Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Battles of Westeros

Way back in 2003, Fantasy Flight Games released the A Game of Thrones board game, which essentially fused elements of the classic board game Diplomacy into the A Song of Ice and Fire setting. A huge success, the game has remained continuously in print up until today, getting a second edition and multiple expansions, the latest of which was released only last year, along the way. 

Back in 2010 Fantasy Flight released their second ASoIaF-based board game, Battles of Westeros, a miniatures wargame which, as the box proclaims, spins off of the popular BattleLore rules system. The game received several expansions, but the line was abruptly cancelled in 2012. Despite that, the base game remains available at reasonable prices thanks to eBay, although the expansions are a lot more hit and miss.

Having recently gotten a copy of the game and several expansions (Lords of the RiverTribes of the Vale and the big House Baratheon expansion), I was surprised to see that the game had done poorly, as it is excellent. 

On a basic level, Battles of Westeros is a spin-off of the popular Command & Colors line of wargame/board game hybrids created by designer Richard Borg in 2000. This system has spawned a whole range of different iterations, the best-known and biggest-selling of which is the WWII version, Memoir ’44. The most recent is the excellent space opera version, Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare, with other versions ranging from Command & Colors: Napoleonics to Tricorne (based on the American Revolutionary War) to The Great War, based on WWI. Most relevant here is BattleLore, a fantasy version featuring knights, griffins, trolls and elves. Battles of Westeros proudly proclaims itself “a BattleLore game,” which is being somewhat elastic with the truth as the game pretty much rewrites the rules of both BattleLore and Command & Colors so much that only the basic elements remain in common.

For gameplay purposes, you play scenarios which pit two armies against one another. The base game allows you to play Stark vs. Lannister, but the expansions add the Baratheon and Tully forces, as well as the irregular forces of the Brotherhood Without Banners and the tribes of the Vale of Arryn. The scenario details tell you how to set up the map, which is a plain green field covered in hexes. You place hexagonal tokens on the map to depict scenery, such as hills, villages, mountains, rivers and forests (the House Baratheon expansion also features a second map, depicting the Blackwater Rush and the walls of King’s Landing), and set up your armies as directed. Each army consists of archers, infantry, cavalry and – most critically – “leaders.” These leaders are special units depicting the commanders of the armies in question, such as Robb Stark, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Shagga, Stannis Baratheon, Brynden the Blackfish and so on. These units are usually quite powerful in combat, but they also play an important role in giving orders to your troops (and getting them captured or killed can be a devastating blow).

The game’s biggest deviation away from the Command & Colors system is that the board is not divided into sectors. Those games have a central sector and two flanks, and you draw cards telling you how many units in each sector you can use on that turn. Battles of Westeros replaces this with you playing cards as orders given by your leaders to troops within yelling distance. So, you play a card on a leader and he or she can direct units within 2 hexes of their figure. This is immediately more logical and also causes each player to carefully consider each turn how to manoeuvre their armies (and keep their leaders within order-giving range of their key troops without endangering them). Each turn you also get a number of general-purpose order tokens you can use to order any unit on the map, regardless of if they are in range of a leader or not, which is handy if you have a bunch of archers on a hill off to one side of the battlefield you want to take potshots at enemy forces without getting a general to ride over and keep telling them to do so.

Each leader also has special abilities, some they can use continuously and extremely powerful once-per-game abilities (such as allowing your troops to attack twice in one turn) that can prove decisive if used wisely.

There are additional rules for flanking enemy troops and veterancy: not all your troops are equal, with their experience denoted by the colour of their flag (green for fresh recruits, blue for experienced soldiers and red for veterans). That also determines how many dice they roll in attack and how far they move, with more experienced troops generally being slower but able to hit much harder. There is also a morale tracker, which swings back and forth determining on how the battle is going: lose too many units to the enemy without inflicting comparable damage and your army can rout altogether.

Despite this level of detail, Battles of Westeros is not a particularly complex game, especially if you have some previous experience of the Command & Colors system. Most turns have you playing a card on a leader, moving the figures of the troops they are commanding and rolling dice to determine if they are successful, and that’s pretty much it, unless you want to use a special ability. You then draw some new cards, roll some dice to determine how many other units you can move and away you go. Each scenario has specific victory conditions or complications to add variety to the game, and each leader has their own set of cards which you can add to your command deck, which adds quite a bit of longevity and replay value to the game, which is increased even further by the expansions.

The game’s presentation is solid (Fantasy Flight has built up a beautiful library of ASoIaF-related artwork over the last fifteen years), the rules are reasonably comprehensible and well-laid out, and the production value of the components is excellent. Most copies of the game you’ll find now are getting on for a decade, and every one I’ve seen has been in good nick. The cards are also good quality and the miniatures are impressive, although a little on the small side.

The rules are great, and if you’ve played a lot of Command & Colors the changes will likely be welcome. In particular, tying the order cards to the leader figures rather than random sectors simply makes a hell of a lot more sense, and it’d be cool to see this idea moved over to some of the other games in the same line. Complete newcomers may find a slightly steeper hill to climb, but in overall terms and compared to many contemporary board games (especially those on the wargame side of things), the game is not particularly hard to learn.

The negatives are relatively minor, but there are a few niggles. The figures don’t fit into their bases very well, so it’s recommended you glue them in, which can be fiddly and time-consuming. The only reason they’re not pre-fitted to the bases is to make painting them easier, but the figures are small enough that I don’t really see the value of painting them. As a Fantasy Flight game there are also an absolute ton of fiddly tokens, symbols and paraphernalia, a lot of which are really unnecessary to the game. Another negative with the rules is that the game is extremely limited in counterattacking options, to the point where it very rarely happens. It feels like the idea of using order tokens to allow counterattacking (recently employed in Red Alert) should be implemented here.

Another issue is the length of gameplay. Command & Colors is best-known for being relatively fast to play, especially versus traditional wargames, with it being possible to blast through say a few Memoir ’44 scenarios in 30-45 minutes apiece. Battles of Westeros has no truck with this, and you’ll be lucky to get a scenario done in much under two hours. However, the much greater detail of the combat means you’ll be making much more interesting decisions than in a standard C&C games, so the greater length can be seen as a reflection of the greater depth of gameplay. If you want a fast-playing wargame, break out Memoir ’44, if you want something a bit more detailed if slower then unleash BattleLore or Red Alert, but if you want something longer, meatier and more engrossing, Battles of Westeros works fine for that.

The biggest weakness is, of course, the lack of ongoing support. Despite the success of the TV show, Fantasy Flight have shown little interest in resurrecting the game and the recent release of CMON Games’ A Song of Ice and Fire: The Tabletop Miniatures Game (which has far more beautiful miniatures and considerably less-compelling rules) suggests they may no longer have the miniatures rights to do so. There are some online resources to extend the game and there are enough scenarios in the base game and expansions to ensure you will get a lot of value out of the game.

Battles of Westeros (****½) is a fine addition to any library of ASoIaF-based games, if you can track down a copy at a good price.

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