Posted on Wednesday, June 8th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Fantasy Flight Games has held the Game of Thrones license since before HBO brought George R.R. Martin‘s beloved and bloody fantasy series to the masses. They’ve done well by the novels, producing a great card game and an even better strategy board game that capture the betrayal and the brutality of Westeros and its always-scheming, generally murderous citizens. And since they got started before the show existed, they have been closely tied to the paper and ink version of this world, depicting the characters and their locations as described in Martin’s text, which often differs significantly from the television version.
This makes their latest Game of Thrones-themed project a gigantic left turn for the company. Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a trivia game built around answering questions from the HBO series. It’s an odd left turn for a company best known for their complex and glossy and deeply dramatic tabletop experiences. This is the kind of game concept you’d expect to see collecting dust at Wal-Mart next to copies of Sorry! and Clue, not the latest release from one of the most prestigious publishers in the business.
And yet, Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game is no half-assed knock-off and it doesn’t represent Fantasy Flight Games cashing in on a valuable license to make a quick buck. Designer Jonathan Ying has taken the most tired of board game concepts, the pop culture knowledge challenge, and injected it with flavor and sophistication. Against all odds, this is a trivia game that actually feels like the show it’s quizzing you about.
The Problem With Trivia Games
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with trivia games. A battered copy of Trivial Pursuit is your best friend on a camping excursion and a must-have if you want to keep your mind occupied while you indulge in some heavy drinking. Heck, if you’re amongst people who are new to tabletop, basic trivia games are a lifesaver. They practically teach themselves. Someone either knows the answer or they don’t.
While there’s plenty of pleasure to be taken in showing off your knowledge and being rewarded for your efforts, most trivia board games barely function as games. Vanilla Trivial Pursuit, with its roll-and-hope-you-land-on-the-color-you-want movement scheme, is frustrating game design by modern standards. Many trivia games demand your knowledge, but only let you show it off if the timing is right, if you manage to roll the right dice at the right moment. That’s fine for a rowdy group get-together, but it’s not so satisfying if you want a game where the chief challenge lies in knowing more than your opponents.
To be fair, other mainstream trivia games have gone out of their way to correct this problem. I’m particularly fond of Bezzerwizzer, a fast-playing knowledge game where smart players can make their own luck and use their knowledge of others against them. However, that doesn’t change the fact that most trivia games are stuck in the past and that most trivia games centered around a specific property tend to be hastily thrown together garbage meant to take advantage of a current fad or craze. Think of all the Harry Potter trivia games you’ve ignored at Barnes & Noble over the past decade. This is a genre that often reeks of cheapness.
This was my mindset when I initially approached Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game. I was prepared for the worst, to watch a company I admire wallow for a quick profit. Even if the questions printed on the cards were good, how effective could this be as an actual game? I was pleasantly surprised.
The Rules of the Game
As you would expect, the game board in Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game is a map of Westeros, with nine key locations, like King’s Landing and Winterfell, depicted. It’s a surprisingly compact board, making it a good choice for bar or pub gaming, if that’s your thing. The game itself, as described in the svelte and straightforward rules book, can be taught in just a few minutes.
After creating the deck of questions (each card is color-coded by season, just in case someone at the table isn’t quite caught up), the first player chooses a location on the board and selects one of the “marker” pieces they have in their possession, which come in small, medium, and large sizes. If they wager a small marker, they have to correctly answer one question to play it on that location. If they wager a medium, two questions. If they go for the larger marker, they have to correctly answer three questions of Game of Thrones trivia in a row, which is easier said than done. If they manage to pull it off, they place their marker on that location and claim influence there, as well as one of three resource tokens. Most importantly, they may be able to remove an opponent’s marker that was already placed. If they fail, they get nothing.
Since each territory only has a limited amount of space, players begin to jockey for control of each stronghold, pressing their luck to get their marker put on the space that will put them in a position of power or remove the marker of the person in the lead. Resources can be spent to acquire “favor cards,” each of which represents a member of the show’s sprawling cast and each of which grants the player a one-time power that bends or breaks the rules in some way. At the end of a pre-determined number of rounds, the game ends and the player who controls the most territory spaces (control being defined by having more marker tokens present than anyone else) is declared the winner.
Unlike so many trivia games, this isn’t a constant circle of dice rolling that only concludes when someone achieves certain conditions. Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game is a race against time. You only have so many chances to score and your rivals will have many opportunities to strategically hinder your progress.
The Little Differences
This is no ordinary trivia game, although the trivia component of the experience is pretty great and will give even the most seasoned Game of Thrones fan more than their fair share of trouble. The rest of the game, all of those bells and whistles, only work because the questions printed on the large stack of double-sided cards that come in the box are challenging and worthy of your time. Sure, you’ll groan when the person next to you gets that easy question about what weapon Robert Baratheon carried into battle and curse the old gods and the new when you get that impossible query about the Children of the Forest from a Bran scene where your eyes glazed over, but that simply comes with the territory of this genre. In any case, the group of four Game of Thrones watchers and readers that I played with found themselves amused and challenged by the vast majority of the questions asked of them. As a barebones trivia game, this thing works. Your knowledge will be tested.
However, it’s everything else that Jonathan Ying brings to the table that elevates this beyond a simple game of Q&A. For starters, there’s the whole gambling aspect. Will you only tackle one question to place a tiny marker on Harrenhal or will you risk three questions to go for that much larger marker, which will lock down your control over that location? It’s really a game of hubris – you push your luck as far as it will go, betting that you’ll be able to outsmart everyone else.
But choosing which marker size to wager and how many questions to answer are only the tip of the iceberg. There are other vital choices to consider. For example, do you choose to answer your questions at Dragonstone, where there are no markers and you’ll get an early lead in that space, or do you look to The Twins, where another player has almost secured control but a well-timed turn will allow you to eliminate one of his markers and level the playing field? Knowing where to take your trivia, where to attack, is vital. This isn’t just a game of getting questions right. It’s a game of getting questions right in the right places.
And there’s another angle to consider. With each territory offering a resource token (gold, sword, or raven) to a victorious player, another level of strategy is introduced. The large stack of favor cards, which are revealed into a “shop” on the board, offer everyone the chance to recruit allies like Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen and Ned Stark to their cause with game-breaking, strategy-shattering results. However, each character costs certain resources, which means acquiring the right favor card, which means having the right combination of gold, swords and ravens. Sometimes, getting a single question right at Pyke so you can recruit Sandor Clegane is worth more than an outright victory elsewhere.
When actually laid out in front of you, Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game is utterly simple and everyone will be playing in just a few minutes. However, should you choose to pursue a deeper strategy, should you choose to analyze your options and make smart choices, the game rewards clever thinking. In the end, though, it only matters if you can answer the damn questions.