Welcome to the second review as part of my Journey Through the CCG Graveyard! My first one covered the Tomb Raider CCG, which was a surprising amount of fun in spite of the PS1-era images on the cards. It held some interest as a solo game, and felt like it would be similarly good as a multiplayer game where you could interfere better with your opponents similar to mechanics found in classic CCGs like Middle-Earth and the Lord of the Rings TCG via playing negative cards on them. But this time we’re shifting our focus onto a game known as A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game. Fear not, if you are interested in how it compares with the later LCG implementations, I’ve got you covered because I have played it in all three formats enough to be able to speak on them all!
The Goal of the Game
Regardless of the number of players involved, the objective for the A Game of Thrones Collectable Card Game is to be the first House to obtain 15 Power. This makes thematic sense for anyone who has read the books or watched the shows, as the central theme is a struggle for power and influence across Westeros, with the Iron Throne being a centerpiece representative of that power struggle. Power is obtained in several ways: via a Power challenge in the Challenge phase, making any challenge that goes undefended, winning Dominance in a round, and on some character or location effects. Once a player reaches 15 Power, the game immediately comes to an end.
Who you are
You are not an individual person in Westeros, but rather your deck represents the locations and forces behind your particular House. Famous Houses such as the Lannisters, Targaryens, and Starks are present alongside others such as Baratheon, Greyjoy, Martell, Tyrells, and the Night’s Watch – among other smaller forces represented as either neutral factions or as allies to a particular House. Most decks will consist of cards aligned with one House and any neutral cards desired, although rules are in existence to have a splash of forces from a second House present in a deck. It is also possible for multiple players to be using the same House during the same game.
The Flow of the Game
Turns follow the same flow through the following steps, some of which are done simultaneously while others are done one player at a time, beginning with the First Player for the round.
Plot – One of the unique things in this game is the Plot deck, which is a set of 7 cards in addition to your main deck. These cards usually have some sort of round-impacting text, tell you how much Gold your House has for the turn, the Initiative value for determining the first player in the round, and the Claim value to tell you how strong your victories will be in the Challenges phase. During this phase of the game, players simultaneously choose and reveal an unplayed Plot card from their deck. This means your Plot card used now cannot be chosen again until you’ve played all 7 Plots, and many plots are restricted in number that can be included in a deck and some are tied to specific houses. Upon reveal, compare the Initiative value and the higher value gets to choose who is the first player for the round – in case of a tie, the player with the most Power chooses. After determining first player, the effects of the Plot cards will resolve beginning with the Starting Player.
Draw – The most straight-forward of the phases is the Draw phase. Both players will draw 2 cards from their deck and place those cards into their hands. Easy, right?
Marshalling – This is the point where the Gold collected is put to use. In the CCG version of the game, nothing can be held over after this phase so there is strong incentive to spend as much as you can (the LCG allows you to save some until the end of the round, when it goes back to the pool if unspent). Starting with the first player, each side will have a chance to pay to recruit Characters, add Locations, put on Attachments, etc. onto the board. There are also event cards that can be played, although not exclusively during the Marshalling phase. Any cards that have text involving the Marshalling phase would also be open to trigger here.
Challenges – The bulk of the game seems to occur during the Challenge phase of the game, and with good reason! Each player has the opportunity to initiate up to three Challenges, one of each type. The challenges are issues in player order, and each player completes all of their desired challenges one-at-a-time before the next player gets to initiate their challenges. Military Challenges, when successful, force the defending player to kill characters from their forces. Intrigue Challenges, when successful, force the defending player to discard cards at random from their hand. And Power Challenges, when successful, steal Power tokens from the defending House card. Character cards can have 0-3 of these icons, and can only participate in a Challenge of the associated type if they possess that icon. Characters participating typically Kneel as a response, making it so they cannot participate in future challenges later this round. If a Challenge of any type is not defended, the attacking player also takes a Power token from the supply and puts it onto their House card in addition to any other effect of the Challenge. The impact of a Challenge is determined by the attacking player’s Plot card, as they have a Claim value (Usually 1, sometimes higher). So if my Claim value is 2, then a successful Military Challenge makes you kill 2 characters, a successful Intrigue Challenge makes you discard 2 random cards, and a successful Power Challenge makes you lose 2 Power from your House card onto mine. A well-timed 2-claim Plot can swing the tide of a game!
