Playing with Fire – Game of Thrones: The Card Game review

Like many people, I do love a bit of Game of Thrones. Sure, the books are a bit of a slog sometimes and the TV series seems to randomly add stuff while skipping other areas, but if you’re looking for a story that is steeped in twists and turns, intrigue and sheer insanity, it’s an excellent tale that George RR Martin weaves. Plus, you know… there are DRAGONS in it.

Fantasy Flight have had the license for Game of Thrones for years, releasing a gloriously complicated board game nearly ten years ago as well as a long-running entry in their Living Card Game line. Like all the LCGs that the company have put out, it’s slightly different to the rest of them, but I reckon that it’s one of the best. Continually updated since its initial release back in 2008, it’s an incredibly well supported game that has a huge following that is well deserved.

Cracking open the box, you’re presented with four separate decks of cards, each representing one of the many noble houses of Westeros. This being the base set, you’re getting cards for four of the big ones: Stark, Lannister, Baratheon and Targaryen, each of which is packed out with characters and locations taken from the story. If you’ve only checked out the earlier stories, don’t worry – the base set is low on spoilers, so you won’t have anything ruined for you.

Used in the multiplayer game, there’s a lot of nice extra stuff aside from cards and tokens…

Also included is a board and six plastic statuettes, each one representing a different role in the Small Council. These are used in the multiplayer version of the game where three or four players make and break alliances over a series of turns, but the premise is exactly the same no matter how many people are playing: collect Power. The first player to fifteen Power tokens triggers the game end, and whoever has the most is declared victorious.

Each round is played out through a series of stages. Players initially choose a Plot Card that has an effect on the round, as well as stating how much gold they’ll receive, initiative they have and a “Claim Value” which comes into play later on. Cards are then drawn from your deck, then you get to spend your gold on the Marshalling phase; bringing things into play. Characters, locations, items… all of these will be used to take down your opponents and gain that all important power.

The main meat of the game comes in the next part of the round; the Challenges. Each character generally has one to three icons on their card depicting whether they can get involved in Military, Intrigue and Power challenges. Once characters are committed, they can’t be used again – a very traditional feel in card games, of course – but the twist comes in choosing which cards you’ll use… and when. Winning a Military challenge kills off opposition characters, Intrigue forces opponents to discard cards from their hands, while a Power challenge allows you to steal tokens from other players. The amount is determined by that previously mentioned Claim Value as seen on your Plot Card – forward planning can really cause some destruction if you play it right.

The mighty Ned Stark, a military man who can handle power too. No intrigue symbol means that he won’t stand for any sneakiness.

It’s this part of the game that really shows how you can tap into a theme well. Having a knowledge of the series, be it through the books or the television show, will really pay off as you see how well the characters and locations are represented. Someone like Cersei Lannister, for example, is devious as anything in the stories and is strong when it comes to clutching for power. Spies like Varys the Spider will be most useful for Intrigue challenges. The designers have been thorough when it comes to fitting the characters in the game world; when you read each card you can really see how they made the choices they ended up at. This level of attention really shows the thought put into the Game of Thrones: The Card Game – and this is only the base set.

The rest of each turn plays out in a pretty standard fashion – cards in play are restored to “standing” from “kneeling”, which is a nice touch – and power is handed out, before the whole thing begins again.

When playing with more than two, there’s an additional selection phase where the previously mentioned roles from the Small Council are chosen. These bestow bonuses on players but also introduce a further twist – some roles support others while some are sworn enemies, meaning that another level of strategy is brought in. Alliances live and die in the space of minutes; it’s the very definition of shaking hands with the left while going in with the knife in your right. Only the most devious, manipulative and sneaky player will come through in the end.

As ever, being a Fantasy Flight production, the game is wonderfully presented. Art throughout is of the highest quality, inspired by the series of books rather than the TV show – after all, it’s well over four years old. Gold and Power tokens are good, thick punchboard and the cards themselves are of great quality. The only quibble is have is that the box is a little… airy, but that’s to be expected in a game that now has so much in the way of expansions available.

Thankfully, as it follows the Living Card Game model, you needn’t invest in anything more than this first set of cards. However, with rules in place that allow for building your own decks, you could well be sucked in to picking up the occasional extra box here and there… it’s a slippery slope though, so beware!

My only negative point is regarding the rulebook which feels like it should have had the editors take a harder look at it. It can be a bit tricky to navigate your way around, using a paragraph where a sentence could do. Thankfully, there’s a vibrant community out there who have chopped up the gameplay and created useful player guides that are freely available all over the internet. Particularly useful is Roy Martin’s crib sheet from BGG – checking it out is well recommended, especially for new players.

For a stack of cards and a few bits of punchboard, it’s remarkable quite how much it manages to capture the theme and feel of Game of Thrones. It’s an experience that promotes thinking like the characters at your disposal, that requires you to play as a part of the House you have chosen. Will you be honourable or betray your friends? In Game of Thrones, it’s a very thin line you’ll dance along constantly. It’s not something you’ll want to play with those who take offence easily, but if you have a group who are willing to throw themselves into the experience, Game of Thrones: The Card Game is incredibly rewarding.

Game of Thrones: The Card Game was first released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2008. The base set, available for around £30 (though you can get it at Gameslore for £24.99), was designed by Nate French and Eric M. Lang. A four player game can take around an hour, while a regular two player effort clocks in at around thirty minutes. Now… when you play the game of thrones, will you win or will you die?

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