When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
Since 2010, Denver, CO-based studio Dire Wolf Digital has been focused on cornering the niche market of digital strategy card games. This includes the online version of the “Pokémon” trading card game, the original IP “Eternal,” and a few others that can be found in various app stores and online marketplaces. In 2016, Dire Wolf dipped a toe in the tabletop waters with “Clank,” a physical deck-building game. Three years later, the studio is diving in headfirst with “Game of Thrones: Oathbreaker,” which moves away from Dire Wolf’s tried-and-true formula and into the realm of social deduction–all set against the backdrop of the massively popular “Game of Thrones” HBO series.
What characterizes social deduction games is that players’ identities are hidden, making it difficult to know who to trust and often leading to lies and backstabbing. Games like “Ultimate Werewolf,” “Secret Hitler,” and “The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31” have helped popularize the genre, but “Oathbreaker” has its own twist built in: once traitors are discovered, they’ll continue to play every turn rather than being eliminated or silenced by the other players.
In “Game of Thrones: Oathbreaker,” one player takes the role of the King or Queen, while everyone else is either a Loyalist or Conspirator. The ruler is known to the group, but everyone else’s motivations are secret. Conspirators actively–but slyly–work against the King or Queen and wreak chaos, while Loyalists try to suss out the traitors and complete missions for their sovereign. Conspirators might be revealed by their actions, at which point they can more openly work towards their villainous motives, while Loyalists try to keep them in check.
“One of the moments that we really hooked into was that amazing scene in season one where Littlefinger tells Ned Stark ‘I did tell you not to trust me,’” Marketing Director Matt Hudson told Variety on the PAX East show floor. Much like the Starks and Lannisters are never quite sure of each other’s ulterior motives, players will begin to doubt their friends as the game goes on. Hudson said they wanted “Oathbreaker’s” major emotional moments do not come from the roll of dice or randomly drawn card, but rather, “I’ve been working with you for this entire game to help do this thing that I thought we were doing together and you just turned around and stuck a knife in my back.”
Working in the fantasy universe created by George R.R. Martin and brought to life in the long-running HBO series was “amazing,” Hudson said. “It’s one of the best IPs, it’s one of the biggest shows in the world, it’s going into its final season and it’s a really exciting time to be partnering with HBO to bring ‘Oathbreaker’ to life.” Of course, working with such a popular franchise brings its own challenges, like remaining faithful to the spirit of the story when it becomes interactive. In addition to being a Loyalist or Conspirator, players each take the role of one of “Game of Thrones’” notable nobles, like Jon Snow or Sansa Stark. These characters come with their own special abilities that reflect their onscreen behavior.
Hudson called out Lady Olenna Tyrell’s power as a particular favorite. Called “Wedding Plot,” it allows the House Tyrell matriarch to force another player to make an important decision, possibly revealing their alliance. “As a conspirator in that moment I have a choice to make and if I say I want chaos to win, it reveals me as a conspirator and everyone will know that I’m one of the bad guys, but they don’t actually know anything about you,” Hudson explained. “It allows you to advance your own agenda without really letting anybody know what you’re up to, which sounds like exactly the kind of thing that Lady Olenna would be into.”
Though it may sound complicated, Dire Wolf states that each game only takes around 45 minutes to play, and fans not normally immersed in the tabletop world won’t struggle to keep up. “Usually within the first five minutes of the game, everyone will understand how they’re taking their turns and what they’re trying to do. It takes a bit longer to learn the subtleties of how to read the room and see what everybody else is up to, so it comes down to how well you know the people you’re playing with,” Hudson said.
Though we were able to see a physical copy of “Oathbreaker,” Dire Wolf wasn’t running demos at their booth, citing the loudness of the PAX show floor as making it difficult to play a game based on strategy and deception. On paper, though, Dire Wolf’s sophomore tabletop effort sounds like a great fit for the “Game of Thrones” IP. Hidden motives? Backstabbing? Chaos? These are all things you’d expect to find in any given episode, so it makes complete sense that a board game based on the series would utilize the social deduction genre. “If you can get together with a group of friends and play a game based on what you can get each other to believe, that’s a very personal, sort of evocative experience,” Hudson said.
“Game of Thrones: Oathbreaker” will be available this May with an MSRP of $35–just in time for the show’s series finale.