Dominance – After the Challenges are completed, players compare the combined strength of their remaining Standing characters – i.e. the ones not Kneeling from being used. The higher strength value wins Dominance, which gains them a Power from the supply onto their House card. Tied? No one wins Dominance for the round.
Standing – All Kneeling characters, locations, and attachments are returned to their Standing position. Yes, it makes sense with characters…not so much with using the Kneeling/Standing terms for the other cards. I mean, how exactly does Winterfell Keep kneel down?
Taxation (LCG Only) – Any money remaining in your pool is returned to the supply. This means you can’t be frugal with your funds to save for bigger board-swinging turns later on. The reason this was added into the LCG? They made some events and card actions cost Gold to trigger, so holding back a few Gold can play even more mind games with your opponent as they try to guess what you are holding up your sleeve.
On Death and Duplicates
It is pretty standard fare for a game to make it so there are unique characters and locations and limit you to just 1 copy in play of said character at a time on your side. What this does differently is makes it so that you have a discard pile and a dead pile. Discarded cards can come back. Dead piles are essentially eliminated from the game. If Robb Stack dies, he can’t come back 2 turns later. He’s dead, meaning that all copies of that card are essentially discard fodder going forward. However, the neat saving grace (and reason you may want to run multiples of characters) is that you can, during the Marshalling phase, put a duplicate of the same character beneath the current character for free. Get 3 copies of Robb Stark into play and suddenly he sticks around a little longer, even in the face of an effect causing him to die, as you simply discard the top copy when they need to die. This is especially important if you have a character with a keyword like Reknown, which has them getting Power tokens placed on the character where they can be removed by eliminating the character.
Plots and Intrigues
As alluded to above, the Plot cards are one of the most unique things the A Game of Thrones CCG/LCG brings to the table. The deck is exactly 7 cards for each player, and one comes into play each round. The power and effectiveness of these cards vary wildly, from having cards with blank text boxes but a higher Claim, Gold, or Initiative value to having effects such as wiping out characters, searching your deck for a card type, or even making it so you cannot defend (usually because you have a higher Initiative and Claim). A well-timed Plot card can alter the course of an entire game or, as I found out, bring things to a premature end (in the 2nd Ed LCG, thanks to my wife having a character who gains Power whenever a Lord or Lady character is killed. Her plot forced me to “save” three characters in play and the others are dead. All 5 of mine were Lords or Ladies, and so my wife went from 13 to 15 Power just from that well-timed Plot which prevented me from getting the few I needed even though I had a better Initiative and a 2 Claim on my Plot…didn’t matter!). Shaping the Plot deck to have ones best to play early (usually searching for cards and/or providing high Gold), ones that are good for mid-game, and a late-game push are the keys to an effective Plot deck, I think.
A Bountiful Start
One of the other things I like about the game is how it handles the opening board. What I mean is, you get to start the game with characters and/or locations in play. Depending on the version you are playing, you get either 5 Gold (CCG/1st Ed) or 8 Gold (2nd Ed LCG, because the cards cost MORE) to deploy secretly to begin the game from your opening hand. The one limitation is that only one of the cards can have the Limited keyword on there. This allows you the chance to get out either a strong unit, a few average ones, or a bunch of smaller things to drop down a numbers advantage. Either way, you get to draw back up to your starting hand size of 7 afterwards. This is a really neat aspect of the game which, while it is only as useful as the cards in your opening hand, definitely helps you to ramp up faster than some of the other CCGs out there.
There are three different starting experiences to discuss in passing here, because I’ve done starting experiences for all three versions of the game and found one to be vastly superior to the others. Let’s begin in the order of release. For the CCG side of things, I tried out the Fire & Ice Starter set, which had a deck for the Greyjoy House and one for the Targaryen House. They are completely constructed and run surprisingly well as standalone decks. For instance, the Greyjoy deck has a Plot card to search for a Maester card and put it into play.
