George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros has made a big splash in books (the A Song of Ice and Fire series) and TV (HBO’s Game of Thrones; catch our weekly roundtables here), and its presence in the tabletop gaming market continues to grow as well. Games based on the book series came out long before the TV show proved to be a smash hit, but the amount of interest around the TV show has led to a flood of new ones.
Those include renowned publisher Cool Mini or Not’s new A Song of Ice and Fire Miniatures Game, which launched on Kickstarter Tuesday, plus the upcoming A Game of Thrones Catan: Brotherhood of the Watch (a re-implementation of Settlers of Catan, which now goes just by Catan.) But there’s a huge variety of Game of Thrones titles out there, and many of them are targeting different audiences, so which might be the best fit for you, or for friends and family who like the series? Here’s our guide to the tabletop world of Westeros.
The grand strategy epic: A Game Of Thrones: The Board Game.
Designer: Christian T. Petersen.
Published: 2003 (first edition)/2011 (second edition), by Fantasy Flight Games.
Who it’s for: Those who want a grand strategic take on the War of the Five Kings. Those who are up for long games (it can take up three to four hours or more, depending on if the players are familiar with the game and how quickly they make decisions) with a somewhat-complicated rule set (my first edition rulebook checks in at 20 pages). Those who like negotiation, backstabbing and being mean to each other. Those who have four to five friends who feel the same way (it officially plays 3-6, but is best with more players). Those who are already into hobby gaming and enjoy dudes-on-a-map conflict/negotiation games (if you like Blood Rage, Cry Havoc or some others in that line, you might like this), or those just starting out who want a more strategic, less luck-driven, longer, and more complicated version of mass-market games like Risk. (If you just want Risk: Game of Thrones, get that one instead; we’ll discuss it later.)
This game (first edition pictured above) is a classic, and deservedly so. It was first published in 2003, with a second edition that contained some rules changes in 2011, and it’s received four expansions. It gives you the feeling of being in charge of one of the great houses, from alliances to attacks to treachery. Each round, players issue orders to their forces in different areas, from move/attack to defend to raid (cancel others’ actions) to gain power; opponents know that an order has been issued, but not what it is or where any attack will be targeting. Battle resolution involves each side calculating forces, then adding strength from playing a single character card.
There are also elements of supply, bidding power to jockey for position on the Iron Throne, Fiefdoms and King’s Court tracks, events, and even defending The Wall from wildling attacks. And a nice feature is that unlike some other games, there’s a hard out; the game generally ends by someone conquering a certain amount of cities and strongholds, but if that doesn’t happen by the end of turn 10, it still ends and whoever is leading wins.
This game is very thematic overall, and it strikes a nice balance; it’s not a tactical battle simulation, or a hex-and-counter grand strategic wargame, but it has some aspects of the latter while maintaining some ease of play and appeal to hobby gamers in general. It’s one of several prominent designs from Petersen (formerly the head of Fantasy Flight, who now plays an even larger role as the head of Asmodee North America), including Twilight Imperium, Starcraft: The Board Game, and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (which we’ll get to next). And if you’ve always wanted to push pieces around a map like the ones shown on the show and live out the fight for the Iron Throne, this is the game for you.
There are some downsides to this one, though. The length and complexity mean I wouldn’t recommend it for those new to hobby gaming (unless you’re really into Risk, love Game of Thrones and want a strategic step up), and finding four or five others willing to devote the time to learning and playing this can be challenging. It’s conflict-heavy, so it may not be a fit for those who prefer more Euro-style games (we’ll get to some of those later in this list). It does have player elimination, as some players can be rendered almost or completely impotent early on if they screw up, and it does have some luck from the event deck (what if a muster or reevaluate supply card doesn’t come up when you’re in a strong position?). It can also be an extremely mean game, with tons of backstabbing opportunities; that makes sense in this world, and feels thematic, but don’t play it if you’re going to be hurt by that. Overall, this is a game that its specific audience will (and does!) love, but it’s not a fit for everyone.
If you want a more detailed review of this, check out Charlie Theel’s thoughts on the second edition here, or watch this Starlit Citadel review from Kaja Sadowski and Joanna Gaskell:
The miniatures game: A Song of Ice and Fire: Tabletop Miniatures Game.
Designer: Eric M. Lang and Michael Shinall.
