T.J.
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Due to the moderate success of my overly verbose and exceedingly long first part, I have decided to continue writing down my thoughts about Game of Thrones: The Board Game 2nd edition. After all, someone said it was Pyuredeadbrilliant, whatever that means exactly. I was encouraged by the support and decided to continue to part 2 – Diplomacy.

Diplomacy

The single most important aspect of the game is the diplomatic web of relationship between the players playing the game. It is no coincidence that the game borrowed many of its mechanics from its predecessor and inspiration, Diplomacy. A common mistake that players make, I find, is playing the game rather than playing the players. In GoT, more than in many other games (like Eclipse or even Mage Wars) what's best for you to do is determined primarily by what other players believe about the situation. It's less important, often, what's really 'best' for your according to some abstract utility function that attempts to abstract away from the other players (or worse, assume their maximizers of the same function or the worst, assuming they are a maximizer that doesn't take into account that you too might be maximizing, but we'll get to that later).

Playing the Players


Unlike others, I don't have strong feelings about how people should play the game. I think people should be allowed to play it whatever way they want it. In general, I think board games are unique because rules can be broken as well as followed, it's easy to undo a move and you can easily create house-rules (which is hard on video games, for example). Though I personally love rules and playing by them, when I bring a game to a group of people I know that some of them will have more fun if they play in their own way, and having fun is typically my goal. If someone wants to attack Lannister because he is annoyed by the shiny red units, I don't have a problem with that (I might have a problem with that if I'm Lannister – but that would only be an in-the-game problem, not a real one). As long as things stay within the game and do not become real grudges between people, I have no problem with the vindictive, petty, irritable, extortionist or even the devoted communist. Whatever floats your boat, my friend, as long as you're playing the game. Your goal is, as a player, to figure out the diplomatic landscape created by the players on the table.

Now, that's not to say that I don't prefer playing with competitive ruthless bastards who are dead set on winning or die trying. I like a cold-blooded maniac who fights to the last moment even when he doesn't stand a chance simply to avenge those who destroyed him as much as the next gamer. I just think that this is a reason to pick the right people for the right game, and the right game for the right people. GoT is not the best game for every group or for all people. If you're playing with people and you're annoyed with their behavior, don't blame them for it! it's not their fault they're not playing it as you wanted them to. Either you shouldn't play this game with them, or you shouldn't play this game with them. Not because they are playing it wrong, but because you're obviously not having fun playing. Just because you finally bought Cosmic Encounter and are dying to play it, doesn't mean Grandpa Alex is the right person to play it with. After all, last time you broached Memoir 44', it ended up badly for both your grandpa's autobiography writing project and those forest tiles you still have to scrape from the lasagna dish.

In other words, this guide assumes that your diplomatic goal is to adjust your strategy to the diplomatic landscape you find yourself in. When you play on the BGG forums, you'll tend to find players who belong to the same type: competitive, ambitious, strategically oriented, strict to anal about the rules and with some training in statistics. In short, you'll tend to find players like you. Maybe these are the only people you want to play with: there's comfort in the feeling that, after all, you're not alone. More to the point, knowing the type of players you're facing simplifies some of the social aspects of the game but it really doesn't make it easier to win. The complexity of calculation is enormous and you can never know what shortcuts and heuristics your opponents are using. You don't know their idiosyncratic preferences of tactic and their evaluations of the different resources. You don't know their attitude towards risk and you don't know when and how they might miscalculate, or forget the ability on one of their own cards. The human element is not missing even when facing the most hardcore experienced GoT gamers.

But in this guide I don't assume you are only face the kind of players one may find in the BGG forums (the other parts of the guide hopefully will help you with that). I assume your first task in the game is to discover what kind of players your opponents are. That means it is sometimes worth it to spend a turn or a move if it helps reveal to you the nature of your foes (in the DwD expansion this may not be possible, as the stakes are higher and the game is shorter). Since the diplomatic landscape is the single most important factor you have to decipher in order to devise a winning strategy, it is worth spending some resources on it. You need to see it as one of the game's objective. If you're playing Coup with a group of people who hardly bluff (whether because they don't feel like or because they're all grad students who are incapable of lying without suffering some physical pain) – it becomes really worthwhile to bluff and really dangerous to challenge. Playing a statistically optimal strategy in this situation won't be terrible, but you can really bluff much more than it would allow you and still get away with it.

So, the Golden Rule of Diplomacy is this: figure out what the other players intend to do so that you can prepare for it. In the words of an experienced military expert, Robert Strange McNamara:

Quote:
We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.

Sounds trivial, and it is, but as simple as it is, it's much better than what many gamers tend to do (search your soul to see if you're one of them): 'figure out what is the best move for the other players, prepare for that and then get mad at them when they don't do what you expected them.' Granted, the last part is optional and only appears among the worst kind of gamers, but the principle remains. You are not playing against a copy of yourself or a computer program. On a related note, many players prepare themselves for the worst (or what they perceive as the worst) instead of what's most likely. In game theory terms, preparing for the worst possible scenario is called MiniMax. It means you consider the worst case scenario and play the strategy that is best for that; often, it is the move that guarantees a win or is otherwise a 'safe bet.' For example, Stark attacks with Eddard (his 4 card) because in his mind he is preparing for the possibility that Baratheon defends with Stannis (his 4 card), which can only be defeated by Eddard. Stark thus guarantees a win. A defender, expecting the attack to be as overwhelming as possible, will throw away his low card in response. Baratheon will then throw Brienne under the bus, hoping to block one of the swords. This, of course, is not the only possible scenario. But it is quite common and therefore merits out attention; look for that pattern next time a player can guarantee a win with his high card.

