There will be a storm of words, too, when players vie for power in this richly detailed card game.
A GAME OF THRONES: THE CARD GAME
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
AS someone who is relatively late to the party where George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire fantasy series is concerned, I’ve been having fun playing catch-up with the books (only getting into them after watching the first three seasons of the HBO adaptation) and avoiding spoilers.
So far so good, until this landed in my lap.
This card game pits six great houses against one another for domination of Westeros, that richly imagined setting of Martin’s novels where winter is always coming and some luckless character is always going.
Because it draws its characters, events, locations and plots (more on these later) from the books, I was barraged with spoilers just looking through the cards in this core set.
But I have to admit, I’ve never had such a good time getting spoilers thrown in my face.
If you’re not familiar with this sort of more complicated card game (as opposed to, say, Snap! and Happy Families), A Game Of Thrones started out as a collectible card game (CCG).
A typical CCG involves players buying “starter” decks of about 60 cards each, which contain enough cards to play a basic, simple game.
Then, they enhance it by buying expansion packs, customising their decks to suit the faction and style of play they prefer.
CCGs (like Magic: The Gathering, the hugely popular Pokemon and the now-defunct World Of Warcraft) can get pretty expensive and time-consuming.
So the concept of living card games (LCG) came about. You still start out by getting a basic, or “core”, set of cards which contains enough variety for a basic game.
Then, instead of buying expansion packs which are a sort of stab-in-the-dark (or tikam, to use local parlance) affair, you buy “fixed” expansion packs which contain all the cards you’ll need.
These go by various names depending on the game you’re playing. For the Star Wars LCG, for instance, they are called Force packs. Given A Game Of Thrones’ literary roots, they are called Chapter packs.
LCGs are not only less costly to get into than CCGs, but are also easier to customise. And the pool of cards they contain keeps growing, albeit at a more controlled rate than with CCGs, hence the term “living”. (Does that make games where the card sets never grow, dead card games? Or undead? Time for a Walking Dead UCG perhaps – oh wait, there is one already.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to the plotting, double-dealing, intrigue, power grabs, military strikes and plain old backstabbing that makes Westeros such a fun place to live and die.
A song of gold and power
A Game Of Thrones: The Card Game (AGOT:TCG) is a contest for two to four players, in which they take on the role of one of six great houses vying for domination of Westeros. These are the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Baratheons, Greyjoys and Martells, each with its own style of play (aggressive and combat-centric, or intrigue-based, or feigning weakness, etc). Other houses show up in various supporting roles within the relevant alignment(s) from Martin’s books.
Victory is measured in power tokens, and the first house to accumulate 15 is the victor.
Power is earned through victory in challenges, and it can also be usurped/stolen.
The basic core set contains the following: 220 cards divided into four introductory decks, one each for the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens and Baratheons; one house card each for Greyjoy and Martell; as well as seven plot cards for each of the four decks.
You also get 44 gold tokens, 60 power tokens, six cool plastic title pieces and their corresponding cards, and a “throne room” board.
Each player’s deck is divided in two: a draw deck, from which you pull cards representing characters, locations, attachments (like weapons or sorcery) and events; and a plot deck, from which you select your strategies or intrigues that will influence the course of each round of play.
Like in many card games of this type, the objective is to play cards from your hand onto the “battlefield”, to amass a formidable force that can trample or out manoeuvre your opponents.
The main currency in the game is gold, and your income each round depends on the plot card you’ve chosen as well as any other bonuses from special income-generating locations or titles (more on that in a bit).
Gold is used to pay for most of the cards you play from your hand – each card has a certain cost.
The secondary “currency” is influence, which some locations or items bestow. Using influence allows you to do stuff like reduce the cost of playing certain cards, or activating special abilities of characters.
A typical game is played over a series of rounds, each divided into several phases. At the start of each round, players select a plot card in secret and then everyone reveals their plot simultaneously.
A plot card contains several elements: an income level for the round, an initiative value (the player whose revealed plot card has the highest initiative can go first, or choose who goes first), a claim value (how much “damage” your attacks do) and a special rule that everyone has to obey.
Some special rules can seriously affect the entire round, and occasionally even the whole game – to the extent of killing off every character on the field. Cheer up, you may have something in your hand that can limit the extent of your losses.