Having played previous LCG versions, I was expecting to find 1-2 wimpy Maesters at best, but there were either 5 or 6 of them and one turned out to be a pretty decent Round 1 addition to my forces. Like any CCG, you wouldn’t expect the deck to be tournament-competitive, but it had a surprisingly strong synergy and both decks were capable of winning.
At the price I paid for the starter (a hair over $5), this was a really strong launching point into the game. The 1st Edition Core Set is, easily, the one I am most familiar with and also most disappointed by. Years ago, before I knew really how to shop for used games or even good places to get new games, I ran across that Core Set on Craigslist for $20. And for that price, what I got wasn’t bad. The cards in there were fine, although there was a glaring absence of several Houses. The game came with Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, and Baratheons. Four houses, out of the six that were released with the 1st Edition, meaning you needed expansions – and likely a few of them – before you could build a viable deck with those other houses. It did come with interesting variants for a 3-4 player game but ultimately the decks were underwhelming and it felt like an incomplete package. The 2nd Edition fixed that. All 8 Houses (they added 2 more) have representation in the Core Set, and you can either just splash some neutral cards in to run a thin deck or it has recommendations on how to divide things into 4 decks, each having two Houses featured. Having played those decks, they are really fun to pilot and provide a great way to get a feel for each House, even in complement with another House, to get an idea of where you might want to explore via deck construction in the future. All in all, the $40 value of the 2nd Edition Core Set (and you can probably find it cheaper now) is a great bargain because it provides everything, tokens and all, needed to play the game. If you bought nothing else, it still has a ton of replay value and fun within the box. The CCG starters are a close second, providing strong decks to start with that are going to give you a foundation to expand upon – and most starters I’ve seen tend to run in the $5-20 range depending on the starter. If it included tokens for Power and Gold, or at least the Power, it would be close to equal with the 2nd Edition – but the Starter I got didn’t have any tokens included.
The rules are extremely well-laid across all editions. One of the strengths, I think, of Fantasy Flight Games is their presentation of rules in a way that allows you to get going. There are some more complex concepts and keywords, but those are put toward the end of the CCG rulebook. And it is surprisingly short in length, considering the thick rulebooks I’ve pulled out from some of the other CCGs I’ve dropped into (I’m looking at you Mythos). Although perhaps my perspective is skewed, since the CCG was like a homecoming party for me since I had played both versions of the LCG years ago. The great thing is that many of the concepts remain the same, or close, across all versions of the game. This makes it easy to transition from one version of the A Game of Thrones game to another. I think the biggest things to pay attention to are the Claim Value idea, along with the multiple Challenges that can be initiated and how those flow. Noting keywords as they come up is also important, and don’t be afraid to ask your opponent to read off what a card says when they bring it into play. Too often have I seen one of us blindly stumbling into a mistake because we didn’t stop to ask what a card does until it is too late.
