Known affectionately by its community of fans as “The Only Game That Matters”, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (2nd edition) is a reboot of the 2008 1st edition, which was itself a re-implementation of the 2002 Collectible Card Game.
Designed by Nate French and Eric Lang, it was published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2015. It features eight playable factions which will be familiar to fans of the source material - Baratheon, Greyjoy, Lannister, Martell, Night’s Watch, Stark, Targaryen and Tyrell - along with a host of “neutral” cards (useable with any faction) and rules for how cards from different factions can be combined into decks.
The game progresses through a series of rounds, with seven phases each round, and ends as soon as any one player reaches the win condition - which is to accumulate a total of 15 power tokens. Power tokens are gained in a variety of ways: by winning power challenges, qualifying for different types of bonus, or triggering a wide range of other card abilities.
Playing Game of Thrones: The Card Game
In the first phase of each round, players secretly select and simultaneously reveal a card from their Plot Decks - a hand-picked selection of seven specialist “plot” cards. The chosen plots establish various parameters for the current round, setting each player’s gold income (used to put cards into play), initiative (the player with the highest value determines turn order), hand limit (which must be checked at the end of the round) and another value known as “claim”, which is usually one but sometimes two - and I’ll say more about what this means below.
In most cases, plots also feature a unique ability, which may be a one-off effect triggered as soon as the card is revealed, a lasting effect which persists until the end of the round, or an ability that can be triggered under certain conditions.
After the Plot Phase, players draw cards from their main decks (distinct from their plot decks) and then move into the Marshaling Phase, where they collect income and put cards into play.
Cards fall into four types: characters, attachments, locations and events.
Each character has a few key stats: gold cost, strength, a number of challenge icons (indicating the types of challenge they may participate in), traits (which are essentially categories under which numerous cards can fall including “Maester”, “Ironborn”, “Knight”, “Dothraki” and which form the basis for many of the game’s triggers and effects), keywords (special abilities / restrictions that some cards possess) and additional text granting abilities that are typically unique to each character.
One of the most notable features of characters is that if they’re classed as unique, then they can be killed and to signify this each player has not only a Discard Pile, but also a Dead Pile. So, suppose you have one copy of Eddard Stark in play, and he gets discarded. That’s fine. If you draw another copy of Ned, feel free to yell “Winterfell!” and put him into play again. But if he’s killed and goes into your Dead Pile, that extra copy of Ned is now - quite literally - a dead card in your hand.
This is A Game of Thrones, after all. All Men Must Die and so too must a large number of the cards in your deck.
Attachment cards represent various weapons, items, conditions and so on, which can be played onto characters. Some are used positively, to protect or buff your own characters, while others can be used negatively, to nerf or neutralise your opponent's.
Location cards also provide abilities and effects, but tend to have slightly more permanence in the game once played - unlike characters, which suffer many more ways of being killed or discarded, and attachments, which are equally susceptible to leaving play.
Events are one-off abilities played directly from hand. It’s no simple matter to play them, since they too have a cost, which means working out how to leave yourself with enough gold after paying for all the other cards you need to put into play. But they constitute one of the main areas within the game where hidden information - the stuff in your hand your opponent can’t see - has real tactical potency.
Next comes the Challenges Phase where players, in turn order, may initiate “military”, “intrigue” and “power” challenges. Win a military challenge, and your opponent must choose one of her own characters to be killed. Win an intrigue challenge, and your opponent must randomly discard a card from hand. Win a power challenge, and you may steal one of your opponent's power tokens.
But there’s more to it than that. Recall the “claim” value on plot cards mentioned above. Most plots have a claim value of one, but if you win a challenge with a two-claim plot revealed, your opponent suffers double the damage, as they’re forced to either kill two characters, discard two cards, or have you steal two power - for a net swing of four power!!
To initiate a challenge, a player declares attackers by kneeling one or more characters who possess a challenge icon of the required type (“kneeling” is, of course, the same familiar mechanic as "tapping", or rotating a card 90 degrees).
The opponent can then kneel characters to defend. During this process, a multitude of different abilities might be triggered to either boost, reduce, or entirely negate character strengths.
Finally, the strength on each side is added up and whoever contributes more to the challenge wins (with the attacker winning ties).
Crucially, there is pressure on the defender to contribute at least some strength to each challenge, even if there’s no way to actually win - since if the attacker wins a challenge which was defended with 0 strength, she'll gain an extra power token for winning "unopposed." Let too many of these unopposed challenges go through and your opponent could romp away with the power lead in the game.
Working out how to structure your challenges; deciding which challenge types to initiate and in which order, which characters to kneel to attack and which to leave standing to defend, which abilities you can trigger to press the advantage and which abilities your opponent might trigger to counter your plans is the tactical heart of the game and really does give rise to some incredibly brain-burning dilemmas, as well as the potential for some joyously satisfying ability-chaining combos (or perhaps not so joyous, if you’re on the receiving end).
