It may have escaped your attention. (OK, it probably hasn't.) But Game of Thrones is back on our TV screens for another season of intrigue, nudity, and gratuitous violence.
In recent years, the success of the HBO series has seen George R.R. Martin's blood-spattered tale of murder and machinations grow from a cult fantasy hit to a global pop-culture phenomenon. It's also generated a thriving spin-off industry, with comic books, T-shirts, and cutesy action figures all based on the books and TV adaption.
This rampant tide of merchandising extends into gaming, too. There's a licensed RPG that was met with mixed reviews on its release, and California studio Telltale Games produced an episodic, story-driven adventure game that has earned praise from fans and critics.
But if you'd like to really immerse yourself in gaming in the Seven Kingdoms, you need to power off your PC, because the most intense, challenging interpretations of the Song of Ice and Fire series aren't to be found in the digital realm. They're on your living room table.
As I've written before for VICE, tabletop games have become surprisingly awesome in recent years, and there are some rich, deep, faithful analogue adaptations of A Game of Thrones to discover. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game casts you as the leader of one of the great houses of Westeros, raising armies, seizing territories and overcoming your rivals with a mix of military might and sheer, heartless betrayal. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying takes a more personal approach, putting you and your friends into the shoes of individual characters in the series's timeline and letting you play your way through unfolding events like a darker, bloodier Dungeons & Dragons.
Accomplished as these offerings are, though, there's another game that gives you the chance to indulge in some wanton backstabbing and brutality in this iconic setting, and it may just be the best of the bunch.
Originally designed by board gaming maestro Eric Lang, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game takes everything you've come to expect from its source material—political scheming, sinister magic, sudden and horrible death—and distills it into a condensed and dangerously addictive formula. Recently rebooted in a new edition headed by designer Nate French, it challenges players to build customized decks from a pool of hundreds of available cards representing the characters, locations, and pivotal events of the original novels before pitting them against one another in a battle for the Iron Throne.
If you've ever played the likes of Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, this might sound a bit familiar, and on first inspection, A Game of Thrones shares a lot of similarities with other strategy card games. It sees you mounting assaults against your rivals, defending against their counter-attacks and desperately trying to eliminate their biggest threats before they can unceremoniously slaughter your carefully constructed forces.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and it soon becomes clear that this is much more than a cheap attempt to cash in on a popular franchise. A Game of Thrones may have some things in common with other titles, but at its heart it's a very different beast.
"This game couldn't be more thematically perfect if it came with a severed head in the box."
For one thing, it challenges you to build not one, but two decks: one containing all of the characters, territories, and equipment under your control, and another representing plots, schemes, and strategies that will help you smash your enemies and establish yourself as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. These plot cards come with some dramatic effects, letting you search your deck for crucial cards, nullifying your opponents' attacks or wiping out half of the characters in play—including your own—in an indiscriminate wildfire assault.
And where other games can have a narrow focus on combat, A Game of Thrones is more nuanced. Yes, you can launch military attacks, but you can also attempt to dominate rivals using your political clout, or to undermine them with carefully crafted intrigues. Choosing which of these plans to pursue and picking the right moment to launch your schemes makes for some agonizingly difficult decisions, and this is a game that isn't shy about layering complexity on top of complexity until you're presented with a succession of brain-melting situations with no obvious best course of action.
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But where the game really shines is in its attention to the flavor, theme, and atmosphere of the stories that inspired it—not just in terms of its lavish artwork, but in the way it captures the essence of the series in its core mechanics.
Play the Red Woman, Melisandre, and you'll be able to temporarily disable opponents' characters, seducing them with the fiery allure of R'hllor. Attack with the Hound, and there's a chance that he'll bugger off as soon as the fight's over, the limits of his shaky loyalty exhausted. Add Catelyn Stark to your deck, and she'll become more powerful every time another member of her family is killed, allowing them to do what they do best: embark on ill-advised side quests that end in their pointless and hideous demise.
Every character and faction plays just as you'd expect, and this game couldn't be more thematically perfect if it came with a severed head in the box. It's packed with tough tactical decisions and crunchy, demanding gameplay, but it still manages to feel like an epic story playing out on your tabletop. Characters under your command develop their own plotlines and identities, and long after the game ends, you'll find yourself looking fondly back at the time Stannis Baratheon ended up hopelessly hooked on milk of the poppy, or when Tyrion Lannister cheated death at the hands of rampaging wildlings only to be ruthlessly savaged by a pack of adorable direwolf puppies.
A Game of Thrones does have some flaws, one being that you'll need to buy three copies of its core set to unlock its full deck-building potential. In fairness, though, that still works out cheaper than a single competitive Magic: The Gathering deck. A bigger problem might be finding some fellow players, especially if you don't live near a game shop that takes part in publisher Fantasy Flight's organized play program.
But if you're a Game of Thrones fan looking for a deep, compelling game to obsess over, this is it. Play a few games, and you'll soon realize that you couldn't stop if you wanted to. You win, or you die.
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