Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. On the continent of Westeros, in the united lands of the Seven Kingdoms, the great and nobles Houses continued their eternal struggle for power. The time of overt war had passed—instead, the Houses fought covert, mostly bloodless battles of military might, political intrigue and claims of legitimacy…for they had all once sat upon the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, and they each believed in their own right to sit there still.
The present conflict concerned two of these once-great noble Houses: House Stark, Wardens of the North, and House Targaryen, who had been the first to conquer Westeros and occupy the Iron Throne. Their dynasty lasted for many generations, until House Stark and won the throne for Robert Baratheon.
In the North, House Stark announced their claim of the Godswood of Winterfell and put forward Lord Eddard Stark, current head of the great House. House Targaryen followed suit, announcing claim of the Temple of the Graces and putting forward their own House’s head, Lord Viserys Targaryen, attended by Xaro Xhoan Daxos, merchant prince and emissary of Qarth.
The preliminaries having been established, the two Houses proceeded to their plotting, marshalling and the constant challenges for dominance. House Stark determined to concentrate their forces on the Trident river delta, holding that position at all costs. House Targaryen chose the less martial tactic of counting favors, buying both sides flexibility in the coming conflict. The Wardens of the North established Lord Eddard in his own chambers, guarded by the direwolf Nymeria. Targaryen used their nearly limitless wealth to marshal the mercenary Brown Ben Plumm and the Dothraki Queensguard Jhogo to their cause, bestowing on the Dothraki warrior the honor of wielding the fabled blade of King Aegon I.
The Dothraki used his stealth to infiltrate Lord Eddard’s Chambers in an attempt on the Lord’s life, but the watchful direwolf Nymeria protected her master. Then, Xaro Xhoan Daxos leveraged his position as an outsider to spread malicious rumors about the Starks, reducing their political standing. Neither of these challenges was answered by House Stark, establishing House Targaryen’s supremacy in the eyes of some, as well as that of the brave Dothraki warrior. However, the stalwart Lord Eddard’s reserve bespoke its own kind of power, particularly when he invoked the Starks’ ancient title of Kings in the North.
A Game of Thrones: The Card Game is a competitive card game for 2-4 players published by Fantasy Flight Games and set in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. It is a Living Card Game, a term coined by Fantasy Flight to describe their more consumer-friendly approach to collectible card games (abbreviated CCGs) such as Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! Like a CCG, a Living Card Game is indefinitely expandable, designed around a simple ruleset that relies on text on the cards themselves to foster long-term variability. Like Magic, A Game of Thrones heavily emphasizes keywords (single words that signify the most commonly used special abilities) and traits (words that have no meaning on their own, but may be referred to by other cards) to ensure that a card printed today can interact meaningfully with a card printed eight years from now. (And, like collectible card games, Living Card Games assume that players who continue to invest in the game will be constructing their own decks, often for tournament-level play, combining cards from different releases in ways that surprise even the game’s designers.)
The key difference is that in a CCG, the only way to obtain a specific card is to purchase it on the aftermarket, since all new cards are released into the ecosystem by way of randomly assembled booster packs. It’s a gambler’s game, designed to flood players’ homes with unwanted duplicates while they spend more and more in search of that ultra-rare card—which, since these cards are collectible, the rarest fetching up to $3000 on eBay, the lucky buyer will most likely never use in actual play. The Living Card Game takes a more rational approach: a base set contains everything needed to play the game, including several preconstructed and reasonably balanced decks. The Core Set of a Living Card Game is a complete product that can be enjoyed out of the box just like any other card game. For players who want more, regularly released expansion packs keep the card pool dynamic…but unlike random boosters, expansion packs in an LCG contain a set quantity of specific cards, hence the term “living” rather than “collectible.”
The beautiful thing about the LCG system is that it’s only as expensive as you want it to be. I played through this session using only the Game of Thrones LCG Core Set, beyond which I’ve never felt the need to expand—the preconstructed decks for Houses Stark, Baratheon, Targaryen and Lannister offer players plenty to chew on by themselves. If you’re positive that you’ll never want to expand beyond the core set, you can even purchase the less expensive, 2-player-only “HBO Edition,” which contains only the Stark and Lannister House Decks, replaces the original illustrations with images from the television show, and streamlines the text on the cards for a more beginner-friendly presentation (look for the box with the Iron Throne).
