A Fistful of Archetypes

When I first launched this blog, I mentioned that one of the games I was really excited to see was the Second edition of the Game of Thrones LCG – I played the first edition for a while, and really enjoyed it, but sold my collection as it was just too difficult to find people to play with… about 3 months before a regular group appeared and started playing at my FLGS. At that point, the financial obstacle was too great to get involved once more, but I didn’t lose interest altogether, and when I saw that a new edition was coming this summer, I was most intrigued.

Sadly, this game has been much delayed – those who were at Gen-Con were able to pick up a copy of the new Core Set, so full spoilers are freely available, but the retail release has been pushed back to mid-October, with a further delay always likely before it reaches the shores of England.

With that delay in mind, I’ve been keeping my excitement in check, not wanting to undertake the hassle of printing proxies, and not wanting to add the already extensive amounts of commentary out there based more on speculation than on experience.

In the last couple of weeks though, there have been a few pieces of news out of Fantasy Flight that have made me rethink this, and I’m going to offer a few thoughts before I have any cards in my hands.

The Archetypes

The first thing I want to think about, is an article that came out earlier this week, considering the 3 player archetypes for Game of Thrones, namely “Ned” “Shagga” and “Jaime” – this is a concept that has been knocking around since the early days of the First Edition of AGoT LCG, and has also been translated into the Lord of the Rings LCG with the designations “Bilbo” “Pippin” and Boromir” respectively.

Slave to Theme

Eddard-Stark-2For those unfamiliar with the concept, “Ned” or “Bilbo” players are those who play the game because they love the source material and they want their gameplay experience to mirror this. My wife is very much one of these players – in the brief spell where I subjected her to Game of Thrones first edition, she always wanted to play Stark and was adamant that you shouldn’t be allowed to play the attachment “Stinking Drunk” onto Ned himself. Given that these games are invariably based in a particular thematic setting, often one that people were familiar with before getting in to the game, there is a lot to commend this approach (my involvement with Game of Thrones was most definitely Books, then games, then TV), but it has its downsides. As the Stark loyalist quickly discovers, it doesn’t matter how strong militarily your characters may be in theory, if your opponent has chumps to claim soak with, and can strip your hand and blank your key cards, you won’t last long.

Is it Tricksy?

The “Shagga” (named for a Mountain Clansmen, fond of threatening people with cutting of their manhood and feeding it to the goats…) or “Pippin” player is a dedicated fan of whatever is new, different or shiny. The one who will build the ridiculous deck with the 17-piece combo that will fail miserably nine times out of ten, but it will be worth it on the one occasion it does.

In Lord of the Rings terms, I’m definitely a Pippin. In Game of Thrones language, I’m not so sure – I certainly liked experimenting with different types of deck, and had built all the main archetypes at some point or other, although with fairly mixed results- for competitive play, I relied almost exclusively on straightforward rush decks, and could never get my head around how to do anything with a choke deck besides generate a long, slow and dull game. I’m hoping with second-edition to get a bit more in terms of consistent play against people who build their own decks (rather than providing all the cards for the game) so I can pick up a few more tricks.

You Win or You Die

Who would win a fight between Ned 7 Boromir? - that's right, they'd both die as they're played by Sean Bean!
Who would win a fight between Ned & Boromir? – that’s right, they’d both die as they’re played by Sean Bean!

The last type of player, the Boromir or Jaime, wants to win – it doesn’t matter how interesting a deck is, or how thematic, so long as it works. This is obviously something which plays out very differently in a Co-op game like LotR to a competitive one like Game of Thrones – I think the more Boromir-ish players tend to focus on combat, and enjoy smashing things, which is definitely a major element of the game, but does tend to ignore little matters like questing or location control.

In Game of Thrones, the win-at-any-cost mentality must of necessity be more diverse in the areas of the game it covers – in melee (i.e. multiplayer) you might be able to persuade an ally to give you some slack in an area of shortfall, but ultimately, you need to be able to take down all of your opponents in order to win. A few cards were highlighted by Nate French but I’m not going to presume to comment on the cards which offer the best in terms of sheer utility before I’ve even got the cards in hand.

