|Name||A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King (2016)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||1301 [6.78]|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
Hand of the King is a decent enough game but it’s frustrating because there’s a much better game in the box that doesn’t get a chance to come out. It still got three stars in our review mind you – unlike supporting the Night’s Watch it’s far from a lost cause. The real question we need to address here though is whether or not you actually want to put in your stake for the Great Game. It’s terrifying, after all. Will this game succeed where so many others have failed in the cruel crucible of our teardown? Is Hand of the King going to end up beheaded like Ned Stark? Or will it flourish like… well, I guess I don’t have an immediate example of a Hand that lives a happy life.
Let’s find out regardless.
King’s Landing is a little bit more difficult to make out if you’re dealing with colour blindness, but no information is actually lost. All the houses have unique colour profiles, and these are usually two-tone with a colour for the banner and one for the background of the character.
For the most part, characters are identified by the flag of their house and a surname, although this isn’t uniform – Joffrey is named as a Baratheon when his allegiance is to Lannister. There are though multiple channels of redundancy that you can use to identify house membership.
Similarly for the banner tokens – these all have their own unique heraldry and while several of them share a colour palette for some categories of colour blindness (Lannister and Tyrell, Baratheon and Greyjoy) they’re still visually distinct.
We strongly recommend Hand of the King in this category.
For those with total blindness there is almost no tactile information that would be at all useful. You could physically track how many cards and how many banners, but not what those cards are or what the banners might be. For assessing the layout of King’s Landing, there is no way to do that without someone at the table giving a verbal overview.
And that’s where we find the key problem in this category. The game state isn’t particularly large – thirty-six cards in the end. Choices aren’t particularly complex – a direction and a house to which you need to move. Someone playing could certainly provide a reasonable verbal overview of the choices available to another. The problem is that you need to navigate a relatively intricate chain of choice and consequence. Consider the King’s Landing shown above – someone might say ‘You have two Targaryens right’, but while that information is helpful on your turn you also need to know that you expose two Lannisters on the next person’s turn. That might be from moving Varys upwards, or moving him leftwards the way he came. Both of those choices will have an impact for the players to follow, and you need to know all of that. You also need to have an idea of what their likely move will enable for the next. Visual parsing of the game state is very important. Close inspection will be enough to reveal all the game information, but it’s not the game state as it is but the game state as it could be that you need to assess.
There are only thirty-six cards in the game, which is a small enough set that external representation is feasible. In the Codenames teardown we discussed the providing accessibility support with software tools – a spreadsheet for example – where font size and the like could be configured for maximum readability. That’s also possible here but readability of the information by itself isn’t quite as useful as it is Codenames. Here we have a task of assessing intersections of rows and columns and cross referencing those against what priorities other players may have. You might end up collecting the same type and number of cards from one direction rather than another just because of the options it presents to the following player.
At most you’ll be dealing with twenty-five possible choices, but the problem is that each of those twenty five choices will have choices they open up, and choices those choices in turn open up. It helps a lot to be able to visually explore the impact of Varys’ movement.
That said, this is a game that is possible to represent digitally without too much work if there is sighted assistance available. That does at least provide a solution that offers a degree of technical accessibility – perhaps not enough for the game to be fun and probably not enough for the game to be mastered. Still, it’s enough for us to give a tentative recommendation in this category.
Mechanically the system is very simple and that’s unlikely to present serious difficulties for all but the most severe of cognitive impairments. You choose a direction and house and pick up all the cards in that direction that match the house. Claiming banners is an arithmetic exercise but a straightforward one. Working out a winner can be done by physical comparison of banners. None of that is a major concern.
The problem is that it’s not so much what you do on your turn that matters but what you permit an opponent to do on their turn, and that’s a function of the game state as well as the banners you have claimed and the characters in front of everyone. The farther ahead you can think and the better you are at assessing what a player’s intentions may be, the better you’ll be able to play.
Consider this scenario shown above. Do you want to send Varys up to claim Greyjoys? You might, but bear in mind that opens up two Targaryen cards and another Greyjoy. It might be the case you give someone the chance to claim the Greyjoy house from under you, or solidify their hold on the Targaryen banner. On the other hand, if you know player two and three are currently battling over Targaryen you might want to go collect Robert Baratheon. He’ll open up one Targaryen card to player two, and that will open up another one to player three, and that would let you collect two Lannisters when your turn comes around again. You need to consider what you’re forcing in front of your opponents in terms of their options. They key is how that helps, or hinders, you.
That’s cognitively expensive because it’s a process of building up a kind of ‘depth first search’ in your head, and then combining it with a breadth first that you use to explore which options are best to consider. It’s expensive in both kinds of cognitive capacity – fluid intelligence and memory. Coupled with the high cost of mistakes, this makes Hand of the King a difficult recommendation in this category.
