When the Game of Thrones Living Card game rebooted last year, it’s fair to say that I was fairly excited (or as a friend has been known to say “whatever the James version of excited is”). It was a great game that I’d stopped playing in the first edition due to a lack of opponents / not wanting to drive over an hour each way to get a game, and it was coming back with what looked like a new and improved gameplay experience, along with a fresh community of local players looking to try it.
After a bit of a false-start at Gen Con, the game reached the masses in October. I bought the Core set the day it came in, and played it a lot in the first month. I posted articles on here about the first chapter pack or two, offering thoughts on cards, decks, and play-styles.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows – I established after a few games what I’d probably known all along: that my wife wouldn’t be playing this game, so sessions at home were out of the question. I started a new job around the end of November, and only played the game a handful of times in the last two months of 2015.
2016 started brighter. I made it to 2 tournaments in January, and was only a single mis-play (on the final challenge of the final game I didn’t defend a challenge, and my opponent was able to sneak to 15 power before I could swing back and crush him. I blame exhaustion and poor concentration) away from making the cut in a Store Championship – in the end I finished 6th out of about 30. I was starting to feel like I was quite good at this game.
A few weeks in to February, and things started to drift again. My health wasn’t great, and as I’ve mentioned on here in the past, getting along to play competitive games isn’t always the easiest thing for me. The sheer number of things that need to stack up for to get down to the store is a challenge: I need to have decks built, I need to finish work with some energy and sanity left, I need to have leftovers ready for dinner (there’s no time to get home, cook dinner, and still make it to the shop in one evening), and I need to have established in advance via Facebook that there’s actually going to be someone there to play against.
Whilst all this was happening, the card-pool was growing rapidly with a string of releases, including a big box. I wasn’t getting exposed to the new cards as they appeared, and I was reminded that whilst I might be a reasonable deck-pilot, I’m a lousy deck-builder, and that now there were enough cards out there that I had to make hard decisions over what to cut, I was producing decks that were less optimal than before.
All of that is somewhat by-the-by, although I thought it might be helpful to have a recap. What I want to do today though, is think a bit about the game itself. How it holds up after some more in-depth analysis, after a lot of play-time, and after a fair few cards have been released.
It was fairly clear from the earliest previews of the Core Set, that a lot of things that existed in first edition had been cleaned up – Influence, Moribund States, Limited Responses and the Draw Cap, to name just a few oddities that will be familiar to first edition players, were all gone. In their place, a clearer timing structure (not that I can ever remember it), Reserve (hand-size limit at the end of the round), faction-Loyalty, and the kneeling of Faction Cards as a hard cap on how many times powerful effects can be triggered.
There are lots of other things I could talk about – the change to the gold curve, keywords and the like, but these have been looked at extensively elsewhere, and I’m not likely to add more here.
Obviously, the difference between a 1-year-old card pool and a large card pool that sprawled across many years and cycles shouldn’t be underestimated, but this still feels like a much tighter, neater game.
First Edition of Game of Thrones had 4 factions which came in the Core box, and 2 which came in big-box expansions. Due to changes in the card distribution format, it was often awkward to get play-sets of the cards, unless you wanted to end up with a lot of excess that you couldn’t use. Overall then, there was never really a point when all the 6 factions felt like they were on a properly even keel.
There were also 2 groups in first edition who weren’t given “Faction” status at all – Tyrrel typically existed as dual-house cards, affiliated to both Baratheon and Lannister, whilst Night’s Watch was done through a rather complex set of stacking agendas, and lots of neutral cards. It was a valiant attempt, but it never felt anything other than clunky to me.
Having 8 factions in second edition from the word go has definitely made a difference, and to my mind it’s a positive one. Whilst it meant a smaller starting pool of cards for each faction (which wasn’t much fun around Christmas time), and slower overall growth as we go along, it helps to keep the factions on a fairly even keel. Some will always be more powerful than others, obviously, but it doesn’t feel like any faction is completely unviable.
The factions also all feel like they have their own distinctive play-styles. At the moment, most factions only really have 1, or at most 2 major builds without adding in unusual agendas, but the deluxe boxes we’ve seen (1 in the flesh, and 1 previewed) seem to make it fairly clear that they will be adding all-new options for a play-style. (Tully decks for Stark, Clansmen for Lannister).
