Version tested: PC
They picked the hard route instead of the easy route. Whatever else a game of A Game Thrones gets wrong, I admire it for resisting the sure temptation to be a dime a dozen medieval-themed real-time strategy game filled with units that endlessly uttered familiarly pithy or portentous lines from George R.R. Martin's deadline-busting fantasy books.
Instead, it's tried to capture the underlying themes of the Song of Ice and Fire series. No, not suffering characters taking oh-god-so-long boat journeys to wherever the action resolutely isn't or having to sit through yet more of a dirty old man's sex fantasies when all you really want to hear about is the liches and the dragons, but instead the game of thrones itself - the politicking, alliances and treachery that sees the balance of power shift regularly and unpredictably, every noble family in the land forever striving to out-manoeuvre, out-think and out-marry their blue-blooded/power-crazed/inbred competition.
Bewilderingly, Genesis throws out all the character of the books, outside of token naming of factions as the land of Westeros' most renowned Houses, and presents a bland, brown world where everything, everywhere and everyone looks the same and no-one even knows what a bon mot is. As a celebration of Martin's seven-book low fantasy saga, it's a straight-up failure. You'd be far better off buying a King Joffrey commemorative plate or House Stark-themed thermal underpants (winter is coming, after all - better wrap up warm). As, however, a strategy game that strives to escape the genre's build'n'bash traditions and come up with something fresh, it's on to something. The ideas are right: the ideas are great, even - but the execution is grim.
Before I get into the daunting task of explaining how Genesis works outside of making small groups of men with swords stab each other, I should probably note that this game, from ever-patchy Blood Bowl devs Cyanide, was commissioned and primarily developed before the Game of Thrones TV series first reached our goggleboxes. So if you're looking for a steady stream of Dinklage quips or bare breasts every fifth minute you'll be disappointed, and perhaps even confused. Genesis is based on the books and the books only, and wastes no time in wading deep into Westeros' extensive lore and history rather than soap operatic present. If, for example, you don't know who Nymeria is (and I'm not talking about Arya's pet wolf), you'll be in the dark even from the first level.
That's a warning rather than a complaint: there's a raft of fan-service in here, but it's aimed square at the people who weren't even slightly shocked by A Certain Moment in the ninth episode of the TV show. Beyond entirely superficial name-drops of characters and areas, though, this could be any-fiction. The known sights of Westeros barely appear - so instead of the Lannisters' legendary stronghold of Casterly Rock, you'll get a generic castle called Feudal Home with a red flag outside it. Each House has one unique and generally non-combat unit, but other than that each side looks, sounds and behaves the same save for the colour of the little flag it carries. 'Drab' is the best word for the game, and that's totally at odds with the mischievous, sadistic, lecherous source material.
So how, then, is it like Game Of Thrones? Well, while thrones themselves don't get much of a look in, the heart of Genesis is about the long game of duplicity and alliances necessary to gain control of the land. This is rarely a game of conquest, but instead one of using Envoys to take and hold fixed nodes on the map. These nodes are nominally neutral strongholds and cities, which your rival(s) are also striving to get on-side as they're the primary source of gold (for unit construction) and Prestige (for winning a game). Build an Envoy, right-click on a node and in most cases it'll be yours just as soon as the unit's completed its tortuously slow journey across the map.
Or, at least, it will appear to be yours. It might be an enemy Spy has gotten there first and arranged a Secret Agreement - so your Alliance will earn you no gold or Prestige, and the settlement will declare itself for the enemy once the open war stage begins (I'll get to that in a minute). Alternatively, an enemy Rogue might have bribed your Envoy to switch to the other side.
Again, all will appear well but those coffers won't fill as fast as you'd like. As is one of the overarching themes of A Song Of Ice and Fire, no-one can be trusted, anyone can and will switch sides in an instant and whenever one side thinks the tide has turned in their favour plot and treason in a holding they thought safe can set them on a course to ruin.
That's just one element of the cyclic Game Of Envoys. Maybe an Assassin will nobble your Envoy before he completes his mission, or maybe he'll find an enemy Envoy waiting at his destination and thus get sent packing on the spot. Or maybe he'll find that the enemy has married off one of its noblewoman to a crucial neutral town, forming a blood bond that a mere Envoy cannot break. For every unit, a counter-unit.
It grows and stacks and grows, this game of thrones: clever stuff, but it can fast become relentless, a constant moving of fixed-purpose pieces around an ugly, low-tech board to try and interrupt enemy actions you know full well will be happening but can't see or curtail unless you have the right unit in the right place. It could be endless, in theory - which is why in multiplayer and singleplayer skirmish (aka House vs House) you're playing for Prestige Points. First to 100 wins, and the dance of envoys draws to a blessed close.
One thing an Envoy won't suffer is getting beaten up by soldiers. For all the marketing (and indeed the game box's) talk of recreating the most notorious battles from seven centuries of Westerosian history, there's really very little fighting in here. The small number of military units can be used to take out Assassins (if spotted) and arrest turncoats, but really they don't come into play until (and if) a match or level switches from peacetime to wartime. Again, in keeping with the books, most of the time everyone's pretending to be friends but conniving behind the scenes for power and influence.
Once a certain threshold of antagonistic actions is crossed, however, war is declared, diplomacy is largely ruled out and any secret agreements are revealed. Oh, and you'll build and send a thin roster of soldiers, in a fixed and immediately dull rock, paper, scissors arrangement, to defend your holdings and attack the enemy's. Combat between these featureless identi-men is boring to watch and boring to control, bar a few brief setpieces in the campaign that are the only times Genesis toys with ASOIAF's openly fantastical elements.
Fortunately, fighting can often be avoided entirely, as it's eminently possible for one side to rack up enough Prestige Points before war breaks out. What an anti-climax that is, though. Still, at least that's reflective of how Martin tends to end the books, the big tease.
Oh, and a note on the campaign specifically. While you might have thought it the meat of the game, really it's a short-lived collection of extended tutorials that often dispense with the deepest strategies of the game in favour of some miserable, cheerless exposition and lore-spouting. If you must play Genesis, play through the tedious but brief tutorial proper then head straight to House vs House, where you're free from the level-by-level drip-feed of new unit types and able to get right into the full-on politicking.
The same is true of multiplayer, where the level of focus and persistence involved in the subterfuge element means Genesis might pick up a steady audience even though most of the raft of people who bought it because it said Game Of Thrones on the box will have long-since given up on it.
So: come not for the enticing Game of Thrones name, certainly not for the ugly graphics, clunky interface (as appears to be Cyanide's habit of late) and soulless writing, but instead, perhaps, for what genuinely is an ambitious new take on real-time strategising. With verve and wit and gloss, Genesis could have been the start of something fascinatingly, enthrallingly cruel: as it is, it's a song of needless branding and sad compromise.
5 / 10