual in wargames – is attempting to force a panic check on a wavering unit at one side of the battlefield worth missing the opportunity to drive home a devastating charge on the other?

I should also mention that the non-combat units not only deliver the benefit of the political action chosen, but they’ll also introduce their own influence that affects a unit (for better or worse) based on what that influence does. In Cersei’s case, for example, when she claims a Tactics Zone (which is what the political actions are called) she can be attached to an enemy unit upon which she bestows “No Confidence.” This affect reduces the unit morale by two, which is a considerable reduction. Catelyn Stark offers a positive influence called “Family, Duty and Honour” which allows a friendly unit to fight as if it had a complete number of ranks, even if it has been heavily depleted in combat.

On that note, actual combat is a doddle in A Song of Ice and Fire, with the number of ranks (even incomplete ones) in a unit being the measure of how strong it is. Dice are rolled for both offense and defense, with hits being rolled based on the weaponry and skill of the unit in question. The defender will roll to defend themselves based on opposing factors like armor and shields, but ultimately a model will be removed for each hit that was not successfully blocked. As ranks reduce, the number of dice being rolled is reduced, which keeps things very simple to track thanks to useful player aid cards for each unit. Tactics cards and status effects also play a part in A Song of Fire and Ice – Tactics Cards allow powerful abilities such as enabling a unit to take a second turn, or to charge unexpectedly. Status effects (such as panic) are often placed onto opposing units to modify enemy die rolls for the worse, often as the result of a Tactics Zone or Tactics Card, but sometimes because characters or units (like The Mountain) cause them.

Since it’s already too large for any viable playing surface in my home, I am in two minds about whether or not to invest in more units for A Song of Ice and Fire, but believe me, I want more. There are already a huge host of characters and new units available either at retail or as upcoming expansions, including whole new factions. A Nights Watch Starter Set is upcoming and there are already numerous Bolton units available, as well as several support units for both Stark and Lannister. These expansions are a little bit more expensive than many miniatures games might be, but at the same time, the quality and size of the miniatures is astonishing and I don’t think I am speaking out of turn by saying that A Song of Ice and Fire is easily the most visually impressive miniatures game that I’ve seen.

Overall then, A Song of Ice and Fire is a fairly straightforward, very beautiful miniatures game that removes a lot of the unnecessary complexity seen in other, similar games, whilst at the same time introducing a few new features that really enhance the game. Yes, you do need a very large table and rather deep pockets to make the most of it, but if you have those bases covered, you’re on to a winner. For the rest of us, well, there’s already a lot in the box and with perhaps the addition of an archery unit on each side, you probably won’t need much more to enable some fairly spectacular battles at all sizes. There is a bit of printed scenery in the box, but of course the game will look much better with three-dimensional scenery and a playmat, so that’s a couple of other expenses to consider.

In pure gameplay terms, you can have a game of A Song of Ice and Fire over and done with in less than an hour and the BGG community is already working on how to build campaigns, so long term replay value looks set to be very high. You’ll almost certainly never run out of things to expand your collection with, nor will you be short of battles and skirmishes to fight, nor campaigns to run. The simple rules mean that there’s no accessibility challenge, whilst the inclusion of fundamentals like flanking, panic, mean that there is still a strategic consideration at all times. Tactics Cards and the political actions in the Tactics Zones really add something different and add a new flavour to the army building element of the game, which I admit I haven’t dived deeply into. All in all, A Song of Ice and Fire is a very solid board game and perhaps my current favorite miniatures game, space related difficulties aside.

****½  4.5/5

A Song of Ice and Fire is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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