Needless to say, MiniMax isn't, technically speaking, a winning strategy. To invoke game theory again, the situation just described isn't stable (or, if you will, is not an equilibrium). If Stark knew that Baratheon intends to play Brienne, he wouldn't play Eddard; but if Baratheon knew that Stark wouldn't play Eddard, he won't play Brienne. Nonetheless, in an environment of cautious, risk-averse players, playing MiniMax isn't uncommon. The key here is to know your environment and adjust to it – if you believe your opponent will play a low card as a 'throw-away', you shouldn't play it safe with your high card, you should win with your lower card. But you have to know it with a high degree of certainty, or else it is no longer clear that playing a low card is the right response. That kind of certainty is hard to come by, but it is what you are looking for. And if you're to have any, you have to spend some times and actions getting it – testing the waters, trying out things and trying to figure out your opponents. Don't listen to me, take it from a proven fighter, the legendary Duncan Idaho of Dune:

Frank Herbert, Dune, p. 786 wrote:
Use the first moments in study. You may miss many an opportunity for quick victory this way, but the moments of study are insurance of success. Take your time and be sure.

You have to gather some data about your opponents' intentions, and actions are better than words. How does Lannister react to an attack or Riverrun? Does he send the Hound to protect his precious men or does he send Ser Gregor, expecting you to fake it with Dagmar? There's only one way to find out. How does Stark/Martell respond to a march order in Shipbreaker Bay? There isn't much time for such experiments, but they are important. Those early battles, when both hands are full and (typically) neither can guarantee a victory are particularly appropriate for those kinds of experimentations. However, I intend to dedicate a separate section to House cards and their management, so I'll leave it there (as an aside, I'll conjecture that defenders who play the high card even though they're expecting to lose might be playing what some people call 'MiniMax regret'; some think this is an even worse strategy than plain old MaxiMin. I note that because I think there's a difference between peoples' behavior as attackers and their behavior as defenders, or to be more precise – when they are fighting to gain something they don't perceive as theirs [for example, another player's 'natural' castle or even a capital] versus when they . This may have something to do with the different way people appreciate gains and losses, but this isn't about making baseless claims about people's behavior while playing GoT, this is a strategic guide).

Hide Your Identity

Since we've established that one of your major goals in the game is to figure out what kind of players you are facing, it seems fair to assume that at least some of the other players would be studying you. You know now that I would. It follows, then, that you should make an effort to hinder their efforts and avoid being pinned down. That includes avoiding being pinned down as a player which spends his first few turns studying the other players. Given that I think about those things in the way that I do and wanting to get to know my opponents in the early stages, I rarely go for an early surprise attack which sometimes gets you an early win or at least a very early decimation of an opponent. But if you know that about me (as you do now), you can take advantage of that. I should try to mix things up every now and then. More generally, if you tend to some kind of behavior – try to avoid it. Mix it up, surprise yourself.

Those of you who are interested in Game Theory, and believe in its mystical power to solve problems, would be interested to know that the 'solution' it proposes for the aforementioned situation between Stark and Baratheon (where Stark can guarantee a win with Eddard but would prefer to play Greatjon if he knew for sure that Baratheon won't play Stannis, who beats the Greatjon), is to play a mixed strategy; that means you should play a high card some of the times, and a low card some of times. How often? That depends on the relative worth of the different outcomes, so it depends how much worse is it to lose with Stannis compared to winning with it, and how much better is it to win with Greatjon compared to winning with Eddard. If, for example, Stark values winning with Greatjon twice as much as winning as winning Eddard and Baratheon values losing with losing with Brienne at a quarter of a victory with Stannis (assume with me that you can compare these things mathematically; not because you can, but because Game Theory solutions requires it) – then Stark should play Eddard 2/3 of the times and Baratheon should play Stannis 1/3 of the times. Here's the way this game would be represented in Game Theoretic terms:



If this isn't your thing, you're welcome to just ignore it. The point of this was to say – try to change things around. Create an uncertainty about your intentions and your plans. Most people think that the best way to do that is to lie. Indeed, lying is useful. But there are lots of other ways you can do it – especially with suspicious experienced players who won't believe anything you say anyway. What you can do, I think is clear and is not specific to game of thrones. Since I'm not particularly good at lying and creating false impressions, I will not try to offer any more advice on that. Instead, I will turn to a make a caveat or two which pertain the issue of lying.
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T.J.
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A Caveat

I guess this is a good opportunity to provide here the bigger caveat of the diplomacy section of this guide. When you're doing all these things I just recommended – trying to figure out what people's intentions are in order to screw them over while hiding you're real plan by engaging in misleading behavior and lying – you are manipulating them. Or at least, you are trying to. I raise this issue because in case you're not very social, it's possible you didn't notice that manipulating is generally frowned upon in contemporary society. In fact, it's considered quite rude. It is therefore important to note that it's quite alright if you have a general aversion to behaving in such a way. it merely say that something about the way you were brought up was right. The tingling sensation in your stomach that says what you're doing is wrong is merely a sign that you are a relatively normal and healthy human being. Sometimes it's not a good idea to repress that tingling feeling just so you could win a game. In other words, sometimes it is preferable to give up a game and save an important relationship. This advice is not, strictly speaking, part of the strategy guide. But then again, maybe it is. There is a reason they say about Diplomacy, GoT's predecessor and inspiration, that it's been ruining friendships since 1959. Because it has. GoT was designed, in the spirit of the novels, to do the same thing. I have personally seen Diplomacy does this to people, and was therefore older, wiser and balder when I got to GoT. That's how I was able to avoid taking it personally. For the most part. I love playing on the Forums partly because the partial anonymity allows me to be nastier without remorse, and people on the forums take it with good humor as intended. For the most part. And if they didn't, I'm sorry.

Some people say (over and over and over and over and over again). That their spouse is still laughing about that Cosmic Encounter betrayal all these years ago – but we never get her perspective, and for all we know that public display of appreciation hides a deep dark secret of bitter and bottomless resent. In any case, always remember to check in and see that you and your friend are on the same page about what the game is about. Never test a relationship beyond its limits. You may want to learn something about yourself, your spouse, your friends or your friendships. But for the love of god, this game isn't a healthy setting to do that. And if you find yourself doing it, you're not playing the game – the game is playing you.

