It's time to pick up the political analysis of that beloved card game that occupies the mind of its fans so thoroughly that they refer to it as the only game that matters. Since my last post, I heard from some Rugby fans that they found it funny that somebody else considers the game 'the only game that matters' because clearly Rugby is the only game that matters. I guess.
In any case, last time I talked about the deck-building game and now it's time to get into the actual game game. The only game that matters, folks, the Game of Thrones (The Card Game Second Edition, that is, which I will henceforth refer to simply as 'Thrones').1
The road to victory
The goal of the game is to get to 15 power before your opponent does. That's kind of a strange goal, and I'll talk about power in a moment but first it's important to note that the way you get there, the strategy you adopt can vary greatly. This is where the deck-building game I discussed previously cannot be totally left behind - for different decks dictate different ways to play the game. Good games, it is known, offer multiple paths for victory. Not so for good decks: some great decks force you into a very specific path if you want to win with them. Playing with these decks would not be fun if they were the only decks in the world. As it is, a big part of playing the game is knowing the deck you're playing and you can't win without playing to your deck's strengths.
For example, a while ago played against an unusual Stark banner of the Lion deck. Stark has a strong military presence and a good amount of tools that let you kill your opponent's characters and it works well with the Lannister package of Tyrion's gold and Jaime's military prowess. Though it goes against the theme (in the game jargon, it's not Nedly) it's a pretty common build that tends to hit hard and fast, wiping the board (by killing characters) and adding insult to injury by dominating economically with Lannister gold. And so, when I faced that deck and saw that my opponent started off with no military icons, I thought he was just being unlucky - that his deck was misfiring. So I went after him, putting an early pressure with military challenges to make sure I get a board advantage. Little did I know, he got exactly what he wanted. His deck was focused on having his own characters die (or be sacrificed) and gain power using Catelyn and Joffrey. Once I realized that he really likes having his characters killed, I stopped pushing for the military challenges - but he was already quite close to winning. That deck would not beat me twice in a row (for the record, it didn't beat me even once) - as soon as you know what's it's trying to do, it's much easier to thwart.
The point is just that a big part of the game is figuring out what's your opponent is trying to do, what kind of deck do they have. To a certain degree, you can know much about it by knowing the faction well but as the card pool grows, they offer more variety and more options. Reading your opponent, and avoiding telegraphing your own goals, is a big part of what you can and should do your opponent. And some of it is just the number of military icon on the board and what that tells your opponent about your plans.
Ok, enough with the deck building. On to the game. That one, that matters. One of the unique features of Thrones is that unlike many others 1v1 card games (and especially Magic: The Gathering), there are three different ways to hurt your opponent, and you are constantly choosing which of them you use. Typically, each of your characters can only participate in one of these so-called challenges so you have to choose wisely about which of them to use for each challenge. As we said, there are three types of challenges and we shall now explore the game through each one of them: power, military and intrigue.
The abstract nature of power
Now that we're finally done with deckbuilding (or are we? It really comes up a lot) we can turn to the game, the goal of which is to gain 15 power. What is power? And why 15? No such answers are provided. The ultimate currency of the game (which really should have been named something else, power is so confused as players constantly refer to characters' strength as 'power') is actually quite abstract - a vague commodity, the winning of which represents... well, it's not really clear. But hey, you might say, it's thematic! (aka Nedly) It really represents the source material! I don't think so. In Westeros, power resides wherever people believe it resides, it's shifts arbitrarily - not meticulously accumulated by whoever has the best draw economy. In the game of thrones you famously win by not dying, which is typically achieved by having lots of gold, soldiers, territories and all the rest of the stuff in the game. The fact that the game has this abstract vague goal means you can have a giant army, a lot of money and still lose because your opponent lost enough battles in The Boneway or some other ridiculous reason (try: blocked all attacks against The Wall and lost each one of them; schemed successfully in the Small Council Chamber (not even in the council, but in the chamber); let Benjen Stark die; placed one random person's head on a spike). From a thematic standpoint, it's bizarre.
Yes, that's right. The main feature of the two players' race to that golden threshold of 15 is that it takes place at the expanse of gaining all the things that real Westerosi care about. Unlike, for example, A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, where your victory is measured by the number of castles and strongholds you control, which also produce soldiers and supply - in Thrones the choice to accumulate power usually comes at the expanse of trying to harm your opponent. You have to balance strengthening your board position with the mad rush to the win. And it's always a kind of a rush, because in the end - having 14 power is meaningless. If you rushed to the win, got to 14 power but neglected to build your board - you might find yourself slowly being dragged down, downsized back to a power level that matches your presence, even losing. Much of the dynamic is familiar from a variety of well-loved Euro-games (from the simple Splendor, through the more stylized Spyrium and all the way to big classics like Agricola): at what point do you stop working on building your engine and switching to operating it so it would generate the ever-so-beautiful-in-their-meaninglessness victory points? Some of it is, as discussed, in the deck construction. Not all decks are designed to generate power in the same timing or speed. But much of it is in the dynamics of the game and reading your opponent is often trying to figure out how long they're planning for and what timing you can hit them with. It's not so different from RTS video games in this way: lots of strategies revolve around timing. Most games will see one player getting ahead and then trying to 'close' the game. The mechanics, and specifically the beautiful feature of the plot deck (which lets players choose 7 cards that are not shuffled into their deck but instead played once per round; this allows them to save certain powerful effects that they can play 'on demand' in specific rounds), allow players to prepare for this closure with a special plot (such as The Winds of Winter, Rise of the Kraken or A Tourney for the King). Failing to play these at the right time is likely a loss of the game. If you try to close when you're not situated for it, you might blow your 2-claim plot; if you don't close when you need to, you might allow your opponent to mount a comeback. Timing is key in the rush for power.
