Motivation behind this, was primarily the imbalance of Targaryen in Mother of Dragons, which became apparent after playing the expansion just a few times. Though I have played it many, many times afterwards to solidify that it is in fact a issue, like with Greyjoy-Lannister in base game.
My primary goals for AGOT in terms of balance are split into 3:
1) Sea balance in the first two rounds is critical. There is absolutely no reason why the game should allow another house to easily demolish another one in two rounds. (ref. GJ/Lannister)
2) Very aggressive sea expansion early on should still be an option, (never the go-to move), but it needs to be with great risk. You can get rewarded if the move pays off, but doing a daring early assault should come with a negative impact if you fail! High risk, high reward.
3) With a fair early game in terms of sea balance, all the houses should have a reasonable chance at winning the game. AGOT is a highly asymmetric game, and there are so many variables that are not the same on each house (map position, house cards etc), so none is expecting there to be a perfect win rate for everyone, just within a reasonable amount.
Mother of Dragons balance
If you count out Targaryen/Essos and playing just with the Westeros houses, Mother of Dragons provide a more balanced experience. Stark no longer have the free areas on the Vale, Tyrell starts with a star order that helps him significantly, and Baratheon is fine when Targaryen isn’t in play. Balon/GJ is still problematic, but you have Arryn to apply pressure on Seagard, which actually helps a lot to keep the heat on. Only Arryn is a bit complicated, as it is definitely tight in terms of space to expand. But overall I really like the experience.
But then you add Targaryen/Essos into the mix. The primary issue lies with sea balance during the early game, for those houses without the star consolidate order. (when using Targaryen). There are also some issues with Targaryen in the late game, but more on that during the Targaryen section later on.
So how can we fix the first issue? With using designer James Walden’s mantra “using as few tweaks as possible/the most subtle changes as possible”, we have these options:
- As was done with Lannister, giving another ship.
- Moving a ship/ship(s) to a different area or to/from port, if that has any positive impact on the situation. (Situational impact. Depends on matchup/house cards)
- Adjusting the influence or dragon tracks. Done with Baratheon/Tyrell swap from the base game. Primarily king’s court and its stars, which has the most impact on the early game, but maybe also other tracks.
I want to really underline this next part: We don’t want to feel forced to go at the start of the game: Everyone gang up on Targaryen and just delete him from the map, then we others can see who wins. That isn’t fun.
Where is the enjoyment then for the Targaryen player? It surely must be better when they are a bit more toned down, which will allow for diplomacy and fighting that we all enjoy. I find the mechanics of the house fun, but they are simply too strong after round 6 (+ early rounds with all their ships).
- Dragon strength. Round 6 is 10 STR, round 8 is 13 STR and round 10 is 16 STR. (with +1 marches) Plus house cards, and they have their 5 STR house card combo. There are very few areas of the map that can withstand that, even with careful setup of support and units. And you cannot setup the map to withstand an attack in the range of ~15 STR each round, because then you’d be able to do very little movement yourself and trying to advance on the map.. Everyone would just sit there and try to hold off the Targaryen while doing nothing on their own.
- They cannot lose more than 1 VP, and that is by losing Pentos, which is just as hard as taking other home areas. Also, they can regain this point by simply retaking it, they even get the garrison back! (which none of the other houses do). So, this is something that is very hard to do, which in turn means that stopping the Targaryen train, once it has started rolling, is very hard.
- The combination of the two above leads to vassal areas being too easy to take for Targaryen, and the vassals cannot setup a proper re-attack (next round) either due to their limited order amount. So, vassals are just meat for the Targaryen player during the later stages. We play 6 player games, so we only have two vassals, but that is still a lot of areas where the Targaryen player can feast. Other players actually have to invade the vassal, and it still takes some time to gradually take over its areas (AND you have to hold them). The Targaryen can just scoop in and out in a round to grab that sweet loyalty token for permanent VP. Too easy. In the last game we tried to just pass ALL vassals down to Targaryen, so he cannot invade the areas, which was the only way. We managed to hold off until round 10, but he managed to snag one of the other tokens that was put on the map (non-vassal area) on round 10.
- Influence tracks/Permanent 3-star orders. The rules say that Targaryen are at the bottom of all 3 influence tracks, but in reality, they are at the 2nd position on the King’s court track.
Every player would swap out their current other positions instantly, if they could get 3 stars for the entire game. Giving them 1 star permanently would have been enough. Sadly, we can’t change this, as it is printed directly on the game board/deluxe mat.
