Fantasy Flight Games like their Game Of Thrones license. They really, really like it, based on the number of products they appear to be releasing within a rapid succession of one another. You can barely take a breath before they announce another one coming soon to stores near you.
This is not an article bashing FFG, as my experience of their Game Of Thrones range is actually rather small. Pitifully small some would say. However, they have got me absolutely hooked on the A Game of Thrones Card Game: Second Edition.
I was originally a first edition player but got involved in the game very close to the end of its run. And like most living or collectable card games of a certain age, the card pool was fairly bloated. Furthermore, the new rules that came with individual card cycles had really muddied the waters. To this day, I still have no idea how the Black Sail icon worked (I know it was something about ships and challenges – beyond that you’ve lost me). But the game still had its hooks into me – despite the many and often confusing beatings I received from the more experienced players. So it was with a great degree of trepidation that I heard FFG’s intentions for a Second Edition (not to mention annoyance due to the length of time I’d owned it).
For those who do not know, the aim of A Game Of Thrones is to collect power for your house. The first player to reach 15 power is the winner. You do this by initiating challenges against your opponents and attempting to better the characters that they send out to defend against you.
Each player begins the game with 2 decks – a plot deck and a play deck. The plot deck is only 7 cards and is used to determine your initiative and gold available to players each turn. The play deck represents one of the great houses of Westeros, such as the Starks, Lannisters or Baratheons. The majority of your deck will be made up of characters, locations attachments, and events from this house – the means by which you will gain power and challenge, other players.
The game begins with each player drawing 7 cards and putting cards worth up to 8 gold into play. The players then draw back up to 7 cards again and flip their cards over to show their initial set up. Already there are tactical decisions to be made – do the big characters come out straight away, or do your start with smaller value pieces that may reduce the cost of later plays or boost their strength? The game then progresses through a series of rounds, which repeats the same structure – plot, draw, marshalling, challenges, dominance and then clearing up at the end.
To begin each player plays a face-down plot card before revealing them all. The plots reflect events of the novels or key phrases. Each will have an effect on the game state, perhaps forcing cards to be discarded from play or giving bonuses to other actions. Moreover, each has a printed initiative value. The player who reveals the plot with the highest value gets to decide who is the first player, and that player carries out their action first in each phase. Everyone then draws two cards and then collects gold as instructed by their plots. This gold is used to pay for extra cards in the marshaling phase.
The challenges are the bulk of the action. Characters come with assorted icons – military, intrigue or power and these reflect the challenges they can participate in. To carry out a challenge, you turn the attacking card on its side (referred to as kneeling); announce the type of challenge and the target player. They have the option of defending it by kneeling one or more of their own cards in response. The strength of the cards and bonuses are added, and the winner is the one with the highest value (the attacker wins any ties). If the attacker wins, the defender must suffer a penalty relating to the type of challenge (military kills a character, intrigue forces them to discard from their hand and power steals a point of power from them). Moreover, if they fail to block the challenge, the attacker claims a bonus point of power for the attack being unopposed.
The dominance phase sees the players total up the value of their standing cards and any unspent gold, with the highest total getting a point of power. All cards are then are turned back up, and any gold unspent is returned ahead of a new round.
That is a very basic version of the game events, as the cards can have a massive impact on the game state and alter the interactions in numerous ways. But what is immediately apparent is the number of tactical choices that need to be made at almost every step of the game. Even at set up, and despite the fact you will be ignorant of your opponent’s hand, you can make an educated guess on the type of cards they will be playing from their house. For example, the Starks, being a bit too honest for their own good, don’t tend to do intrigue very well.
As you go into the challenge phase, you have to be incredibly careful about the order or even whether you launch challenges, as committing to defense will result in your character being out for the rest of the round, unless you have a way to bring them back. Sometimes it is worthwhile losing attacking challenges in the knowledge that it will force your opponent to either let an attack through or kneel one of their characters that could attack you later. You also have to keep an eye on the gold your opponent is hoarding they may have an event or ability (known as ambush) that can suddenly throw a character into play. Suddenly a sure thing becomes a very costly mistake. Capacity to bluff, outguess your opponent and make some very tricky decisions provides much of its tactical depth.
It is worth bearing in mind that A Game Of Thrones also offers you two ways to pay; the two player game (known as a Joust) is very different to the multiplayer variant (called a Melee). A Melee offers another layer of strategy where players can take up titles at the start of each round, such as the Hand Of The King, Master of Coin and other roles found in the books. Each provides a play bonus over the course of the round, but also a system of supporting roles that can prevent attacks against you. If you play cleverly, you can make it so a dominant player will not be in a position to attack you this round, if you’ve selected a role their position supports. During these games, you also have to be wary of who is weakest and who you can exploit with your challenges while ensuring that you do not leave yourself in a vulnerable position. Negotiating this tangled web brilliantly reflects the theme of the books, as you try to find a way to pick a path to victory, even if the constant shifting of roles seems a little strange (no Ed Stark – its my turn to be Hand Of The King …).
What I feel the Second Edition has done really well is streamline much of what had either gotten out of hand or were rules just did not work. The concepts of influence, shadows and an ability that made Ed Stark virtually un-killable (spoiler alert – this really isn’t in keeping with the books), have all gone, as they were either underused, over-exploited or unthematic. You need only look at the competitive ban or restricted list from the first edition to see that there was a substantial list of cards deemed overpowered. It has also seen the end of dreaded reset card Valar Morgulis (kill everyone in play – ugh).
It has also given an opportunity for the designers to look at the factions and look again at how they wanted the Houses to work. Greyjoy that was originally a control faction, now plays much more as it should – a hyper-aggressive raiding deck. Lannisters still excel in intrigue and making gold to fund their exploits. The Martells play a fascinating style of actually getting benefits from losing some challenges and appearing weak, which is an excellent reflection of Prince Dorian and his machinations.
It has also given an opportunity for two new houses to be brought into the game, the forces of House Tyrell and the Night Watch. The Night Watch being possibly the most divergent force of all – a deck designed to provide the feel of fighting a desperate rear-guard with meager resources. It is a deck that does not care about the casualties it takes or the challenges it loses, just as long as no one gets past. As a concept, I must admit to it being superbly realized.
Furthermore, this edition allows for alliances to be made between houses, by having a single banner card attached to each deck. This gives you the option of bringing some cards deemed ‘non-loyal’ from a single different house, into your deck. Here you are looking at those characters who over the course of novels may see their loyalties shifting or not be solely dedicated to a single cause, such as Tyrion Lannister. It gives decks more variety than the old single house options and provides an opportunity for deck builders to find new and exciting combinations outside what may usually be expected.
If you are A Game Of Thrones fan, there is so much to like here. Recognisable characters from the books; themes familiar to you and at its heart, a really strong strategic card game. Of course, there is the usual issue with collectable card games, the cost of buying every single pack to make sure you have enough of each card. And let’s be honest, the art can be fairly ropey at times. But the game, as a whole, just feels right. There has clearly been a lot of thought about both how to make the game playable and also how each character should behave in a way that is faithful to George RR Martin’s vision. And all the interactions and game play does make you feel that you are involved in a developing story of rival groups battling for power, with ultimate victory or the ignominy of defeat at its end.