Game of Thrones and the Gamers Who Play It

As HBO’s Game of Thrones reaches its final episodes, with the series finale airing May 19, 2019, it’s a great time to appreciate how far the George R. R. Martin franchise has come from its humble beginnings. My first encounter with A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which the TV show is based, came about the same way as many of my favorite fandoms: through my love of gaming. In 2003, my friends had just begun playing the A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game, which had been released the previous year by Minnesota’s Fantasy Flight Games and has remained a flagship property for the company. Now in its second edition as a noncollectible Living Card Game, it’s known simply as A Game of Thrones: The Card Game and has been joined by a variety of other Game of Thrones products.

board game layout

A Game of Thrones: The Board Game in action. Fantasy Flight Games

Christian T. Petersen, founder of Fantasy Flight and designer of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, which released not long after the card game, believes, as I do, that his company’s games are one thing that contributed to the growth in popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire over the decade that preceded the TV series pilot. (“George may disagree,” Peterson quips.) Although the books were already beloved among many gamers before the series came to tabletop formats, newcomers to the card and board games invariably sought out the series to learn more about the characters and setting that informed the games’ lore.

Now a giant in pop culture, the Game of Thrones fandom has come full circle, with the gaming community that helped foster its growth occupying a comparatively small niche within its global following. And yet, within this community, the rivalry among the great houses is as strong as it’s ever been, particularly in the case of the card game, with tournaments held regularly all over the world. Numerous podcasts dedicated to A Game of Thrones: The Card Game exist, the greatest of these being Great Beards of Westeros, which focuses on the most compelling element of the saga: the mighty beards that many of the male characters in A Song of Ice and Fire proudly wear.

Master of Whispers card artwork

One of the intriguing Small Council cards. Fantasy Flight Games

The great success of both the card game and the board game lies in how well each conveys the tone and overall feel of the setting. The latter has often been referred to as the perfect way to end friendships, with the treachery and betrayal necessary for one to come out victorious. The former, though best known for its one-on-one Joust format, is most appealing to me for its more casual (though equally cutthroat) multiplayer Melee format, in which players are pushed into and pulled out of alliances with one another by way of the game’s Small Council deck, which adds a bit of hidden-role intrigue to the game. Players secretly select cards each round that dictate whom they want to attack, whom they may not attack, and what kind of special gameplay benefit they will enjoy over the course of that round. Shifting loyalties and cold-hearted deceptions lie at the core of the source material, so I find multiplayer to be the best format for communicating its essence, while the game as a whole does a great job of translating the theme into its mechanics, as I described in detail in an earlier article.

I have always been a strong advocate of games that are good at telling a story, offering players an experience that is not just about winning or losing but about making us feel like we are a part of something. I remember the thrill I got playing House Arryn in a four-player variant of the board game during that variant’s debut at Days of Ice and Fire 2013. The books leave off in 2011’s A Dance with Dragons with Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish about to make their move for Sansa to reclaim Winterfell, and while we now know how that turns out in the show’s continuity, we didn’t at the time. I had the opportunity to descend upon Winterfell with Alayne Stone (Sansa’s alias while posing as Baelish’s daughter) and reveal the objective card I had been holding onto the whole time, just waiting for the right time for Sansa to reclaim her ancestral home.

With Game of Thrones ending its eight-season run, readers of A Song of Ice and Fire are left wondering: when will the written version of the story be finished, and how closely have the show’s final episodes hewn to the novels’ intended conclusion? While there is some speculation that the severe delay in The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, is due to author George R. R. Martin’s involvement with the TV series and that a release date will be announced shortly after this final season wraps up, the future is far from certain. This has some fans arguing whether the book, which is only the first of two meant to conclude the series (the other being A Dream of Spring), will ever come out.

I am never good at making predictions of this sort and so will refrain from speculating on that point, but I see some potential good that could, oddly enough, come about should the book series remain unfinished. The gamers who have followed the franchise for so long have forged permanent bonds with the characters and great houses of the setting (me among them, as a House Stark loyalist and champion of the “SanSan” pairing of Sansa Stark and Sandor Clegane). Each player has a vested interest in seeing their favorite house claim the Iron Throne, and while the show will present one outcome, having an unfinished saga in the book universe would allow for whatever faction to emerge victorious in the imagination of any given fan. When you play the game of thrones, be it the board game, the card game, or one of the many other tie-ins based on the series, the choices you make will cement the future of the Seven Kingdoms—until the next time you bring their fate to the table.

Cards from A Game of Thrones: The Card Game

Fantasy Flight Games

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