Impressions: Game of Thrones: Genesis

By Adam Smith on October 6th, 2011 at 10:16 am.

The throne seems sturdy, at least

There has been interest in Genesis, this game of A Game of Thrones, mostly because people like the source material, whether in book or telemotion format, but after a few hours of play I can confidently say that this is not the experience to do the license justice. An initially refreshing sense that I might be playing something boardgamey and diplomatically enthralling was soon replaced with a sense of almost complete apathy. And I tried, I really did.

Genesis is built on a foundation that, if better implemented, could have been its saving grace. It eschews grand battles to focus instead on subterfuge and tricksy diplomacy, differentiating itself from other fantasy RTS games and recognising what really makes the Game of Thrones tick. However, the struggle for power should be conducted on a knife’s edge – but Genesis never convinces that the stakes are high. The visuals, the flow and the world feel anything but epic and because the consequences of actions are often unclear, those consequences often feel like they may as well not exist at all.

There are three ways to play on one’s lonesome and the skirmish option also has a multiplayer variant. I’m including the tutorial as a way to play, if only to throw it into contrast with the campaign, which far from being a satisfying history of the world up to the point when the books begin, feels like a longer and more tedious tutorial. Concepts are introduced slowly and then sometimes they seem to be reintroduced, but there’s no real variety in how a particular unit or ability can be used.

The skirmish mode, House vs House, is slightly more satisfying because there are no constraints to play through at the beginning of each map. You pick your House and map and dive right into the action, most of which involves watching old men hobbling across dirt and farmland, carrying sheets of paper, or perhaps gifts. They are envoys and their mission is to convert neutral towns and castles, convincing them to donate their wealth to their House. It’s sad that in most cases I couldn’t even tell you which House I’m playing; all the character of the diverse cast of oddities, maniacs and gruff warlords is distilled into a unique unit for each, none of which I’ve found particularly engaging or useful.

Essentially, the flow of each scenario comes down to sending envoys to ‘capture’ towns and castles, which are effectively barely populated nodes on the map, and using other units to counter envoys. Once again, I feel I could be describing a turn-based game and Genesis isn’t so much real-time as treacle-time, giving plenty of time to think because everything happens so slowly, but also constantly moving, which makes it feel slightly out of control. A car skidding on dry ice at 4 miles per hour. Everyone’s fine, no real adrenalin rush even, but it’s going to take marginally longer to get where you’re going.

Envoys are the base unit, along with peasants who harvest food for armies, so unsurprisingly their role is simple. While peasants gather food, envoys are collecting gold to build new units, by forming trade routes with friendly locations, and earning prestige, which is necessary to win the game. On the whole, this is not a game about fighting, it’s a game about victory points. It’s possible, and probable, that a scenario will be completed with minimal bloodshed. It’s an interesting route for an RTS to take, but it highlights the fact that none of this is very interesting. I’m going to describe some of the unit types, how they work and how they combine, and it’s going to be exhausting. For me and probably for you. Bear with me.

The only unit type an envoy can counter is another envoy; if he is present in a location when an enemy envoy arrives, he’ll send his opponent back home, wasting valuable time as the dismissed unit traipses back to his headquarters at his usual agonisingly slow pace. However, if an envoy visits a settlement that already has an agreement with one house but doesn’t actually have a unit present to protect it, the new envoy will make the bar representing the relationship with the first house slowly shrink and then the bar representing the relationship with his house will slowly grow. Control has been wrested. Bars have changed colour.

Now, that’s fine. I enjoy lots of games that are about bars changing colour but I have to care about what those colours and the bars that they so readily fill represent. Here, I’m trying to earn resources from generic towns so that I can build units to gain more resources from generic towns, so that when I have enough resources I will have won the game. And then I can start all over again, doing the same things in the same order and with the same result.

The next step up from an envoy is a spy, a stealth unit that moves around the map invisibly (also very slowly) and can form secret agreements with settlements. He’s like an envoy but neither he nor his actions are seen by other houses, so they won’t see their bars shrinking and growing. While the spy seizes control of resources, the previous owner thinks nothing is amiss unless he has a unit in the vicinity that can uncover the spy, or notices that his resources aren’t growing quite as fast as they should be.

What it actually means is that not only is this a game mostly about slowly gathering resources, it’s also a game in which the player is actively punished for not keeping an eye on how fast their resources growing. The idea, which is a good one, is that nothing can be taken for granted. You may look across the map and see the vast majority of towns waving your banner high, but inside, the merchants could be laughing behind your back and shipping half of YOUR precious resources back to your enemies.

