On the Table: ‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’ Card Game Preview

Winter is coming… and so is Fantasy Flight Games’ new fast-paced card game themed around George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. Do you have what it takes to become the Hand of the King?

From the product description:

The king has called for a tourney and a feast to be held at King’s Landing, and the Great Houses of Westeros have answered the call. Stark, Greyjoy, Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Tyrell, Tully – all have gathered, for the whisperers say that the King will choose his new Hand at this feast. Intrigues abound, as every House attempts to gain the aid of Varys, the Spider. Only the most cutthroat and ruthless will rise to become the power behind the Iron Throne!

‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’ is a strategic card game created by one of my personal favorite game designers, Bruno Cathala. Mr. Cathala is world renowned for developing many great games including a couple that I’ve already covered in this blog: ‘Mr. Jack‘ and ‘Raptor‘. In ‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’, two to four players compete against each other trying to gain the most influence in Westeros by manipulating Varys, Master of Whispers, throughout the court of King’s Landing to recruit supporters and ultimately win the favor of the king.

'Hand of the King – Cards

At the start of each game, King’s Landing is formed by using a deck of 36 square-shaped cards. These cards are shuffled and then distributed face-up in a 6×6 grid. One of these cards will be Varys (the only one with a purple background) and the rest are the various characters of the seven great houses of Westeros – easily identified by their sigils in the upper left corner of each card. The houses are Stark (wolf), Greyjoy (kraken), Lannister (lion), Targaryen (dragon), Baratheon (stag), Tyrell (flower), and Tully (fish). The number in the bottom right corner of each character card signifies how many characters start out in play belonging to that house. What’s interesting here is that every house has a different number, and it’s important to note that this information will become useful during gameplay.

'Hand of the King – Setup

Once the cards are laid out, players then take turns (in clockwise fashion) trying to gain the support of the nobles in the seven kingdoms. Players accomplish this task by first naming one of the seven houses and then moving the Varys card onto any character of their choosing belonging to that house. However, Varys can only move in a straight line (up, down, left or right as indicated by the arrows on his card) to get to the chosen character. Once he reaches his target, the player not only acquires that character card (with Varys now taking its space in King’s Landing), but also any other card(s) of the same affiliation Varys crossed over during his move to get there.

For example, if I were to name “Greyjoy” in the image above, I could move Varys down to either Theon’s space to recruit Theon, OR if I move Varys down to Asha’s space, I would recruit Asha as well as Theon – removing them from King’s Landing and placing them in front of me in my play area. Going for Asha may not be the most optimal move, however, since after Varys is placed in her space it lines up three Starks (Sansa, Robb and Rickon) for the next player’s taking. This really makes the game mechanics deceptively simple. Players must also always take into consideration where they’re putting Varys for someone else to use on the following turn.

'Hand of the King – Tokens

The purpose of recruiting characters in this manner is to earn house banners, which are used for scoring purposes during the game and are represented by cardboard tokens. There’s one banner for each house, and a player immediately earns one as soon as he or she has acquired more characters from that house than any other player. What’s more, if a player ever acquires the same number of characters from a particular house as that house’s current banner holder, then he becomes the new banner holder, essentially stealing it from the other player. The game also includes four 3-Eyed Crow tokens, but they’re mainly used for variant games and basically enable a player to conspire with another of their choosing for one minute in private.

By now you’ve probably noticed that a few notable characters seem to be absent from King’s Landing’s court, such as fan-favorites Brienne of Tarth, Hodor, and Jon Snow, among many others. Don’t worry, these characters have not been forgotten and may still show up from time to time as “companions.” The game includes 14 Companion cards (shown below), of which six are randomly used in every game. Companions are the only characters that have special abilities, and their unique powers bring interesting twists to the game. Whenever a player recruits the final member of a house in play, they may also choose one of the remaining companions and immediately resolve its effect. Some companions count toward scoring such as Gendry and Jon Snow, while others like Loras Tyrell and Bron enable you to take a specific character from King’s Landing (or even another player’s play area!). A few companions can kill others as well, removing them from the remainder of the game. My favorite is Jagen Hghar, who can kill one character in King’s Landing, another character in any play area, and one available companion. Obviously, quite a bit of thought went into these since they aren’t just fun, but thematic too.

[Reviewer’s Note: I wasn’t 100% sure if Varys could be killed or not, though I was leaning toward not since Varys isn’t listed as a “character” in the rules documentation. So I sent a message to Bruno Cathala and he kindly confirmed that Varys cannot be killed or taken from play. Thanks, Bruno!]

'Hand of the King – Companions

The game ends when Varys can no longer move. At that point, the player with the most banners is victorious and becomes the new Hand of the King. In case of ties, whoever controls the houses with the most members wins the game.

‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’ has many of the qualities that I look for in a game. It has a quick setup time (1-2 minutes tops), doesn’t wear out its welcome (games only last between 15-30 minutes), is affordable (the MSRP is only $12.95 USD), and is very portable (the box dimensions are 4 7/8′ x 4 7/8′ x 1 1/2′). This makes it ideal to toss in a backpack or bring to work to play over a lunch hour. The theme definitely helps as well, but there’s enough solid game here so that those who aren’t fans of the novels or HBO series still may have fun with it.

I’m also a big fan of all the character designs by Mihajlo Dimitrievski. While the cartoonish presentation may not go over well with everyone, I really enjoy it a lot. ‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’ is meant to be a lighter, whimsical game (as noted on the packaging), and for me the artwork captures the essence of that rather well. It’s also commendable on Fantasy Flight Games’ part, because they could have just as easily repurposed the images from one of their other ‘A Game of Thrones’ games, but instead chose to commission all-new designs. Kudos for that.

‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’ will be available in stores this November and is recommended for ages 14+.

Hand of the King Box

[Order ‘A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King’ from Cool Stuff Inc. or directly from Fantasy Flight Games.]

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