By now it’s fairly safe to assume you’ve heard of Game of Thrones and in reading this it’s probably even more likely you’re one of the millions (myself included) enthralled by its world of medieval fantasy. However, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the overarching story let me set the scene for you.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy series, by author George R.R. Martin, set in the mythical land of Westeros and Essos, where war is common, lying and backstabbing even more so and Kings and Queens are dying at an alarming rate. If the (pretty much) constant battle for the Iron Throne wasn’t enough there is also magic, dragons and the pretty nightmarish threat of the long night and what it brings to contend with. It’s safe to say that if I woke up there tomorrow I’d probably be dead before I could put my shoes on to go to the shops.
We should take a second to pause here. If you were expecting (or hoping) for a game that involves bluffing, brutal and cold heartedly backstabbing your friends, or epic military battles, let’s just get one thing out of the way early; this game won’t scratch that murderous itch.
Hand of the King is a puzzle game designed to fit the space of a short fun filler rather than the main event. If you’re looking for that kind of game I recommend you cast your eyes over A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, A Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne or countless other war games.
However, if you’re interested in a game that’s set in this world or merely want a fun little puzzle that can be played out in under 30 minutes let’s continue.
Playing Hand of the King
In Hand of the King (2-4 players/15-30 mins) the current ruler of Westeros has announced his intention to name the new hand, his best and closest advisor. All of the major families (yes, even the Greyjoys) have gathered in King’s Landing and it will be down to you, via the master of whisperers himself, Varys, to try and gather their favour and gain that title for yourself.
So what are you actually doing? To give you a brief overview, Hand of the King is set up by laying out a shuffled deck of cards. This deck is comprised of 36 well illustrated cards, split between seven Houses and one Varys card - creating a 6x6 grid that is different with every play.
On a player’s turn they will be sneaking, sorry moving, the Varys card on an axis amongst the grid of characters (either horizontally or vertically) and collecting cards from a single house based on the cards they pass over and where their Varys card ends its turn. The aim of the game is to collect characters from the houses, gaining their support and hopefully their banner too. When the game ends players will be counting up their banners and whomever has the most support is the winner. Have a celebratory bend of the knee.
So now we’ve got a general idea of how Hand of the King works, let’s look a bit closer as to what that means for each player. The choices you have on each turn are straight forward, where to move Varys, however the ramifications of that simple action are interesting enough to drive this game.
You’ll find yourself spending as much time on each turn thinking about how to best collect the house character cards you want, as you will in figuring out how to limit what your opponent(s) can collect themselves. Defensive play is common, with you trying to manipulate the game board to force your opponent into a move that either benefits you or minimises their own gain.
You’ll end up focusing on a few House banners, hoping you can get enough of an edge to grab the victory. Also, as the game goes on and the movement options for Varys reduce you’ll start to see yourself planning a move ahead or even more if you have the brain capacity of a chess champion.
There is also another pleasing element to the rules that I haven’t mentioned yet. When there is a tie between two players over a particular house and how many of its character cards they hold, whoever collected theirs last takes the banner. This means it’s not just enough to get the character cards, the order in which they are collected matters too. This elevates things leading to much more strategic back and forth play.
If this wasn’t enough, there is a little extra spice added into the formula by way of 14 companion cards, six of which are dealt out at the start of each game. These cards all have their own unique special abilities and the addition of them being characters like Jon Snow, Melisandre or Sandor Clegane are an example of the theme being smartly used.
They are collected and used when a player picks up the last character card of a particular house. So although I stressed at the start that Hand of the King isn’t a game about direct conflict, the Companion cards do bring in more of an element of player interaction. They might allow you to snatch a character card from an opponent, stealing their banner in the process or perhaps remove a card they were looking to collect from the game.
These options add an additional layer to the puzzle and mean that you aren’t just thinking about gaining the most character cards but also if your actions will allow you or your opponent access to the companion cards and the powers they bring.
I’ve not spoken about player count yet and despite it being described as playing 2-4, I do believe it’s at its best and most interesting with two. The reason for this is really down to how the puzzle itself works turn by turn. By increasing the player count you also increase the possible actions taken before your turn, thus limiting your own ability to plan.
With a lower player count you can try to predict and manipulate your opponent more, turning this puzzle into a battle of wits or as I like to think of it a way of proving I’m smarter than my friends (spoilers: I’m not).
That said, it’s by no means a bad game with more players and there are some interesting game variants available to elevate play with these numbers. A four-player team variant exists to allow 2v2, with you combining efforts with a partner to gain the most support, adding your banners together at the end of a game and seeing which team holds the most influence. This enables you to strategically block other players and can lead to some enjoyably complex games for those who love the competitive nature of team play.
There is also the three-eyed crow (ahem - raven) variant for three or four players, which means table talk is limited but by playing a crow token you gain a minute of secret hot whispery strategy talks.
To conclude, Hand of the King is a simple to learn and quick to play puzzle game with a satisfying amount of depth. It’s highly enjoyable with two and decent with higher player counts, I’d recommend this if you’re looking for a fun little filler with a sprinkle of the Game of Thrones magic on top.