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A War of Whispers

With the popularity of the TV series, there has been no end of games themed around George R R Martin's Game of Thrones. A War of Whispers isn't one of them. Starling Games haven't relied on the GoT IP. That said, however, in A War of Whispers designer Jeremy Stoltzfus has managed to capture much of the feel of Game of Thrones - not from the prospective of the competing Houses but from those in the shadows pulling the strings...

In GoT terms, A War of Whispers feels like a game where each of the players is modelled on Lord Varys and/or Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger). There are five asymmetric kingdoms who are fighting for domination but tho' this is a 'dudes on a map' game, none of the players directly represents any of the warring kingdoms. Instead, we are all 'whisperers' - spymasters if you like - who are manipulating the competing kingdoms from behind the scenes.

Players each start by placing face-down 'loyalty' tokens that are, in effect, predictions or objectives for which kingdoms will do best. You're not irretrievably wedded to your original random selection or choices. When the game is underway you might determine, for example, that two other players are both obviously backing the same kingdom to do well. Rather than fight the uphill task of trying to sabotage this despite being outnumbered, you may decide to switch your initial choice to fit into line with theirs but focus instead on doing better than them over your second-place 'bet'. You can switch the position of your loyalty tokens at the end of a round, but at the cost that these must be placed face up...

The game is played on a circular board - always a plus for our Board's Eye View 360s! This isn't just a circular map, however. It's also a circle of action spaces. Players will be directing the war on the map by placing out 'agents' to choose actions. The 'agents' you place out mostly remain in position for the entire game, except that each round you remove one agent and place out two - so an increasing number of action spaces is filled as the game progresses: in a four-player game, every space will be filled by the end of the fourth (final) round.

Among several clever devices in Jeremy Stoltzfus' design is the fact that you don't just take one of the actions in the spot you choose but you also get to take an action in any unoccupied space to the left of your agent. That means if your agent is in the rightmost position and no other agents are placed out with that kingdom, then you'd get to activate all four action spaces. That can actually happen in the early rounds when quite a few spots are left unoccupied, tho' rival players are very likely to scupper your plans by placing one of their agents in, for example, the third spot so that you are limited to just a single action and they get three.

The upshot is that there is much jockeying for position in the action selection. You'll obviously want to take actions that further the cause of the kingdoms that you want to do well because you've 'backed' them with your loyalty token but you also want to maximise the number of actions you take and their impact.

If you've not played a game quite like this before, you may find it initially counterintuitive that you are building and deploying armies without actually controlling the kingdoms. It's not unique to A War of Whispers - you'll find something similar in, for example, Imperial 2030 (PD-Verlag) - but it can take a few minutes to adjust your mindset. You'll discover that there's more than one way to advance the interests of your preferred kingdoms: sending other kingdoms off on campaigns of mutual annihilation can prove to be even more effective than direct conquest.

The game incorporates cards that can be picked up at some action spots. These can prove to be very powerful, especially when used in combination. You won't want to incorporate them in your first plays but Starling Games have also published a Dark Alliances mini-expansion that adds two more cards to each kingdom. That may not sound like much but these 'alliance' cards can certainly shake up the game...

Tho' there's a lot going on in A War of Whispers, it's a game that plays remarkably quickly. The game takes 2–4 players, and plays well in all player counts (tho' you won't find much use for the Dark Alliances cards if you're only playing with two), but even with four players the game takes no more than an hour. And tho' it's a game of intrigue which usually means backstabbing, you're not so much attacking opponents as undermining their stratagems, so you won't lose so many sleepless nights laying awake wracked with guilt. It's a 'take that' game but it feels like 'take that' at one remove.

Shown here on Board's Eye View is the deluxe Collector's Edition of A War of Whispers. This adds in some event cards and substitutes plastic minis for the cardboard chits that represent agents in the standard edition. It also provides plastic banners in place of the wooden cubes. We would've been perfectly happy with the cubes but we do like the 3D plastic buildings that are supplied in the Collector's Edition. Tho' these merely duplicate what's already printed on the map board, the 3D buildings make it easier to see at a glance where the farms, towers and cities are. In the standard edition game, you can sometimes miss a farm icon because it's obscured by cubes. That's not a fatal flaw tho', so if your local store only has the standard version, don't feel you need to hold out for the Collector's Edition. Whichever edition you go, A War of Whispers is a great game. And that's something to shout about!

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