Game of Thrones (2nd edition) Single Core Set Review

In the Game of Thrones you buy multiple boxes or you die…

Lest Fantasy Flight’s lawyers come after me, I should point out that this isn’t true. However, I think the title does hide a serious underlying point about the utility of a single Core Set.

With all the detailed articles that have been kicking around the internet since GenCon, I didn’t see a great deal of point launching in to another blow-by-blow card analysis. However, I did want to have a look at this box as a stand-alone game, rather than the start of an ongoing hobby.

Box of ThronesIn first edition, out of the core set, you could play four factions: Stark, Lannister, Baratheon and Targaryen. By contrast, second edition doubles the number of factions available, adding Greyjoy and Martell (available in 1st Ed via expansion boxes), The Night’s Watch (mostly neutral cards in 1st Ed, becoming a deck-type via Agenda cards) and Tyrrell (again, a misc scattering in 1st ed, often as dual affiliated Lannister/Baratheon cards).

The first, obvious, positive is that this gives players far more options, and suggests that all eight factions will be well-developed over the coming months and years (although doubtless a disappointment for the bannermen of House Arryn who surely must now concede that they are never going to appear as a fully-fledged faction in the game).

The down-side however, of moving from four factions to eight is that each faction gets far fewer cards in a single box: to be precise, the 2nd Edition core Set gives you 20 cards per faction.

As with 1st Edition, a brand-new player is encouraged to try a starter game using the Stark and Lannister decks. Throwing in a few neutral cards, this will give players decks of around 25 cards apiece, making it fairly likely that the game will end when somebody runs out of deck (now an instant loss in 2nd Edition).

The starter game is a good way to learn how the game works, to get your head around the phases and the ways cards interact, but it probably isn’t what you want to play long-term, so what are the next steps?

Tournament Legal Decks

BannerOfficial deck-building rules require players to have a deck of at least 60 cards, containing only cards from their home faction, and neutral cards. The “Banner” agendas which come in the Core Set allow you to also include “non-loyal” cards from a second faction. This tends to be around 15 of the 20 cards per faction (it varies slightly from one to another).

Roughly then, for a single core set, if you want to build a legal deck, your options are as follows:

20 in-faction cards + 15 (ish) non-loyal cards from bannered faction + 25 neutral cards.

Given that there are about 30 neutral cards in total in the core set, “deckbuilding” for a tournament legal deck basically consists of choosing a main faction, and choosing a bannered faction, then adding ALL the cards which can legally go in the deck (I think there were 3 that I left out, mostly duplicates of cards that had no real relevance to the build). As you need to use so many of the neutral cards, it then becomes impossible to build a second deck from that single core set, so you’re not going to be doing this for play at home against other people who are also using your single core set.

Having built this legal deck then, what are you going to do with it?

You could, of course, take it down to your FLGS – a lot of people in our area have picked up this box, and it was fairly easy to get a couple of games. Rather trickier, was actually playing with this deck. With only one copy of each card, it’s very difficult to consistently draw the cards you need, the vast number of neutral cards cause all kinds of problems with resource acceleration, and generally you can’t rely on the deck to do anything. I did manage to win a single melee (multi-player) game with a Core Set Lannister – Banner of the Rose deck, but that was purely because the other players were more worried about killing each other than about beating on me. In joust (1-vs-1), whilst I only played 2 (and lost them both, by comically large margins), I am fairly certain that I could have kept up the experiment for weeks without any more joy.

So then, you can’t really play competitively with one Core Set and no chapter packs, but that probably isn’t a big surprise: most people want to play an LCG competitively will hopefully have done their research, and know it’s an ongoing investment. The question is, what can you do with that lone box, in the quiet of your own home?

Home Play

It stands to reason that, in your own home, you can play your card game any way you like, provided it’s fun for you – rules about “tournament legal” decks don’t need to be bothered with. It strikes me as a major positive that FFG have actively tried to offer guidance in this manner – all too often, games which require customisation for the casual player also require the players who are least familiar with / invested in the game to do the hard yards of modifying the game for themselves.

The AGoT 2nd edition Core Set comes with 4 suggested deck-lists – each of them is dual faction, offering a very broad level of thematic (or at least geographical) coherence, along with a few neutral cards and a plot-deck. They are still significantly smaller than official decks, but they are designed to be playable against each other.