Second Caveat – Quinns's Criticism

Quintin Smith, a game reviewer I appreciate, has recently raised a concern while discussing GoT. He said that he heard the complaint from one Richard Garfield, the guy who designed Magic, but I'm too intimated to be arguing with Garfield so I call it Quintin's criticism.

The criticism is that 'you're playing the same game in all of these games' – when these games refer to GoT, Diplomacy, Risk and so forth or, in general, negotiation games. So if you've mastered one, you've mastered all of them. And that puts GoT off for Quinns, because he knows he's going to make an alliance on turn 2, that's going to fall apart on turn 4, then he'll make a last minute alliance on game 5 and then the game will end on turn 6. That's the way these games always work for him. He mentions Rex, which used to be Dune (which, as you may have noticed, is one I like) because in Dune there are institutionalized alliances. Dune is more interesting, he says, because you can form an alliance of 2 or 3 players and then you can win the game together.

Now I love Dune, and will get back to the different alliances mechanisms in a moment. But first, let's take this criticism head on – are all negotiation games the same? Are all games that rely heavily on diplomacy require the same skill set, those that once you've mastered them you will dominate all of these games?

In short, my answer is no. But before I reject this position, let's give it some space. Garfield and Smith are smart people and they don't just say things. Moreover, when you say their names together like this it sounds like more like a law firm and that has got to carry some weight. If you look at the diplomacy part of this strategy guide, you'll see that most of what is in it is quite general – it'll work with most diplomacy based games, notably Diplomacy. So there is definitely something to the claim that you will use the same skills in all of these games. But I think that this argument is somewhat unfair, because on some level there are obviously general skills that are used in all games. On a ridiculous level, there are skills like reading that are required in most modern English-based board games and in all others, unless you have someone to explain the rules. But that surely doesn't mean that all games are the same just because we read some words off the cards. And I don't mean that these arguments are the same – I present the ridiculous one as comparison, so that we can learn from it. How are negotiation skills different from reading?

Let's think of another skill set, which I presume Dr. Garfield has more sympathy for (since his games require more of it) – basic math. Almost all games require some basic arithmetic or at least the ability to count. In GoT, the most you come to is addition and subtraction of sizes that do not exceed 20 which I believe is typically covered in pre-school. So not much, but other games require pretty complicated mathematical calculations or at least simple ones but so many of them that your head kinda hurts if you're not the mathy type. Power Grid is a good example, I think, of a game that has quite a bit of math. But examples are not lacking in the EuroGaming sphere, where some games are actually about buying stocks and managing your holdings in company. Even a simple game like CoinAge has me counting over and over all the score of all the different possible end situations a move may lead to. It's really basic arithmetic but it can be really tiring.

With basic arithmetic, there's a little bit of probability theory in every game. Even GoT has a bit of that, with the Westeros cards or, if you're attributing some complexity to your opponents, in battles. Some games have eons more complexity than that, of course. Mage Wars is a game where I often find myself trying to compute the chances that 6 dice would deal 4 damage to a creature that has 2 armor (not bad, if you're interested). So there are other sets of skills that are general enough and are used in every game, to different extents. How are those skills different than diplomacy?

I bring up the comparison to math because that's a complaint some people level against EuroGames. In those games, it is said, you are merely solving a puzzle, not playing a game. A puzzle! Very derogatory in the gaming world, so use with care. Of course, people who like to solve puzzles would say that though similar skills are used when you're solving another puzzle, the feeling is different: now you're solving a different puzzle, and that's the fun of it. For me the experience with negotiating games is very similar – every game, every group of people presents a diplomatic puzzle. Sure, you'll be using the same kinds of skills when you solve that puzzle – in the same way you'll be using your math skills every time you deal with the current situation in Puerto Rico or Power Grid – but the puzzle will be different. And I think that using your diplomatic skills – figuring out people, forming and destroying relationships and so forth – these are the most interesting skills to learn and improve through board games. Quinns may be frustrated by the meta-gaming of his group – he has a reputation of a backstabbing bastard, and he can't seem to shake it. But that presents him with an even greater challenge – how does he persuade his gaming groups he is trustworthy? Maybe he should start being the most loyal bastard in the neighborhood for a while. Given that he plays with the same group of people often, and that he plays many games that provide opportunities to backstabbing – it can certainly work. This takes discipline and may hurt some of the fun he'll be having in some of these games, but I'm sure that pretty quickly his friends will notice and this'll blow their minds. What has happened to the Quinns we know? Has he gone completely mad? Why is he always telling us the truth? I've played some games of Coup with a certain person, who isn't at all adverse to bluffing, who decided after a few rounds not to bluff for a round or two (or three). It sounds boring – just playing the cards as you get them. But to see the faces of the people who challenge you and lose! If they had just waited patiently and played their cards, they could have won. I obviously lost miserably to the truth telling opponent, and had to look at her sly confident smile as she said – I told you I wasn't going to bluff this game. ergh. There's great joy in the greatest deceit of all – not to lie in a lying game. Of course, a round or two of Coup aren't going to cut it for Quinns, but he's dug himself pretty deep there, it seems.

But there's a more substantial answer to the Smith-Garfield challenge than the one I just offered, one that is rooted in game mechanics. The point here is that the diplomatic puzzle is shaped by the ludological landscape of the game. In other words, the rules of the game shape much of the diplomatic puzzle in the same that they shape the strategic puzzle you play against the board. Negotiation in different games is different because what you need from other people is different, and what they can give you is different. Figuring out what they think they need is half of the fun, and that really changes from game to game.

