Introduction to A Game of Thrones – The Card Game
Posted by Denny Koch on August 4, 2010
A Game of Thrones – The Card Game is a Living Card Game (LCG) by Fantasy Flight Games. It is the successor of A Game of Thrones – the Collectible Card Game (CCG) which started in 2002 and was discontinued in 2007 when the distribution format was changed into a Living Card Game format.
The game is based on George R. R. Martin‘s “A Song of Ice and Fire” story circle, an epic story taking place on the fictitious continent of Westeros where several nobel houses struggle for the Iron Throne. The story is rich with intrigues, battles, espionage, treachery, and of course war. Many hundreds of characters, groups, organizations, sword brotherhoods, and secret societies shape the fate of the medieval world, combined with some low-fantasy aspects, for example dragons and other mysterious creatures.
Author George R. R. Martin is very protective of his universe and therefore the Card Game is true to the story. You can find your favorite houses, characters, and groups and all of them are represented in a very distinctive manner. As a side note, HBO currently produces a mini series based on the books which will be aired in 2011.
A Game of Thrones (“the only game that matters”) is the first book of a series of 7 books. Four are already published (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows), the release of the fifth (A Dance with Dragons) is scheduled for September 2010.
You can play the game without knowing the books and any of the characters, but you will miss a lot of fun and many important aspects of the game if you don’t know who’s who. You should at least read book No. 1, “A Game of Thrones” before starting, this will highly enhance the experience. You should keep in mind that you have to decide on ONE house, and only knowing the houses and their characteristics, their enemies and their affiliations from the books will reveal the true depth of the game to you. By the way, you should also read the books if you don’t intend to play the game… they are highly addictive 😉
What’s the difference between a Living Card Game and a Collectible Card Game?
(Please forgive me if I “steal” some information in this paragraph from my Introduction to Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game. ;))
The main game concept is identical: players choose factions and then try to build a powerful deck to “beat” other players’ decks. This genre is known as “Dueling Card Games“. Depending on the game, you have to follow a basic rule set for constructing your deck (a minimum or maximum number of cards, a point or cost system, allowed number of copies in one deck etc.), but apart from this, you are free to build and explore the “ultimate deck“.
In contrast to a traditional Collectible Card Game or Trading Card Game (Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Marvel Vs, The Lord of the Rings TCG, Pokemon), the Living Card Game breaks away from the Collectible model.
In a Collectible Card Game, you have to buy booster packs if you want to improve your deck and if you want to find rare and powerful cards. You don’t know the specific contents of a booster pack, though, so it can happen that you have to spend $100 for a very rare card while finding 85 copies of a cheap card. Since most game systems regularly publish new booster packs, you have to spend a huge amount of money if you want to stay up-to-date and if you want to improve your deck and counter other players’ new cards.
This “blind buy” purchase model is the most problematic aspect of Collectible Card Games. The collecting and the thrill of buying new booster packs without knowing what’s inside can be somewhat addictive, so often players are forced to quit the hobby because they cannot keep up the pace and spend too much money in buying useless boosters with multiple copies of cheap cards they already possess. If you want to play competitive, you are forced to invest your money in booster packs or to pay tremendous prices for specific cards sold on eBay.
A Living Card Game (LCG) offers a new card distribution model. Instead of selling randomized booster packs, cards are sold in fixed add-on packs. The content of such a pack is public knowledge and fixed. In A Game of Thrones – the Card Game, these add-ons are called “Chapter Packs“. They are published monthly and belong to certain “sub-collections” which focus on different aspects of the game. They bring in more characters and other aspects of the books (locations, groups, weapons, creatures, events). You don’t have to buy all Chapter Packs, if you don’t want to, but you can choose which packs would really improve your favorite faction, your deck focus or your strategy – and which packs are not really helpful for your individual style.
Most players buy all Chapter Packs nevertheless, just to “have them all”, but this doesn’t hurt as much as buying booster packs in the CCG format.