The article offered some fresh insights into these archetypes – for example the notion that even for Shagga, it’s sometimes necessary to offer more of the same in order to make the next new thing actually feel new. Also acknowledging the existence of the incompetent Jaime – the player who must win at all costs, yet isn’t actually very good at the game.

More than that though, it was interesting to reconsider why it is that people play the various games we do. In our house, theme is a major element, and there’s definitely an element for interesting mechanics. Win-at-all-costs is probably the lowest priority on the list.

Outside of the home environment, I also play at the local game shop – for some games, LotR LCG most obviously, this doesn’t really change the overall aim (try something interesting, create a play experience which feels like it fits the theme) for other games though, there’s an extra element added – when playing a game like Dice Masters, whilst I’m still not too bothered about winning (one of our shop’s regulars has just reached the UK #1 spot, so it’s rare that I’m finishing top), my inner magpie wants to do all it can to finish high enough up to score the various promos. If Game of Thrones 2nd edition has the same sort of support in terms of OP kits, then I’d imagine that element creeping in too.

LCGs of Christmas Past, Present and Future

News out of Fantasy Flight Games in the past few weeks has provided an interesting overview of the life of a Living Card Game: We’ve seen articles representing 4 very distinct stages of LCGs in recent times – Call of Cthulhu, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Legend of the Five Rings.

Call of Cthulhu

cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu
is one of Fantasy Flight’s oldest LCGs –it has been around for many years and covered seven cycles, each of six monthly packs along with ten deluxe expansions. In the past few years, the distribution had slowed down significantly – the Deluxe expansions continue, but the monthly boxes had already gone – and now FFG have announced that they will no longer be producing new content for it.

I’ve played Call of Cthulhu a little and I really like the basic mechanic – you commit characters to specific stories – you can kill your opponent’s characters, or drive them insane, but to actually complete the story you need a certain number of investigations. This provides a nice level of decision making, as the factions which are great at eliminating opposing characters by reducing them to gibbering wrecks or cold corpses tend to be the weakest at investigation, whereas the groups which excel in investigation tend to be the most brittle in areas of direct confrontation.

Sadly, this was a game which never really caught on in our house – we played it a few times but, whilst I like the idea of the whole Mobsters and Monsters theme, very few of my friends have read into the Cthulhu mythos (I believe my wife has read a Study in Emerald, but that’s really something else again), and without a real investment in the theme, this one tended to get forgotten – certainly not popular enough to make it worthwhile investing in large numbers of expansions (I own a core set, the first deluxe, and a monthly pack that included a fresh set of stories, but a momentary hesitation saw me miss out on a few other odds and ends at knock-down price).

For fans of LCGs which are still at an earlier point in their life-span, the retirement of Call of Cthulhu offers a few interesting insights. First of all, the fact that whilst organised play will come to an end, the plan is for the card pool to continue to be available, migrating gradually to print-on-demand, so that it never truly goes out-of-print. Whilst the appeal of the new is obviously going to disappear, it seems that when the sun finally sets on an LCG there should be enough left in the card-pool to keep things playable.

Lord of the Rings

As followers of my other blog will know, Lord of the Rings has been my primary LCG for the past 3 years. After a disappointingly quiet Gen Con (nothing in the In-Flight Report, and still no sign of a retail release for the Saga Expansion which was available early there), there has been a fresh injection of life with the announcement of the new cycle. It may not dominate our table quite as it once did, but it still gets substantial amounts of time deck-building and playing, and I hope it will continue for a long time.

That said, I want to sound a note of caution for this game.

As I’ve noted several times before, I stopped playing Game of Thrones (1st Edition) primarily because I couldn’t find opponents regularly/close enough to make it worth the effort. That said, there were elements of the game I was increasingly unhappy with.

dawn-starFor one thing, I remember Ships were becoming a deal around the time I got out of the game- they’d been around before, but never with quite that much emphasis. The ships coming soon to LotR are very different from the AGoT ships (and to be honest I can’t really remember what it was in AGoT that I didn’t like about them), but it doesn’t stop me feeling uneasy.

My departure from AGoT (1) also collided with what felt like trait manipulation – always a feature of the game – reaching a point where the game was getting flung from one extreme to the other as people created broken combos which were then swiftly errataed, making the original cards useless.