Expanding beyond the Starters, CCG Edition
There are a lot of expansions for the CCG, and unfortunately it doesn’t get any smaller when looking at either version of the LCG. This is both good and bad, of course. It is good because no matter where you go there are literally thousands of unique cards you can obtain for your collection. It is bad because, well, there are thousands of unique cards to peruse and try to determine what you want, or need, for the House-specific deck you are trying to build up. This can be most frustrating for a CCG player, as you are really at the mercy of random chance. Your booster pack might contain 5 cards for your House, but it could just as easily contain none. It could have a ton of Plot cards, or none. With 17 different sets, 4 Premium Starter Sets, and many standalone starter decks there is plenty of opportunity to dive into the game. This is probably a game where it would be best to choose a cycle, such as the Fire & Ice Edition, and start by expanding into that cycle of cards (so Fire & Ice, Wildling Assault, A Throne of Blades, A Crown of Suns, and the Premium Starter) because, at least theoretically, the cards within a cycle (there are 4 of them from the looks of it) should synergize well together. Boosters for the game seem to be reasonably priced, as do boxes, and I haven’t noticed any one set in particular being more expensive than the others. Admittedly, that might be because things are also easy to lose within the sea of LCG stuff for sale…
Expanding beyond the Starters, LCG Edition
This is the area where expansion is a little more straight-forward. Fans of the 1st Edition might be able to snag some Chapter Packs for cheap along the way, while others might be overpriced due to its out of print nature. Deluxe Boxes, for either edition, are the best path forward if you want House-specific cards in a hurry because each House has a Deluxe box with them as a focal point. For roughly $60 you can snag two Deluxes and really dig in on tailoring the favored House for you and your opponent. The 2nd Edition also has Intro Decks for each House around $15, making that an even easier first stepping stone along the path to boosting the deck construction options for a specific House. A lot of folks will likely preach the need for 3 Core Sets, and I call B.S. on that. I’ve played a handful of LCGs and I’ve never once felt like I was at a disadvantage because I couldn’t run 3 copies of card X. I’d rather put that $40 toward a Deluxe and a Chapter Pack, getting new cards to build around, than get extra copies of cards I can’t use only to get an extra of some I may use occasionally. The strongest selling point, of course, for the LCG is the non-random factor. You know exactly what cards are in the package before you buy it, and you get 3 copies of every card in those packs. No chases. No need to buy multiples of a pack unless you really want to have multiple decks all using the maximum number of a specific card – but at least in that situation you know what pack to buy to obtain said cards. The LCGs release following a format of a Deluxe with 6 Chapter Packs to expand the “cycle”, and like the above CCG recommendation it is never a bad idea to start with rounding out a cycle if you aren’t seeking specific cards to build around.
Typical decks run exactly 7 Plot cards, and in most cases they are limited to 1 of each card in the Plot deck, and a 60 card standard deck for their House with a maximum of 3 copies of any single card. That 60 doesn’t appear to be a hard cap, so feel free to experiment with a little more in your deck, and 40 is a soft cap (usually for drafts) but functions just fine with something such as the 2nd Edition Core Set when trying to test out a single House on its own with a little splash of Neutral cards to hit that 40 number. So long as both sides hold to the same deck size, it shouldn’t be a negative thing to play with fewer cards as you slowly build up your card pool. For the LCG, you also choose a Faction (main House) and Agenda (oftentimes a Banner, which allows use of non-loyal cards from other Houses in your deck).
Okay, enough preamble here. Let’s talk about the A Game of Thrones CCG/LCG experience. First things first, I’m personally going to stick to the 2nd Edition of the LCG for my A Game of Thrones Card Game of choice going forward. There isn’t anything inherently bad about the CCG (apart from chasing of cards, like any CCG out there) but it also isn’t inexpensive enough to make it able to offset the value provided by the LCG model and its 3x of the cards in the non-randomized package. And yes, this game is very much a keeper even though it has previously left our collection. You see, this game has sharp elbows. It will have moments where you’ll feel like everything sucks and there isn’t a darn thing you can do to stand a chance of winning. An early board advantage can lead to a game spiraling quickly out of control, and many of the games played never even reach the 7th round to go through an entire Plot deck (I’d say 5-6 is around the average turn of conclusion). Having even one glaring hole in your deck (such as a lack of characters with Intrigue) can lead to a constant loss of resources while your opponent happily plucks up a free Power for your defenseless nature. And the very real possibility of drawing nothing but dead cards – literally, cards in your dead pile and thus unplayable – can make it so that your deck even limits your chance of making a comeback. All of these things can, and will, happen. A few years ago, my wife and I weren’t able to get past that brutality and still find enough enjoyment in the game; when the games flowed well and were even, we loved the game, but when it was lopsided or a devious card’s ability shifted things unexpectedly, there could be bruised feelings.