Once you know how much gold you’re getting this turn and have collected it from the “treasury”, you can then play cards from your hand, paying the appropriate cost for each one. The player with initiative for the round goes first, usually.
Then it’s on to the challenge phase. There are three kinds of challenges here, unlike in most card games: Military, which focuses on killing your opponent’s characters; Intrigue, which makes your opponent discard cards; and Power, where you try to steal power tokens from your opponent.
You can only initiate a challenge if one of the characters you have on the field has the corresponding icon on its card.
Sometimes, it’s wise not to over extend yourself by using up every member of your force in a challenge, because you need to keep some of them ready to defend against enemy challenges.
And besides, the game also rewards the player with the highest standing (unused) strength at the end of each round with additional power tokens.
Once everything is resolved for a round, play proceeds to the next round with a new plot card chosen, and goes on until a player has gained 15 power tokens.
It can get pretty brutal, and fortunes can undergo a total 180 within a round. A player who has impressive “board presence”, or many strong characters on the board, can suddenly find them rendered ineffectual by an opponent’s sneaky trick ... or worse, they can all wind up dead.
We titled few
A two-player game of AGOT:TCG plays out like a typical collectible card game/living card game duel: you play your cards and bludgeon your opponent into submission. Er, in a manner of speaking, of course.
Multiplayer games have the added element of titles. Each player takes on the role of one of the Small Council, eg Master of Coin, Master of Whispers, Hand of the King, etc.
This is where the intrigue and backstabbing come in. The player with the initiative selects which title he wants for the round, then selection proceeds clockwise around the table.
Titles not only have special abilities – extra income for Master of Coin, the ability to redirect challenges for the Crown Regent or commander of the Kingsguard, etc – they also have opposition and support rules.
If you have a title that supports someone else’s, then you cannot initiate a challenge against that player, and may go to that player’s defence during a challenge by another opponent. If you have a title that opposes another, then any successful challenge you mount against that player earns an extra power token (once per round).
All this only applies for the current round, and then all the titles go back into the pool for re-selection in the next round.
The groan of gamers
Our little play-test group found the learning curve for the first couple of games to be a little steep because of the relatively complex game mechanics (plots, initiative, titles) versus your standard one-on-one collectible card game duels and even other living card games like Star Wars.
Also, because of the sub-decks, discard piles, house card, “dead pool”, tokens, game board and other gameplay requirements, you will need a fair amount of table space for each player.
Once we got into the swing of things, AGOT:TCG proved to be as satisfyingly multifaceted and rich in depth as the source material.
As mentioned earlier, the sudden reversals of fortune can be very difficult to stomach, but a wise choice of plot card for the next round can sometimes help tip the balance back in your favour.
Our first multiplayer game was a see-saw affair which saw House Stark finally carrying the day through force of arms. The combos (when two or more cards combine to devastating effect) between those chilly Starks and their dratted Direwolves was just too much for the rest of us.
In another duel, my Baratheons carried the day when all the brothers – Robert, Stannis and Renly – were on the field exerting their, uhm, influence and Brienne of Tarth was on hand to ward off my Targaryen opponent’s last-ditch challenge.
As it turned out, she sacrificed herself for Renly, putting to rights her (perceived) grievous lapse from the books.
I’d recommend this game to players with at least some collectible card game/living card game background.
Given that the broad fan base for the books might lead to some first-timers being drawn to this, then I suggest you check out the nice multi-part video tutorials done up by publishers Fantasy Flight Games (www.agameofthrones.com/howtoplay, or on YouTube, or iSnap this page for the first part) which make up a very useful introduction to the game mechanics.
Another variation you might want to try is to totally randomise the plot cards and titles. For the former, just shuffle your plot cards, stack them face down and draw and reveal a new one at the start of each round.
And, since each title piece has a corresponding card, just get the initiative-holding player to shuffle and deal them out at the start of each round (we had one session where a player “randomly” became Master of Coin three rounds in succession!).
This core set of the game offers enough for many happy ... or, given that this is AGoT, unhappy sessions around your home / game café / office gaming table.
At least, unlike the knife game Bronn volunteered to teach Tyrion Lannister, it doesn’t involve the potential loss of fingers.
Times bookstores is offering discount coupons for the games we feature. Look out for them in the print edition of Star2.