A Game of Thrones borrows its basic concepts, not surprisingly, from the granddaddy of CCGs, Magic: The Gathering. Like Magic, players will take turns spending resources to put cards into play, then use those cards to attack or defend. Like Magic, a player’s deck consists mostly of Characters, who do the actual attacking and defending, but may also include Locations, which provide extra resources and/or reduce the cost of putting new cards into play; Attachments, which augment the power or abilities of Characters they are attached to; and Events (AgoT‘s version of Instants), which can be played even when most cards could not, including during other players’ turns. Like Magic, these cards generally contain anywhere from a few lines to multiple paragraphs of text describing their unique attributes, necessitating a lot of cross-table rubbernecking as you try to keep your opponents’ abilities straight.
However, whereas Magic: The Gathering is a fairly straightforward duel, with the simple goal of reducing the other player’s life total to 0, A Game of Thrones is a more diplomatic affair. This is particularly true in the 3-4 player game, which introduces temporary alliances and shifting titles, such as Hand of the King. However, even the simple 2-player duel is far more…civilized, for lack of a better term, compared with Magic‘s parade of fireballs and summoned beasts. Specifically, in A Game of Thrones, you never actually attack the other player or their units—sure, a Military challenge can result in some minor bloodshed, but that’s just a distraction from the real objective of the game, which is to be the first player to accumulate 15 Power for your House.
House Targaryen next rallied the Eastern Fiefdoms to their cause, retaining the services of the Tyroshi sellsword Daario Naharis. The deadly mercenary was provided with a sack containing the bones of a child, to inspire pity in their foes’ cold hearts, if necessary.
From out of the Godswood rode a House Tully Recruiter willing to volunteer his services for his allies in House Stark. With the recruiter’s aid, the Starks marshalled the Winterfell Reserves, and young Bran Stark joined his father’s side, riding on the shoulders of the simpleminded giant Hodor.
Like actual courtly life (or at least the version of it I’ve learned from books), the flow of play in A Game of Thrones is pure brutality masked as etiquette. Each round plays out over seven strictly observed phases: Plot, Draw, Marshalling, Challenges, Dominance, Stand, and Taxation. There is a stately rhythm to it; it evokes the rigors (as in de rigeuer) of politic behavior. It is like The Great Escape, in which the officers among the Allied POWs are treated as respected guests by their Axis counterparts—they may be on opposite sides of this conflict, but they have more in common with each other than with the lower-ranking soldiers. When you engage another player in a Military challenge in AGoT, resulting in the death of one of their characters, you’re all courtesy: “Dreadfully sorry about all that. Bloody awful business. But it’s a la mode in Paris to hold military challenges before tea, don’t you see, and it wouldn’t do to be behind the fashion.”
Each round opens, in a rather Shakespearean fashion, with a Plot. Each of the four Houses begins the game with a small deck of seven Plot cards. At the start of every round, each player secretly selects one of his seven cards, which are then revealed and resolved simultaneously. You can play the cards in any order you like, but—here’s the tricky part—once played, your Plot cards go into their own little discard pile, and you only get them back once all seven have been played. This means that you are guaranteed to play each Plot card exactly once in the first seven rounds, twice in the first fourteen rounds, et cetera.
Every Plot card has three numbers, which define the player’s Gold, Initiative, and Claim value for that round. Gold determines how many Gold Dragons you have available this round—every Character, Attachment and Location card has a cost in Gold Dragons that you must pay when playing the card from your hand. Initiative determines the order of play for the round—the player with the highest Initiative decides who goes first, which isn’t always an obvious choice, as you’ll see below. Claim…we’ll get to that later. Finally, every Plot card has a special effect. The values and effects on the Plot cards tend to balance each other out, but even the best Plot card in the game will be worthless, or even directly harmful to you, if played at the wrong time, which makes it that much more agonizing when you know you have to play them all eventually.
Screw it; it’s time to peel back the curtain. Forget the flowery, canon-approved prose—here’s what I really experienced while playing this game.
Round 3 was when all my plans came to fruition. Representing House Targaryen, I’d been holding onto an Event card, “Seductive Promise,” since my initial draw. Like all Event cards, Seductive Promise could be played for free as long as I fulfilled its conditions—in this case, winning a Power challenge by 4 or more STR.