Chapter Packs are very thematic and deal with a major storyline from the books (Nights Watch vs. Wildlings, the events from King’s Landing when Eddard Stark became the King’s Hand up to the Battle of Blackwater, the Brotherhood without Banners…). They also allow for building very thematic decks, for example decks centered around the Night’s Watch, Kingsguard, minor houses, certain traits or characters.
Chapter Packs cost about 7-11 $, depending on the shop where you buy them, and that’s it. You don’t have to hunt a rare card anymore, you simply order the Pack with your favorite cards on amazon or buy it in your local game store. Even if you are a hardcore competitive player who duels on tournaments, you don’t have to buy more than three copies of each Chapter Pack because you aren’t allowed to have more than 3 copies of each card in a single deck anyway. Publisher FFG even listened to their fans – the newer Chapter Packs contain three copies of each card, so there’s absolutely no need to buy more than one copy of each Chapter Pack any more.
Besides from the different distribution model, a LCG still offers the same dynamic customizable game play as a CCG. You can customize and build your perfect deck, but without the blind purchase model. In the end, the LCG model gives you the best of both worlds.
What’s A Game of Thrones – The Card Game?
A Game of Thrones – The Card Game is a 2-4 player Living Card Game / dueling game where each player chooses one of the six available noble houses. This house is his lead faction and his deck will most likely be constructed around this house, their allies, and their individual characteristics. In addition, it is possible to supplement the house deck with neutral cards and even cards from other factions, but it is very expensive to play cards not belonging to your house.
The game can be played with 2, 3, or 4 players, in various game modes. The 2-player variant is more unforgiving while multiplayer games allow for temporary switching alliances and intrigues against other players, which is probably more true to the books. Nevertheless, it also plays great with 2 players (similar to the other two LCGs by Fantasy Flight Games, Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Invasion).
The card artworks are great and the overall production quality is high, as always with FFG products. The pictures on the cards were drawn by various artists which explains some strong differences in style, ranging from an almost comic-like look to a highly realistic, almost photo-realistic artwork. Despite the various styles, the overall impression is great and the pictures add to the authentic atmosphere. Many characters look just like you would imagine them from reading the books (some don’t, of course, because you can’t match everyone’s imagination equally).
Besides 2-player and multiplayer variants, there are official tournament variants available, and the game is played on various official tournaments and in leagues (the most famous is the Night’s Watch). Organized leagues center around certain topics (2010 for example around Houses Stark and Greyjoy) and add other interesting features, for example achievements.
The object of the game is to win the power over Westeros. The first player who accumulates 15 power tokens wins the game. Power tokens can be won by winning power challenges, by special abilities (“Renown”), and by certain game events. Besides this, players can also challenge their opponents in military challenges (which “kill” characters in play) and intrigue challenges (which reduce the opponent’s hand). Unopposed challenges, regardless of type, provide additional power tokens.
During a course of the game, players can play characters on the table (“marshalling”), attach items and weapons to them, play event cards which add surprises and can turn the tide, play locations which provide income or other advantages. Playing cards is paid in gold, so resource management is an important aspect of the game – as important as a synergistic deck with a good balance of fast (=cheap) cards and powerful, slow (=expensive) cards.
This tutorial video, published by FFG, explains the basic game concept and the rules:
For the entire official tutorial video, click here (opens in new window).
How do I start?
If you want to start playing AGoT – The Card Game, you have to buy the “Core Pack” first, which serves as a starter pack. It contains 4 of the 6 game factions (Houses Stark, Lannister, Targaryan, and Baratheon). The other two major houses (Martell and Greyjoy) can be added with “De Luxe” expansions which serve as the “starter packs” for these two factions. Nevertheless, ownership of the Core Pack is a prerequisite even if you want to play House Greyjoy exclusively.
The other houses and groups (Houses Tully and Arryn, the Dothraki, the Night’s Watch etc.) are included in the game either as neutral cards (for example the Night’s Watch who doesn’t interfere with Westeros politics, or, where affiliation is undisputed, within their respective decks, for example the Tully’s in the Stark deck or the Dothraki in the Targaryan deck).
