Fantasy Flight Games, 2006
I've always really liked FFG's Warrior Knights. I get the criticisms, and they're mostly valid, but the issues aren't big issues for me. Highly recommend getting the expansion and just using it from the get-go though. The game is rules-heavy enough that adding a few extra things doesn't make it significantly more complex, and the experience is just better. Once you get comfortable with all the rules and moving parts the closest thing I can relate FFG WK to is A Game of Thrones the book/show in game form. There's a lot of jockeying for position, religion, offices, tenuous alliances, and of course fighting. The game doesn't feel like it's trying to be set in a particular place in history, but rather it attempts to be evocative of a period. It's fun to play the roles of Head of the Church or Chairman of the Assembly or, if you're a poor title-less Baron, to scheme against them. The game mechanics give you ways to do that, but it does take several plays to fully grasp all the different systems at work and how they mesh together. The end result is that the first couple plays are sometimes confusing and it can feel like people sometimes luck into opportunity. The truth is that with experience players can work the systems in their favor and get a real feeling of "I made this happen." The biggest issue with FFG WK; however, is that there are a few areas where players can game the design. Once in a while you'll find yourself thinking, "I guess the rules allow that, but it doesn't feel right." I've played a bunch of FFG WK and it hasn't ever been a significant issue for me, but once in a while I've caught myself trying to come up with house rules to iron out a couple wrinkles.
Games Workshop, 1985
I had played FFG WK quite a lot before I ever played the GW original. I was pretty comfortable with the sometimes overwrought design of the FFG incarnation and was really interested in how it might have mutated from the original game. What I did not expect was for GW WK to be so... clean. The rules aren't really written all that well, but once you've figured them out the game really hums along in a way that FFG WK never has. Every single thing in GW WK is more straight-forward and intuitive. Combat? Die roll. Voting? Pen and paper. Movement? Let's talk about movement. The FFG game requires cards to be played, you usually don't get to move all that much each round, and achieving your desired positioning for a battle or a siege usually takes a few turns. The GW game just lets you move your Barons without any special requirements. The result is that GW's game is much more vicious. There are no safe corners of the board that will give you a couple turns to figure out whether the enemy is coming for you. When the enemy comes, and it will come, it will be at your gates in short order. GW WK, to quote Mr. White, "is like a swift, gauntleted punch in the mouth." He's right. Hell, the game begins with an Assembly phase where you suddenly have to start by putting players on unequal footing. You'll make enemies quickly. One thing that makes our games especially vicious is that, since we already have pens and paper for various game reasons, we allow passing notes above the table starting after the first Assembly. Everyone knows you sent something to your neighbor, but only you and he know what it was.
Setting and theme is an interesting topic for these two games. They're ostensibly the same setting, but there's something markedly different between the two. FFG's version has missions, scholars, a religious system, and other machinations that, like I wrote above, make it feel more evocative of a period than truly set in one. It seems to be a romanticized version of an era, and it really does remind me a lot of A Game of Thrones. GW's original, while probably not designed to represent a specific historical situation, has a more honest medieval setting. GW's Barons are Barons, not the scholarly political warring heroes of the FFG game. The GW game is more true to a maybe-possible historical period than FFG's "Wouldn't it be cool if..." design. The end result is weird, because in GW WK I care more about my towns, troops and nobles. The idea that the GW game world could be a real time and place seems to make my actions more meaningful. I shouldn't give a shit, honestly; we're talking about a little card that says I have Romanian Mercenaries that need to be paid, but I do.
So the burning question: If you're going to play one, which one should you play? If you like the FFG school of design then their version with the expansion really does have enough to it to be called a coffin box game in a normal sized box. If you are indifferent or aren't particularly a fan of the FFG school of design then play the GW version. I really enjoy both games and can't pick a favorite, but I lean slightly towards the GW game simply because you get to the meat of the game immediately, and the tension holds for the duration of the game. But sometimes all those FFG systems in their Warrior Knights mesh together just right and you'll be gloating while the other players sit in disbelief. The truth of it is FFG should have given their game a different name like, "SomethingSomething (inspired by Derek Carver's Warrior Knights)." They didn't though, and because of that these games will always be compared even though they are different games that are both great for different reasons.