- Lack of money sink. For all other 7 houses, the main purpose of PTs is to bid in CoK (and ref. the above as most save them for KC track). So, what then when you have removed the most important “money sink” in the game from Targaryen? They will be able to bid a lot of CoK for others to disrupt the results. They can just bid on houses that they are not at war with to remove for example blade of steel from an opponent. Being able to manipulate the CoK results is a fun mechanic on its own, and I don’t want it removed. That said, it costs too little for the Targaryen player, since Targaryen has no real money sink. Using PTs on Westeros IV cards is of course the new area of using tokens, but most of those cards are very cheap to manipulate. Most just say “discard one PT to place token on X area”. One PT is, well, not much.
- Starts with 4 supply. This means they can hold two 3 armies, which no other player house can this early on. This is actually the reason for them being able to take Dragonstone on turn 2, for example. (combined with the star orders, naturally).
Sure, they have some draw-backs, but not enough:
1) Need to claim areas that hold loyalty tokens, which are only revealed bit by bit. The other players can also impact their location (though you can counteract that). As Targaryen, you rarely get many VPs in the early rounds anyway. Just attack another house and try to make a foothold on Westeros, and the loyalty tokens will come around you. You can even win without a foothold in Westeros, but you will rely completely on your dragons. (more dangerous though, but still totally doable).
2) These loyalty tokens can land in areas that are on the other side of the map, making them impossible to reach with conventional units. As opposed to other houses, which win condition always contain castles and strongholds in the areas around them (though getting 7 is very hard, and often not accomplished). This generally isn’t a big problem, as there are usually so many loyalty tokens floating around the map during the later rounds. With so many tokens, everyone can’t be as well defended (with other houses also fighting amongst each other).
3) Last on IT track, which means making raid/march/consolidate last. Usually not a problem (in fact it can often be an ADVANTAGE to march last, especially in the later rounds), it mostly relates to it being more dangerous to march with dragons abroad as the others have a chance to attack you before you can move back home. It does require you to plan properly ahead, so there may be mistakes that lead to you losing your dragons here. Also, you can even be gifted vassals, when the other houses get desperate 😊
4) Loses all ties. As mentioned, you will often win with a good margin, you have star orders, dragons and plenty of supply. You have a 5 STR house card combo to adjust to this, as the other houses do not have a 5 STR combo out of the gate (and certainly not at round 1, without proper setup).
TLDR: Targaryen got too much at their disposal. Their negatives are severely outshined by their strengths.
Arryn/Baratheon vs Targaryen:
a) Both have no star orders, so no muster or powerful tokens, unless you play with fewer players that push vassals down. Also, once you get into 6, 7 or 8 player games, that vassal first pick may not matter. Baratheon wants primarily Arryn or Martell as vassals, to be able to help defend their sea vs Targaryen. And for 8 players, vassals aren’t part of the equation anymore.
b) Their home sea is both adjacent to Targaryen home sea, so Targaryen can attack either one on round 1. GJ/Lannister are the only houses in the base game that start with their home seas bordering each other, and that proved to be problematic.
c) Targaryen can win regardless of what house cards/order tokens the other two uses. Even with optimal token/house card usage and Targaryen player publicly saying what cards he is going to play. Doesn’t matter. Targaryen losing ties doesn’t matter, because they will win by a good margin in these fights, so it will never come into play.
Baratheon: Baratheon will always lose their sea early on if Targaryen decides to press on, and cannot regain it without being lucky in Westeros cards/several allies helping. Will also lose Dragonstone in several scenarios, which of course is not okay that early. Similar to how Greyjoy and Lannister balance was before the errata.
Arryn: Worst start positions on influence tracks of all 8 houses (that’s saying something). Sea is same situation as Baratheon, bad. But taking over Arryn land areas is much harder due to their improved starting units, base defense of home area, and more defensive house cards.
Balance discussion for Mother of Dragons
So, as per the options we had that I highlighted in section above, I’ve went through several opening scenarios and different tweaks, trying to find the least intrusive tweaks, while still making the game more balanced when playing with Targaryen.
What I want to accomplish first here, is Targaryen no longer being able to have a 100% guarantee to take Arryn/Baratheon sea at round 1, and to a certain degree also round 2 (he’s able to do it, but with greater risk). To draw some parallels, I want to move your attention to GJ-Lannister matchup again.
GJ and Lannister share home sea borders. The same does Arryn/Baratheon/Targaryen. But there the similarities mostly end.
GJ (the strong part) has VSB and Balon (one of the best house cards in the game, nullifies 90% of other cards, without requiring any setup whatsoever). Lannister (the weak part) however, now has 2 ships (at different locations, to enable star order bonuses), has 3 star orders, and can muster on round 1. So, he has 3 compelling counters to GJ’s aggression. (even if his house cards can’t do much). Another important point to make is that now, both GJ and Lannister start with the same amount of ships. Yes, GJ can still take the home sea vs Lannister on round 1, but at a GREAT RISK, after you gave the extra ship. He needs to move both ships, use Balon (his best card), and gamble on a muster on round 2. If not, he is often in a deep hole. Lannister can muster 2 ships in port round 1, and then have 4 ships (with star orders) vs 2 GJ ships.