Finally, in Round 3, I made my move. I issued a Power challenge using Lord Viserys, Daario Naharis, and Jhogo for a total of 14 STR. Using Jhogo’s Stealth ability, I snuck past Stark’s Winterfell Honor Guard, which left only Eddard Stark capable of defending. I was safe from his Deadly ability, since I had my own Deadly character in Daario. After resolving the challenge, I revealed Seductive Promise and enacted its effect to take control of one of House Stark’s non-unique characters—in this case, the Winterfell Honor Guard.
Next, I initiated a Military Challenge using Brown Ben Plumm, Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the Winterfell Honor Guard, for a total of 9 STR. Stark defended using the Winterfell Reserves, but I won the challenge anyway. This meant that House Stark had to choose and kill one of their own characters. They elected Ned Stark for this honor, but he survived thanks to that pesky direwolf Nymeria. I’d have to do something about that. Finally, I put the Dothraki Honor Guard from my hand into play under House Stark’s control for free (you’ll see why in a moment).
The Dothraki Honor Guard, the only character left standing, issued an undisputed Power challenge on behalf of House Stark. Because the challenge was undefended, House Stark could claim 1 Power from my House and an additional Power from the bank. However, because Dothraki Honor Guard had now participated in and won a challenge on behalf of my opponent, I gained control of them immediately—without paying a single Gold Dragon.
At the end of the round, I was sitting on a sizeable strength advantage, which I planned to exploit over the coming rounds. I used my last Gold Dragon to pay off Daario, and didn’t even mind when House Stark gained another Power for winning Dominance.
It had cost me a not-inconsiderable Power swing in Stark’s direction, but I now had the sheer brute force to more than make up for it. AGoT is a momentum game, and any disparity can only snowball over time. On the next round, I chose Mad King’s Legacy as my Plot card; it would let me remove an Attachment card from play, so I could finally get rid of Eddard’s pesky guard dog, who mad him all but invincible. After that, I could kill him off in one or two rounds. Practicing my victory speech in my head, I revealed my Plot card and glanced over at Stark’s.
Valar Morghulis. Valar *@%*! Morghulis. “All men must die.” In this case, literally. The Plot’s effect is simple, but not to be taken lightly: “When revealed, kill all characters in play.” Yes, all of them. With one simple reveal, House Stark had leveled the playing field, starting everything off with a clean slate—except for the Power I had sacrificed to gain control of the (now useless) armies. Valar Morghulis. *@%*! that card, man.
After Plot comes Draw, which is pretty straightforward—each player draws 2 cards from their respective House Deck. Then, in the Marshalling phase, you spend Gold Dragons earned from your Plot and/or Location cards to play additional cards from your hand, starting with whoever was chosen as the first player this round. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s best to go last for this phase; you are the only player who gets to see exactly which Characters and equipment the other players have marshalled and either react defensively or play to their blind spot. The first player has to rely on posturing, bluffing and second-guessing.
But that’s nothing compared to the Challenges phase, which is a mind-reeling brew of fronting, bluff and brinksmanship. Again, beginning with the first player, each House has the option to issue up to three challenges: Military, Intrigue and Power. To issue (or defend) a challenge, you must have a character displaying that challenge’s icon (red for Military, green for Intrigue and blue for Power). You can issue the challenges in any order on your turn, and you don’t have to issue all three of them. Whichever flavor you choose, it works the same: the attacker kneels (rotate 90 degrees) any eligible characters who are participating in that challenge. Then, the defender does the same. Finally, each side totals the STR value of his participating characters, and the player with the highest total STR wins. If the attacker wins, something happens, depending on the type of challenge. If the defender wins, nothing happens, except that the attack was successfully defended.
This sounds simple until you’ve seen it in practice. Once again, the last player has it easy—by the time it’s her turn to issue challenges, she knows exactly how many characters of what type the opponents have left standing; she might as well issue any challenges she can win. The disadvantage to going last is that, after defending challenges from one or more opponents, you might not have any standing Characters left. For the first player, though, it’s pure bluff and bluster. It’s agony itself.
Let’s say I have 12 STR in Military, and you have 13. I know I can’t win the challenge, so I might as well not bother, right? But if I preemptively challenge you with everything I’ve got, forcing you to kneel your 13 Military STR to defend, that means that you won’t have anybody left to challenge me when your turn comes around.
