The world of Game of Thrones is a miserable one. The moments of levity in the TV show are brief, dim beacons of hope in a world otherwise mired in tragedy and treachery and tribulation. One moment we are made to feel begrudging warmth towards a character, the next they are lying face down in the dirt, dead and marinating in their own piss. Everyone who should succeed fails. Everyone who should fail succeeds. Nothing recreates this experience better than A Clash of Kings, a huge Game of Thrones mod for Mount and Blade: Warband.
If you’re not familiar, Mount and Blade: Warband is a 2009 pseudo-medieval roleplaying game in which you start out as some random dude with a shitty sword and gradually (theoretically) work your way up to a position of power through political intrigue and beating people the hell up. It’s a bit janky, the graphics aren’t particularly spectacular, and some of the ways in which you interact with the world are sometimes obscure and often tedious, but it is tremendously rewarding to play as the scale of the game increases and the ways in which you can interact with the world around you get more and more impactful.
A Clash of Kings, now in its sixth version, transplants the original game to Westeros and Essos, allowing you to join in on the endless conflict between the Seven Kingdoms and the Free Cities. Much like regular Mount and Blade: Warband, it is largely directionless. You are dropped on the map with nothing but a few shitty possessions and a few suggestions for quests that you can start out with — other than that you are left to your own devices. I gave it a bash last week because I had a sick day and had been watching the show and now, a week later, I have played roughly one billion hours of the mod.
Played on the recommended difficulty settings, the game truly reflects what it’s like to be a nameless, useless A Song of Ice and Fire character who sucks at everything and gets their ass kicked a bunch. Somehow, this is incredibly fun.
Without any money, skills, or troops of your own, the best way to get anywhere quickly is to sign up as a regular troop in an existing character’s retinue. You get given some better equipment and a weekly wage but are then forced to follow the character around as they patrol their territory, hang out at their castle, and, sometimes, if you’re lucky, get into battles. This is kind of an inversion of most RPGs, where you are the guy calling the shots.
All of a sudden, you are living and dying at the whims of an NPC who will be at times not that concerned about your wellbeing. You WILL spend a lot of time doing nothing. You WILL be forced to fight battles you will almost certainly lose. You WILL end up being held captive by the enemy, who will steal your horse (which was expensive by the way). Ever wonder what the lives of the background characters — the random soldiers and peasants — are like? Buddy, you can live it.
Even after you get powerful enough to strike out on your own, your wealth and power are fragile. Accidentally running into a huge Lannister army or an unbelievably large group of forest bandits (I don’t know whether these are a bug or feature in the mod) can send you straight back to square one. Even once you can eventually afford the very expensive top-level full plate armour, a stray lance from someone going full speed on their horse can knock you on your ass. Even if you build a big enough army, running out of food or money or both will cause your soldiers to eventually desert you. Even if you manage to consolidate your power in a relatively safe way, making friends with the other lords around you and stocking your villages and castles and towns with enough troops to feel secure, random invasions from House Targaryen or the Dothraki will fuck your shit right up.
This isn’t a game where you take the place of Jon or Daenerys, wielding immense power and defeating death against the odds, this is a game where you get to peripherally participate in their story however you choose while getting owned repeatedly.
The good news is that, unlike a bunch of mods, this is extremely easy to get going. Mount and Blade: Warband is always pretty cheap on Steam (about $30, as I write this) and, in an absolute miracle, is available for both Windows and macOS. Clash of Kings is also available on the Steam Workshop, meaning installing it is just a matter of subscribing to it and choosing to load the mod in the menu that comes up when you boot the game.
There you go, the world is your oyster. Fight for the North, fight against the North, run around selling wool to people — do literally whatever you like. The game can be emotionally exhausting at times but, then again, so can the show.