Monday, 20 April 2009

A Game of Thrones LCG

I can probably count A Game of Thrones LCG as the 3rd time that I am trying a CCG (collectible card game) or CCG-like game, the previous two being Blue Moon (not really a CCG but an "expandable card game") and Magic: the Gathering (free copy of a Romance of the Three Kingdoms-themed starter set). I have played 30+ games of Blue Moon, and own all 11 decks (8 main races and 3 special expansions). I quite like it, and am starting to grasp some of the strategies, but I don't really play it often enough to be able to fully enjoy it. I have only tried Magic once, and can see how its simple system can expand to be very rich and interesting, but am far from appreciating the strategies involved. And of course, I have not tried deck-building at all (unless playing Dominion counts as a simple form of deck-building).

I was interested to try AGOT LCG mainly because of the novels, and also because of its new LCG format, that publisher Fantasy Flight came up with. I wouldn't say it's a completely new idea. This idea may have come from the Blue Moon model (also published by them). Han also likes the novels. Both of us bought AGOT LCG. When Han was in town on 17 Apr 2009, we gave it a go.

In AGOT LCG, you need to gain 15 power to win. The game starts with no power. Power comes into the game in different ways. You can earn them. You can grab some from your opponents. Sometimes power also exits the game, e.g. a character which has power tokens on him/her gets killed.

At the start of a round, all players select 1 plot card (out of 7) to play. Plot cards determine how much money you get for this round, initiative / turn order and how big the effect is when you win challenges (e.g. how many opponent characters you get to kill). All plot cards also have special rules which often affect all players for that round. Knowing your plot cards and your opponents' plot cards is an important aspect of the game, and you should plan the usage of your plot cards well.

You then put new cards into play by paying their costs. There are four types of cards. Character cards are the main type. They participate in challenges against your opponents. Attachment cards are things like weapons, pets, titles etc that can be attached to characters. Location cards usually give you extra money, or influence, and sometimes also some other benefit. Event cards do not have costs. They are usually powerful one-time-use cards. After everyone has put characters in play, each player take a turn to initiate up to three challenges. If you win a military challenge (as attacker), one (or more) of your opponent's characters get killed. If you win an intrigue challenge, you randomly discard a card from your opponent's hand. If you win a power challenge, you take one power from your opponent. Characters that have been involved in a challenge are "knelt", which means "used up for the round" (equivalent to "tapped" in Magic). After every player has had the chance to issue challenges, there is a dominance round where the player with the highest remaining strength among standing (i.e. not knelt) characters gain one power. That's basically how the game works.

However, almost every card in the game has some special text, describing some special power. Many cards also have one or more keywords like Renown, Deadly, Lord, Night Watch, Creature, Stalwart, describing some special ability or trait. Some cards also have an icon, e.g. a ring meaning noble-birth, crossed swords meaning an army. There is a lot going on, a lot to read, a lot to learn, a lot to remember.

Han and I played two games, in the first one he played House Stark and I played House Lannister. I was lucky with my early draws, getting Tywin Lannister (head of the house, and very powerful) and being able to play him. I was quite rich (Lannisters are rich). However, Han played the Valar Morgulis plot card, and killed off all characters, mine and his. That was painful. In hindsight I should have thought of that, since I had read all the cards beforehand. I should not have played so many good characters so early, or I should have tried to protect them from getting killed. After this "reset", House Stark's strength started showing. They are militarily strong, and tend to win military challenges. So they kept killing off my characters, and I could not slow their momentum. Han won decisively with about 16 power. At the time I only had 2 I think.

In our second game Han played House Targaryen and I played House Baratheon. Again I was quite lucky with my early draws. I had the three Baratheon brothers in play from quite early on - Robert Baratheon (the king), Stannis Baratheon and Renly Baratheon. I also managed to get many location cards early, which helped in providing additional income and influence. Han was not so lucky with his early cards. However we both had many cards in the early game. Han played a plot card that allowed us to draw extra cards.

House Baratheon has many characters with the Renown keyword, which means when they win a challenge, they earn a power in addition to the normal reward, to be placed on the character card (instead of the house card). Robert Baratheon's Renown power is double the normal! So I gained power at a great speed. House Targaryen has some characters which are hard to kill, or can easily come back after getting killed. It also has dragons, which are quite powerful. Gradually, Han started killing off my characters, and I could not keep up in trimming down his characters. One decisive play was him being able to take control of one of my armies of strength 6, which has both military and power challenge abilities. That was painful. Eventually, Robert Baratheon was killed (i.e. I lost all the power that he had accumulated), and then Renly Baratheon (I have been making use of him a lot, because he could stand up and fight again and again by paying influence), and finally Stannis Baratheon as well (also a lot of power on him). At the time Han was leading at about 9:6, but I conceded defeat. He had around 11 - 13 characters in play, and I only had a few left. No way I would be able to catch up. The closest I ever got was 12 power I think. I think House Baratheon's best strategy is probably to gain power quickly and reach the finish line before your opponents could do anything to stop you. Also you need to protect those characters who are accumulating a lot of power. I should have protected them better. Not sure whether I could have, but I think I should have worked harder at it.

