Encounters in Westeros, Part One
An Interview with the Designers Behind The Iron Throne Board Game
"We go forward. Only forward."
As a game of negotiations, battles, and betrayals, the recently released Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne leans heavily upon the core game systems it inherits from Cosmic Encounter®, and there's much of the Cosmic experience hidden deep within its bones.
All the same, it would be a gross mistake to assume that The Iron Throne is just Cosmic Encounter with different art and graphic design. The truth is that the games offer remarkably different experiences, separated by theme, tone, and several key mechanical adjustments.
It's also important to note that these differences don't exist simply for the sake of separating the games. They stemmed from the work that ensured The Iron Throne would offer a take on the bloody schemes and battles of Westeros that were as true to HBO's Game of Thrones television series as they were fun to play.
Today, we learn more about these changes and the origins of The Iron Throne from the game's designers, Bill Eberle, Peter Olotka, Greg Olotka, and Justin Kemppainen.
A Look Behind The Iron Throne
FFG: Justin, you told me there was a pretty interesting story behind The Iron Throne, that it was a matter of several pieces coming into perfect alignment. Would you care to share that story?
JK: Sure. During a scheduling meeting at FFG, we were discussing potential projects. Corey Konieczka mentioned that Bill, Peter, and Greg were eager to see a new version of Cosmic Encounter in a different setting, but no one really had any concrete suggestions. Later on, during the same meeting, it was mentioned that we wanted to make another game using the HBO Game of Thrones license.
There was this crystalizing moment, and then everyone in the room landed on the idea that Cosmic and Game of Thrones just belonged together.
(To Bill, Peter, and Greg) As I recall it, you guys were pretty thrilled about the prospect.
GO: Yes, we were all stoked to see Cosmic reworked with a Game of Thrones theme.
BE: Game designers love the challenge of a "new world" to explore and then turn into a game.
GO: I might add that we started out with a mission to alter as few Cosmic Encounter game mechanics as possible. But as the design progressed, we discovered many opportunities to introduce new mechanics and ideas that suited The Iron Throne. However, anyone who has played Cosmic will recognize the underlying structure.
FFG: How would you describe yourselves as Game of Thrones fans? Do you have any favorite characters from the series or favorite Houses? Do you see yourselves in any of the different characters?
JK: My heart bleeds for Stark.
GO: I like so many characters… and then they die. I really admire Daenerys.
BE: I like the Targaryen story line and the dragon queen because she's a survivor and has ideals I identify with.
GO: She's incredibly fierce, yet nurturing.
BE: I also like Arya.
FFG: Were all of you fans of Game of Thrones before you started on this project?
JK: I actually hadn’t seen any of the TV series before starting on the game, but I had read most of the books. Then I ended up watching through everything to get a good sense of the characters.
GO: I started watching the day we learned about the project and went straight through to get caught up.
BE: I binge watched the complete series.
GO: It's gripping. You end up getting attached to characters, and when they die, it's actually a bit traumatic.
BE: The Red Wedding was certainly traumatic.
JK: Even though I knew it was coming, that scene was still tough to watch.
FFG: There's certainly a lot that's brutal in Game of Thrones, and Cosmic Encounter has firmly established itself as one of the wildest and most hilarious games on the market. How did you approach the differences between the style and tone of Game of Thrones and the style and tone of Cosmic Encounter?
PO: I was worried that Cosmic was a funny game and that in Game of Thrones you have to search long and hard to find humor.
GO: It's funny, I've been following all the comments on BoardGameGeek and Amazon Vine, and some people have said The Iron Throne is "meaner" than Cosmic. Which is to be expected.
JK: A lot of it relates to the focus on the characters; they’re the ones who hold special abilities and effects, and they’re also the ones who can die horribly. Instant, cruel, and unexpected demise is an aspect of the show that was really important to capture.
FFG: Greg, do you feel it’s fair to say that The Iron Throne is “meaner”?
GO: Yes. The Cosmic Encounter theme has always been lighthearted and funny, and we all know Game of Thrones is pretty grim.
BE: I remember discussing that fundamental difference about the amount of humor in Cosmic Encounter and how or what we would do with it in Game of Thrones.
GO: I think if The Iron Throne ended up being as funny and silly as Cosmic Encounter, we might not have made the best game for this particular project.
PO: In The Iron Throne, players do laugh, but a lot of it—I think—comes from a mindset about the characters from the series.
BE: As it turned out, the experience of The Iron Throne is fun and funny, especially when players really get into playing their family house characters.
PO: When I playtested with Game of Thrones fans, they immediately jumped into the roles of the HBO characters and brought the history of the series into their decision-making process. In Cosmic Encounter, there is no accumulated baggage for a given alien.
JK: A lot of folks find a lot of enjoyment in the referential moments as well, the ones where characters behave exactly the way they would in the series.
BE: Yes. The Iron Throne is connected closely to the experience of the HBO series. However, players who have not watched the series can still slip easily into the different family psychological mindsets because the characters are in some ways familiar archetypes.
PO: So if Stark allies with Lannister, there are mutterings and muted chuckles: is the backstab afoot?
The Backstab Is Always Afoot
How well does The Iron Throne build upon the core of Cosmic Encounter to capture the essence of Game of Thrones?
Characters will rise and fall. One minute, Jaime Lannister might be leading an army to victory, and the next, he might be chained in the Tyrell's dungeons. Arya might be forced to watch Bran suffer and die, but if she does, there's a good chance she'll get her vengeance upon the House that killed him. And it's always easy to make alliances when there's little at stake, but once you draw nearer the Iron Throne, you'll learn who your true friends are—you have none!
Next week, we'll have the second half of our interview with designers Bill Eberle, Peter Olotka, Greg Olotka, and Justin Kemppainen. In the meantime, you and your friends can dive into your own games of The Iron Throne and discover how they immerse you in the world of Westeros.
The Iron Throne is available at retailers and online via our webstore.