All Gamers Must Die: How the ‘Game of Thrones’ Board Game Perfectly Encapsulates the HBO Series
In the land of Westeros, lying is a virtue and only scoundrels get ahead. Oathbreakers fly through the ranks of power. Kingslayers hide behind their father’s money. Psychopaths rule or kill at the pleasure of those who do rule. Guests are brutally slaughtered at weddings and no one bats an eye because that’s what it takes to play a game of thrones.
['Game of Thrones' spoilers ahead...]
And it’s fantastic, isn’t it? There’s nothing quite like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ which has become one of the most popular shows in the history of television by diving headfirst into a depraved fantasy realm filled with mud, blood and enough harsh, unfair realities to make you forget about the dragons and red witches. People just can’t get enough of the scheming Tyrells, the power-hungry Lannisters, the vicious Greyjoys, and, of course, the noble but ever-dwindling Starks.
So what if you could recreate the bloodthirsty experience of watching ‘Game of Thrones’ at your kitchen table?
Enter the ‘Game of Thrones’ board game, which encourages you to lie, deceive, and brutally stab your friend in the back and watch his anguished faces as he demands to know why you would do such a thing. It’s a thing of marvelous, dark and evil beauty.
Designed by Christian T. Peterson and published by Fantasy Flight Games, ‘A Game of Thrones: The Board Game’ was originally published in 2003, before the show even existed. Originally based solely on George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ book series, the game puts up to six players in control the great houses of Westeros, places them on a map that simply doesn’t have enough space for everyone, and challenges players to be the first to take over seven castles (which is easier said than done). The first player to achieve this (or the player who controls the most castles after 10 rounds of play) is victorious.
When the game was reprinted in a glossy new version in 2011, ‘Game of Thrones’ was officially on the air and the game’s potential audience had gone through the roof. Sure, the art was still based on the book, but now millions of new people were familiar with names like Tywin Lannister and Ser Loras Tyrell. What may have seemed like a typical fantasy board game was now part of a cultural juggernaut.
There’s a general rule of thumb when it comes to “licensed” games : they usually stink. Fantasy Flight Games defied this rule with their acclaimed ‘Battlestar Galactica’ board game and their take on ‘Game of Thrones’ follows suit. It doesn’t just slap familiar names and faces on a tired design: the design itself feels carefully built and calculated to recreate the feeling of watching the show or reading the books. The rulebook doesn’t just teach you how to play, it teaches you how to be a ruthless and traitorous bastard. This game will get your blood boiling and transform you into a monster. If you do try to play nobly and honestly, your armies will be slaughtered and the other players will mock you mercilessly as you struggle to regain your footing.
Unlike ‘Risk’ or other entry-level board games, ‘A Game of Thrones: The Board Game’ never once relies on luck or dice rolls. It’s a deep game designed for more experienced gamers (or at least new gamers who are willing to dive into the hobby headfirst), often taking five hours to play and demanding that players form long-term strategies. Battles are resolved through a combination of mathematics and skillfully played cards: a bigger army will always defeat a smaller army unless a player plays a powerful “leader” card from his hand, adding to his total strength and often giving him a one-time ability. However, once a leader is played, he can’t be played again until the player has gone through his entire deck of cards. A leader played at the wrong time can mean a few rounds of total misery and defeat.
What makes the game really ruthless is the action tokens. At the beginning of each round, players secretly place these little cardboard circles facedown on every territory their troops occupy and then everyone reveals them together. The character that promised you that he was playing a defense token has actually played attack! He promises you that he lied to trick someone else and that his troops are marching the other way, but you don’t believe him. So you betray him before he betrays you and decimate his borders. War is declared. An alliance is broken. Every other player cackles because you two are now attacking each other instead of them.
This is one mean board game. Playing a support token on one territory lets you offer your military might to an adjacent battle and it’s common to watch to adversaries beg and plead for you to join their cause and lend your support to their side of the fight. And you, being the true master of the situation, will only comply when they’ve said what they’ll do for you.
All of these mechanics and all of these rules all ultimately create a game where every player is balanced on the edge of a knife. One wrong move can can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Trusting another player to keep his word will ultimately lead to a knife in your back. The best way to play the game of thrones is to make alliances, pit your enemies against each other, and then betray your friends at the exact right moment.
Like the Starks, a player who keeps his word and stays true to his promises will get wiped out. A player who games like a Lannister and deceives his way to the top will prevail. A player who plays like a Tyrell and makes tons of friends and quietly gets into position to take it all is your greatest threat. If you do do find yourself on the losing end of a battle, the best thing to do is to think like a Martell and hold onto that grudge and let it fuel your rage.
The mere fact that you’re playing as Starks, Greyjoys and Baratheons should encourage players to game “in-character,” but the design itself forces you to think like a citizen of Westeros. This game can be brutal and harsh and unfair and cruel, but when you fail, it’s all your fault. There are no dice. There is no random chance. You are 100% responsible for every decision you make and when you get tricked or miss someone’s killer move to victory, it’s your own fault for being so naive and trusting.
When Robb Stark got murdered at the Red Wedding and Ned Stark got his head chopped off, fans were devastated, but they all agreed that they should have seen it coming. Just like on HBO, just like in the books and just like on your table, victory in Westeros always goes to the best schemer. ‘Game of Thrones’ asks you to forget about typical fantasy and ‘A Game of Thrones: The Board Game’ asks you to forget about typical board gaming. Both revel in the dark and the cruel, asking you to sympathize with and become a monster for a few hours.
And come on, everyone knows the monsters are always far more interesting.