The problem is, once you grow suspicious that this is the case, and you should, all you can really do is deploy spies of your own. So spies become a patrol unit, sweeping around the map, checking in with allies and then doing it all again. Plot a route for them and they can wander the land forever, every now and then alerting you to the fact that something has gone wrong. If it’s a bigger map, build more spies.

Then there are noble ladies, who can form a blood bond that cannot be disputed by an envoy and requires more lethal methods. An assassin! That’ll be exciting. He’ll walk slowly across the map, reach his target, apologise sarcastically and then the lady will be gone, the bond will be broken and I’ll be able to send another bloody envoy to create a trade route to gain the prestige that will let me win the scenario.

Do you see? Units counter other units. Locations on a map must be controlled. Resources must be gathered. The only difference is, the factions have names familiar from fiction and the game hides lots of information from the player. Yes yes yes, I understand it’s because of subterfuge and deception, which are fun things, but it just means I need to have a network of spies limping around the map at a snail’s pace, uncovering a secondary layer of war-fog that means I have to explore the blandness of it all repeatedly when once would be more than enough.

Wars. They exist too. Although they feel more like skirmishes, involving six or seven men standing toe to toe and hitting one another. War only breaks out in extreme situations, with the houses keen to maintain a veneer of calm. Send a few knuckleheads to stab peasants in fields and a blind eye will be turned for a while, but once the war gauge fills, the scenario moves to a final act. All settlements declare their allegiance, secret agreements trumping open ones, and a fight to the finish begins. In the short Game of Cudgels, units counter other units, just as in the long Game of Diplomatic Reassurances. The most merciful thing about wars is that they end quickly.

There are good ideas in the game, brilliant even, but all the good ideas in the world don’t mean anything when the actual routine of playing is such a drag. I suspect I would prefer the game if the concepts were rejigged a little and I could play it in a turn-based mode. Take it back to that boardgame feeling of the initial moments. I enjoyed Cyanide’s Blood Bowl but that’s because I enjoy Blood Bowl. The execution wasn’t perfect but the rules underlying that execution are brilliant. In Genesis, the execution is severely lacking but so are the rules themselves. Instead of trickery and mindgames, everything devolves into tedium and maintenance.

Give me more interaction with the holdings I have, so that I might have hints as to which ones are likely to turn on me. Give me a reason to care when they do turn, other than the trickling accumulation of numbers. Give me character. That’s the problem at the heart of it all. The interactive elements feel like an unrewarding chore because there’s no sense of a world becoming more expansive or a narrative worth telling. A map relinquishes its resources and then another strikingly similar map awaits.

It’s a licensed title that has tried to translate its source material into game concepts rather than visual cues, which is certainly admirable, but it’s been left completely lacking in character. Not just Game of Thrones character, but any real character at all. If it wasn’t branded it would, for a long time, seem like a historical strategy game based on an extremely uneventful conflict between several minute and long-forgotten baronies. Not really what fans want from Westeros, I suspect.

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42 Comments »

  1. aircool says:

    Problem is (I guess) that GoT attraction is the politicking, depth of characters and a shit load of metaphorical stuff. It’s something that’s quite hard to translate into a video game.

    • Sheng-ji says:

      I was really hoping this would turn out to be a King of Dragon Pass game with a graphical representation of your lands, KoDP translates the politicking quite well, I thought

    • Finbikkifin says:

      Dear Cryptic Comet, maek got gaem plz?

    • atticus says:

      So they should have just skipped making it. A strategy game based on A Song of Ice and Fire needs lots of time and resources to get right, and I don’t think Cyanide has had enough of either.

      We’ve had some great books and a good TV-adaptation – too bad this thing comes along and shames the name.

    • AshEnke says:

      How good was KoDP by the way ?
      I’ve wanted to try it for a while, but it’s quite hard to find and I lack proper motivation.

    • Premium User Badge

      Jarmo says:

      King of Dragon Pass is very good indeed and quite easy to purchase directly from the developer.
      http://a-sharp.com/buy/

      You’ll get a burned CD as the original printing ran out long ago. There are still new boxed copies available on e.g. Amazon for a higher price. People I know have been quite satisfied with their burned CDs.

      King of Dragon Pass is the best role-playing game available alongside PlaneScape: Torment. To succeed you really need to get into the mindset of a barbarian tribal council. Check your 21st century ideas at the door.

      The actual game mechanics are strategic resource management/choose your own adventure with huge depth and variation.

      If you have an Apple device there is an updated version available for them which was just published.

    • Vexing Vision says:

      Oh dear Gods of the free people. I would pay tons for a good remake of King of Dragon Pass, or a similar game in the vein – because I know most of the random events by heart.

