Tower of the Hand

A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game

8/20/2014 9:00:00 AM ET

Another Long Night has fallen for voracious readers of A Song of Ice and Fire. The first cold came creeping from the North back in the summer of 2011, more than three years ago, and the darkness has been present since.

Knee-deep in snow, you have come to a roadside tavern almost buried in white drifts. As the cold wind howls, you open the door to be greeted with warmth and light and tables occupied by many a geek. They are busy laying out cards across the worn table surfaces, chattering idly among themselves. A gnarled old man - he must be reaching his forties - approaches.

"Welcome, weary travelers. Come and sit by the fire, so you can warm your hands. Be careful not to put those blue fingers too close to the flames - it is so very tempting when one has marched through the dreadful winter beneath a starless sky. And do not look too long into the flames, for you may be granted visions you would rather be without."

Settling on stools in front of the fire, the man approaches and offers you a cup of Arbor gold, to chase away the frost. You wonder what the patrons are doing with the cards, and the innkeep seems eager to oblige and explain, grabbing a stool and sitting down next to you.

"This is the third Long Night," the innkeep begins. "These card players you see are a remnant from the first Long Night. Tyrion Lannister had just escaped King's Landing, and no one seemed to know his whereabouts, least of all his sister, the mad Queen Regent. We were still shocked by the Red Wedding. We wondered where Brynden Tully, the Blackfish, was. And no one had seen Varys the Spider after the death of the king. So began the first Long Night, in which we waited, and then waited some more, to learn what had happened."

ccg-box-premium.jpgA Game of Thrones: Collectible Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games

It was in this dark time, between August 2000 and October 2005, that the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire made a big leap. Before this first darkness, George R.R. Martin's series was something of a well-known secret - a little like knowing that Grand Maester Pycelle wasn't entirely honest all the time. We all knew just how crazy good the books were, but the rest of the world had yet to catch on. Just like someone had recommended the books to us, we passed on the knowledge of this great story to others. It had become a hit mainly due to word of mouth, but the power of Martin's story could not be contained. It became a franchise in these days, the first bits of merchandise trickling into hungry fans' hands, eager for anything to keep us connected to the story: fine art prints, of Eddard cleaning his greatsword and Sansa building her castle in the snow and Jon Snow looking fierce along with Ghost; coins minted to look as if they had been teleported from Westeros to Earth; and George R.R. Martin was making new deals with different companies all the time, promising much goodness (though a lot of it ended up not so good, but that's a tale for another dark winter).

And then Fantasy Flight Games, an up-and-coming game company based in Minnesota, purchased the license to make games based on Martin's property, resulting in a fantastic board game and A Game of Thrones: Collectible Card Game, the game the patrons are playing with much zeal on the tables of the inn, immersing themselves through the art and mechanics in Martin's epic tale as they wait for the next installment in the series.

The game, published in 2002, couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. There was little news of the next book, and so it took hold of many fans' imaginations as they began to delve into this new way of experiencing Westeros. Many had already experienced the first truly popular collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, a game which I had played myself 10 years earlier. It was an addictive game, for sure, but now there was a similar game with a different and more interesting appeal - and it turned out to improve upon the basic design concepts of Magic, providing both more complexity but also a game where the mechanics were designed to emulate the flavor of Martin's series. Needless to say, my friends, the moment the game became available to us, we rushed in and bought starter decks and booster packs, and the hunt for rare cards was on. We were hooked, like trout in the Red Fork. You see, in collectible card games, the "collectible" part of it is quite essential: you never know exactly what mix of cards you get in a pack, and some cards are less common than others. This makes you excited and, if you're not careful, all your money gets funneled into booster packs in the hope that you score that elusive Ser Gregor Clegane card.

Oh, yes, I remember vividly when the first set, called Westeros Edition, arrived. We blew our money and ripped into those boxes and packs, gleefully showing each other the cool cards we had gotten, like Flea Bottom children presented with sweet lemoncakes. The rules were fairly easy to understand, though different enough from Magic that we blundered a fair bit before we understood all the nifty mechanics. Gradually, we discovered what worked and what didn't work so well, exploring the concepts and settling on our favorite cards, card combos, and houses.

