Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Game of Thrones card game
I've enjoyed George r. r. Martin's fiction for decades now. Some of his early work captured the mystery and magic of space travel in a way few other authors could manage. As the years have progressed his fiction has grown a bit less startling and inventive and perhaps more approachable to the general public. His fantasy series which began with A Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. I think it's quite superior to the majority of fantasy fiction these days but not quite as heady and imaginative as its predecessors. Nevertheless, Martin's early, edgy material didn't spawn a multitude of spinoffs including board, role playing, and card games. Let's talk about a recent product, the Game of Thrones Living Card Game (GoT) .
The 1990's birthed the concept of a collectible card game. This is a game in which players buy a starter pack of cards and then "booster" packs of additional cards. Each card may give you some new advantage or ability in the game setting. Some cards are quite common, others are rare and you might have to buy dozens of booster packs before coming across one. Or, of course, you could Buy a rare card from another player. Thus the issue of collectibility. And also the fantastic shadow economy that these games create in which teens and preteens throw down impressive sums for a rare card. This financial aspect has turned some people away from these games as they find the investment required to play to be off putting or perhaps just plain insane.
Fantasy Flight Games has attempted to bring new life to some older card games with the idea of a Living Card Game. They market the original games in starter and booster boxes but there is no longer a mystery regarding the pack's contents. The product is designed to suit a player or group of players who simply want to play without the trading, collecting, and selling. GoT is one of Fantasy Flight's first attempts at making the Living Card Game concept a success.
In GoT you control one of several noble families in an attempt to rule the land of Westeros. At the beginning of the game you get a deck of cards specific to your family or "house." Some cards may portray members of the family or other significant people. Some cards may depict magic items or armor. Some cards may represent locations like a fortress or events which could occur like a plague or battle. You shuffle your deck, draw seven cards randomly, sit down in a circle and you're ready to play.
The course of the game has three major phases. In one phase you "play" you cards and lay a certain number from your hand into the space before you. If a card is played it gives you some benefit. A knight may be able to fight in a battle later, a card depicting a fortress may protect you from attack, an event may give you some advantage or cause trouble for an opponent. You can play a limited number of cards so there is some strategy in deciding which to play at what time. Further, you draw cards randomly from your deck so there is no knowing what card will find its way into your hand next.
The second component of the game is challenging a opponent. You may challenge using force, intrigue, or make a political power play. As one might imagine, a knight will be more effective in force, a spy card would be helpful in intrigue, and a courtier might do well in political attacks. Again the players are confronted with some decisions to make- if you only have knights in front of you then you will be vulnerable to spies. Players who make sure to have a variety of forces in play will do better. Challenges are resolved using a simple mechanism with plenty of special rules and exceptions, all described in good detail on the cards themselves. In our playtest we found the challenge rules to go quickly and smoothly and we had several non-gamers taking part.
The last element of the game is that each turn the players choose different positions within the court of Westeros. You may choose to be tax collector, for example, and as a result you get more revenue in that turn. The game adds a nice twist by dictating that some positions cannot attack others, and that some may help others. The result of this is that if one player is a huge threat you can jockey for a position that they are prohibited from attacking. Further, players are pretty much forced to alternately cooperate and clash. I like this touch as it reinforces the idea that the fighting here isn't personal, it's all business. In one turn you may slay someone's knight and in the next defend their castle. I feel this is a nice element in a game for teens as it keeps things from becoming personal and bitter.
We enjoyed GoT for several reasons. I liked the different qualities of the families in play. One family specializes in resolute fighters and giant winter wolves. One family excels in sneakiness and intrigue. Players will have different play experiences depending on which house they play. The variety of cards within each deck was also interesting and there seemed to be a variety of ways to score points. I felt like overall GoT had good replay value.
My wife liked the sense that there was a story associated with the game. While she hadn't read the books the various characters seemed interesting and evocative. As a fan of the books I got much more from the game. Potentially someone with no experience in the fiction could be a little left in the cold by the game and that is a downside to GoT. Still, whether you know the story of Nymeria the giant wolf or not, a giant wolf is pretty cool in itself.
The play itself went smoothly and fast. We look for games we can complete relatively quickly and GoT was satisfyingly speedy. Further, the process of challenges, counter challenges, battles and escapes was pretty exciting and kept people's attention. Players do very little sitting and waiting in GoT and that's appreciated.
Finally, GoT is a Living Card Game after all. So I ran out and purchased some booster packs to see what they had to add. I found that they contained more interesting cards and were pretty well designed to offer something useful to all the houses in play. I feel a desire to get more and more boosters so I'm not sure that GoT is quite the money saver it touts itself as but I believe it's less expensive that a typical collectible card game. The booster are arranged in a groups and the grouping is a little esoteric. Look for guidance as to what to buy on the Fantasy Flight Games GoT forum.
In summary, I found a lot to like with GoT. The rules are smooth and fast moving. The box set gets you started with a satisfying set of cards. The political element and maneuvering is a nice touch. The story is interesting, especially if you know the fiction. This of course leads to the downside. If you don't know the fiction you may find the whole thing a little pointless or boring. I wouldn't get this game as a surprise for someone. I would recommend it as a game you and your teen should check out together, however, and if the teen is interested, then grab it. I got my copy at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.
Speaking of buying into game concepts that are completely foreign, we'll talk about Legend of the Five Rings next.
Pros: affordable, good game concept, fast paced, fun
Cons: relies on a somewhat obscure fiction series
Beyond the Basics: Hundreds of new cards to buy and lot of replay value here