You can certainly play Hand of the King without considering any of this but you’re going to be absolutely destroyed by an opponent that’s taking it into account. This means it doesn’t work at all well with levels of mismatched cognitive ability because even if you’re not playing to win it’s all but impossible to ignore those patterns in a game state as confined as this. If two players have roughly matched cognitive profiles it’s probably okay, but that’s incredibly difficult to arrange even under optimal circumstances. Like chess, this is a game of moves and countermoves, and the weighing of relative value of positions versus what you know of your opponent’s intentions.
On to this you need to add the complexities introduced by the companion cards. These have highly situational and often precise benefit. They need to be used wisely, at the right time, and engineering the circumstances under which you can claim one is difficult. You might get a chance to collect one purely by accident but a canny opponent will be doing all they can do to prevent it.
The companions too change the risk and reward of King’s Landing considerably. If Khal Drogo is in place it becomes a dangerous prospect for a player to collect either Daenerys or Viserys from King’s Landing – both of them are at risk of being removed or killed. Jaqen Hghar performs a massacre on the game state, killing two characters and a companion – that in turn changes the relative balance of the value of characters. Jon Snow means that you can’t simply rely on having the most characters in a house because he’s a powerful joker card. Knowing what cards to expose to your opponents for selection is as much about understanding the companions as it is about King’s Landing.
We don’t recommend Hand of the King in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
Almost all of your competition is indirect, with the exception to this being the companion cards which are often pointedly aggressive. They let you kill characters that have been collected, steal them away, or do all other manner of unspeakable things. It can be frustrating, as you might imagine, to claim the majority of characters in a house only to have one player kill one and another steal one away to claim the banner. That’s all part of the rough and tumble of the game but it can be galling to lose because of what are essentially situational ‘take that’ cards. The companion cards too permit for a lot of that to be explicitly targeted since they are in the end specialised. If you have a disproportionate number of the impacted cards in your play area, you’ll take the brunt of their activation. That is to an extent your own fault – it’s important to value characters on the basis of how secure their position may be. However, that doesn’t take away take the sting.
In a two-player game you spend most of your time simply duelling with the other player. In a three or four player game it’s possible for them to set up explicit, and secret, agreements to screw you over. The game has a number of ‘three eyed crow’ tokens that you spend to have a private strategic conversation with another player. And yes, I know that in the books it’s a three eyed raven but the game calls the tokens crows. Don’t @ me, bro.
These discussions can end up with the un-involved player being the target of an actual, honest-to-goodness plot designed to deprive them of victory. The crow tokens are optional, but all they do is allow active collaboration to shape a system that exists anyway. Players can work to undermine the putative leader(s) either by stealing cards away, putting them in scenarios where they can’t get what they want, or forcing them to fight with other players in the game. We talked about a scenario where that might happen in the review, but it’s pertinent here – other players can create circumstances where all you can do on your turn is attempt to undo a harm that was inflicted upon you. Someone might set up a player to get a hefty handful of Lannisters purely to force you to pick up the only available Lannister card to maintain your control. They might do that to make sure you can’t make progress towards other houses, or to make sure that you have to pick a card that sets them up for a good turn. That’s part of the cut and thrust of play but it’s still a system that can create intense moments of angst.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a game you should avoid in three or four player scenarios, but one where you need to bear in mind that part of the card play is about arranging circumstances that cause players to act against each other. The problem is that you can’t see the ruse and simply ignore it – whether you need to respond depends on whether the other player in the intrigue takes the bait. Usually what the instigator is doing is dangling something tasty in front of someone and hoping they bite. Biting usually costs them nothing except an opportunity. It costs you the progress and sense of security you have in your own accomplishments. It’s possible here to succeed in Hand of the King by not focusing on your own success but trying to claw back the success of others.
With all of this in mind we’re still going to give Hand of the King a recommendation here – for two players it’s not particularly fraught and at three or more you’re still protected somewhat by the fact the game design doesn’t permit this kind of plotting to get too far out of hand. Plots, like companions, are primarily of situational benefit.
The game does tend to take up a fair amount of table space given the number of cards, but there’s nothing in the game that actually requires any individual person to handle the moving of Varys. What’s almost certainly going to happen is that whoever is closest will handle that. There’s a risk of the cards moving out of alignment, but it’s not very significant except at later parts of the game where empty columns and rows make misalignments more impactful. In any case, as long as someone at the table can keep things as neat as necessary it’s not likely to be an ongoing problem.