But what if I throw everything I’ve got at you, and you decide to let me win? I’m now defenseless for any counter-challenge you might care to issue. Or, if I’m smarter, I could kneel only 9 STR worth of attackers—if you want to successfully defend, you’ll still need to kneel your strongest character, after which I can follow up with a Power or Intrigue challenge that I’m guaranteed to win. The trick is to use just enough of your characters that you win, while saving as many as possible for the other two challenges and for your own defense.
What does a player get for issuing and winning a challenge? If it’s a Military challenge, the defender has to choose and kill one or more of his Characters (regardless of whether those Characters actually participated in the challenge—think of it more like a beheading after a successful coup). If it’s an Intrigue challenge, the defender has to discard one or more cards at random from his hand. And if it’s a Power challenge, the attacker gets to steal one or more Power—remember, you need 15 of these to win the game—from the defender’s House.
Notice that I said “one or more” in the examples above? The actual amount of the victor’s prize scales with the Claim value on the attacker’s current Plot card. See, I told you that I’d get to it.
Oh yeah, and if the challenge went completely undefended, the attacker gets to claim one additional Power for her House. This includes situations in which all of the defending characters got killed or reduced to 0 STR before the challenge was resolved…which, when Deadly and Stealth keywords come into the mix, happens more often than you’d think.
House Targaryen’s luck did not improve after the slaughter. On Round 7, I was forced to play the worst Plot in my hand: Condemned by the Realm, which provides a king’s bounty in Gold Dragons but allows your opponent to choose and kill any character in play. Obviously, Stark selected my best character, Jhogo, to die. Since he was wielding Aegon’s Blade, and the Renown that came with it, quite a bit of my House’s Power was attached to Jhogo himself, so his death put a sizable dent in my score.
That was okay, though. In the Marshalling phase, I played Dance with Dragons to search my deck for a Dragon card—in this case, Viserion—and add it to my hand. Dragon cards are House Targaryen’s secret weapon. They are expensive to play and demand further tribute to access their best powers, but these abilities are worth it: Viserion can kill any kneeling Character for 4 gold, Drogon can give a Character -1 STR (and kill it if its STR is reduced to 0), and Rhaegal is just really hard to kill. I marshalled the white dragon for only 1 gold, with the help of the Eastern Fiefdoms and the Great Pyramid, then played Drogon, the red dragon. With 2 dragons at my disposal, I was starting to regain some hope. I gave Aegon’s Blade to Captain Groleo (who I’d marshalled using the Summer Sea location—a satisfying conjunction, I thought).
Then it was Stark’s turn. They used the Winterfell Kennels to search their deck for a Direwolf card (Ghost), then played the canine companion and…the War Host of the North.
My strongest Character, Captain Groleo, had 5 STR, and that was only thanks to the +2 STR boost from Aegon’s Blade. The War Host of the North has 11. For the next few rounds, I could only watch while Stark crushed me in Military challenges, killing off both of my expensive dragons before I got a single activation of their game-changing abilities..
After the strategic labyrinth that is Challenges, the other phases are graciously straightforward. In the Dominance phase, whichever player has the highest total STR of Characters that are still standing—i.e., who did not participate in any challenges—gains one Power for her House. In Standing, each player may stand any Characters and Locations that are kneeling. And finally, in the Taxation phase, you lose any unspent Gold Dragons that you might have left over from the Marshalling phase. That’s right—there’s no hoarding coin in between rounds, unless you happen to be a Lannister and you played the “Planning Ahead” Plot card. But you can’t expect a Lannister to just follow the rules.
The game ended on Round 9. House Stark had claimed a total of 15 Power, and I’d managed to scrape by with 9.
By the end, House Stark was an impenetrable wall of spears and fangs. Bran, Arya and Ser Rodrick had come and gone, the latter two as victims of my strength-draining Flame-Kissed attachment. I’d formed a reliable combo with Lady Daenerys’s Chambers (take an attachment card from your discard pile when you play a character) and Xaro’s Home (draw a card when you play an attachment), using it to make sure helpful cards like Poisoned Wine, Aegon’s Blade and Bones of a Child remained in play. However, it wasn’t enough—in the final round, House Stark was hitting with the combined strength of Lord Eddard, the War Host of the North, Shaggydog, Ghost, Lady, and Grey Wind.