We’re in a much better place now to where that might make us frustrated briefly in the moment, but we can separate the game experience from our relationship toward each other. And we found, really quickly, that we still enjoy this game a lot. Enough that we played the CCG several times in a day’s span and, the next day, picked up the 2nd Edition Core Set back into our collection and played that later that same night. I’ve also learned that my wife is really, really good at this game – something I should have remembered. There is no going easy, she doesn’t need it. I lose at this game often, and usually lose horribly. And yet I absolutely cannot get enough of the game because of its ties to an IP we both enjoyed watching together, books I’ve enjoyed reading, characters I’ve grown attached to. It has solid mechanics that separate it from any other game we play or own: the Plot deck, three three different Challenges, the gaining of Power to win rather than a need to deplete an opponent’s health, and the free deployment at the start of the game all combine together to make this game stand out in all of the best ways possible.
There is so much tension in your decisions each game, because there are so many limiting factors that affect you. The Plot deck can only have one of each card, and once that card is used you might as well expect to not be able to play it a second time because the game isn’t likely to last long enough. You are always needing more Gold than what you have available, whether because you need a large amount to play a strong character onto the board or because you have too many 2-3 cost units you want to get out and don’t want to spend forever getting them out. In the 2nd Edition of the LCG, there are also hand size limitations to consider based on your Plot card, and the balance of holding back some Gold to play events, trigger abilities, or make your opponent believe you might just have a nasty card to play if the circumstances are right. You cannot hold onto cards for too long, as a well-timed Intrigue Challenge can make you discard that card you hoped to play on the next turn. And then there is the decision of who to use for attacks, making sure you have enough Standing forces to weather a counter-attack when it is their turn to make Challenges as well as claim Dominance.
There are so many things to consider as you play, and yet at its core the game’s turns flow easily and the mechanics stay out of the way. It is a smooth system, with a fair number of Keywords to learn but not to the point where it impedes the enjoyment of the game. You quickly learn to pay special attention to anyone with Reknown or, perhaps worse, Stealth, because they can cause the game to shift if unchecked. The game punishes you for not defending attacks by giving your opponent free Power, and clearly wants both sides to try and be aggressive since ties in combat go to the attacking player. Which means that games are rarely spent “turtling up”, as you want to try and find a way to fire off three successful Challenges rather than holding back to ward off one or two.
All of this helps the game to move forward at a pace that is almost breakneck in speed at times, because you are trying to exploit every opportunity you can to strike knowing that the gap might be closed in the next round. You get the feel of being a general directing the deployment of forces to their maximum effect, rather than some magical wizard hiding behind a line of large units and hoping not to get hit. Games like this are all about tempo, and while it is possible to slow down the tempo of the game (such as the Wildfire Assault Plot, which has each side keep only three of their characters in play), usually the next round sees at least one side rebuilding quickly to begin their furious assault anew. Even the smallest of characters can make a big impact, whether because they have an icon your opponent cannot defend or because they have a keyword like Stealth which makes them hard to defend, and it isn’t about how hard you hit. Just that you hit hard enough to win the challenge – unless you happen to be holding a nice Event that lets you claim extra Power after winning a Challege by X or more.
And the Houses feel different. Yes, there are similarities among them but in general you will find a different playstyle is favored depending on the House you are using. The Lannisters have a lot of ways to generate more income and have sneaky ways of subverting the board state and possess a lot of Intrigue icons. The Starks have very little Intrigue, but have strong units that get even more fearsome when paired with their iconic weapons or direwolves. Baratheons have a multitude of ways to gain extra Power during their turns. Targaryens have dragons, and effects that kill off characters if their strength gets reduced to 0. Even if you know nothing about A Game of Thrones, the Houses offer such vibrant, different strengths that anyone can enjoy exploring what they each have to offer.
So here I am, returning to a game that I owned and sold many years ago. I’ve grown as a person and a player, and can enjoy the game whether in victory (rare as they are) or in crushing defeat. I love the characters and mustering my beloved Starks out to overrun the board with Military challenges that keep my opponent’s board as small as possible. I enjoy the game a lot, and my wife does as well so that makes this an easy keeper and a game I cannot help but recommend strongly to anyone who isn’t afraid of a fast-paced, aggressive gameplay approach. And we’re still waiting on The Winds of Winter to be published, just like we were back when I first found this game. Come on GRRM! I don’t need the final two books to enjoy this game, but enough is enough.