Game of Thrones was already one of the best board games around, but the release of the game’s third expansion – Mother of Dragons – changes everything. It’s enormous, and adds so much cool and interesting stuff to the experience that it almost feels like an all-new (or at least third edition) of the classic.
In case you’re new to the game, Game of Thrones is a military strategy title by Fantasy Flight. First released in 2003, it’s more familiar to most in the guise of its 2011 second edition, which set down the board and art that we’ve been playing with since. Think of it as a little like Risk, only instead of trying to take over the world methodically, you’re constantly shuffling your armies around, lunging at certain regions while leaving yourself hopelessly vulnerable in others. Throw in the need for diplomacy – and ultimately betrayal – and you’ve got a hell of a good time.
There have been two minor expansions released since 2011, but the third, Mother of Dragons, dwarfs them. It brings so much to the table that I’m going to have to break it down:
New Houses - There used to be six playable factions, now there are eight, with the addition of Houses Arryn and Targaryen.
New Maps - The addition of House Arryn in what used to be an empty part of the map has required a slight change, with Mother of Dragons including a small overlay that drops over the Vale and surrounding sea lane. The Targaryens make an even bigger impact, as they require a whole new board representing Essos (their starting location) to be stuck onto the edge of the playing area.
The Iron Bank - Putting Braavos on the map with the Targaryens means we also get the Iron Bank in the game. It works like a marketplace, with valuable power-ups available (like the ability to kill any one footman on the map, or improve a castle to a stronghold) to anyone willing to part with power tokens, though this comes at a cost: you not only have to pay for anything you get from the Iron Bank, but you have to pay interest on it for the rest of the game as well.
Vassals - If you can’t get eight people together to play the game with all factions, don’t sweat it; players are now able to take partial control over other vacant houses, which means that there are no more empty corners of the map. Every army is out there in the field from the first turn, and every turn there’s the possibility that you could be taking control of one (or having one turned against you).
Dragons - Maybe the best part of the whole thing, or at least the most fun. The Targaryens begin the game with three vulnerable, weak dragon units. As each turn ends, though, they become stronger, and by the middle of the game they’re powerful enough to head out into the world and do some damage. By flying. Yes, while every other unit in the game is woefully slow, the dragons can instantly warp to to any land tile in the game.
The player pieces still suck – this game deserves awesome miniatures! – but House Arryn are at least a beautiful shade of blue.
In sitting down with the expansion I decided to play as the Targaryens, because I wanted to try out all the wild new stuff they had to offer. Not only did they have those dragons, sitting on their own isolated part of the map, but they also had some very different conditions attached to their turn-by-turn play as well.
For starters, the Targaryens can never hold any of the game’s influence tokens (though they’re automatically granted and maintain three-star power). Nor do they win by taking castles like everyone else. Instead they have to seize these special new tokens that appear on the map every turn, completely at random, meaning you could be dropping out of the sky atop any rival player at any time in the game.
The idea is that, thanks to the power of dragons and isolation, the Targaryens play as a sort of expeditionary force. A force existing not just physically outside of Westeros but mechanically as well, sometimes lending your powers to assist others, other times just appearing from out of nowhere to wreck everyone’s shit (and their plans).
Every other faction operates in much the same way and share many of the same core strategies, like carefully shuffling ground forces around flanks, and to always be in the business of making alliances with your neighbours. The Targaryens do none of that. It’s a completely different way to play that suited me just fine, as I love to work from the shadows and pounce at the last minute anyway, so having enormous fire-breathing dropships only made that easier for me.
Beyond just being fun, though, it’s also a really smart way of working the house into the game thematically. They’re crazy and different to everyone else in this board game because that’s what the Targaryens are like in Game of Thrones, and if their two hallmarks in this experience end up being “death from above” and “kingmaking”, then again, they’re sticking nice and close to the source material.
Even the argument that they’re overpowered vs the other houses – something I both heard from friends while playing and online from others – fits. I think the point of the Targaryens is that they’re overpowered on purpose, and their presence in the game is as much about forcing the Westeros houses to work together as it is about providing one lucky player the chance to fly around with dragons.
That is a lot of new content to get your head around, and it all comes at a pretty significant cost. Between the two extra playable houses and especially the new vassal system, turns which already took a while now take forever. Games can easily take 3+ hours; our session last week ran for three hours, and that was only with five players and victory coming on just the sixth turn.
That’s going to be a problem for some and there’s no way around it. Yet I wasn’t that fussed; if A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones have taught us one thing over the last twenty years, it’s that scale and bloat are the tickets of entry to this universe, and if a few extra minutes between turns is the price we’re paying for a better game, then so be it.
House Targaryen starts the game safe and sound on a different continent
I love Mother of Dragons, and it’s completely reinvigorated my interest in a game that, once perhaps my favourite, had been gathering dust for years. I love it not just for the amount of smart, fun new ideas it brings, but for the thematic way in which they’re all tied in.
It’s a big expansion, one that fundamentally changes the way a game unfolds, and if you can ever get eight people together to play it – and are aware that you’re risking your friendships with at least a couple of them – then there aren’t many better games out there right now.