Cardboard Cinema: 'Game Of Thrones: The Trivia Game' Is A Breath Of Fresh Air For A Tired Genre

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.

game of thrones pilot

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.

All-Out War

For a pop culture trivia game, this is an experience dripping in theme. It begins the moment you lay out the board and realize that you answering questions is really a simulation of political maneuvering and conquest, with your knowledge fueling your control of the map. Instead of little plastic soldiers, you wield the knowledge of the origin of Petyr Baelish's nickname. When you decide to wager a marker at Winterfell, you aren't just answering a series of questions – you are marching on the ancestral home of the Starks with every intention of claiming it as your own. If you're looking for a complex and thoughtful and merciless war game, Fantasy Flight's A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is about as good as dudes-on-a-map games get. However, this is great substitute if you need your Westeros fix and want to wrap things up in less than an hour.

However, the game's theme really shines in the favor cards. Unlike FFG's other Game of Thrones games, which feature character likenesses drawn from the books, these cards feature photos of the the show's cast. The results aren't as pretty as its sister games set in this universe, but they get the job done. The important thing is that each favor card subtly represents the character depicted on it in fun and surprising ways. For example, the petulant and volatile King Joffrey will punish another player when you get a question wrong. The shady sellsword Bronn will quietly remove enemies from territory spaces you also occupy. Jon Snow lets you place a marker somewhere even when you get a question wrong because, well, he knows nothing. Crafty characters like Tyrion and Varys are given favor cards that allow for careful manipulation of the boards. Violent soldiers like Jaime and The Mountain specialize in wiping markers off the map. The Ramsay Snow card is appropriately cruel and utterly despicable, letting you wipe a player's markers out of Winterfell or the Dreadfort.

More than anything else, the theme shines through because Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game encourages you to backstab and manipulate and swindle your opponents. It's a game of knowledge, but it's also a game of total mind-fuckery.

Game of Thrones Season 5 - The Dance of Dragons

You Win or You Die

As you may have gathered already, Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game offers a few tricks to players who want to dethrone the player currently in the lead. Even if they're getting questions correct left and right, they still have to deal with other players utilizing favor cards to undermine their progress. Even if they know more about Westerosi history than anyone at the table, you can chip away at their progress by playing your markers in the right places, removing their hard-earned markers from the board. As in any war game, it's common to watch everyone else team up to take down the leader and battle over the remaining scraps. If you want to do well here, you have to think like a Lannister, not a Stark.

The manipulation and the mind games can go beyond nastiness – they even enter the realm of passive aggression. If a player doesn't know a question, they can enter into an "alliance" with another player and allow them to answer the question for them. If they get it right, the original players claims the territory but the other player gains the resource from that territory. Sure, you just got what you wanted, but you armed a future enemy and you allowed them to look smarter than you at the table. As you can imagine, this leads to rivalries and rounds of one-upmanship that are often hugely entertaining and frequently result in all kinds of poor decisions.

If this sound a little too nasty, if you don't want your trivia game to create bad feelings around the table, don't fret. The really nasty stuff comes in the "Advanced Rules" section of the guide and can be ignored completely in favor of something more civil and fair. However, if you're the kind of gamer who enjoys drama and has a group that can forgive and forget, you need to play this game as mean as you possibly can. The extra rules make it ruthless. They make it Game of Thrones.

All Hail the King

Game of Thrones: The Trivia Game has done the impossible – it is a pop culture trivia game built around a specific entertainment franchise that is simultaneously a strong trivia game and a worthwhile light strategy game. It's a gamer's game, rewarding those who dig into the mechanics and get into character and play like they're at war rather than simply reciting answers and collecting little plastic pies. And since this is Fantasy Flight Games, it is made with quality components that feel nice in your hands and look fantastic on the table. It's a minor triumph and a high watermark for a genre that has so often represented the worst in what tabletop gaming can offer.