Are You Game for a Game of Thrones?

Images from the newly released “HBO edition” of the long-running “Game of Thrones” card game. This edition is widely available at mainstream, mass-market retailers.

When I tried to read George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” some years ago, I found it to be turgid, soapy and overwhelmingly dull. I never would have expected it to be adapted into a smash hit TV series for HBO.

But here it is, three seasons deep and going strong.

I’m still not much of a fan—I prefer my fantasy to be more in the pulpy, old-fashioned swords-and-sorcery vein—but I’m clearly in the minority as water coolers everywhere are surrounded by talk of whatever dastardly dynastic deeds went on in the previous night’s episode.

With names like Tyron Lannister and Mance Rayder becoming household names, it stands to follow that there are licensed products abound capitalizing on the popularity of both the novels and the show.

Among the smattering of paraphernalia out there are, of course, board and card games that let you slip into the tunic of Robert Baratheon or Danerys Targaryen, all of which have been published under exclusive license to Fantasy Flight Games.

The company had the tremendously advantageous foresight to enter into a licensing deal with George Martin very early on when the TV deal was still years away and the books, while hitting the New York Times bestseller list, were still rather cultish and under the pop-culture radar. Fantasy Flight worked extensively with Martin himself, on occasion, so fans need not fear that these games do not do the stories justice. Original artwork and gameplay concepts really speak to the themes, characters and setting of the novels, and as such they make for great collectors’ items

The “Game of Thrones” board game was designed by Christian T. Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight Games and a personal friend of author George R.R. Martin. It’s a highly influential game regardless of its subject matter.

The first release was way back in 2002, and it was simply a “Game of Thrones” collectible card game. The game was packaged and sold in the same way that Magic: The Gathering has—in a random format with some fixed starter decks for each of the houses and booster packs sold separately to augment a player’s collection. The player assembles a deck of cards from his or her collection, which may include characters, equipment, events and plot cards that drive opportunities for intrigue, conflict and narrative throughout the game.

The game was very popular and well supported with sanctioned tournaments and in-store leagues, but in 2007 Fantasy Flight changed the format to a new “Living Card Game” model, which did away with random-packed cards in favor of fixed sets and monthly releases of small expansion sets.

The game is still going strong today although it’s really too common and widely available to realize any kind of aftermarket value, and a new set with stills from the TV show and a card mix selected for familiarity and accessibility is available at major, non-hobby retailers.

In 2003, the “Game of Thrones” board game was released, and it remains extremely popular and influential today. It was one of the first major board game releases to combine more traditional American-style design heavy on conflict and theme with European-style simplicity of rules and streamlining. It’s a quite brilliant game—heavy on player interaction, diplomacy and betrayal that casts three to five players as heads of one of the houses as they attempt to wrest control of the Iron Throne and dominate the isle of Westeros.

Two big expansion sets (“A Clash of Kings” and “A Storm of Swords”), were released for the original game that expanded on some concepts and introduced new ones to provide an even more comprehensive and detailed “Game of Thrones” experience.

For a while, “A Game of Thrones” was out of print and regularly commanded $100 to $150 in the aftermarket. It was greatly in demand, but due to Fantasy Flight’s printing schedules and the upcoming show, it wasn’t reprinted again until 2011 as an all-new second edition with updated art, rules and some material from the “Clash of Kings” expansion. This edition is still in print, but the first edition expansions are not, and since the “full” version of the game is still the original release with the two expansions, there is some value in the “Storm of Swords” one, in particular, because the content is not repeated in the second edition and it is compatible with it. It regularly sells for $125 to $150.

Expensive to make, expensive to buy. Limited availability and a popular license might be enough to make this game a future collectible if fans don’t balk at the fact there’s way more bedroom affairs than martial affairs in the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels

As with most board game expansions, it can be tough to find seven or so years after release that hasn’t been mixed with an owner’s set or still in shrink wrap, so that affects its overall value. It will likely never be reprinted, so that makes for a great collectors’ item.

The third of Fantasy Flight’s George Martin games is “Battles of Westeros,” a light-miniatures war game loosely based on Richard Borg’s popular Commands and Colors system that has powered beloved titles such as Memoir ’44 and Battle Cry. In this edition, of course, players get to wage the battles that are really not very much talked about or shown in the novels or on the show, so it’s kind of a “read between the lines” interpretation of the theme.

Fans will no doubt be thrilled at the content, with the base game box and expansion sets filled to bursting with tons of high-quality plastic miniatures of infantry, cavalry and other units. The gameplay is simple but very tactical and, of course, a cavalcade of characters put in appearances to remind players that it’s not just a Battle of Hastings game.

“Battles of Westeros” was an expensive game—both for the company to produce and for the consumer to buy. It was supported with a number of expansion packs that added new armies and units to the game, but it never seemed to find traction. When it released in 2010, the thinking was it would dovetail into the show set to premiere not too long after the game’s release.

This didn’t seem to happen, presumably because the game simply wasn’t really about the same themes and story concepts as the novels or shows. That said, of all of these games I think this is the one that has the most potential to escalate in value over the coming years since it wasn’t produced or purchased as widely, and over time collectors might be interested in rounding up all of the army sets—maybe even to use the miniatures in other games.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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