It’s a momentous time in pop culture history. No there isn’t a new Hot Tub Time Machine on the horizon…yet. Nope, as of writing and posting this blog post, this is the week leading up to the last EVER Game of Thrones episode. The series finale will premiere this Sunday and a gaping, dragon sized hole will be left in our lives after it’s gone. If you are reading this 200 years in the future and you have no clue what a Game of Thrones is, it was an absurdly popular show about rich, white people who constantly argued and wanted to kill each other. This sounds like something you’d see on C-SPAN, but it was actually a show on HBO. Also, there were LOTS of naked people.
I am a huge fan of the show and consider it second only to Breaking Bad on my list of favorite shows that I’ve ever seen. So naturally I’m very excited, but also a bit bummed. To honor this finale and the end to one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) shows to ever grace the television screen, I am doing a review of a fantastic Game of Thrones themed board game. This game is Hand of the King, designed by none other than my favorite designer Bruno Cathala. Seeing as how this is a Game of Thrones game, one should assume it’s an epic, grueling 3+ hour game of political intrigue, military cunning and unforgettable betrayals, right?
Actually, it’s just an abstract strategy game that can be finished in under 20 minutes. But that’s okay! The thematic disconnect might seem worrying, but it’s totally fine. Hand of the King is an excellent filler game that packs plenty of thinky moments and exciting swings of momentum. Even if there are far less beheadings and moments of incest (which can only be viewed as a very good thing).
Hand of the King is essentially a set collection card game. The cards in the game represent members of the various houses in Game of Thrones lore, with all the characters illustrated in a somewhat cartoony, hand drawn style that makes me hope that one day we get a Game of Thrones: The Animated Series. These wonderfully illustrated cards are all placed out in a six by six grid that’s referred to as ‘King’s Landing’. The object is to collect a majority of as many families as you can, gaining their banners when you do so. The player with the most banners wins.
How do you collect the cards? By using everyone’s favorite eunuch spymaster: Varys. Varys is essentially the pawn that everyone controls on their turn. He has a card that’s somewhere in King’s Landing. On your turn, you pick one of the four cardinal directions and move Varys in that direction, declaring a House name as you do. When you do, you move Varys to the farthest member of the specified House, picking up any other members of that House along the way. So if you move Varys to the right and say, “Stark”, you’ll move to the right to the farthest Stark and pick up all the Starks along the way. This makes Varys like some sort of Westerosi UFO, abducting the members of all these noble families as he traverses King’s Landing. Considering how brutal the events of the show and books are, being abducted by aliens would probably be sweet relief for some of these characters.
When somebody gets a majority in a certain family between other players at the table, they take the corresponding banner, often times taking it from another player. The interesting thing is it just doesn’t have to be a majority, however. If you even match the tally of someone who is currently holding the banner of that family, you still get the banner. If you take a two Greyjoys and the person with the Greyjoy banner only has two Greyjoys in front of them, you gain control of the banner.
Not needing a clear majority to steal a banner makes things super tense and creates an interesting game of chicken. Taking the banner early on makes you a prime target for other players and unless you collect a wide swath of that family, it’s often not too hard for someone to match you and steal the banner for their own. You’ll always feel vulnerable, no matter the amount of banners you have. This tension makes every decision feel important and you’ll agonize over how best to navigate the grid of King’s Landing on your turn.
Further adding to the torture you feel on each turn is the companion cards. Companion cards are cards featuring other GoT characters who sit off to the side, patiently waiting for you to activate their special power. In order to procure these cards, you need to take the last member of a family off the board. When you do so, you immediately choose one of the companions and activate their power, hopefully helping you swing the tide of the game. These powers are often pretty damn good, making the companions a hot commodity. This creates a new decision to consider: do you focus on bolstering your majorities in Houses you already have a stake in or do you take the last member of a House you have no chance of winning BUT which allows you to snag a companion card?
What makes the companion cards even better are that they have powers that are surprisingly thematic for an abstract strategy game. Take Jon Snow and he counts as TWO members towards any family in your player area. Take Khal Drogo and he not only kills Viserys Targaryen, but also attracts Daenerys Targaryen to your play area, regardless of where she is. Jaquen H’ghar allows you to eliminate three characters off the board, something any show watcher or book reader will be tickled by.
This extra injection of theme helps bring what would otherwise be a fairly abstract game with a healthy dose of personality that fans of the show and books will really dig. The companion cards are also randomized every game, making every play feel different.
The end result of all this is a tense, puzzle-y game that constantly has you and your opponents going back and forth. Banners are lost as easily as they’re won and you’re always worrying about furthering your own interests while avoiding setting up the next player with a nice, juicy move. Sure, you may get what you want by moving to the left and grabbing three Starks but did you just realize that that moves leaves two Greyjoys in sight for the person who currently holds the Greyjoy banner? Playing defensive is just as important as being on the offensive in this game, a classic hallmark of Cathala designs.
Another noteworthy thing about this game is it scales pretty well. The back and forth, tactical nature of the game makes it seem like it would only work at two players, but I’ve played it at three and four and am happy to report that’s untrue. The game is certainly best at two, but three players works just fine and four players introduces a team variant to spice things up. In this team variant, you and a partner square off against the other two players, with both players sharing their banners to form a cumulative score at the end. The best rule, however, is this: table talk is not allowed. The only way you can discuss strategy with your partner is to spend your one and only raven token, which enables you and your partner to leave the room for a brief, minute long discussion on strategy. Not only is this hilarious and prevent one player from running the show for the team, but it’s incredibly thematic and on brand for a GoT game. Using a raven for communication is of course classic GoT and I felt like I was truly a member of a Westeros politics when I spent a raven token, said, “A word, please” to my teammate and then scurried off to the next room to speak in hushed whispers about a big move I saw on the board. I feel like this variant was almost added as an afterthought, and yet the four player games I’ve played of this have been some of my most fun memories with the game.
If you aren’t a fan of abstract strategy games, fillers and/or Game of Thrones, I’m not entirely sure this game will be up your alley. But if you like any one of those things, Hand of the King is a surprisingly satisfying game of tactical tug of war with a modular nature that demands replay after replay. This one has snuck under the radar for a lot of people, probably because it’s a game based on an IP (which is a little ironic, since GoT is one of the biggest IPs ever). But now that do you know about it, do yourself a favor and check it out.