I should state up front that I am in no way a fan of A Game of Thrones; I despised the first book (among other things, I found it rapey) and haven’t watched the popular HBO series. So I suppose that the fact that I enjoyed the second edition of a deckbuilder game based in that universe, simply titled A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, should give you some indication of how clever the game is, bringing surprising strategic complexity to a relatively straightforward offering.
AGoT: The Card Game is a “Living Card Game,” Fantasy Flight Games’ term for deckbuilders that will be enhanced and supplemented by future deck releases, but the base game has enough cards for two to four players to play repeatedly without becoming monotonous due to the depth and size of the decks. Players can build their own decks from what’s in the box, or can choose any of the four recommended starter decks; those latter decks are big enough that I haven’t felt any need or desire to build my own because I’m still learning everything that’s available to me in the starter packs.
Each player takes on the role of a specific House, the names of which will be familiar to fans of the series—Stark, Greyjoy, the Night Watch, Targaryen, etc.—and plays a deck that includes characters and locations specific to that house and, typically, one other house as well, so each player begins the game with 45 cards (using the pre-set decks), as well as seven plot cards that set players’ rights, income and strategy for each round. During a round, players will “marshal” (pay for and place) cards from their hands to the table, then use them in challenges against other players, either attacking or defending, to try to gain points or damage their opponents.
Game play centers on those two elements—plot cards and challenges. Each plot card has four numbers on it as well as one or two categories, and those, not to exaggerate, determine everything that follows. The numbers represent that player’s income for that turn, his/her “initiative” (determining player order for that round), his/her “claim” (how much damage or benefit a successful challenge entails, such as power points gained from a defeated opponent), and the number of cards that player can retain in his/her hand at round’s end. The category or categories introduce interactions with other cards that the players may invoke during the round, some of which only work under certain plot types or gain a new power in those situations. Most plot cards also have a line or two of text that affects game play just for that round, such as reducing an opponent’s income to zero if s/he has a specific plot category in play or limiting any player challenge to just one card per side. You choose your plot card for each round, cycling through all seven before you can reuse any, so balancing your desired income with your wish to go first or to use a plot card’s special abilities represents one major strategic decision that will come up repeatedly over the course of one game.
After all players have played plot cards, collected income, and drawn two cards from their decks to their hands, the marshaling phase begins, where players deploy character, location, or attachment cards to their play areas, paying the cost in gold shown in the upper left corner of the cards. There are various discounts available through other cards—say, activate this card to reduce the cost of any House Stark card by one, or sacrifice this card from your play area to play any card for free—and gold can’t be saved for future rounds, so smart marshaling is critical (although I suppose that’s obvious for any deckbuilder).
The challenges phase is the longest of all and it is where the magic happens. Players can use all cards on the table in front of them in any round for up to three challenges, one per category: military (red), intrigue (green), or power (blue). The cards on the table can represent characters, which have one or more challenge symbols and thus are critical to attacking or defending; locations, which confer various benefits in different phases, such as making other characters in that particular house stronger; or attachments, modifiers that go with character cards. A player may use one or more characters to attack or defend a challenge so long as those character cards have the correct challenge symbol; each player adds up the strength values of each card in the challenge, and the player with the greatest combined strength after any modifications wins the challenge. Once any card is used, the player controlling it rotates it by 90 degrees, from “standing” to “kneeling,” making it unavailable for the remainder of the round.
The loser of a military challenge must kill off one or more characters, removing them from the table to that player’s “dead” pile (distinct from the discard pile); the loser of an intrigue challenge discards one or more cards chosen at random from his/her hand. A power challenge winner gets one or more power tokens (points) directly from the defeated player. A player who wins a challenge unopposed—that is, with no defense or total defense strength of zero—also gets a bonus power token from the bank. The first player to get to 15 points wins, so winning an unopposed power challenge is a big deal. There’s also a bonus power token awarded after each challenge round to the player with the greatest total strength of character cards still standing, meaning there’s a small reward for any player who doesn’t burn all his characters in the challenges. The bulk of the game’s decisions and actions come in that challenges phase, however, and that’s where you’re going to rank up most of your points.
The presentation is very strong, mostly because the artwork is of extraordinarily high quality, while the presence of a separate reference book makes the main rule book manageable for new players. The text on some cards could be clearer, such as when a card may be played on a character controlled by an opponent, or when a card’s effect is global or only applies to one player; an online supplement to answer some of these questions would go a long way when the game is released.
While 15 points doesn’t sound like a lot, in our experience it took a while to get there—over an hour for a two-player game. The play moves along fine, but the stronger the players get, the more they’re swapping points back and forth, so that you approach the finish line only to find yourself pulled back. I did also find that a little bad luck early can create an insurmountable deficit for one player; it’s not likely, but it’s possible in a way that I haven’t encountered in other games of this ilk. The game’s customization feature, with new decks expected monthly starting in November, could help alleviate this problem and allow players to try to shorten the game times to suit their needs. With heavy interactions among the cards leading to numerous strategic avenues, AGoT: The Card Game goes beyond mere brand extension, making a solid addition to the crowded arena of deckbuilders.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.