Take Dune, for example, that Quinns mentions. The differences between GoT and Dune are pretty small in this regard, and both game entertain a reputation of encouraging ruthless backstabbing and skullduggery. But there are slight differences that make huge changes. One is what Quinns mention – that Dune allows, on certain phases that may or may not come up, to form and break alliances. Once you're allied, you can't break the alliance until the next Nexus phase. Being in alliance is beneficial – you get the special powers of your ally. But it's also restrictive – you can't attack them or move to the areas they control. And if they lose a stronghold you could have protected, you're screwed. The institutionalization of alliances is not so unique – most negotiating games have it in one form or another. It's actually GoT that's quite distinct in this way: since they wanted to remain loyal to theme of the books and the reputation of ruthlessness, they made the game exceptionally prone to backstabbing. They also added the weird disregard to order of players on victory track (to accommodate this quote from Cersei Lannister, which covers every inch of the box and rulebook). This creates a very competitive environment, even though most players do care about the ordering on the victory track on the end of the game. Most other games have some form of institutionalized collaboration (though even in GoT, you can support each other's attacks). Diplomacy, the granddaddy of GoT institutionalized alliances with a different twist: you didn't form formal alliances during the game, but you can always agree to end the game in an alliance. Not to mention that you can support somebody else's attack, but you have to explicitly note it in your orders or it doesn't work. That means negotiation around support orders need to be explicit and if you fail to deliver once, it's pretty clear what you're doing. Eclipse offers a beneficial exchange of ambassadors and punishment to traitors. But in Eclipse, only the most recent traitor is punished. In Warrior Knights you need the approval of other players when you are going through their territories or if you want to attack a third player when they are around. In Cosmic Encounter alliances are institutionalized per attack and are reformed every phase. Risk doesn't have any of that but, as we know, it's not a very good game. Each of this games have a different landscape for negotiating and solving the diplomatic puzzle requires understanding not just the other people – but what you can get from them, what they'll be willing to give and what is it that they really want.

The second slight difference between Dune and GoT is that in Dune, the rulebook says that agreements that are made public are binding. When I explained the rules to a friend and fellow GoT player, he was baffled. You have to comply with the deal? He asked, and what if you don't? Well, I said, then you're not playing by the rules. What keeps you from taking spice from spice bank when nobody else is looking? Or even when they are? The concept blew his mind. That simple rule changes the entire way people negotiate deals by the mere possibility that some deals may be enforced. One of the moves in the negotiation becomes whether to make this deal public and therefore binding. Both have advantages but also disadvantages. You typically have good reasons to want to keep the deal secret, but that raises justified suspicion. How can you say that negotiation games are the same in this setting? In the same way that a small battle rule, like whether ties go to defender (like Eclipse, Cosmic Encounter, Kemet), the attacker (Dune, DarkStar) or result in stalemate (Diplomacy, Warrior Knights), these rules about the ways players interact with each change the way people tend to behave. In Dune players tend to make more alliances and follow through with their promises even if these are not formal. In fact, they sometimes make an informal alliance that cuts across their existing formal alliances – which is very interesting. They know that a Nexus phase can come out, which means they will have a chance to reform their alliance. Or it may not – and they are limited in their ability to help each other because of the formal restrictions of their alliances. That NEVER happens in GoT.

Have I done anything to counter Quinns's criticism? After all, he makes it about GoT while mentioning Dune (or the unfortunate Rex reprint) as a game he is now interested over GoT. Well, I think that the criticism was made in general terms, dismissing negotiation games as such. So I think it's helpful to see that GoT is a particularly extreme version of the backstabbing encouraging genre, exceeding even Diplomacy in its adversarial environment. Moreover, even in that environment I see no reason why Quinn should work harder to salvage his meta-gaming reputation in his gaming group. He simply has become too predictable. He says that he will always form an alliance on turn 2 and then break it on turn 4 – well, that hasn't been my experience. I've played a Greyjoy and stayed loyal to my Lannister until the end of the game, despite various thoughts and tempting opportunities. I've played a Lannister and kept my word until turn 8, when I successfully backstabbed. I also played a game where the Greyjoy-Lannister alliance broke up before we even began, in the Quintin Smith fashion. And all these games were with pretty astute and ruthless gamers, so I see no reason why it has to go the same way every time.

Different negotiation games have different rules that raise or lower the stakes, and change the way people tend to make deals and live up to them. New game designs have started tweaking with rule to produce all sorts of semi-cooperative games, where players work together and also against each other. I'm particularly interested in Dead of Winter but it's not the first or only game that has interactions of that kind. In any case, the rest of this already too long piece about diplomacy will discuss some of the tactics that are particularly relevant in GoT because of its rules.

Specific Tactics

The two most important mechanics that influence the diplomatic landscape of GoT are the simultaneous blind order placing and the absolute lack of institutionalized alliances. Blind order placing, like in Diplomacy, is fertile ground to treachery. However, unlike Diplomacy, the orders are executed sequentially in turn order. That changes much of the game, as you can place the orders you've promised and then fail to support an attack. I think that Diplomacy's rules allow for much more collaboration because of that, while in GoT everything is always tentative – but that's an issue to be discussed later. In any case, some order placements will be unequivocally aggressive while others can be ambiguous. Blind placing means you don't know what other players are doing, but the interesting negotiating often starts after the orders have been placed. Let's look at some specific tactics.

Deterrence
Since GoT produces a low trust environment, and no player can fight a war on two fronts, players tend to be very cautious with their moves. The implication of that is the best way to play a card is often not to play it. House Cards like Doran Martell and Patchface are awesome partly because they discourage others from attacking you. It's often better to hold on those cards even if you've threatened to use them. Martell can just sit there with 6 castles and nobody wants to attack him because they will be punished severely by Doran. Now, in that case, as Martell – you want to keep Doran in your hand at almost all costs. Say you threaten Tyrell you'll Doran him if he attacks. Then he does – most people feel the need to follow through with their threat, either to prove the reliability of their threat or just to punish the aggressor that made them mad. I've seen this dynamics between Stark and Baratheon countless times – Baratheon says, if you attack me I'll Patchface your Roose. Stark is either deterred or he attacks and Baratheon Patchfaces. Now, think about it – if you are Baratheon, you might want to save Patchface. Once you've used him, your threat loses its power. Sure, if you don't play Doran/Patchface, the other player may think you made empty threats. But typically after losing all your stars to Doran, you're pretty committed to fighting Martell. If you still have your stars and Martell still has Doran, how likely are you attack again?