In contrast to the other two LCGs (Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Invasion), players usually play mono-decks and don’t combine cards from different factions. It is allowed to add cards from other factions to the deck, though, but you always have one lead faction and playing cards not belonging to this faction is very expensive. In addition, cards from other factions within your decks will suffer from some disadvantages, because many card effects favor cards of the lead faction. Most often, decks will consist of only one faction and neutral cards with very few supplements from other decks.
Since the House decks contain various other sub-groups, and lesser Houses, it is possible to create a theme deck which focuses on certain aspects or a specific group, for example a Night’s Watch deck, a Tully deck, or a Dothraki deck and so on. In order to build theme decks, you need to supplement the core pack with Chapter Packs, though. If you have only the Core Pack, you choose one of the 4 pre-built decks, consisting of one of the Great Houses each and several neutral cards.
The Core Pack contains a Game Board (only used in a multiplayer game), the full-colored core rulebook which is also available for free download as pdf (3.3 MB), 6 Plastic Title Markers (only used in multiplayer games), 6 Multi-Player Reference Cards, 60 Power Counters, 44 Gold Coins, 6 House Cards (one for each Noble House) and four pre-built 52 cards decks. Normally, a deck must contain at least 60 cards and not more than 3 copies of a single card, but when playing only with the Core Pack, the pre-built 52 cards decks are sufficient.
The Core Pack can be played in a multiplayer melee format or in a two-player joust format. Before the game starts, you choose one of the four factions contained in the Core Pack (Stark, Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon) and take the pre-built deck for this house. There are no random neutrals (as in the starter packs of Warhammer Invasion or Call of Cthulhu) – neutrals are already integrated into the four balanced decks. Each player then takes the set of 7 plot cards for his deck. Some plot cards don’t make sense in a 2-player game, however and should be sorted out. Since you need a 7-card-plot deck, you should replace the sorted-out cards with unused plot cards from the other decks for a 2-player game. Once you have Chapter packs which provide more plot cards, this won’t be necessary any longer.
All pre-built decks are marked with small letters (S, L, T, B) which show to which deck a card belongs. The Great Houses are marked with their traditional symbols (the Direwolf, the Lion, the Dragon, the Stag), but by marking the cards, it is very easy to sort the cards back into the starter decks once you mixed them up accidentally. The neutrals are also marked with a letter, but once you start building custom decks with Chapter Packs, you can distribute neutral cards in any way you wish to. You are not forced to keep a neutral card marked “L” in a Lannister deck forever but can also use it in your custom Stark deck. This identifying letter is only relevant for play sessions with the Core Pack. Cards with faction symbols always belong to their factions, of course.
The Core Pack serves as a “standalone” game and can be played by casual gamers without the need of ever buying additional Chapter Packs or the DeLuxe expansions (which add the Houses Martell and Greyjoy). Since there are only 4 pre-built decks, the Core Pack doesn’t allow for as much experimentation as the Call of Cthulhu Core Pack, where you can combine each of the 7 included factions into 21 two-faction-decks. On the other hand, the strategy and game depth of A Game of Thrones is deeper and the game is definitely more complex than Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Invasion, so this compensates for the lack of combination possibilities. You will have seen the complete four decks really soon and then know all cards contained in the pack, but to figure out how to play them is a difficult task which will take some time to master.
Since it takes some time to explore the depth of the gameplay, the strengths and weaknesses of the four included factions, casual players who only play once in a while will probably be content with owning only the Core Pack without building individual decks. Adding Chapter Packs isn’t required in order to play the game, so you can play the Core Pack as long as you wish. If you play with more than 2 players, you will have even more content to enjoy in the Core Pack because of the titles and various multiplayer interactions.
When you decide to start playing the game, you should download the Official FAQs and Clarifications (PDF, 1.2 MB), since these are vital for gameplay and important for getting the game right. Especially the timing rules are explained extensively with some flowcharts, and the FAQ contains many more clarifications of basic rules and cards. Without the FAQ, you will most certainly get some aspects of the game wrong.