Compared with the starter decks, having 40-odd cards instead of 20-odd stops the game from starting before it has really begun. It also allows factions with good card draw to actually make use of this (the Lannister starter-deck has a good chance of drawing itself to death unless it can win quite quickly). The fact that there are four of these decks is also nice as it allows you to play the game in melee as well as joust.

Reducer2Unfortunately though, there are still problems – your deck is still running in Highlander mode (there can be only 1! [copy of each card]), making it impossible to draw a key card reliably, and the increase in size makes it much trickier to pull off plots like Summons or Building Season (in a properly constructed deck from an unlimited card-pool, you would presumably be running 2 or 3 copies of your key card, so the odds of finding it within the top 10 are fairly good, even in a 60-card deck). You’re also limited to single copies of the generic resource acceleration cards (Kingsroad, Roseroad) and the in-house reducers.

Obviously, these limitations apply to all players in the game, so you might hope that the resultant experience was fairly balanced. Sadly, the biggest difficulty with these decks isn’t the lack of good cards, but the lack of consistency in drawing them. This can lead to games where one player manages to assemble a 3 or 4-card synergy, and the other is top-decking characters in a desperate attempt to get anything in to play.

The suggested plots are also a little dubious: some have useful abilities, but insufficient gold for those 6 and 7-cost characters who seem to be the lynchpin of most factions, whilst others offer good resource stats, but at the cost of hindering text which the deck hasn’t been built to mitigate.

Lastly, the recurring issue with any amount of 1-box play is that what you’re doing can’t really be considered deck-building. The plot pool is bigger than the Core Set in first edition, with multiple copies of some plots, to allow a bit of flexibility in plot-deck-building, but for the draw deck, your decisions don’t really extend much beyond choosing a main faction and a supporting faction.

Options

As noted, you can build a single legal deck to take to tournaments, and get swiftly dismantled by any half-way decent player building from multiple boxes.

You can play at home in groups of 2-4, but expect to get frustrated by the resource curve, and for games to be swingy and unpredictable: for some, it might feel like this is a good leveller in casual games, elevating luck above skill, but my experience is probably the opposite – as overly random decks present you with only sub-optimal choices, it’s the more experienced player who can squeeze that little bit of utility out of their deck.

ReducerObviously, it is possible to make modifications to the rules. The most obvious twist that leaps out at me is to house-rule that the cost-reducers can be applied to both factions in your deck, as this would reduce some of the frustration of having (for example) a location that reduces the cost of your Targaryen characters in play, and only Martell characters in hand. It would also mean that more characters got into play, which would hopefully increase the extent to which players enjoyed the game, as they would actually be getting to use things.

Already though, this is getting into the territory of players, particularly casual players, needing to tweak the product they have bought in order to get some enjoyment out of it. It’s a great thing for the community to help with, but it seems disappointing that it needs to be done in the first place.

The Good

  • Broader range of factions available out of the core box
  • Duplicates of plot cards included to allow variation in plot deck
  • Suggestions of modifications to deck-building rules to enable a game to be played.
  • The format suggested allow upto a 4-player game from 1 box.

The Bad

  • Not possible to do “deck building” worthy of the name, out of a single core.
  • Suggested deck-lists are too wildly unpredictable to produce a consistent (and therefore enjoyable) gaming experience.

Summary

Don’t take any of what I’m saying above as an indication that I think this is a bad game – far from it.

The second edition of the game feels a lot cleaner and neater than first edition. The graphic design on the cards is really good, the mechanics have been streamlined, and the designers seem to have learned from various infinite combinations which plagued the first edition, by building-in future-proofing.

However, I do think that someone picking up one of these boxes – and only one of these boxes – off of the shelf is going to be disappointed. However nice the graphics or streamlined the gameplay, the 40ish card decks just don’t provide that enjoyable a gameplay experience by themselves for a constructed game and a single box cannot, in any meaningful sense, be considered a deck-building game.

There’s nothing to stop people from playing this game casually with friends, without buying in to all chapter packs and deluxe expansions for the next however-many years, but I think you do need at least a second core set to do anything more enjoyable than learn the mechanics of the game.

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