If I could have drawn the game out one more round, I might have played the Event card “Westeros Bleeds” to discard all Characters from play—essentially a repeat of the “Valar Morghulis” episode. This would have bought me some time, since a good portion of House Stark’s Power was held by Lord Eddard rather than the House itself. If Ned Stark were to fall, that Power would be lost. But in the end, it was not to be—the game was probably decided when my dragons died the moment they were born, if not earlier, when my best laid plans turned to dust under the inevitability of death. “All men must die.”
In board games, “theme” is the word used to describe the tenor to the game mechanics’ vehicle. There’s a common fallacy that theme doesn’t matter, just as video gamers often claim that graphics don’t matter—”the play’s the thing!” Both of these statements are categorically false, and for the same reason.
Divorced from visual and sound design, gameplay is simply a matter of the player’s ability to push the right buttons at the right time, a Skinner box without the food dispenser. Graphics tell you what it means; they provide the food. There’s more to it than that, though. It’s not just that visual and sound design—the pomp and circumstance of Link opening a treasure chest or Kratos ripping the head off of his enemies—gives the gameplay meaning, providing a carrot for pushing the right buttons and a stick for pushing the wrong ones. It also facilitates gameplay in the first place.
Imagine a scene in which Kratos battles an army of skeletons. Now replace Kratos with a white dot and the skeletons with red dots. Not only does this rob the sequence of its drama, it also makes it impossibly difficult—without detailed, animated models and sound cues, good luck reading the enemies’ tells or judging the timing of your own attacks.
Theme in board games works the exact same way. It gives meaning to your strategic and tactical choices—I’m not just accumulating victory points, I’m earning Power for my House. I’m not just getting rid of a pesky obstacle, I’m stripping Eddard frickin’ Stark of his blade. But as in video games, there’s more to it than that. Theme facilitates gameplay, in that it provides a template for an otherwise obscure set of rules to be internalized, like the gel coating on pills that keeps you from vomiting them up immediately. In A Game of Thrones, the Stealth keyword allows the attacker to choose one of the defender’s Characters; that Character may not participate in this challenge. With enough Stealth Characters, you can issue challenges without any resistance whatsoever, earning a free Power in addition to your normal rewards. The Deadly keyword indicates that, if either side contains more Characters with the Deadly keyword participating in the challenge, the player with fewer participating Deadly Characters must choose and kill one of his own Characters participating in the challenge. If you have more Deadly Characters than your opponent, there’s a strong intimidation factor at work. (Eddard Stark has Deadly, which is one of the reasons I wanted so badly to see him die.)
As complex as they may seem, each of these abilities makes sense in relation to the term assigned to it. Now imagine if they were replaced with the terms “Ability A” and “Ability B,” and you have some sense of the importance of theme in board games.
Which amounts to diddly-squat if the player doesn’t actually understand the theme. I came into A Game of Thrones at a severe disadvantage in this regard; though the card game is built upon five volumes of lore, I’ve never read a single page of the novels, nor have I watched an episode of the HBO series. Before the research that went into writing this article’s introduction, I couldn’t have told you if Westeros was a continent, a kingdom or an entire planet. This put me in the unusual position of encountering the world of the Song of Ice and Fire series primarily through a game that relies on the assumption that I’m already familiar with it.
It’s odd, but not unpleasant, to experience a fictional universe entirely through allusion. AGoT became a game of riddles in the dark, groping progress one faltering step at a time. Dark Souls‘ Tomb of the Giants, without the lantern. Starting without any preconceptions about the four Houses, I’ve been able to feel out their unique identities slowly, through direct experience rather than passive observation. It’s a process that is far from complete.
As I learn their gameplay tics, I begin to develop a sense for the personalities of the four Houses. These aren’t the same Houses that are described in the books; they’re the Bizarro versions, as much about mistaken assumptions and subjective associations as the actual traits the game designers were hoping to evoke. Targaryen likes material possessions—they have more attachments, and more ways of using them, than any other house—and they have ways of buying the loyalty of their opponents’ armies. Stark is a powerful military force, but is a bit chaotic, since 1 out of 7 rounds, they will be forced to play their “Valar Morghulis” Plot card. The Lannisters specialize in treachery—they’re the only house to really focus on the intrigue challenge, crippling the options of the other players—and they have bottomless pockets. I haven’t played much with Baratheon, so they’re still shrouded in fog, a grayed-out quadrant on the map.