But you should keep in mind: playing with the Core Pack exclusively doesn’t allow for any customization, the decks are provided “as-is”. If you want to delve into the “true” depth of card customization (which is a major aspect of Living Card Games and a big part of the fun), you’ll need add-ons sooner or later. The time will come when you know each of the four starter decks by heart, when you found “your” favorite faction and when you want to add more and cooler cards to the game or lay your focus on certain strategies, aspects, or sub-decks.
Then the time has come to buy some Chapter Packs to supplement the basic game:
Players who want to delve deeper into the rich world created by George R. R. Martin will soon feel the urge to buy one, some, or all chapter packs – especially if they are fans of factions not represented in the Core Pack. There is no “rule” which of the Chapter Packs should be bought first (or which of the De Luxe expansions), or which Chapter Packs are “better than others”. It solely depends on your playing style, on your house and on which aspects, characters, groups, tactics you want to focus in your custom deck. Soon you will discover that deck building is a science and art and realize that’s great fun.
Buying additional card expansions for general customizing and optimizing the decks, is the main aspect of a Customizable Card Game, whether you play Collectible or Living Card Games. Building experimental decks and throwing your decks into battles against your opponents, constantly refining and improving them with new cards, with new sub-themes, or giving them a new focus altogether and coming up with a nasty surprise is a very important and satisfying aspect of the game. To get the most powerful deck or to successfully counter your opponent’s most powerful deck is the ultimate objective of the game, much more important than winning a power challenge.
Since this article is intended to be a short introduction which gives only a rough overview over the game, I won’t delve here into the deep secrets and science of deck building. But chances are good that we will publish articles about factions and strategy from time to time, based on our personal experience with the game.
All you need to know is this: if you are a casual player, not interested in the collectible, customizable aspects of the game, you can buy the Core Pack and play it out of the box as a standalone game with your friends. You can even add a few Chapter Packs from time to time, or only one, without making a meal of it. It’s not rocket science, after all. But if you want to play competitively, it soon can become rocket science – and that’s exactly what dueling games players are interested in.
In our experience, a game takes longer than the average Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Invasion game – depending on players, their strategies, and their decks. It is possible to be “rushed” and overrun in 10 minutes, but we also had games which took 2+ hours. But compared to a consim, AGoT is certainly a fast game 😉
The game follows a strict Sequence of Play, but in contrast to CoC and WI, players don’t take alternating turns. Instead, initiative decides who starts doing what within a given phase. Timing is a crucial concept in the game (as in all LCGs) and you have certain time windows for certain actions – so if you miss a window, your chance is gone! Because of this you are forced to study your cards carefully, to watch out for the right time if you want to play a card or effect, because not all cards can be played at any time.
Before the game starts, all players declare which House they play (and their agenda, if they play with agendas provided in Chapter Packs) and place their House card before them. They then have the chance to do some setup in order to prepare for the game by placing up to 5 gold worth of characters or locations in front of them. All cards cost “gold”, as shown by a cold coin in the left upper corner of a card. Beginning with turn one, players have to pay gold in order to play a card, but they have to generate gold first!
If you play a multiplayer variant, players also select “titles” during the game rounds (by using the silver miniatures included in the Core Pack) which gives them certain advantages during a turn. In a two-player game, the titles, markers and the board are not used.
Players then secretly choose one of their 7 plot cards. Each plot card provides gold for the next turn (first number), an initiative number (second number, the higher the better), and a “claim value” (third number) which shows the effectiveness of a challenge. In addition, a plot card has a card text which influences the upcoming turn or has an immediate effect when revealed. When a plot card is played, it is put aside and you have to choose from the remaining plot cards next turn. You cannot take one card back and you cannot choose not to play a plot card, so all cards in your plot deck will come. Some of them have negative effects on yourself as well as on your opponent (for example, “kill all characters in play”), so you have to choose very carefully when to play the most dangerous plots to keep your damage low and your opponent’s damage high.
Within all phases there are certain time windows when all players can take actions (for example, play event cards or responses to other players’ actions).
In contrast to other LCGs, there is a “discard” pile and a “dead” pile in A Game of Thrones. Both are separate entities and cards in one pile are not considered to be in the other pool. “Discarding” and “killing” a card are different actions and lead to different consequences and effects targeting one of the two piles don’t target the other one.