Plots have always been one of the key unique features of Game of Thrones, and with the rise of second edition, they feel more significant than ever. In 1st edition, a lot of the time you were just looking at Income and Claim, with 1 or 2 being chosen for effects. In second edition, initiative feels more import, and there’s a whole new stat in the form of reserve to limit your hand-size at the end of the round. As before, there are some plots which dominate, and others which are rarely if ever seen, but plot selection generally feels more important this time round.
It’s also worth taking a moment to mention plot traits. When the Core Set came out, Naval Blockade was about the only card which cared about traits on plots, but as the Starks warned us, Winter is Coming. Now, at the end of the first cycle + the Stark big box, season plots are starting to become something worth thinking about, with some nasty Winter possibilities for Stark and Greyjoy, and a summer Dothraki deck that isn’t quite there, but feels like it might get good sometime soon.
I wasn’t playing First Edition early enough in its life to really remember Agendas in their earliest days, but if definitely feels like they are more of a big deal this time round.
The inclusion of Banner Agendas in the Core Set opened up deck-building possibilities that would otherwise have been non-existent in such a limited card-pool, and the fact that you can’t just run a card “out of house” the way you could in first edition, prevents a lot of hideous cheesiness. Cheese can be fun sometimes, but in the end it tended to lead to broken combinations followed by irritating errata, so it’s probably best that we don’t have it.
Aside from Fealty and the Banner Agendas, we’ve only seen the one new addition to the agenda pool, in the form of Lords of the Crossing. It doesn’t feel like this has been earth-shattering in its impact, but it’s certainly kept things ticking over, and avoids too much stagnation.
Game of Thrones is a Living Card game, and change is in its nature. You expect new cards to find places in your decks, or to encourage you to build new decks entirely. Basic maths means that old cards and eventually decks will be forced out to make room.
The first cycle has definitely seen changes to the game: powerful new characters and effects that can change games, and force you to re-think how you build your deck, and what it can handle.
I don’t think any one card comes close to The First Snow of Winter for the sheer amount of change it has provoked. In one fell-swoop it destroyed an entire deck archetype I had been running (Tyrrel/Wolf Knights and Ladies), and the whole question of a character’s strength to cost ratio has to be considered in a different light now that this card is out there.
For me, the pace in the first cycle has felt about right – it frustrates me when cards come out too fast for me to give them a try, and I wouldn’t want the whole meta-game being turned upside down more than once a cycle. As the card-pool grows, inevitably there will be more inertia, so it will be interesting to see how this develops over time.
Something which Fantasy Flight have brought in for all their Living Card Games, but which never really impacted First Edition, was the principle of rotation: no longer is a card, once published, around forever – after a few years, some cards will disappear, no longer legal for tournament play.
This has a few different implications: first of all, it means that when the designers are looking to create innovative mechanics in a few years’ time, there’s a smaller list of cards they need to worry about when trying to avoid broken combos. It also means that the card-pool for deck-building doesn’t just grow and grow without restraint.
For anyone who hasn’t read the rotation rules in detail, it’s worth explaining: cards from the Core Set are evergreen, good for the whole life of the game (unless they get Errata-ed). Likewise, cards from the big box sets. It’s only the cards from the Chapter pack cycles that will get rotated out after a few years.
This means that you have to pay attention to which pack a card comes from – right now it might not matter whether that character or that plot came from a chapter pack or a big box, but eventually it will.
In this light, it’s interesting that the already mentioned First Snow of Winter, and the spoiled, upcoming Valar Morghulis are both cards which will be rotated out. What we don’t yet know, is whether FFG will simply reprint the same card if they judge that it still has a place in the game, or whether they will force themselves to approach the issue another way.
I’ve talked elsewhere about competitive play at some length, so I don’t want to flog a dead horse, but as I reflect on the future, it’s something I need to think about. Just when I think one thing that might impact my gaming schedule is sorted, another comes along. All-in-all, it leaves a perennial question-mark over how long I’ll be able to keep playing.
I think Game of Thrones LCG 2nd Edition is a great game. By and large, I’m impressed with all the decisions they’ve made so far, and the things I’m not a fan of are basically all case of personal preference.
I think it’s a shame that there isn’t a good, thematic, engaging game out there for Thrones fans which is a bit more accessible to casual players. Thankfully (for my wife at least) I have come to accept that A Game of Thrones Living Card Game really isn’t it, and this isn’t a game I’ll be wheeling out for random house-guests any time soon. For that reason, and on account of all the other positive things, I hope that I’ll be able to keep playing this game for a while yet.