Hark! A new Hand of the King is needed! Do you have what it takes to unify the houses of Westeros behind you to support your claim in this new tabletop game? Just be aware: in the game of thrones you win… Or you die! Well, you lose. But that’s like dying. On the inside. Or something. Shall we?
• Designer: Bruno Cathala
• Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
• Number of Players: 2-4
• Playing Time: 15-30 mins
Hand of the King is a cute little package filled with cute little characters which, if we are honest, is probably not how A Game of Thrones has ever been described before. But I’m never happier than when I’m trying something new and the cartoony art style combined with this setting certainly counts as new.
It’s like they’ve Wind Waker-ed it. But I always quite enjoyed the cel shaded art style of The Wind Waker and I quite like the art here too. Even if it does, at first glance, appear to clash with the game’s bloody, gritty, setting. But when you look closer this is about as kiddy friendly as Archer or South Park. Characters will die, the old are gnarly, Tyrion is still fugly, etc etc. But what the art style does tell you is to not take this too seriously. It’s just a quick bit of fun between friends… Right?
Arriving in King’s Landing for a grand tourney with the rest of the important nobles of Westeros, you spy your chance to gather their support for your advancement to the dubiously desirable position of Hand of the King. Unfortunately, so have 1-3 other players and the race is on to collect all the best nobles as quickly as possible. For that, you’ll need to make good use of Varys, the sneaky spider.
Varys sits within the web of intrigue that is King’s Landing and each turn you’ll sidle up to him and drop the hint that perhaps he could go speak to, say, Eddard Stark for you, and maybe give him this lovely woolly hat you knitted for him for the upcoming winter. Varys then scurries across the table directly to him and, thoroughly pleased with his new hat, Eddard leaves King’s Landing and gets placed in your scoring area.
Importantly, any other members of the same family Varys moved over on his way to your chosen noble come along at the same time. So you’ll be carefully looking out for good moves that let you grab multiple nobles at once, and maybe avoiding giving such nice spots to your opponents.
Due to an unfortunate childhood injury, Varys can only move in straight lines. Which must make all those circular staircases in the Red Keep a nightmare. It’s a nice, straight forward puzzle that always keeps you thinking. To begin with, an ideal move lets you hoover up multiple members of a family at once, while leaving your opponent with as few options as possible. But as this very quick game moves on, you start to care a lot more about which cards you and your opponent pick up. This is because of the banners.
No man becomes Hand of the King without a healthy number of banners to their name, in particular, more banners than their opponents. There’s no greater symbol of manhood, after all, than having multiple pieces of brightly coloured cloth flapping behind you. Of course, in the Hand of the King you’ll have to make do with cardboard versions but hey, no one said you can’t use your imagination here!
You’ll receive a family banner when you pick up enough family members to have the most, or joint most, members of that family on your side. This means you’ll get a banner the moment you pick someone up from that family. But then the pressure is on to keep your opponents off them, because all they have to do is collect the same number as you. This is especially interesting for, say, the Tullys who only have 2 members available. As soon as one is taken, the pressure is on to keep your enemies away from the other!
Each family is a different size, from the thinly populated Tullys and Tyrells to the common as muck Starks and Greyjoys, changing how you approach these different families. But the one question that sticks out in my mind is this: where the hell is Dorn!? Only one of the 6 major houses missing for no apparent reason! Given that they are the only house that might have introduced some racial diversity into this cast of very white cartoon characters their absence makes me distinctly uncomfortable.
No, seriously, we are going to have to take a moment here. Just think. It would have been so easy to include House Martel. They have as much, if not more, presence in the book as the esoteric members of House Greyjoy or the long dead characters from House Targaryen. Someone, somewhere in the development of this game, intentionally chose to exclude the one black group of characters that could (and should!) have been present in this game. It’s a shocking oversight from a company that has been very much on the ball with these kinds of issues in the past.
Hopefully this isn’t going to ruin your experience of the game which, all in all, is a fun little filler. I really enjoy the puzzle. Just playing out a few moves for the sake of the above photo was weirdly satisfying! It plays quick. But it’s definitely best with just two players as you are involved that much more and can really focus on countering that opponent, whereas with 4 you only end up getting a few turns each. On the bright side, the team variant, in which you and the player sitting diagonally across from you in turn order play together, sharing the banners you ultimately collect, is more interesting. It mixes up your approach, avoiding characters your partner is collecting but also protecting them from your opponents. It’s neat!
There are other elements I haven’t discussed. Like companion cards that offer one shot powers to players who take the last member of a house, giving you a reason to pick them up even when you can’t win the banner. Or the three eyed crow tokens, whose rules I will relay to you in a dream later. But we’re well versed in the key skills now. There’s not really all that much to this game of thrones.
Hand of the King is an enjoyable little game that is at its best with two players. It’s an undeniably mechanical game, yet the way you are constantly trying to scheme a couple of turns ahead is very fitting for King’s Landing! But it doesn’t hold a candle up to the best 2 player titles like 7 Wonders Duel or Patchwork. I’d probably see this being played most for its 4 player team variant, if only because that’s a more common player count, and it’s nice to have that option there. But I almost feel like the game could have done with having a little more to it, to feel like you have a bigger role to play in those 4 player games. It’s certainly worth checking out, but I wouldn’t rush to do more.