Verbalisation is fully supported because you only ever indicate instructions by reference to Varys, and instructions take the form of a direction (up, down, left or right) and a house to which you want him to move. Claiming cards and banners happens automatically, and if you get to pick a companion they all have unique names to which you can refer.
We recommend Hand of the King in this category.
A lot of the art is sexualised in the low-grade, lazy style of fantasy representations everywhere. Skimpy outfits and unrealistically large breasts abound. They’re not ubiquitous though and the source material has to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for this. Game of Thrones is a series with a troubling relationship with its women, both in terms of objectification and characterisation. For every shining moment of awesomeness there’s a gratuitous scene of bouncing tits or jiggling buttocks. That’s especially true in the television show, but there’s plenty of it in the books too.
As a consequence we have characters such as Sansa, wisely bound up in furs. We have Margaery and Cersei where their breasts are excessively pumped up. But we also have Catelyn Stark with a high collared outfit suitable against the cold and Daenerys with a one-shoulder dress that is sensual without being overly explicit. It’s a mixed bag, like much of the art.
There’s a similar issue with the companion cards. Both Shae and Mellisandre show an awful lot of skin, which is perhaps understandable given the role they play in the books. It’s less understandable given how the books explicitly remark upon the, uh, modesty of Shae’s cleavage. Brianne on the other hand is bedecked in full armour – without, thankfully, the ridiculous boobplate we often see.
At best I can say that the characters most noted for using sexuality as a weapon within the Game of Thrones universe are represented appropriately here, but there’s no real reason Hand of the King couldn’t have taken a more progressive approach to representation. Also, as you might imagine, King’s Landing is a sea of white faces and there are few other nods to any other ethnicities. Even companions like Jaqen Hghar and Khal Drogo are notable for how Westernised they are. Your mileage will vary here, but if the relative homogeneity of the TV show bothers you, you’ll find few reasons to look more kindly upon the game.
Hand of the King has an RRP of £13, which is a decent price for what you get. The game supports between two and four players, and while the experience is uneven for higher player counts it never ceases to function effectively as a game.
We’ll tentatively recommend Hand of the King in this category.
There’s no explicit need for communication in a two-player game, and it’s optional in a three or four player game. Three Eyed Crow tokens are used to offer players a chance to secretly plot, and there is a strict time limit on this. It’s not going to have a particular impact on the game if the limit is made more generous to compensate for communication regimes that need to be employed. In any case, it’s unlikely that strategies are going to be complex or discussion will be deep – ‘deprive Michael of Lannisters’ is about as complex as it’s ever going to get. There’s a small need for literacy associated with companion cards, but there are sufficiently few of these that they can be committed to memory or referenced with a crib sheet.
We’ll recommend Hand of the King in this category.
Colour blindness that intersects with visual impairment will make the task of close inspection of the board more difficult, but we recommend a digital representation of game state in any case. As such, while the physical game will be more of a problem it shouldn’t have an impact on whatever spreadsheet or equivalent compensation is being utilised Similarly, we expect visual impairment compounded with physical impairments to make close inspection of the game state difficult but a digital representation, if suitable, shouldn’t have that problem. If that’s not something that’s possible then both of these intersections would push the game into inaccessibility.
Games of Hand of the King are relatively short – even in a four-player game you’re unlikely to be playing for the cited upper limit of thirty minutes. The cogitation required may be intense but it shouldn’t be needed for all that long at a time. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t support any coherent mechanism for dropping in and out of play. Sessions though are short enough that you can simply stop and reset for a smaller play count provided there are at least two players still in the game.
The only other substantial intersectional issue is that players will almost certainly be hoping that the consequences of their moves are not noticed. That creates a disincentive for players to point out things that may have been missed. It’s just a facet of play that’s baked into the game. Accessibility support is best when it’s proactive, and that’s probably not going to happen as often here.
It’s not a remarkably strong performance in terms of accessibility but it’s also not sufficient to have Hand of the King executed. Instead, it will be permitted to take the black and serve out the remainder of its life at the Wall.
There are few component missteps here that could be addressed . It’s simply a function of the game itself that it’s likely to be cognitively demanding. Sure, a less cliched approach to the artwork would help but in the end the inaccessibilities here are a consequence of the design. To fix most of them would be to change the game and that’s rarely what we want to encourage here on Meeple Like Us.
Hand of the King is somewhat frustrating because I can see a much better game in here for larger player counts. The constrained scope of the political landscape it offers holds it back. It got three stars in our review which is I think fair for what it is but it could be so much more. Still, it’s a fun enough game. If this accessibility profile suggests it’s something you could play it’s cheap enough for you to maybe take a gamble.
A word about teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.