GS TABLE GAMES: Review A Card Game Of Thrones (HBO Edition)

HBOGoTcardBox

While many people are still sadly reticent about calling themselves geeks there’s no arguing the fact that the worlds we embrace are seeping ever further into the public consciousness. The money men naturally follow, but for every shovelful of shoddy tie-in video games or pathetic prequel novels pumped out there are a handful of companies that use brand recognition to lead us to something compelling that we may have otherwise missed. Game Of Thrones is (of course) the stunning HBO series based on George RR Martin’s ‘Song Of Ice And Fire’ books, and has probably gotten Fantasy the broadest crossover audience since Pete Jackson gave us his cinematic Lord Of the Rings. It’s water-cooler television at the top of it’s game and the fans are about as hungry for more as you can get without going full-on zombie. Fantasy Flight Games have already produced a high quality strategic board game, a miniatures game that focuses on battles, and a ‘Living Card Game’ (LGC) – each of which wonderfully capture the intrigue, tension and sudden violence that characterise the series. The HBO edition of their card game – which I’ll be reviewing here – gives fans of the tv show a gateway to geekdom without the need for a gaming group or the added expense of expansion packs. Find out what I made of it after the jump.

HBOGoTcardsThe HBO edition is a two-player game, retailing at around £20 in the UK. No previous experience with collectible/living card games is required and full instructions are provided in the box. Inside, you’ll find 100 playing cards split into two decks, with which to do battle. In addition you get 32 ‘plot’ cards, which help strategise the game, 20 gold tokens and 30 power tokens. There are also 2 House Banner tokens, though they serve no purpose other than to put your power tokens on. Pointless decoration then, but they do look nice on the table. This is a beginner’s game, in every sense, stripped down to essentials and heavily focused on the most familiar characters. Each card sports an image from the TV series, placing you firmly in HBO’s world at every turn. They’re nicely produced cards with a simple layout, clear fonts and comfortably rounded corners. The main decks have the House banners printed on the reverse, to help separate the Stark cards from the Lannister’s. The instruction manual is of a good size for demonstrating play but falls down in the same familiar ways that my previous Fantasy Flight reviews have highlighted. (I played it four times before realising a couple of major rules, hidden away in a small section, which transformed game-play.) On the plus side, the game is not overly long to play and a single evening will make you confident enough playing it to start looking at the Plot Draft Variant next time round. The best thing to do (as ever) is to set up the game and learn as you go – returning to the instructions properly once you’ve got the hang of the basics.

Let’s look at the the general thrust of the game then, and how it works. As you may expect, this is a personal battle between the Stark and the Lannister families, waged in military might, intrigue and power.

The Plots – which each side choose at the start of every round – are used to determine who plays first, how much income they have to spend and how much damage they can cause their opponent. They also cause simple but powerful affects on game-play each round depending on the type of strategy that they represent.

Your main force are the Character cards, some of which are specific to your ‘House’ and some of which are neutral. They can be strengthened or weakened by Attachments, such as weapon cards or bodyguards; Locations, which can provide extra income or added protection; and also affected by external Events which either player can initiate.

The Gold tokens are earned each round and then spent on putting cards into play. It’s a turn based game, but really quite fluid when you get the hang of it. There is room throughout for countermeasures, creating a dynamic environment full of subterfuge, suspense and strategy.

The ultimate aim of the game is to attain 15 power tokens before your opponent, through force of arms and other, subtler stratagems.

I played Game Of Thrones with some friends over a weekend, and I found it an enjoyable diversion, though nothing mind-blowing. We’d got the hang of the basic game-play within three rounds and were happily stabbing each other in the back at every opportunity. A few issues were raised which are possibly indicative of a problem with the game, but just as likely to be the teething troubles of new players. Aside from the layout issues in the rule book there are one or two ambiguities which really should have been tied down, regarding the duration of certain cards and clarifying what things must happen vs things that are optional. At one point we did wonder if the game was essentially broken because Stark just kept winning over and over again. If you encounter a similar problem we’d encourage you to pay particular attention to rules like Stealth and Renown. It struck us late on but the Lannister’s really came into their own after that. Finally, some of the cards seem to be a little too powerful – The Iron Throne, for instance, is available to both sides but it’s a game winner if unopposed for any length of time (i.e. if the opponent’s Throne is stuck near the bottom of their deck.)

That said, a great deal of time and trouble has clearly been put into balancing the game to keep it interesting and also reflect the character of the opposing forces. As a fan of both books and TV series I found it rewarding to note that the game grants the ‘proper’ kind of power to each House. The Lannister’s breed their gold very quickly and have a multitude of sneaky tactics, whilst the Stark’s are able to field troops with greater ease (read loyalty) and rely almost entirely on strength. The three forms of attack available each round are critical to capturing the feel of the world – a complex conflict of will and war, woven on a tapestry of tricks. Military might is obvious and carries a high price, killing characters off; Intrigue attacks make use of a different kind of character, showing the value of strategy and stealth by removing options (read ‘cards’) from the hand of the opposing family; while Power attacks – a little more nebulous – seem to trade on status and affiliation, shifting power tokens to and fro. It’s a little frustrating to find that the Plot cards are fixed for beginners, unveiling the same effects game after game. While this is clearly part of the way in which the decks are balanced, you soon get to know pretty much what Plots are going to come up next and how to deal with them. Thank goodness Fantasy Flight have prepared for this situation. In a genius move they have produced (and included) additional Plot cards to ‘draft’ in once both players are completely au fait with how to play the game. Each player still only gets seven to use per game, but a system is described to fairly and secretly distribute them. Not only does this extend the life of your boxed game by a considerable margin, it opens your eyes to the possibilities of what can be done with more cards. Or even other Houses, and that leads naturally on to checking out Fantasy Flight’s other Game Of Thrones card game. The one with all those Expansions.

Well played, Fantasy Flight… Well played…

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

 

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