Today’s game day blog is going to be something a bit special – well, it’s special for me, at least, but I hope you enjoy it, as well! With the release of the second edition a couple of weeks ago, I expect this first edition will shortly be consigned to oblivion, so it’s almost a kind of memorial to a once-great card game from Fantasy Flight Games: A Game of Thrones LCG.
Okay, so that opening’s a bit hyperbolic, I know. However, the game really is a great one, and while I haven’t played it for a long time now, it’s still a staunch favourite of mine, with some very happy memories attached to it. Anyway. The game began life in the mists of time (that is, 2002) as a collectible card game in the Magic mould, but was redeveloped in 2008 to be the inaugural living card game alongside Call of Cthulhu. The designers are some of my absolute favourite game designers of all time, Eric Lang (who also did the Star Wars LCG among others) and Nate French (responsible for Lord of the Rings LCG), as well as the company CEO, Christian Petersen.
The game can be played by 2-4 players, in a one-to-one game referred to as Joust, as well as a 4-player multiplayer mode called Melee. Now, I’ve only ever played the former, so will be focusing on that mode of play here, but let’s briefly talk about Melee to start. The game comes with a small board and six plastic miniatures that represent the various roles of the Small Council of Westeros, such as the Master of Whispers and the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. At the beginning of each round, the players select a title starting with the first player. These create specific relationships among the players, as they are arrayed on the board in such a way that they support or oppose each other. In game, this creates alliances among players that allow you to redirect challenges to defend your allies, as well as providing bonuses for yourself. These will only last for the round, but add an extra dimension to the game that echoes the scheming and double-dealing of the novel series.
But Joust is where I am most familiar, so let’s get some head-to-head action!
The game is a fairly straightforward attack-style game, where the object is to claim 15 power for your House (represented by the little blue tokens). There are, of course, several small tweaks to the game that make it more interesting than that, and the most notable of these is the inclusion of the plot deck. Alongside your normal deck of cards, you also have a deck of 7 plot cards that provide an ongoing effect for you during the round they are revealed. In addition to a gameplay mechanic, they determine your economy, determine first player through the initiative value, and feature a “claim” value that will become important during the challenge.
Once your plot card is revealed, you draw cards and play cards from your hand (called Marshalling), using the gold you made from your plot card. As you can see in the above assembly of plot cards, the gold value (the coin symbol on the top-left) is fairly low, so you need to make sure you have other cards out that will provide gold as any unspent gold is returned at the end phase – the base game comes with a series of “roads” that will provide money, but each House also has its own methods, particularly, of course, the Lannisters.
After this comes the meat of the game, the challenge. There are three types of challenge – military (red symbol), intrigue (green circle) and power (blue circle), and only the latter will actually win you the game, but you cannot merely pack your deck with power challenge cards and expect victory.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the story is propelled along by the wealth of compelling characters. As you’d no doubt expect, then, this game is propelled along by the characters we all know and love, or love to hate. I’m a huge Martell fan, which is why I’m predominantly using those cards to illustrate this blog, but throughout the life of this card game, all of our favourites from books 1 through to 5 make at least one appearance here. Each character card usually has at least one of the three challenge icons on the bottom-left of the card, though there are some that have none as they are intended purely as support cards. At its most basic, the challenge has three steps: declare attackers, declare defenders, and resolve.
The attacking player declares what kind of challenge they are performing, and “kneels” (exhaust, or tap) the card to show it as an attacker. The defender then kneels any cards to defend, which must have the corresponding challenge icon. The attacking characters then have their strength value added (the shield icon above the challenge icons), and compared with the combined strength of the defenders. It’s worth pointing out that there are a whole wealth of cards that will boost characters’ strength, as well as some of the multiplayer titles.
If you win as the attacker, you get the claim effect based on the type of challenge: for military challenges, you kill a number of characters equal to the claim number on your plot card; for intrigue challenges the defender must discard a number of cards from hand equal to the claim value, and for power challenges you steal a number of power tokens from the defender equal to the claim number. The claim number is the number in the grey circle icon on the plot card, and is most often 1, but can be both 0 and 2 also. If you lose as the attacker, then nothing happens. However, if you win an unopposed challenge, or reduce the opposing strength to 0, then you gain a bonus power token.
More opportunities to claim power come from characters with the Renown keyword, and also the Dominance phase that follows combat, where the total strength of all standing characters is counted, the winner gaining one power. Some interesting decisions have to be made, therefore – do you use that 1-strength character for an intrigue challenge, knowing your opponent cannot block you, but risk losing Dominance and letting another player pull ahead in power?
Finally, all kneeling characters stand, and any remaining gold is returned to the bank as Taxation. The next round then begins when a new batch of plot cards is revealed, with gameplay continuing until one player has reached a total of 15 power.
There are a wealth of other cards in the game to support your strategy, from locations that provide bonuses (such as the aforementioned “roads”) and attachments that boost characters (or sometimes, House cards) to events with one-time uses and agendas, which are revealed at the beginning of the game and provide additional benefits, sometimes at the expense of your path to victory.
A Game of Thrones LCG is one of my favourite card games, for the breadth of choice that it gives you as a player. I’m not talking just about the sheer amount of cards here, but the choice in how you play the game. I’ve played this a lot with my regular gaming buddy Tony, who is a Stark man through-and-through, where his deck revolves almost entirely around the military challenge and killing me off, relying on Renown to gain the power for victory. Quite early on, I developed a more insidious approach – while I often play Martell because I love them so much, I think this worked best with the Lannisters. Basically a deck with a lot of power and intrigue challenges, with some minor fodder characters to block the military challenges and prevent unopposed bonuses as much as possible. The point is, this game isn’t about just killing your enemy, but with so many little intricacies it’s a completely absorbing game, and can provide hours of entertainment just from flicking through the cards and building your deck.
As I said before, the source material is so character-driven that the character cards are the real meat of this game, however a good deck here will not only contain good characters, but also good, solid support. Iconic locations and attachments, such as The Iron Throne or Ice, can provide the boosts you need to make your strategy the winning one. There’s just so much you can do in the game, so much going on, so much depth… I really love it! Of course, this is part of the reason for moving to a second edition, as the interactions had become so complex. With so many cycles released for the game, the number of new rules had also increased – I’m hoping to make some more blog entries on some of these expansions further down the line, as there are some really great things in there!
Without a doubt, this is a great game. I actually came to it roughly in the middle of its run, so had a fair bit of catching up to do then, but the game had grown to such mammoth proportions that it was decided to end it with The Blue is Calling, the 72nd chapter pack, released in May this year. At the time I was a bit sad to see it go (though my wallet was not!), but with six deluxe expansions and twelve full cycles of chapter packs, this game had definitely become as bloated as the novel series, and the barrier of entry had become too high. Even with rotation introduced to the game, there was still too much product currently viable in the game for the tournament scene to really thrive. So I really don’t blame FFG for that decision. Of course, owning the entire run for the first edition, and enjoying it as much as I do, I have no real intention to get in on the second edition of the game.
That isn’t to say that second edition isn’t worth the look – check out this review on boardgamegeek to see some of the major differences and how they enhance gameplay. It’s a review that nearly had me buying the new edition, in fact! But having so much for the first edition has left me content to play in this version of Westeros for at least the foreseeable future…