I played House Lannister. The top row are the character cards, and the bottom row the location cards. There is one event card attached to Tywin Lannister on the top right. In this instance the event card is also treated as an attachment. Normally event cards are played once and discarded.

Stannis Baratheon. Top left corner is the cost to play this card. The flag icon on the left of the card name mean this is a unique character, and that if he dies, there can be no other Stannis Baratheon. The shield on the right shows the house this card belongs to. The number in the shield on the left is the strength. The red and blue icons below it means Stannis can participate in military and power challenges. The "B 72" on the right is a serial number. The ring icon on the lower right means Stannis is a noble.

Han looking through his cards. This was our second game, where he played House Targaryen and I played House Baratheon.

The three Baratheon brothers. There are two copies of the Robert Baratheon card in play, which means if something is going to kill him, you can discard one card and keep him alive. Stannis currently has one power token on him.

This was probably the peak of the game, when Han had 9 characters in play, and I had 7. I had 6 location cards in play. Soon after this things went downhill for me, and I never recovered.

Having played two games, I don't know yet whether I like the game. I definitely enjoyed seeing the many characters and aspects of the novels come to life in the game. The gameplay is more complex than I expected. Much more complex than Blue Moon or the version of Magic that have I played. This is because almost all cards have special text. This is daunting for first-time players, and I think it will turn off non-gamers. Having played the game now, I can completely give up hope of ever being able to convince my wife to play this. I'm not complaining about the game being complex. Just stating a fact. I wonder whether having special powers for every card is a tendency of CCG's. Afterall, a small pack of CCG is not cheap, so maybe having special powers (and not ones that exist for the sake of existing) helps publishers make customers feel the cards are worth their cost.

One thing I can definitely say about AGOT LCG is it is very rich. Maybe that's a more positive way of saying it is complex. I find that there is a lot to explore, and I am interested to explore it further. I think the game will get better when we get more familiar with the various cards and their powers, very much like Blue Moon. We will be able to anticipate what cards will come. We will learn the strengths and weaknesses of each house. The different houses play differently, and feel quite different. I like that. At the moment the many different powers of the cards are daunting to me. Our 2 games progressed very slowly because we need to read all those text, and also let each other read the text on our cards, or at least explain what the cards do. But my gut feel is each card has its uses, and there won't be many (if any) cards that are completely useless. I have a feeling that there will always be a strategy that you can weave a card in.

Han suggested that we try deck-building. He lent me his Lannister and Targaryen decks, and I lent him my Stark and Baratheon decks. So we focus on learning to play two houses each. We'll only have at most 2 copies of the same card (rules allow up to 3), but I think that should be good enough for our exploration. This will be the first time that I truly dabble in deck-building.

I have some doubts about whether I will be pursuing AGOT LCG further. I found out that their chapter packs cost RM55 (~USD16) each, which is not cheap, and each chapter pack will have 40 cards, 3 copies each of 10 cards, then 1 copy each of 10 other cards. That means you only see 20 new cards in each chapter pack. I think there are already about 8 to 10 chapter packs already released. And I am sure there are many more to come. That looks like a very deep hole to get sucked into, the very reason that I am not keen about CCG's. I will probably just stick to the core game for now, until I have played it many times and get very familiar with it. If I like it well enough, then I probably will buy some chapter packs or other forms of expansions that interest me, e.g. getting cards for House Martell and House Greyjoy.

AGOT LCG may be quite different, and probably better, with more players. With two players, some cards lose some effect. Also the gameboard and the titles are not used. Titles give special bonuses and abilities for the round in which they are chosen. You can use them to prevent an opponent from attacking you. You can use them to gain additional rewards when you attack someone. I think the game will be more interesting with more players, because there will be alliances and betrayals (just like the novels), and it is harder for one single house to dominate the game because the other houses will work together to stop the leader.

So, no verdict yet for AGOT LCG from me. I'll write more thoughts after I play more.

1 comment:

Aik Yong said...

Collectible card games usually can be simplified into Speed and Control. Rush decks aims to race the opponent to the VPs while Control dominates the board and shuuts down the opponents' ability to respond.

In this respect, Baratheon are the 'Rush' decks while Stark and Lannister are the 'Control Decks'. At least this is what I concluded when I played the starter deck sets I bought ages ago. Seems like other houses have joined the fray since then.

I find in this aspect, Game of Thrones' mechanics are quite easy to grasp as compared to full on Magic the Gathering. It's easy to evaluate whether a particular card is good for rush or for control. Magic however have lots of different combos to achieve the Rush or Control victory. And Magic do have the occassional funky alternate victory conditions.