Several concepts helped make A Game of Thrones a unique game that, in my opinion, is the best collectible (or otherwise) card game ever produced (though I suspect the fact it's flavored with Ice and Fire also helps), with only a few wrinkles nipples in an otherwise finely castle-forged breastplate.

  • Houses: House Cardunlike most collectible card games, where you can pick any card for your build (the deck you play with), A Game of Thrones forces you to choose an allegiance first. Initially, you had three main choices: House Stark, House Baratheon, and House Lannister. You could choose to mix and match, but at a cost. To play an out-of-house character (say, you are House Stark and you want to recruit Ser Jaime Lannister), you have to pay an additional sum during your turn. With the houses fairly balanced, it became something of an aesthetic choice, but each house also had its strengths and weaknesses, allowing for greater variation and trickery. When the game became a success, Fantasy Flight released many expansion sets, quickly introducing two more houses to the game - House Greyjoy and House Targaryen - and, later, a fifth and final house, the Martells of Dorne. Even later, minor houses were added, too, but as "allies" to the five major ones. You could build a Tyrell deck, for example, using Tyrell characters, but you still had to choose one of the five majors.
  • Plots: true to A Song of Ice and Fire (particularly the flavor of King's Landing), you have to pick seven plots - a special type of card - before a game. Deciding on which plots to use, and which plots work best with your deck, "plotting" becomes almost a game unto itself. Particularly fun was getting hold of a plot the other players didn't know you had, and then springing it on them while grinning like Tyrion when Bronn slew Ser Vardis Egen (which, incidentally, can happen in a game - not the grinning, but Bronn beating Ser Vardis). Some plot cards were brutal (as befits the series), such as Valar Morghulis, which, when you revealed it to your players, simply killed all characters on the table. Yes, this includes your own, but, as we learned the game, we soon found interesting ways of using this plot to our advantage. The plot cards also decide how much money you have to spend each round (for example, the plot Wildfire Assault shows a golden coin - a dragon - with the number three, meaning you have three gold to spend on resources that round, be it characters, items, or locations), who plays first (a diamond-shaped initiative icon), and, finally, it holds an icon called "claim" or "claim value," which tells you how powerful your attacks will be the round your Wildfire Assault is in play. Plotting, of course, is the meat of both game and novels, and the fun thing is that you play with your plot deck face-down, so your opponents can't see what plots you are hatching - and you don't know what they are doing. It creates a fun tension. Each round, players will have different incomes, different claims, and different initiatives, so games do not grow stale.
  • Claim: in Magic, you deal damage, and damage reduces life points. A Game of Thrones really branched out from this simple concept, introducing three ways to win a contest. Characters in the game can have up to three different claim icons, representing these three ways to win. An axe represents Military claim, an eye represents Intrigue, and a crown represents Power. Characters with a Military icon, then, can kill off your opponent's characters (usually mercilessly); characters with an Intrigue icon can discard cards from your opponent's hand, rendering them useless; and characters with a Power icon can "steal" power points from your opponent. This made, naturally, characters with all three icons coveted, as you could use them in all ways. However, sometimes a simple military unit, like a foot soldier, could be enough to disrupt the plans of a powerful intrigue unit.
  • Power: in the books, most characters seek power in one way or another; you can argue that power, how to wield it, and how to lose it, is a huge theme in the series. The game designers cleverly made accumulating power central to the card game; in fact, the victory condition is to amass the most power first (though you can have fun with it and make up all kinds of fun victory conditions). Each player has a house card on the table, where power is gathered - either by using tokens (we used small beads), writing your current total on a note, or whatever. Each round, players would gather power in a variety of ways - and lose power in a variety of ways - so the key was to be able to both grab power from others and defend your own. Some characters had a keyword called "Renown" - they claimed power not just for your house (card), but also for themselves, which counted toward your total Power score.
  • Keywords: ccg-card-unique.jpg characters (and other card types) have a number of keywords that give them some special ability. I mentioned "Renown" already, but there are others, too, that add to the game's flavor. Keywords include "Ally," "Maester," "Lord," "Septon," "Army," "Knight," and many more, and these keywords all play into your strategy. There are, for example, other cards (usually "Events") that refer to a keyword. As the game eventually expanded into thousands of cards, there were very many keywords, but since they are affected only by other cards that specifically mention those keywords, you didn't need to know a lot of obscure or complicated rules. For example, there's a plot card that allows you to search your deck for a card with the "Maester" keyword - that's all there is to it, but it adds that flavor of Westeros. Eventually, there were enough cards to choose from that we were able to build decks based on keywords - a knight deck, for example, focusing on characters with the "Knight" keyword, to which you add events and items and locations related to knights.
  • Uniqueness: in most collectible card games at the time, you had a certain limit of how many copies of the same card you could have in your deck. With A Game of Thrones came a fun variant - some characters have the Unique trait, which simply means that there can only be one of them on the table (battlefield). Like in the books, characters drop like flies in this game, and by having named characters be unique, they became more vulnerable, and it gave off a more realistic vibe. Yes, you could have four copies of Hedge Knight in play, but only one Ser Rodrik Cassel. We learned soon enough that building a deck around one character could be a risky proposition, even if you have three backups in your deck. But, also like the books, characters can rise, harder and stronger, from the dead.