Publisher: Cool Mini Or Not (2018, currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.)
Who it’s for: Those looking for something to simulate Game of Thrones‘ battles at the tactical level. Miniatures gamers who like Warhammer 40K, Warmachine or others and want a Game of Thrones set. Maybe those who like the tactical combat of the Commands and Colors series (C+C Ancients, Memoir ’44, Battle Cry, etc).
This one has a lot of industry heft behind it, as Cool Mini Or Not has become famed for not just their beautiful miniatures, but also their games and gameplay, and Lang (who CMON hired as director of game design back in May) has a long and impressive resume of games he’s designed, including A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (discussed below) to Blood Rage, Rising Sun and Chaos in the Old World to Star Wars: The Card Game, Dice Masters and XCOM: The Board Game. It sounds like this will be a relatively easy miniatures game to get into, and one that might appeal to those who like other parts of the tabletop hobby but haven’t dived head-first into strict miniatures games. However, it will still have specialties for different characters and troops (boosting the thematic integration) and will offer bonuses for flanking and such (boosting the tactical simulation).
There’s clearly a giant audience for this, as it gained over $370,000 in its first hour and a half on Kickstarter Tuesday, shooting past its $300,000 goal, and making over $525,000 in the first seven hours. It’s going to be awfully expensive, though, running you $150 plus shipping for the Stark vs. Lannister starter set, and as such, it’s not a purchase to make if you’re not sure you’re going to like it. It’s on Kickstarter through August 15.
For a more detailed look at this, check out Nathan Pullan’s preview here, or view Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played overview video below:
The collectible/living card game: A Game of Thrones: The Card Game.
Designer: Eric M. Lang (all versions)/Christian T. Petersen (the 2002 collectible version, the 2008 first living edition, and the simplified 2012 version)/Nate French (the 2008 first living edition and the 2015 second edition).
Published: 2002 (collectible), 2008 (first living edition), 2012 (simplified version), 2015 (second living edition) by Fantasy Flight Games.
Who it’s for: Fans of Magic: The Gathering, Android: Netrunner, Star Wars: The Card Game, and other collectible/living head-to-head battle card games.
First, a quick word on “collectible” versus “living”: “collectible” is the model embraced by Magic and some other games, where you buy booster packs that contain random cards. “Living” is a variation on this embraced by Fantasy Flight (and some other companies) where each expansion contains a certain list of cards. So there’s no randomness in what you’re getting, but you will still need to buy expansions if you want to be competitive in general play with this or go beyond the possibilities of the base set. (If you’re only playing with others just starting out, though, the base set can work for a while.)
This was the first real tabletop dive into Martin’s world, and it has a significant audience and fanbase. There are tons of expansions for it, and those are going to continue; there’s also quite a competitive/tournament play scene. You’re likely to have to spend a lot of time and money on this to be competitive in it, but there’s room for more casual play too. And this is generally seen as a pretty good example of the living card game world, so if playing a LCG appeals to you and you’re a Game of Thrones fan, this might be up your alley. But it’s definitely not an introductory hobby game, and it’s not for those who aren’t into LCGs.
If you want more information on this one, check out Matt Smail’s thoughts here, or watch Joel Eddy’s Drive-Thru Review video below:
The original abstract: A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King.
Designer: Bruno Cathala.
Published: 2016, by Fantasy Flight Games.
Who it’s for: Those who like short (15-30 minute) games, those who like abstracts, those who are fans of Cathala’s designs.
This is an interesting one, as it’s an original game set in the Game of Thrones universe, but one that very easily could have had a different theme. It comes from a renowned designer (Cathala just won the Spiel des Jahres, one of the most famous gaming awards out there, for Kingdomino, and has had other great successes such as Five Tribes, 7 Wonders Duel (with Antoine Bauza), Mr. Jack (with Ludovic Maublanc), Shadows over Camelot (with Serge Laget) and Mission: Red Planet (with Bruno Faidutti) and a famed artist (Mihajlo Dimitrievski, a fan of the series who’s done prominent cartoon-style art for just about all of the A Song of Ice and Fire characters), and it reportedly has solid gameplay. It involves moving Varys through a tableau of 35 characters, then gaining control of the character he lands on, winning the house’s banner when you tie or take the lead for the number of characters from a house, and using special abilities when you take the last character of a house. Whoever controls the most banners at the end wins.