The same applies to march orders. Often the best defense is to have an attack order in place to retake the position that is being threatened. SE are particularly useful for that, especially if you have stars and are behind on the IT track. Most likely, you will never be attacked and your SE will never need to relocate to the ever-so-dangerous Riverrun. This may seem like a waste of March order, but I think it's often very useful. You can avoid being attacked for multiple turns with the right kind of deterrence in place.

Backstabbing
Much has been said about backstabbing and how important it is in games like GoT, so I won't spend much time on it. I do think there are two things critical with regard to backstabbing that don't get sufficient attention and those are TnT: trust and timing.

Trust? Yes trust. If you are to backstab someone, you have to first gain their trust. If nobody trusts anyone, you lied to them about forming an alliance and they lied to you and neither of you believed it – it's not backstabbing, it's merely failed cooperation. Backstabbing can only occur when you've established some trust and then broke it. It's awfully hard among suspicious players, but without it don't delude yourself that you're backstabbing; in the best case, you're merely stabbing. Real backstabbing requires creating real trust, or at least creating an expectation of collaboration (for example by convincing the other players that it's in your best interest to follow through), and then breaking it. It's actually pretty hard to do and it's very nasty when it's successful. I've already give the caveat about relationships so I feel I can say that. It's no surprise that most people prefer to never have trust since they know backstabbing is an option. It really feels terrible when someone backstabs you.

Timing is more often discussed as important for backstabbing, yet I find that most players tend to be impatient with it. It's no surprise to me that Quinns forms an alliance on turn 2 and then breaks it on turn 4. But if you really want to backstab, you have to wait until turn 8! You have to brew on it, you have to really invest and build that sense of security. Let them entangle themselves in other adventures while you're growing stronger playing defensively. And then, when the fates of Westeros are right – then you stab. It's really hard to do and it doesn't happen often. Usually players become impatient and are just driven to backstabbing by the theme and the temptations. But if you didn't really build trust and awaited the right opportunity, you'll just be slightly hurting your unsurprised neighbor instead of taking over. No good.

Alliances
As I said before, GoT doesn't see many stable alliances. Even Diplomacy sees more, since the need to submit all your orders at the same time doesn't allow you to change your mind. So does Warrior Knights, since there are lots of court favors to exchange and good ol' money. When you can bribe someone, you can rely on them. Sometimes.
In GoT there's really very little you can do for someone, except not attack them. Most agreement that I've seen made are of non-aggression for a limited time. Tyrell and Martell often agree on a three turn moratorium on violence. That typically allows both these houses to grow slowly while the others start killing each other. I always thought this agreement is bad for Tyrell – who starts with no stars and a Fiefdom advantage is not using. Martell can build himself with some CP* orders and get ahead on the muster. But in any case, that's a pretty typical agreement and it stems from the fear that whoever stars fighting a war on one front first, will lose it on the other.
There are some rare occasions where people offer elaborate collaborations. These are really nice in theory but I have rarely seen them work. Though many of the conditions play against it, in real life I have seen people cooperate quite effectively. People's desire to work together can sometimes override the theme and mechanics, especially if these are not super competitive gamers. That goes back to knowing your opponents – people who collaborate in the face of uncertainty and incentives to backstab are not stupid, they are just playing differently. It's you who needs to adjust, not them. or you can try to persuade them to adjust, but that's a different story.

In any case, I will just say here that despite all the hindrances, the game offers strategic potential of collaboration. Any pair of a player's neighbors can usually collaborate against him. They often don't as both are afraid the other will get more out of it. But I'm not sure this fear is justified – when playing with experienced players, the game often ends in a tie-breaker rather than a seven castle win. I guess what I'm saying is – the challenge of collaborating in this game is out there, and we have not yet lived up to it. If Greyjoy can take Winterfell on turn 2, that would be awesome. But he can't do it on his own and most Lannister wouldn't want their neighbor to get so strong so early. Yet I have seen a Greyjoy obliterate a Stark (me) beyond belief and still lose the game as the North provided to tough to conquer. Then why wouldn't Lannister be happy to send Greyjoy up north searching for fortunes? Risky, but not entirely stupid. There's room for collaboration here, but you have to be really creative about it.

Leader Bashing
Like other games, most notably Diplomacy (but many others, like Condottiere and even Settlers of Catan), GoT relies on Leader Bashing for balance. That means that the game designers assume that players will collaborate to stop an early leader from winning, restoring the balance to the game. It is crucial for the game, because without it, a lucky player who got good fortunes on Westeros cards or get a run of bidding on the influence tracks can roll over the board. I've seen cases where a single player held all three tokens or even just [url=http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/10740409#10740409 ]two[/url] of them do quite a bit of damage. And it is the case that players regularly collaborate to stop such a player from winning. GoT provides a good setup for leader bashing, as it is capped with the turn limit – so leader bashing doesn't lead to endless battles and a neverending game (like in Risk or Diplomacy) but rather to more tie-breaker results. I think that makes the game less exciting but at least it doesn't last forever.

Thematically, the turn cap makes sense as we all know Winter is Coming, it's pretty fun that there is a point where Winter finally came. From a game design perspective it makes sense since the game is sufficiently long as it is (in real life I have played an 11 hour game and rarely got to finish a game in less than 4 hours). Strategically, that means that with experienced players who could be counted to do some effective leader bashing, I typically play the long game and aim for a victory with a tie-breaker. I agree, that's less than exciting, but I see no other option.
Last turn tie-breaker don't only make a less exciting victory, but they also make for an anti-climatic last turn. Most players end up discarding their marches, as they can't do anything to alter the game and typically there's quite a bit of kingmaking (which is really important, and I'll be talking about it separately soon). That means that you need to prepare for that last turn, diplomatically, by, for example, making sure you've done your part in leader bashing early on or you might be punished near the end.