Meanwhile, Targaryen doesn’t run the same risk pulling a stunt like this. That’s what I really dislike about the current situation. Here, Targaryen (the strong part) has 3 star orders, 3 ships, 5 STR house card combo AND can muster new ships on round 1. That’s 4 compelling advantages, double that of GJ. Meanwhile, Baratheon and Arryn (the weak part), has respectively:
Fewer ships (1 and 2 less). No star orders. No house cards to counter anything on round 1.
Wins ties, which isn’t happening anyway, so not relevant.
How is that OK? It’s far worse than the GJ-Lannister matchup, at least there Lannister had several things that acted in favor of him. Baratheon and Arryn have nothing. And Targaryen run a minimal risk at doing this.
I am surprised that this didn’t show up in play testing. This was literally the only negative thought I had when unboxing and diving into all the MoD content (seeing how many advantages Targaryen has vs his neighbors).
My early game fix for Targaryen:
- Move one ship into port of Pentos. (Two ships in port).
- Remove one ship from Bay of Pentos. (Bay is now empty, just like the Arryn home sea).
What this accomplishes:
- Targaryen can no longer attack Arryn/Baratheon home sea, on round 1.
- Reduces the overall strength of the fleet for a round 2 attack, in case of no CoK/mustering. Now at most Targaryen can have 4 ships, 3 in a march +1 attack, and one moved into bay of Pentos (but you cannot setup support form here, on the round 2 attack). 4 STR vs Baratheon 3 STR. So, Baratheon still loses. But now Baratheon was able to move out of Dragonstone on the first round to expand, without risking Dragonstone. Same for Arryn, even with optimal setup for Arryn, he will lose vs Targaryen and his Vis – Khal 5 STR combo. But he was able to use defense order as this was round 2, which enables his house cards. For example, he can use Robert Arryn to remove Vis from the game (which would be painful for the Targaryen player) So overall, again, Targaryen is doing a riskier move here, even if he can still win.
Then for the late game.
As I have mentioned before, Targaryen is just absurdly strong. You can manage to hold Targaryen on one or two victory points until round 6, but as long as he has two dragons, he can easily take 5 – 6 more in the remaining rounds. I understand that they are supposed to be strong, but is too much!
I don’t have any online data for MoD, as the expansion isn’t anywhere right now online, but based on my home game experience, and the stories I have seen the others tell in my Discord, we are fairly unanimous in finding Targaryen a bit too strong after round 6. Some are even reporting 50%-win rates for Targaryen, even after many games. We ourselves have, as I said, 3 in a row for Targaryen.
What really makes the scale tip after round 6 is that the dragons attack combo is now 10 STR. (3x3 dragons & +1 march). It is just too soon, when Targaryen have permanent VPs.
Ideally, I would have liked the dragons to be 4 STR at most. Their tokens would have been placed on round 2, 4, 7, and 9. But I understand that it will not change. We have 5 spaces for the strength markers on the game board/deluxe mat, and 5 tokens.
BUT: We can easily adjust the rounds they are given out.
My late game fix for Targaryen:
- The dragon strength markers are given out on round 2 (-), 4 (-), 7 (+1), 9 (+1), 10 (-).
What this accomplishes:
- We delay the primary impact point from round 6 to 7, which gives more room for the Westeros houses to prepare. If you have vassals in play, it is more likely that some of these areas have been conquered by player houses, which in turn makes the loyalty tokens there harder to take.
Then delaying the 4 STR buff to round 9 as well for similar effect. At round 10 they are still the magnificent 5 STR monsters, which will surely provide a few loyalty tokens, so you better make sure they are not at 5 VPs before round 10 😊
Both the early game and late game changes, actually provides breathing room for Targaryen:
As is the case today, the other players feel forced to instantly gang up on Targaryen to remove at least 2 dragons, and cripple his map control in the process. Because they know that by “only” letting one player skirmish with him (as is pretty normal for the other houses), they run a huge risk of getting into a position where once again, the Targaryen train will be unstoppable on round 6-8 (often not requiring the last few rounds to win at 7 VP). So, either pick between making things miserable for the one playing Targaryen and gang up on him, or regret it later when you lose to his dragons at round 6-7-8, once he gets to 7 VPs.
So honestly, these changes will make things more enjoyable for everyone.
So, to summarize, the following changes have been purposed:
- Move one ship into port of Pentos.
- Remove one ship from Bay of Pentos.
- The dragon strength markers are given out on round 2 (-), 4 (-), 7 (+1), 9 (+1), 10 (-).