This one could be a good intro to hobby gaming for Game of Thrones fans, and those who know and like Dimitrievski’s art will certainly appreciate it. It has wide distribution, including at Barnes and Noble stores, and it’s relatively cheap, has a short play time, and doesn’t have a lot of rules overhead, so it could be a valuable game for Game of Thrones fans curious about playing something with the theme. It also may fit with some more experienced gamers, especially those who like abstracts (spatial games, generally without a lot of theme), and particularly as a night-opening or night-ending game.
For more on this one, check out Jack Eddy’s Cardboard Herald review, or watch this video review from Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower:
The mass-market reskins: Publishing rethemed or “reskinned” versions of mass-market titles has been a thing for a long while, as you can see from the multitude of Monopoly, Risk and other such titles out there. That’s happened in the world of Westeros too, most notably with Risk: Game of Thrones (2015), Monopoly: Game of Thrones (2015, both from USAopoly), and the forthcoming A Game of Thrones Catan: Brotherhood of the Watch (scheduled for Q4 release later this year, from Fantasy Flight/Asmodee). These have their audiences and uses; if someone’s already a fan of the mass-market title in question and is a fan of the series, they may well like these tie-ins. And both Risk: Game of Thrones and Game of Thrones Catan have some notable changes to the original title’s gameplay to fit better with the series, such as objective, character, and maester cards in Risk and wilding attacks, guarding the Wall, and heroes with special abilities in Catan. (Monopoly may as well; there aren’t many details out about it.)
Risk: Game of Thrones feels like a great title for those who want to battle for Westeros without dealing with the complexities of Game of Thrones: The Board Game, and Game of Thrones Catan sounds like it will be a fit for those who like the base gameplay of Catan, but want some twists and Game of Thrones touches.
The hobby game reskins: In addition to reskinned mass-market games, publishers are getting into re-releasing older hobby titles with new pop-culture themes. In the case of Game of Thrones, the biggest two here are Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne (2016, Fantasy Flight Games), a reimplementation of well-known sci-fi negotiation game Cosmic Encounter (first published in 1977, and revised, rereleased, and expanded on numerous times since then), and Game of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue (2014, Fantasy Flight Games), a re-implementation of 2007’s Penguin. Both of these rethemes make sense; Cosmic Encounter‘s negotiation translates well to Westeros, and can perhaps draw a bigger audience there, and Penguin comes from renowned and prolific designer Reiner Knizia, but didn’t necessarily have the strongest theme.
The Iron Throne sees one player attack a target each round, with others joining in on either attack or defense, and revolves around plenty of negotiation and betrayal; it may be a good fit for social-minded gamers who enjoy negotiation, and it plays in about 30 minutes to an hour. Westeros Intrigue is a 20- to 30-minute game of jointly playing cards to build a pyramid, with cards on top needing to match the house of at least one of the cards beneath them, with the last player able to legally play claiming the round. It’s really another spatial abstract, but one that plays quickly and offers some strategy, so it could be a good fit for those who enjoy spatial puzzles and Game of Thrones. You can find written reviews of The Iron Throne and Westeros Intrigue respectively here and here.
The trivia game: Yes, there’s a Game of Thrones trivia game, published in 2016 by Fantasy Flight and its partners. It involves over 2,200 questions about the first four seasons of the TV show, sorted by season (a nice touch, so you could advance as you watch without spoilers if you’re not already caught up). It also lets you try to control locations (with more difficult questions getting you there sooner) in order to win, and brings in characters and alliance options. If you’re a trivia buff and a Game of Thrones fan, this might be something for you.
The summary: So, there’s probably a Game of Thrones board game that will work for you, or for whoever you’re buying it for. If the subject likes mass-market titles, maybe the Game of Thrones skin of their favorite or the trivia game is the best call. If they’re looking to explore a little further, Hand of the King, The Iron Throne or Westeros Intrigue might be a fit; just don’t expect tight thematic integration. For experienced hobby gamers, or those looking to dive into that side of the hobby, A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, or A Song of Ice and Fire: Tabletop Minatures Game may work, with the best fit probably depending on what other games they like and what they’re looking for (grand strategy? tactical battlefield simulations? card combos?). In any case, there are certainly lots of options out there, and we’ll probably be getting more in the years to come.