But there are two issues that make leader bashing quite difficult. First, it is that unlike Diplomacy – most players can't really do much about a runaway leader. Aside from Lannister and Baratheon, who rarely get an early advantage, only Tyrell has more than 2 neighbors. That means that aside from the player who just got run over, only one other player can effectively threaten the backside of the attacker. Compare that to Diplomacy, where each player has at least three neighbors to deal with before any player is eliminated – which typically makes for very effective leader bashing. There's obviously the impact through bidding and wildlings attacks, but for the most part, leader bashing requires pretty quick response by specific players or it doesn't work. These players are required to make sacrifices that often hurt their own prospects quite severely, but that's just how the game goes.

The second impediment to leader bashing is that there's an obvious collective action problem there. Often there's a leader which can be hurt by any number of players, none of which want to make the sacrifice of hurting it. This happened to me when playing against a Martell who effectively held on to his Doran as a deterrent. He ran over Tyrell and was on his way to victory – Baratheon, Lannister and even Greyjoy could have hurt him, but neither wanted to lose their prized position on the tracks. He kept Doran as he last card, and won though he had a terrible position on all 3 tracks. Martell's gameplay was brilliant, using his position effectively and focusing on the elimination of just one player, but his victory, in the end, is an ode to the inability of the other player to collaborate against him when the first mover would suffer some significant personal lost. Keeping Doran at hand and using it last (very atypical behavior) sustained the deterrent and successfully countered players' attempt to do some leader bashing.

Kingmaking
The last thing I'll mention is kingmaking. Though I think it's likely very few have survived all the way down here, I think kingmaking is actually quite an important diplomatic feature of the game. It is sometimes used in a derogatory manner around game design and it's certainly not my favorite feature of games, but it is a reality in GoT and I think you have to prepare for it. GoT deals with the problem of player elimination in a peculiar way, which I'm not sure is the best. On the one hand, it has similar dynamics to Diplomacy – players can get wiped out completely, when they lose all their units. And like Diplomacy, it is quite common to lose all but one or two units, effectively losing any influence on the game but dragging on and one while no one wants to spare the resources and actions to wipe you out. On the other end, the official rules don't allow for complete player elimination as they require a player whose units were eliminate to still participate in bidding and wildlings attacks, and even allow for an unlikely comeback if the conqueror leaves their conquered capital without leaving a PT (which can happen if, for example, a wildlings attack kills the troops in that capital). Regardless of what I think of this mechanic in terms of game design, it typically means that by the end of a 10 turn game there quite a few angry players still sitting around the table, with a desire for revenge.

Many times, these players can still have game deciding powers. I've seen a player with close to nothing on the board snatch the throne with some PTs he kept from days of old and deciding some crucial ties that really hurt his detractor.
What are the implications of kingmaking? There are many possible ones, but the summary of them is that you need to be aware of who you anger during the game. Sure, you cannot win without running over at least one neighbor, but there are others to think about. What that means will obviously change in different settings and groups, but that's something to keep in mind.

I personally am of the opinion that it's up to the players to decide what to do with their kingmaking powers, and even to decide when is it that they believe they've lost all chances to win the game. Some people think gaming etiquette requires players to keep trying to get more castles, not matter what. I wouldn't assume that all players around the table share this etiquette, especially in a game that states that only the first player wins and all the others lose. I would also expect my neighbor, who I effectively backstabbed, to haunt me to the end of his days with a vengeance, even if that means he'll finish with one castle instead of two. After all, I've done the same. Some people justify this as metagaming, which I think is fine, but I also accept it as fulfilling the desire for pure revenge. Achieving revenge can be very satisfying, as we all know, and I see no reason why board games shouldn't be a good way to produce such satisfaction.

Bidding
So I lied when I said that kingmaking will be the last issue I'll discuss here, because I simply have to mention bidding. That's a pretty big subject that probably deserves a part of its own – and maybe I'll write it – but one crucial components of bidding, is knowing what players around the table value. In many of the games I played in the forums, IT track is undervalued (many players think that other than getting the throne, the order doesn't matter much since they can use later positions for their own advantage and getting the throne is hard if you're not the tie breaker) and the King's Court is overvalued (people love their star orders). Using this knowledge correctly can be very beneficial – for example, with just 3 PTs (and while two other players had 2), Baratheon was able to get the three tokens. I've often when for the throne on the forums, knowing that it'll be easier to get if only Baratheon bids for it. There are other things to think about when bidding, of course, but the diplomatic aspect is really one of the most important ones, and like all the other dimensions – it's often beneficial to 'sit out' of a bidding (by bidding 0s and saving your PTs) and observe how the other players bid, especially if it's an early game bid which can be reversed quickly. That's a risky move, but hey – this game is not for the faint of heart.
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Mattias R
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Fantastic article. Thank you sir.
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Darth Revan
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I made it to the end!

Great article. It generated a hilarious mental image of my friends around the map of Westeros. I could picture the relative skill and experience by where each player looked: house cards, map, neighbors, and yours truly.
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Kris Van Beurden
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Super article! Thanks a lot for writing this!
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Ivan Stanojević
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Awesome article, recommended for every GoT player.
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mr18196 wrote:
Fantastic article. Thank you sir.

RIP_Sinners wrote:
I made it to the end!

Great article. It generated a hilarious mental image of my friends around the map of Westeros. I could picture the relative skill and experience by where each player looked: house cards, map, neighbors, and yours truly.

Tegarend wrote:
Super article! Thanks a lot for writing this!

IkaPakao wrote:
Awesome article, recommended for every GoT player.

Thanks for the support - I appreciate the positive feedback.
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Kokken Tor
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Great read, good insights!

Perrytom wrote:
'figure out what is the best move for the other players, prepare for that and then get mad at them when they don't do what you expected them.'