Here is an overview about the basic Sequence of Play; card effects allow for more actions than listed in this overview, but I think you will get the picture.
Phase 1: Plot Phase
At the beginning of the new turn, all players simultaneously reveal their plots. They then compare their initiative (second number). The player with the highest initiative then decides who will go first this turn. It’s not always advantageous to be the first player, so you could choose that your opponent goes first. In case of ties, the player with the most Power tokens decided. If still tied, the initiative is decided randomly.
Starting with the first player, all other players resolve their actions clockwise.
Phase 2: Draw Phase
Both players draw 2 cards from their decks.
Phase 3: Marshalling Phase
The first player collects their income (=gold). This is provided by his plot card (first number), locations with a gold icon, and certain characters, for example Tywin Lannister. The number of total gold is added together and the player takes this number of cold coin markers from the marker pool. Then, this gold can be spent for playing characters, locations, attachments or other cards. The cost of each card is printed in the upper left corner; if players included cards from other factions into their decks, playing these cost additional 2 gold, called the “Gold Penalty” because these cards are not considered to be loyal to the House.
It is not required to spend all gold in the Marshalling Phase and it can make sense to keep some for later phases. It costs gold to play certain card effects, and gold is counted in the domination phase where the dominant player gets one additional power token, so it’s a good advice not to spend all money at once. It is not possible to accumulate wealth, though – at the end of the turn, all money is returned to the pool in the taxation phase.
When the first player is done, the second player goes through the SoP, i.e. draws cards, marshalls, and so forth.
Phase 4: Challenges
The Challenge Phase is the most important part of the game. Each player can make three different challenges each turn: A military challenge, an intrigue challenge, and a power challenge. He isn’t required to do all challenges and he can choose the order in which to resolve the challenges. Each challenge type can be resolved only once, though.
In order to resolve a challenge, the active player first announces which kind of challenge he wants to resolve. He then declares which characters will participate in the challenge. Only characters who show the required icon can participate in a given challenge type: a red axe for Military, a green eye for Intrigue and a blue crown for Power. Many characters have two or even all three icons, but once a character is committed to a challenge, he or she is “kneeled” (turned 90 degrees). Only non-kneeling characters can be chosen in the next challenge, so most characters can only participate in one challenge per turn (except from some characters with certain special card effects which protect them from kneeling).
After all attackers are declared, the defender declares which of his characters will defend against the challenge. Unopposed challenges bring an additional power icon for the attacker, so opposing a challenge is generally a good idea even if you know you’ll lose the character. On the other hand, there are many unfavorable effects which can target units defending in a challenge (for example the “deadly” keyword), or the defender wants to use his units in his turn to make challenges himself and decides not to oppose the attacker. You should keep in mind that characters who attacked are kneeled – and kneeling units cannot defend afterwards! Defending units are kneeled and cannot attack afterwards. The question of when to send a character into a challenge and into which challenge is a crucial aspect of the game.
Once all attackers and defenders are declared, card effects resolved, actions taken, modifiers added, keywords used (for example stealth that can deny a character the ability to defend), both players compare the strength of their participating units. A character’s strength is printed in a shield icon on the left side of the card and it can be modified by certain effects, events, or attachments. If the attacker has the higher strength or if his strength equals the defender’s strength, he wins the challenge. If the defender has more strength than the attacker, the attack is fended off, but the defender can’t win this challenge himself.
If the attacker wins a Military challenge, the defender must choose one of his characters in play and kill it (=put it in the dead pile). If the attacker had more participating characters with the “deadly” keyword than the defender, the defender must kill one participating character in addition to the one he just chose. If the attack was unopposed, the attacker gets one power token in addition to the other Challenge effects.
If the attacker wins an Intrigue challenge, the defender must randomly discard one of his cards in his hand. If the attack was unopposed, the attacker gets one power token in addition to the other Challenge effects.
If the attacker wins a Power challenge, he takes one Power token from the House card of the defender and puts it on his own card. If the challenge was unopposed, he gets one additional power token from the pool.