      What a fantastic game, which was recently re-released on iPhone. Can’t wait for an Android version to see if I REALLY still know them by heart.

      /Edit: Basically everything what the post above me mentioned. Never mind me. I just went misty-eyed at the mention of one of my favourite underrated games.
      And yes, I can see Game of Thrones working extraordinarily well with the King of Dragon Pass engine. Which I always wanted to see in multiplayer. That’d be bliss.

    • Sheng-ji says:

      Multiplayer King of Dragon Pass…

      You got Paradox’s phone number? I’d work for free for them if they took that on

    • Blackseraph says:

      Ahh King of Dragon Pass, how I love that game!

      I once asked developer if they would do sequel, along with telling how pleased I was with the game, answer was that no since my country (finland) was only place it sold well.

      Damn foreigners…

  2. Kdansky says:

    Turn-based would quite certainly fit this a lot better. But turn-based on PC is dead, apparently. And the board games over at Fantasy Flight Games sell like hotcakes. Because nobody likes turn-based.

  3. Casimir Effect says:

    Sounds like this should have been turn-based to really work well, but it was Decided that would put off a lot of people.

    Oh well, another one to go on the “Buy when very cheap on Steam” list

  4. Premium User Badge

    Kelron says:

    Cyanide >:(

    • frenz0rz says:

      Cyanide. Mmhm. Not much more I can say really.

      They did of course do some stellar work on Blood Bowl, particularly Legendary edition, but it took them nearly 2 years to release a patch for both that fixed many of the often game-ruining bugs, and even now there are many such bugs still remaining – quite a few of which are clearly a direct result of their fiddling with things like the substitution mechanics.

      So yeah, I agree with Adam in that I get the impression they’re an imaginative studio with some great ideas, but one who struggles execute them with the degree of polish and thought that we’ve come to expect from modern PC games.

    • Kdansky says:

      The AI is pretty bad too. Amazon versus Dwarves is still a very easy match despite being horribly one-sided in reality, and putting the AI on medium (down from hard) actually increases its chance of winning. At either difficulty, it cannot come up with a plan to break your defense, but at hard, it just stalls, while at medium, it goes for a lucky streak. And obviously, having a 10% chance of getting lucky is better than not trying to win at all.

    • frenz0rz says:

      Oh, I’d not even bothered to mention the AI. I’ve owned BB since since the original in 2009 and have never completed a full match against the computer – I went straight into learning and playing online with friends, and I’d recommend everyone else does the same. Otherwise people tend to pick up some rather silly and stupid habits because the AI is so inept.

    • wodin says:

      I know nothing really about American F ootball or the Blood Bowl boardgame…which is why i always got battered by the AI in Blood Bowl.

  5. Antlia says:

    I hope they don’t sell the franchise by the pound.

  6. BobsLawnService says:

    Is it even possible to make a game based on diplomacy that actually works? It’s just really not what computer games are good at. Too many abstract and unrepresentable systems at work.

    • Kdansky says:

      If EA would throw the manpower they spend on graphics on it, I’m sure this could be done in an interesting fashion. But these systems always feel like a single person has spent three weeks on them and not more.

    • atticus says:

      Totally agree with this. Diplomacy in games is usually mostly about giving your opponent cash and/or land to keep them happy. You do this for a while, and then they suddenly end up attacking you anyway, and then it’s war all the way until the end.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Of course it is! Make your diplomats RPG characters with varying skills and personalities. Set goals for them, provide them with certain constraints, and see what kinds of deals can be negotiated with other leaders and diplomats.

      Depending on the situation and the other character and the goal, you’ll want to send different envoys – one is intimidating, the other very friendly and patient, another meticulous about etiquette, etc.

      Loads of possibility. Just because games haven’t tried doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to do something interesting with diplomacy.

    • Groove says:

      Galactic Civilisations II

      Space-Diplomacy, largely achieved by all your AI opponents being space-pricks.

      You might be confused, when all your long term allies betray you to side with evil. You thought you could valiantly hold them off with your erstwhile allies! Then you realise that isn’t confusing at all, you’re about to get mauled by the greatest military force the galaxy has ever seen and your allies aren’t about to sacrifice themselves to protect you.

      Also, intimidation. A mostly peaceful system made to work alongside militarisation as the strong societies get to bully the weaker ones and take their lunch money, without starting a war.

      Still not perfect, but as close as AI’s will get for a long time.

    • Vexing Vision says:

      I always like to quote “Birthright” as a game that did diplomacy quite well.

      Of course, it didn’t sell, but then again it wasn’t really marketed well either.

