People who know me will know that one of the primary things I look for in a game is theme, perhaps above and beyond any other aspect of a game. If a game has a familiar-yet-fresh take on an intellectual property (IP) that I know and love, then it is likely that I will be taken by that particular game. Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Lovecraft … all of them rank highly with me on a personal level, but none of them come close to my emotional investment in the universe of A Song of Ice and Fire – the series of books that A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (AGOT LCG) is based on.
My history with tabletop gaming is short but deep. The board games I played as a kid included the usual; Monopoly, Chess, and Cluedo. Despite toying with Magic: The Gathering (MTG) in high school, my first true ‘gateway game’ came very late in the piece – after high school, in fact, when my friend introduced me to Settlers of Catan. After that, I came across A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (AGOT TBG), which flung me directly into the deep end. That game had everything – balanced and intuitive mechanics, replayability and, most important of all, richness in theme. My desire to backstab my friends and win was equal only to my desire to see unique battles and political manouevres play out in a way that could never happen in the books. My friends and I, who were all lovers of the series of novels but only casual board gamers at the time, spiralled into obsession. We played AGOT TBG religiously every weekend without fail for almost two years straight. We had memorised every card, every opening play, every strategy, and every counter-strategy.
But why carry on about AGOT TBG in an article apparently about AGOT LCG? Well, AGOT TBG was an important stepping stone into my descent into tabletop gaming. If Catan was the gateway drug, then AGOT TBG was a full blown trip. Spending 6 hours on a Saturday afternoon moving plastic pieces around to shatter the hopes and dreams of your mates was no longer an alien concept to me. And so it was in that context that, on a fateful Sunday in March 2014, my friend came over with a birthday gift for me: the AGOT LCG 1st Edition core set. Without that background of gaming in AGOT TBG, I would have considered it little more than a bit of jocular fun. Instead, it was the trigger that set off the powderkeg. If AGOT TBG was rich in theme and lore, then AGOT LCG was a gold mine.
What do I mean? Well, AGOT LCG (at least in its more popular Joust variant) is a 1-on-1 competitive card game where both players play the role of a particular faction and build their deck with key characters, locations, attachments, and events of that faction. A plot deck allows them to do everything from facilitate mid-game machinations, to mitigate the naturally random nature of your draw deck. Perhaps the primary difference between AGOT LCG and a game like MTG is that there are three types of challenges: military, intrigue, and power. Military represents aggressive military battles, intrigue represents scheming and spying at court, and power challenges represent capturing the support of the realm.
Winning a military challenge forces the opponent to choose and kill a character, winning an intrigue challenge discards a card from your opponent’s hand at random, and winning a power challenge moves a power token from your opponent’s faction card to your own, getting you ever closer to that 15-power win condition. Oh, and one other thing that makes AGOT LCG different is that if characters are killed then they are just that – killed. You cannot play a new copy of a character that has already died, and characters (usually) stay dead. Truly, all men must die.
As you may have guessed by now, both AGOT LCG 1st Edition (as it was known then) and AGOT LCG 2nd Edition (as it is known now) are absolutely swimming in theme. It all starts with the agendas. From the outset of deckbuilding, you are tasked with choosing a faction, and then potentially selecting an agenda to go with that faction. If you pick House Baratheon, the true rulers of the Iron Throne, then perhaps you’d like to see the storyline maintain and ally them to House Lannister with the Banner of the Lion agenda. Or perhaps you’d like to shake things up and see the kraken wed the stag in an unholy House Baratheon Banner of the Kraken deck. The choice of who you ally yourself with is yours – or perhaps you’d like to fight on your own. Fealty gives you an economic benefit for running cards loyal to your faction. Lord of the Crossing, meanwhile, accurately represents the support of the Late Lord Frey with your first challenge of the round being decidedly weaker, and your third challenge of the round becoming significantly stronger thanks to the late arrival of the Freys boosting your strength.
Then we come to the characters. While it’s true that there are plenty of random no-name non-unique “chuds” in AGOT LCG, there are also quite a few famous named characters that you might be familiar with, and what I like most about AGOT LCG is that the abilities of these named characters are often directly inspired by the books. It is a richness in theme that I think you may struggle to find anywhere else, just in the explicitly thematic nature of character abilities, location abilities, and even the abilities of events and attachments.
Cersei Lannister, with all her scheming and spying, allows you to increase the claim value of an intrigue challenge. In other words, your intrigue challenges become more powerful if Cersei herself is participating in them. Robb Stark, meanwhile, stands all your characters after a Stark character is killed in the same way he rallied the North following the execution of his father, Eddard Stark. Then you have Renly Baratheon who, while a Baratheon by name, was crowned as king by the Tyrells and has the power of the Reach supporting him. This is underlined by the fact that he is a Tyrell character and not a Baratheon character. After Renly Baratheon wins a challenge, he gets to draw a card (as a result of the insight keyword). If the card he just drew was a loyal card, you can draw an additional card. This represents the rapid pace at which Renly Baratheon gained an army loyal to his cause. The icing on the thematic cake? Renly cannot be saved from death if your opponent controls a rival King.
Each of these three characters represent not only strong in-game abilities, but abilities that are thematically relevant to the characters they are attached to. As both a gamer and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing a thematically accurate representation of a character in this card game. There is so much more to talk about when discussing the role of theme, lore, and narrative in AGOT LCG, but I think I will leave it that for now.
Since I started playing AGOT LCG seriously in mid-2014, I have had tried my hand at quite a number of board games and card games (hence my claim that my history with gaming is short but deep) making up for lost time. I can honestly say that no *card game* I have ever played matches the sheer thematic value of AGOT LCG. Every time you play, you are unravelling a new tale directly out of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.