Keywords on characters are another important aspect of challenges. The “Stealth” keyword, for example, allows you to prevent one of your opponent’s characters from defending. Other keywords trigger after you win a challenge: “Pillage” forces your opponent to discard the top card of her deck; “Insight” lets you draw a card; “Intimidate” lets you kneel one of your opponent’s characters and “Renown” allows you to gain additional power tokens.
After challenges comes the Dominance Phase, in which players add together the value of their remaining gold plus the combined strength of any characters who remain standing and the winner gains a bonus power token. After that, a few rounds of clean-up (discarding unused gold, discarding down to hand limits, and standing all knelt cards) take us back to the Plot Phase again.
So much for how the game actually works - let’s deal with what is probably the biggest negative issue. It’s a Living Card Game - and it’s a massive commitment to “get into” an LCG, isn’t it? Undeniably, a certain level of commitment is required and some people may find this a turn-off. To play the game properly, you’re going to have to get hold of three copies of the Core Set, since most of the cards in the Core are singletons, and you’ll need three copies of each in order to have any substantial deck-building options.
Could you get anything of value from buying just a single Core? Well, the game does contain instructions for building four different “Out of the Box” decks from one Core. Playing with these decks might be kind of fun and would certainly give you a hint of the game’s flavour. But you wouldn’t really be getting the full experience.
Since these decks are built entirely from singletons, certain game play options (such as being able to play a second copy of a unique character as a “duplicate”, which can be sacrificed to prevent the first copy from being killed or discarded) would be completely missing. And the vitally important distinction between Discard Pile and Dead Pile would be rendered all but meaningless.
I recommend looking at it this way: If you buy a single copy of the Core, what you’re actually doing is purchasing a “playable demo” of a game that contains at least three times as many cards and features game play options and strategic possibilities that can only be “unlocked” by acquiring the full product -i.e two further copies.
So the questions that you need to ask yourself are: Does this look like a game I could really get into? Do I want to jump straight into the full experience with three Cores? Or do I want to hedge my bets, purchase a single Core as a “playable demo”, and see how it goes?
Supposing that you do decide to go all-in on three Cores, what else are you committed to? There are currently (as of July 2017) 16 additional Chapter Packs and three Deluxe Expansions available, with new Chapter Packs releasing roughly each month and new Deluxe Expansions releasing biannually.
The good news is that, unlike the Core, you won’t need to buy any of this content in triplicate! Each Pack and Expansion contains three copies of every newly released card. But do you need to buy all these extras? Not necessarily.
Sure, if you wanted to get involved in the competitive play scene, then you’d need to keep up with the current metagame and have access to deck-building options encompassing the entire current card-pool. But if you were happy to play more casually, with friends who wanted to enjoy the game on the same level, there’d be no pressure to keep up with all the latest releases.
Inside the box
There’s not a huge amount to say about the game’s components. It’s mainly a shed-load of cards! It does include a few cardboard tokens, the quality of which is fine (although if you play regularly, you’ll probably be tempted to get hold of some custom metal coins, etc).
The cards themselves are pretty great. They’re cleanly designed, uncluttered, despite being loaded with text, and feature fantastic artwork with only a few exceptions - yes, I’m looking at you, Newly-Made Lord. The rules, although dense and plentiful, are admirably well-written and very clearly laid out.
The theme of the source material shines through in many aspects of the game. At the most abstract level, it’s a game in which a vast array of unique objects governed by a complex system of subtly manipulable rules interact in a dynamic whirlwind of synergies and conflicts. What better way could there be to capture the scale and scope of George R R Martin’s epic fantasy?
Granted, the game is not 100% faithful to its theme. The fact that any two factions can be combined into a single deck does allow for some distinctly un-thematic mash-ups! But each faction and card in the game feels so much like a living entity, so full of its own distinctive flavour and character, that it doesn’t really matter whether, at times, they interact together in ways that don’t exactly mirror the fiction on which they’re based.
If you want theme, look no further than the plot card Valar Morghulis (which isn’t actually contained in the Core Set, but is such a relevant part of the current metagame that I wanted to at least give it a mention). The text it bears is brutal in its simplicity: “When Revealed: Kill each character.” I ask you - does it get any more Thrones than that?
I’ll say this in no uncertain terms: Don’t rush into buying this game just because you’re a massive Thrones fan and this is a Thrones-themed product. Know what you’re getting into. This is a seriously heavyweight game. There’s a lot of rules and a ton of complexity. It’s a whole load of text on a whole heap of cards. If that doesn’t sound like the type of game you’d enjoy, you might want to look for something a little lighter to give you your Thrones-themed gaming fix.
Similarly, if you’re the type of person who has too many games to get to the table and not enough time to keep returning to the same one over and over again, you’re probably not going to get the most out of the experience this game offers.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a game that rewards repeated play and features extremely deep strategic options, complex player interactions, challenging gameplay decisions and an almost unfathomably rich space of engine-building and combo-chaining possibilities then I would seriously consider checking A Game of Thrones: The Card Game out … in triplicate.