Some characters have the Renown keyword. These characters claim an additional power token, but this isn’t placed on the House card, as the “normal” power tokens, but on the character card. They count against the victory total of 15 tokens, but when the character is killed or discarded, his tokens are lost with him. So they become very attractive targets…
When the first player has resolved his challenges, the next player challenges his opponents.
Phase 5: Dominance
All players count the total combined strength of their standing characters and remaining gold tokens. The player with the highest total has dominance and gets one power token.
Phase 6: Standing
All players stand their kneeling characters, locations, and attachments.
Phase 7: Taxation
Players simultaneously return all unspent gold tokens to the treasury (=the pool). Then, a new turn begins with secretly choosing the next plot card.
This sequence is repeated until one player has 15 gold tokens. Then, the game ends immediately.
Currently, there are six Houses and a “neutral” affiliation which can be used as a basis for deck building. A deck must belong to one house; players don’t mix factions as they can do in CoC or WI. It is allowed to add cards from other Houses to your deck, but this is quite expensive and comes with a penalty.
If you want to build a deck without a House affiliation (Night’s Watch, Wildlings), you can use the “Neutral House” which was introduced with the “Brotherhood without Banners” subcollection.
- House Stark: Centered around military challenges. Straight, powerful, combat-heavy, with nice synergies (for example Direwolves) but lacking in intrigue. Strong in direct kill, deck searching and defense.
- House Lannister: Centered around intrigue challenges. Strong in kneeling opposing characters, card draw, and producing income (gold).
- House Targaryen: Attachment manipulation, strength reduction, and playing characters outside of the marshalling phase are some of the most interesting aspects of House Targaryen.
- House Baratheon: Strong in Power manipulation, standing effects, and discard / dead pile manipulation. Centered around power challenges.
- House Martell: Strong in icon manipulation, stealth, card draw. A very special mechanic is the focus on “losing challenges” followed by revenge effects.
- House Greyjoy: Strong in location control, saving characters from being killed, and cancellation of card effects.
In addition to choosing a house, players can choose one agenda for a game, for example a Night’s Watch agenda which grants all Night’s Watch characters certain icons, or the Kingsguard agenda “The White Book” which adds some effects when players use Kingsguard characters in their decks. Agendas add interesting and powerful effects to a deck, but they always have a drawback as well.
Rules Problems! Help!?
Whether you just bought the Core Pack or are a seasoned CCG player – getting a hang of the basic game principles, the resource management and correct timing of cards can be quite challenging. Generally, the rules are doing a good job, but you should download the official FAQ as well. Getting the FAQ is mandatory if you want to play the game correctly because it contains card and rules errata and lots of clarifications which are vital for gameplay and which are NOT included in the basic rulebook. You need these information for understanding the basic game concepts and for getting them right.
A general good advice is: stick to the Sequence of Play, as outlined in the rules flowchart. If you want to play a card or use a special card effect, use the good old COWTCA: Concentrate On What The Card Allows. Take the card texts literally and don’t ask, “does this include this or that effect, as well?“, or “does that mean that…?“. The card text contains every relevant information. If a card states that “a player has to kill one of his characters each time he draws a card”, then, yes, this is true for the opponent as well as for the card’s player (the card doesn’t state “your opponent has to kill a card each time”). And yes, if this card is the last card on the table, the owner has to sacrifice HIS card (the card doesn’t state “except from THIS card”). Following a card text to the letter is the easiest way to avoid problems and conflicts and timing problems shouldn’t arrive if you follow the Sequence of Play and the card texts strictly.
If you still have questions, visit the official Fantasy Flight Games A Game of Thrones forum. It’s lively, monitored by seasoned players who will happily and patiently answer all questions, even dumb ones, and even very noobish ones, so don’t be afraid to ask there!
When you are new to the game, you should browse in the official forums and the AGoT forum on boardgamegeek; you will discover that many of your questions have been asked before.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid of “choosing the wrong faction” or “building the wrong deck”. Experimenting and improving is part of the fun, so if you built the most horrible deck in the world, learn from it until you are satisfied with your cards – and then… go and win the Iron Throne! 🙂