This is exactly the mistake I make most frequently in these kinds of games (GoT, Smallworld, etc).

One thing I think is important for diplomacy is being able to contribute with good suggestions, that is helpful for your opponents, but also helpful for yourself. Don't have to mention the last part though. Screaming for others to attack the leader will do you no good unless you can give them good reasons, and also show that you are also helping. It's only a matter of presenting it in a way that your opponents don't see your benefit.
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Tim Steylaerts
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Kokken Tor wrote:
Great read, good insights!

Perrytom wrote:
'figure out what is the best move for the other players, prepare for that and then get mad at them when they don't do what you expected them.'

This is exactly the mistake I make most frequently in these kinds of games (GoT, Smallworld, etc).

+1

This is the mistake I also make quite often, most of the time resulting in me not being able to capitalize fully on the situation that unfolds. I know that I am a tactically good player, but diplomacy and bidding is where I fail. I know this, but I have never acted upon it. This article was a wake up call to do so.

Very good read.
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Kokken Tor wrote:


One thing I think is important for diplomacy is being able to contribute with good suggestions, that is helpful for your opponents, but also helpful for yourself. Don't have to mention the last part though. Screaming for others to attack the leader will do you no good unless you can give them good reasons, and also show that you are also helping. It's only a matter of presenting it in a way that your opponents don't see your benefit.

This is a great point, should have incorporated it. It is a form of manipulation that's really suitable for a setting of suspicious players. Among suspicious players the only way to make a deal is one that's mutually beneficial, so if you can convince someone that what you're doing together is for his benefit though it really isn't, you're making some progress.
 
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Dylan Holmes
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This is fantastic. Small correction: your "quote from Cersei Lannister" link links to the attack dice odds. I assume this is supposed to be a different link
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Ken B.
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Thanks for this! Two things:


1. I love Game of Thrones. I do not love gamers who are "strict and anal about rules." I don't play Game of Thrones with them, nor do I expect to, not ever. I mean, rules are rules, and you follow them, but the moment you get argumentative, snippy, or anal about a rule that isn't easily hashed out, well, you're free to go.


2. The people who say "all these games with diplomacy elements are the same", all of them, quite frankly, simply suck at diplomatic interaction. (Sorry, Dr. Garfield.) So by extension, they suck at these kind of games and therefore want to 'blame the system.' Hogwash. Those types of folks are free to stick with their little games with little stand-alone player boards where they can all barely look up from their boards and then compare scores in the end with a haughty chuckle.

And even if you do have great social skills, you may can charm a table, but if you can't hack out how to actually play the game, that's not going to take you very far. I consider myself to have great diplomatic skills; but until I learn each new game system, I ain't winning shit.
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Björn Grafström
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franklincobb wrote:
And even if you do have great social skills, you may can charm a table, but if you can't hack out how to actually play the game, that's not going to take you very far. I consider myself to have great diplomatic skills; but until I learn each new game system, I ain't winning shit.

I think this sums me up as a player (and I do agree with your other points as well)

Edit: And a big thank you to Perrytom for a great and insightful post!
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Aerothorn wrote:
This is fantastic. Small correction: your "quote from Cersei Lannister" link links to the attack dice odds. I assume this is supposed to be a different link

Thanks so much, I've fixed it for your enjoyment.
 
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Notice to all surfers and troubadours, Part 3 is now online.
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Andres Cappi
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First off, I have to say this is the most well thought out and detailed analysis I've read on this game. Thank you for this.

While reading it, one thing caught my eye. You say

Quote:
That means it is sometimes worth it to spend a turn or a move if it helps reveal to you the nature of your foes (in the DwD expansion this may not be possible, as the stakes are higher and the game is shorter).

I do not have said expansion and I was thinking of aquiring it, and I wonder if you could briefly explain to me why is that so.

Regards.
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MajorTotoro wrote:
First off, I have to say this is the most well thought out and detailed analysis I've read on this game. Thank you for this.

While reading it, one thing caught my eye. You say

Quote:
That means it is sometimes worth it to spend a turn or a move if it helps reveal to you the nature of your foes (in the DwD expansion this may not be possible, as the stakes are higher and the game is shorter).

I do not have said expansion and I was thinking of aquiring it, and I wonder if you could briefly explain to me why is that so.

Regards.

Thanks for your kind words.

As for DwD - I can't expand on it here, since it is full of spoilers and I wouldn't want to ruin it for anybody who didn't read the books, so I'll say a few general things:

First, the game only lasts six rounds in the DwD scenario, which means that spending a turn on figuring out your opponents is wasting a much more valuable resources than that of the base game.
Second, without going into any detail of the setup of the scenario, the strengths of the Houses is distributed extremely unevenly, for thematic reasons. Therefore, sacrificing a footman is often much more costly than it is in the base game.
Third, again this is hard without too much specifics, but because of the shorter game and the thematic constraints, the DwD scenario starts with conflict much more imminent as the Houses are much closer to each other. This raises the stakes considerably, and allows much less space for manoeuvring.

I can't go much further without sharing any more specific details about the scenario, which amount to quite significant spoilers of the story. I ask that no one comments with any spoilers, as I would have been very unhappy to discover plot twists here rather than in the book.

Maybe I should post a spread appendix analyzing the maps in the expansions. Except my record in DwD is pretty dismal as I have never won. Oh well, maybe some day.
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MajorTotoro wrote:
First off, I have to say this is the most well thought out and detailed analysis I've read on this game. Thank you for this.

While reading it, one thing caught my eye. You say

Quote:
That means it is sometimes worth it to spend a turn or a move if it helps reveal to you the nature of your foes (in the DwD expansion this may not be possible, as the stakes are higher and the game is shorter).

I do not have said expansion and I was thinking of aquiring it, and I wonder if you could briefly explain to me why is that so.

Regards.

As for buying the expansion, I would say that if you didn't read the book - don't buy it. As an expansion, it really adds very little to the game. I don't recommend playing the scenario unless you've played GoT to death and really need to refresh.