Eventually,ccg-card-character-.jpg we began to organize small tournaments at the local game store - much like what you are seeing here now, with people gathered around playing their cards, and, oh... I see your flagon is empty. One moment, and I shall have the wench serve anew... and we received promo material from Fantasy Flight Games from across the Atlantic, and that made us only more enthusiastic. Ah, that first Long Wait - long before I became a family man, and I had no qualms about shelling out for all those cards... Large boxes were bought to keep the collection safe, and Fantasy Flight pumped out expansions, and new core sets, followed by more expansions. Now we could also play as the ironborn, or as the last scion of Targaryen, and eventually as the sneaky Martells. I became obsessed with completing each release, not giving up until the binders had at least one copy of each card (which resulted, naturally, in enormous stacks of copies of the common cards - I swear I almost throw up just thinking of how many Mountain Clansman copies I had lying around).

As you probably understand, too much of a good thing can turn bad, and while the collection continued to grow, I also became tired of playing the game - I ended up collecting the cards instead, trading with people from all over the world. Cards came flying in from all directions, and, through the internet, I came to know fellow gamers at the game's forums. Eventually, other dedicated fans made online versions of the game, and I began playing it against opponents all over the world. At first, we only had crude squares with the card text in it; toward the end, people were importing full scans of the cards. One young fellow gamer I came in contact with was a British fellow with the nickname Ser Poopalot. Together we had a lot of fun playing the game. He even had George R.R. Martin sign a Cersei Lannister card, which he sent me (along with a Herald of Storm's End with a big penis scrawled over the artwork). For a while, then, the game became a big part of life.

The Long Wait ended at last, and A Feast for Crows was finally published. In those light(headed) days, we had fun seeing some already-printed cards come to life in the text. While the game never spoiled things, Fantasy Flight apparently had access to information that allowed them to build minor bits of the narrative into their cards before the book was published.

A new long and dark winter descended, but we still played the game, and more expansion sets arrived to keep us addicted. Finally, in 2007, I completed each set released in those five years, amounting to a huge box with thousands of cards - with endless copies of the most common ones. It seemed that interest in the game waned overall, and eventually Fantasy Flight cancelled their collectible card game, and had it reborn as a "Living" card game - by taking out the "collectible," cards were now sold in packs with the exact same copies in each pack. It turned out to revive the game for the company, but the new format did not lure me back, because, for me, a big part of the fun was collecting and getting new rares.

Myccg-house-greyjoyresin.jpg biggest regret is that, during the second Long Night, while waiting for A Dance with Dragons, I got so fed up with the waiting game and the franchise that I threw the entire collection in the trash, save for the signed Cersei, a resin House Greyjoy statuette, and a couple of other small accessories. I regret it because now, in the third Long Night, as we wait for The Winds of Winter, I feel like playing the game again.

But I have talked enough, and I can see from your bleary eyes that you are tired. I will show you a vacant room - you better not mind lice and rats, but anything is better than roaming out in the wild these days. If you feel that the days are going too slowly while you wonder whatever really happened to Jon Snow, playing A Game of Thrones is a very sweet diversion.

While I do not know if people still meet up to play the game online, there are several facilitators for this. Software has been built to accommodate a variety of collectible card games, including A Game of Thrones.

You can also watch an in-depth review of the Living Card Game to give you a better understanding:

An interesting gameplay session report that showcases the flavor can be read here:

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