For example, you take Satin, an innocuous card that allows you to exhaust a Night’s Watch character to discard the top card from each player’s deck. You also have a version of Robert Baratheon, a King and Lord, but most certainly not a member of the Night’s Watch, who you can stand as-and-when you like. The lack of synergy is fairly clear. However, take a card which allows you to give Robert the Night’s Watch trait, and suddenly you have the means to discard all decks in the game. Combine this with a Motley Crewman to discard your opponents’ decks at twice the rate, and Builder of the Watch to bring your own deck back, and you had the ability to leave your opponent with only 7 cards for the entire game, whilst you played with a normal sized pool.

For me, the solution to this (aside from just winning before your opponent got such as elaborate combo set up) was fairly obvious – make cards like this refer to characters “with the printed Night’s Watch trait” (or any other). Unfortunately, the designers saw it differently, and decided to errata the Robert card, thereby killing an entirely unrelated deck which relied on making multiple challenges with Robert and gaining vast amounts of reknown – it was a fairly powerful deck, but definitely one-dimensional, and not particularly overpowered.

To my knowledge, there has only really been 1 infinite-combo deck in LotR to date, some sort of shenanigans which allowed you to draw your entire deck. Having personally never bothered piecing the combination together (it required 4 or 5 pieces), I didn’t see the fuss, but the designers clearly did, and Errata-ed the Master of Lore, making him essentially useless.

Up until now, trait manipulation in LotR has been very limited. However, a card in the latest pack looks set to change all that. Trait manipulation in LotR is now officially a thing, and the trait in question is one of the most powerful in the game. Whilst my inner Pippin is excited about eh short-term fun, I hope it doesn’t lead to long-term broken combos and the errata which inevitably follow.

Game of Thrones (Second Edition)

If Lord of the Rings is still waxing, then Games of Thrones Second edition is still the slenderest of new moons in the sky of LCGs. From the earliest previews of the core set, there are some obvious changes in the game- from the thematic, such as including Night’s Watch, and Tyrrell as fully-fledged factions in the game (or even the inclusion of Greyjoy and Martell, who previously required their own box to get them jump-started), to the mechanical, such as including a hand-limit which varies with your active plot. Generally speaking, it looks a lot more streamlined and simple (no more moribund state), and I’m hoping that the designers learner from some of the banana-skins of their own devising which caused problems for first edition at times. It’s still early days, but I’m optimistic.

Legend of the Five Rings

Another L of the Rings for Fantasy Flight to get their teeth into, this time Legend, rather than Lord. L5R (As I’m told the fans call it) is a well-established and fairly successful CCG that has been around for a while, but has recently been acquired by FFG and will be re-launched as an LCG, probably in about 2 years’ time.

This was an announcement I’ve been following with interest. I’ve been peripherally aware of this game for a while, as one of the guys from our Lord of the Rings group plays it, but the prospect of getting into a CCG this far into its life wasn’t too appealing.

L5RThe theme of this game intrigues me- it’s a pseudo-samurai setting – which instantly bodes well for some awesome art, but beyond that, the setting seems to be quite a well-developed one, with its own RPG and tie-in novels. In an interesting contrast to the cut-throat world of Game of Thrones, this game involves an honour mechanic, which is part of one of the possible victory conditions.

This game also seems to have a really strong community, and the relationship between the game and the community is particularly appealing – the outcome of major tournaments actually affects the ongoing meta-narrative of the fictional setting, and thereby the development of cards which will be released in the future. At the moment, almost nothing is known about the shape which the L5R LCG will take when it appears (it is 2 years away, after all), and even the number of decks a player has seems to be in doubt. That said, if they can keep some of the things that have made it such a popular game in the past, I think we could have another good game on our hands.

As I’ve said countless times, I like the LCG model – I know exactly which cards I’ll be getting when I buy them, and how much it’s going to cost me, and whilst the excitement of pulling a extremely rare or powerful card is gone, so is the disappointment of opening only duplicate, common, duds. The fact that it is ongoing keeps the whole experience fresh for good measure.

I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say as the content comes and goes. For now though, I’m curious what are other people’s thoughts on the LCG model – are there games you’ve particularly enjoyed or been frustrated by in this system, anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

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