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      In its own way, Solium Infernum is all about diplomacy. It can work, you just have to have a very clear idea of what you want to accomplish and how the player should experience it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      There are lots of neat ways you could have diplomacy work. As TillEulenspiegel says, it’s all about giving other characters motivations and goals.

      In a proper GoT game it should be hard work keeping all of your allies happy, and you should have to make a ton of hard choices. Two lords both have Impetuous Warrior trait. Before the fight, both ask for the honour of leading the attack from the vanguard. Which one can you least afford to piss off? Which one can you least afford to get killed?

  7. Schadenfreude says:

    A shame. I’m not surprised it’s poor but I was holding out a little hope (Not enough to buy it though).

    Just have to sit back and wait for that Total War mod to get its V1.0 release.

  8. Duke of Chutney says:

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/6472/a-game-of-thrones

    You could play this instead. This game DOES capture the feel of GoT and is fun, but requires 4 other players.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    That is a supremely uncomfortable-looking chair.

  10. brecherbernd says:

    Im really disapointed. Im waiting eagerly for the 6th book and hoped that this game could be offer at least a little narrative and entertainment. Would be much better if they just took TW: Medieval 2, using a new map, slightly modifcated units & factions and a ki that is using more non-army units.

    Edit:
    Oh there is something being made:
    http://www.twcenter.net/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=721

    • Juan Carlo says:

      You’d think there’d be a Game of Thrones mod for Warband as well. If there isn’t there should be.

    • p4warrior says:

      @Juan – There is, but the site hosting the file has gone down. I have been scouring the internet for it to no avail.

    • GrandmaFunk says:

      Here’s a very nice Warband mod: http://forums.taleworlds.com/index.php/topic,194610.0.html

      it’s in active development, second version just came out 2 days ago.

      it doesn’t have any fancy art assets but it does have a very good version of the map, all the appropriate lords and does a great job of giving you a real Clash of Kings experience.

      it’s hard not to giggle with glee whenever you get messages like “Brynden Tully is sieging the Eastern Twin” or “Tywin Lannister was defeated in battle but managed to escape” =)

      also, it’s HARD, VERY HARD.

  11. Jazz42 says:

    I wonder if anyone will ever get round to adapting the Malazan series, which I prefer greatly to…this.
    It may be difficult considering how all over the place it is and the Godlike powers.

  12. jti says:

    Tedium and maintenance, I sense a new genre being born.

  13. p4warrior says:

    Good read Alec. I do disagree a bit: this is not a great game. But it is a pretty good game. Yes, the pace is much slower than we’re used to in non-Paradox RTSes; yes, there is an overload of information and units to control all going on at once. Read the manual, read the in-game encyclopedia (I believe there are even achievements for doing so), and play a few skirmishes to see which strategies will work for you.

    Rather than offering lightning-quick optimized build stacks and a way to work up every possible upgrade path, you simply don’t have enough gold to do everything you want or need to do to expand and protect your kingdom. As such, you’re always feeling suspicious and vulnerable, or else you’re expanding really slowly but protecting everything well. It needs some balancing and some patching, that’s for sure, and it’s probably not worth the full $40(?). But if it’s offered up as a Midweek Madness on Steam or hits half-price, it may be worth it for strategy fans.

  14. Davie says:

    Hwaaag. That’s basically what I was afraid of: a dull, uninteresting RTS that fails to support itself on its new ideas. Hopefully the RPG will be more engaging, although it’s still Cyanide, so I doubt it.

  15. vodkarn says:

    I think this is an incredible achievement for these guys, considering they did this on a shoestring budget and probably had about 14 months to prepro, create, and polish it.

    EDIT: Any word on the DRM? How bad is it? I haven’t played a game with TAGES in ages… (heh)

  16. wererogue says:

    :/ I was hoping for a hideously unbalanced story mode where you could play as any house. I wanted to play as the Greyjoys, burning down town after town and trying to to get into any real fights, until the nearby houses were so scared and hungry that they’d bend the knee. Or as the Freys, just sitting around in the middle of the map, cutting deals left and right so as to have all the other houses break their treaties and kill off my enemies, witholding my own betrayals until they would be most effective.

    I was hoping to send named characters to treat in dialogue-tree diplomacy, with the results dynamically weighted by house and changing depending on their situation. I was hoping that if you offended your host enough, they’d execute the envoy.

    Oh well.

    • Davie says:

      Damn it, now you got me excited.

      To be honest, I’d just be happy with a SoIaF mod for Mount & Blade or Medieval II.

  17. Chapperz11 says:

    Does anyone know if this bitch ass game will be available on Mac? i want it bad.