However, if you're an Ice and Fire fanatic - you will really enjoy the house cards in the expansions. Moreover, having those extra cards allows you to do crazy fun card drafts - but only if you and your friends are all experienced players. Otherwise, it would fall flat.

That's my opinion.
 
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Nate Ayronis
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This is one of the best guides I have read on the Internet in some time. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on these various matters, and most importantly, thank you for providing so many interesting, supporting, links.

A true delight.
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Jay B
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first, let me start with the praise, I think that this guide is great for all games requiring diplomacy, and I think it is good for A game of thrones as well. I also like the discussion of timing as that is important. It is probably a guide that anyone playing these type of games should read. The writer should also be commended for putting all this information down and down well in a good format, I know it's not easy, as I have done these types of guides before.

Where I think there is room for improvement is that this guide doesn't really address A game of thrones specifically enough. For example, in the first guide there is a discussion of how each house should grab for certain pieces of land. Well I feel there is an appropriate way for houses to react diplomatically as well. This is one of the things I expected to find when I came to this guide from the first one. And there are certain things that can be achieved diplomatically that will help each houses' chances as well. For example, if your neighbor is involved in a conflict with one of his neighbors that helps your position for a multitude of reasons. But without getting into specifics myself I think a diplomacy guide would benefit from an analysis from the perspective of each house.

Additionally a deeper discussion about alliances beyond the obligatory "watch out for backstabs" should be had. Making strong, trusting alliances is one of the best(maybe only?) ways for one to succeed in this game, especially when players are very experienced. I could probably write a paper about how to make, sustain, and eventually end an alliance. And not all ending of alliances have to be a backstab, nor do they have to end really at all. like you said, Kingmaking happens and as turn 10 approaches if your ally can't win, who do you think he will choose to help make the king? The one who's been a staunch ally the whole game or the one who's backstabbed and fought him at every turn?

We could also devote more time to the tracks and the impact they have diplomatically. I know that if I am king (iron Throne) and I drop someone to the bottom of any tracks through ties I am risking their ire, so when your king you have to either walk a tightrope diplomatically, or choose someone who can't hurt you to drop in influence. Additionally the tracks are sometimes a good way to manipulate people.. you are Baratheon and stark is chomping at the bit to attack someone? You don't want it to be you, so given the chance the fiefdoms order should be baratheon/stark/greyjoy. See you've made it more profitable for stark to attack greyjoy, while less profitable to attack you.

I Agree with all the posters, that this guide is great, but if we want to make it AGOT specific, there's alot that we could add. Maybe it's not the OP's fault, this is a big topic to tackle correctly, and I think the OP made a good dent in it, but there are alot of ways it could be better and more specific to AGOT.

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First, thanks for the response and engagement. I have to say that I totally agree - there's room to be more AGoT specific and I was pretty general along the way. I also agree that there isn't sufficient discussion the tracks and bidding, and I think of addressing that in an appendix.

So I invite anybody who wants to supplement my guide with those further explorations which I didn't pursue further. I will say this - I don't think there's a lot in the specific perspective of the houses. There are, of course, the different interests - which I discuss in parts 1 and 3. They shape the stances in negotiation, but of course the way they are perceived makes a big difference. I think it's a downside of AGoT (which I love, don't get me wrong) that there isn't really that much room for cooperation, which makes negotiation quite thin. I think it's pretty intention - it's a game that works very hard to pin you against the other players but of course, that's just my opinion.
 
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Also for this second part, many thanks! While I will still need to find my way through some of the basic game mechanics, I have taken account of the most important saying here being that you play the players and adjusting to them is the key to winning the game.
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Good article. Mostly for the 'why are diplomatic games fun' bit.

I think the issues some people have with these games (perhaps like Quinns) is that they think of themselves as the alpha players and the games as tactical and strategic ones first and foremost, with betrayal mechanics. This means they approach them simply by adding betrayal to their strategic kit bag.

What these games are actually, to a greater or lesser degree, are trust games. Trust games require you to think of everyone else as an ally and betrayal as the exception, with strategy and tactical play what you pull out of your kit bag to demonstrate and build trust.

Think of The Resistance, for example. The best players are not those who work out what is actually true by sheer logic and counting cards, but who convince other players that what they are saying is true just because they are saying it. This is not something that then turns on a reveal and betrayal, but a consistent manner of playing.

Likewise in GoT, the best play you can have is to build trust and get working productively with others, while having what is played out being more beneficial to you than anyone else. You can get much further with allies that you gain just that little bit more with and retain trust, than enemies that you destroy for temporary gain and turn the entire table against you.

The most frustrating thing in GoT to see is when one player is clearly winning, yet still has the ability to run the table and have other players listening to them instead of you, though it makes no sense at all.

The winningest goal in Game of Thrones is to be that player.
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James Bond
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lamaros wrote:


The most frustrating thing in GoT to see is when one player is clearly winning, yet still has the ability to run the table and have other players listening to them instead of you, though it makes no sense at all.

The winningest goal in Game of Thrones is to be that player.

You mean play with people who are way worse then you?

I played with a player like that and the rest of the people in the room we're, how do I say it, delicately, pure imbecyles. Played with those guyes 3 games, each time the same guy won.
Stopped playing with them. Cause they're freaking idiots, only wasted of my time and made me angry.
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Ben Master
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I love GoT but I really think the mindset of trust and secure alliances is misguided. People like to get emotional over games but this game really doesn't lend itself to some kind of long term leap of faith type coordination.

IMO in a skilled game, trust is simply synonymous with deterrence, positioning, incentives, and timing. A weak and pointless attack may be hard to predict but for any "stab" of real value, it's your own fault if you didn't see you were vulnerable. The victim in GOT is generally the one at fault ;)

Finally, the game rewards constant rebalancing. If you allow sentiment to delay that mechanic, it'll be a short game.
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