Designed by Bruno Cathala
Art by Mihajlo Dimitrievski
Published by Fantasy Flight Games - 2016
2-4 Players - 15-30 Minutes
Prologue: A Stark Contrast
“And now it begins,” said Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning.
A Game of Thrones has two types of fans, really. There’s the first type, casually following the books or show, enjoying the rich story full of political intrigue and family drama; these fans see the characters for what they are, happily accepting the world presented to them. Then the other type, hiding in dark recesses of the internet, dawning tinfoil hats and whispering about time traveling fetuses, bolt-on skin, dancing wolves, and hidden harps. These are the fans who dedicate hundreds of hours scrutinizing every word George Martin ever wrote, trying to puzzle out the story BEHIND the story. It’s this latter audience that will be intimately familiar with the artwork of Mihajlo Dimitrievski, a prolific fan who has done bright, colorful, cartoony artwork for just about all 7 million major and minor characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, frequently used in wikis, fan-sites, and theory videos.
So you can imagine my surprise when Fantasy Flight Games teamed up with celebrated designer Bruno Cathala to release a game fully illustrated by Dimitrievski. Mouth agape, the tinfoil hat slipped right off of my head…
How the Game is Played
"In King's Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces." - Petyr Baelish
Hand of the King is an abstract tactical game that is easy to learn, teach, and play. King’s Landing is set up by shuffling 36 cards together and laying them out in a 6 x 6 grid. 35 of these cards are characters that players collect, each belonging to one of seven powerful houses in Westeros; the 36th card is Varys, the political mastermind that players will move on their turn. Setup is finished by drawing the 6 companion cards that will be available during the game.
The game flies by as each player takes a turn moving Varys. You announce a direction and a house, then move in that direction to the furthest character of that house, gaining control of that character and strengthening your influence. If you tie or gain the lead for most members of that house, you take control of that house’s banner. If you take the final character of a house, you get to select a companion and resolve it’s ability, some of which are super situational though others are universally good.
Play continues until there are no legal moves at which point the player with the most banners wins! This sounds really simple (and it is) but there are still some tricky decisions to be made. Do you focus on one house early on, or make sure you have a few cards of each house so you can jump on some late game opportunities? Do you take a card you don’t need just to finish a house just to take a companion? Some houses have more cards than others, so you may choose to lock in smaller houses early, or perhaps avoid them entirely.
While I’ve had fun each time I’ve played, by my third game I was wanting more. More strategic options, maybe each banner to grant you certain powers, but this game doesn’t offer more. The few variants in the rules are fun, but again, somewhat shallow. In truth, your decisions almost always comes down to what will be the least beneficial to your opponents. It’s a bit like cat and mouse, except you are all cats trying to sabotage one another while the mouse gets away.
But that’s OK, because the game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. There is relatively no downtime, it’s easy to understand your options, and you will always gain a new character on your turn. This creates a forward momentum that keeps everyone engaged, which is a feat for such a small box game.
“No,” Ned said with sadness in his voice. “Now it ends.”
Look, Hand of the King is not a revolutionary game. It won’t change the industry, and honestly, I don’t think it’ll have a lot of staying power for most gamers deep into the hobby. While the theming is great and it makes for a good “lunch hour” game, it’s hard to recommend it to the “hardcore” crowd against deeper games like Citadels, The Grizzled, or Harbour.
That said, I think this is the perfect game for the casual gamer or Game of Thrones enthusiast in your life. The gameplay is solid, the components are sturdy, and the artwork is beautiful. Fans of the show will be delighted to see the cute Disney-esque representation of their favorite murderous nobles. Most of the companion powers are funny and thematic, and there’s nothing like using a late game Ilyn Payne to kill Ned Stark. Even cooler, the cast of characters and companions have some surprisingly obscure picks, giving even the snobbiest fan something to talk about.
Overall, I really think Hand of the King is a good package; just not one designed for Cathala’s typical audience. I will gladly stuff it into my non-gamer friends’ lobstered-mail-greaves next Christmas. Because I’ll never get them to come to the dark side and play a 3 hour sesh’ of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, but I’m certain I can get them to play round after round of Hand of the King, and we’ll have plenty of fun doing it too.
Want to hear Jack talk with Hand of the King designer Bruno Cathala? Listen here.