Now that we have a clear sense of the way the struggle for power takes place, and we have our eyes on that prize that wins the game, it's time to talk about the way to get there. The actual battle for the board.
The stressful paranoia of military presence (or lack thereof)
The heart of the game is the characters on the board. As is appropriate for a game based on a popular franchise, a large part of the game revolves around control iconic characters from the story, oversee their triumph or be responsible for the terrible demise. Characters are not everything in the game: some decks rely heavily on locations, others on important kill events and combos with plots. But characters are the meat and potato of the game. They are what you spend most of your gold for. They comprise the biggest part of your board presence. They take center stage at the challenges phase, which is the longest and most central phase of the game. And they are what your opponent will be looking to destroy, especially early in the game.
And that's where Thrones really shines, because it uses the mechanic of unique characters. Normal characters are deployed (or marshaled) when they are needed and they are a lot like creatures in Magic or various other card games where you draw a card and can play it if you have enough resources. Unique characters are not like the other cards because they care about what's already been played. A unique character can only be played once, so if Tyrion is on the board, you can't play another copy of him. And when he dies, he's dead for good (at least for that game) and if you draw any more copies of him, they are just useless cards in your hand. In Magic, your discard pile is called 'graveyard' but in Thrones there's regular discard and then there's the dead pile, which is an actual graveyard: a heap of cards that you know can never come back into the game.
Well, with some exceptions. For some reason, Summer the direwolf can bring a Stark child back to life, usually Bran or Arya. You can play a plot that takes one character from your dead pile back to your regular (turns out he wasn't dead, it was just a close call), Aeron Damphair can use resuscitation to bring back to life people who drowned or were put to the sword and we all know that Targaryens, and especially dragons, are never really dead. BUT OTHER THAN THAT, for now at least, when someone is dead - they're dead for the game.
But the possibility of death doesn't just raises the stakes before the inevitable demise of your favorite dwarf but after it as well. What's great about the mechanic of death (because there isn't much that's great about actual death) is it's not just interesting strategically, but also makes for a great story. Each game you play creates, as part of the gameplay, an accompanying story. In recounting the game you would tell you friends something like the following:
Tyrion was getting some work done but then a dragon burned him. I was trying to stabilize but then a Dornish Paramour was able to seduce Jaime and he got burnt as well. The paramour had total control over Cersei and the situation was looking dire for my Lannisters but then Ser Ilyn Payne showed up and started chopping up heads the of paramours and dragons alike. Without her dragons, Dany wasn't as big a threat and I was able to hold her off until Tywin showed up and closed the deal.
The death of a unique character is so significant, both thematically and mechanically, that it punctuates the game experience. The game moves from the tension of keeping these preciously vulnerable characters alive to the heroism of defeating your opponent despite the fact that half of your faction's main characters are dead. And so, it captures the spirit of the world and story without tying you too closely to the plot of the originals. Sure, sometimes Ned Stark gets his head put on a spike and that makes everybody exclaim in unison, 'how Nedly!' but just as often it'll be Ned that puts Tywin to the sword using the Stark ancestral sword, Ice. I noted that some strange decks benefit from the death of the characters (through Joffrey's sociopathy or Catelyn's masochism) but in most games, you constantly worry about having enough people so that one or two can die and it won't be the end of the world. The military challenge is a constant form of pressure on the board of awesome characters that drive the story and you the player to your eventual destiny: victory or defeat.
Intrigue's lack of subtlety
The last type of challenge is intrigue, and if you win that you can discard a card at random from your opponent's hand. That challenge goes hand to hand with cards that let you draw from your deck - a pretty powerful effect, according to popular wisdom. The more you can draw, the more you can compensate for suffering losses in intrigue challenges and the more you gain what the experts call - wait for it, because this is getting technical - 'card advantage'.
Usually, in card games, it's pretty difficult to get card advantage. You have to have a special discard or draw spell, or force your opponent into an unfavorable trade. You have to pay the cost of the special effect, use a card for it and so forth. But in Thrones, the competition for card advantage is built into the challenge phase through the intrigue challenge. If the power challenge is all about finding out the tricky point at which you need to switch gears from killing to gaining power, and the military challenge is all about making sure you have enough people that can die - intrigue challenge is the most straightforward one, letting you choke your opponent's option by taking cards from his hands and discarding them.
Intrigue challenges (and associated effects of course) are the main reason you'll often hear Thrones players ask each other 'how many cards do you have in hand?' That's an important data point at any card game but in Thrones it's always a tactical point as well. The number of cards in my opponent's hand is tells me what are the odds that a randomly discarded card is that Balon he just summoned or that annoyingly ever-bouncing Hound. It's a representation of how many options he has beyond what's currently on the table, and if their board state is not that great - it might be time to go after that hand and eliminate their future.
Intrigue provokes the image of sneaky assassins and shadowy characters, but in Thrones it is the card game equivalent of going into someone's house and breaking their stuff. It's as subtle as a hammer to the face. It's a constant threat to you private hand of cards: use them or lose them. Though some factions are better at intrigue than others, all could just initiate an intrigue challenge and go after your hand.
The main implication of the intrigue challenge is that cards in hand are not, as in other card games, private property. You cannot really hold them close to your chest as your opponent can always swing at them. As far as I can tell, going after your opponent's hand is currently a viable strategy: you intrigue them until they have nothing in hand, and they are left with no choice but to play what they draw (aka 'topdecking').
The three different types of challenges is at the heart of Thrones as a game. The dynamic of playing the game - and the mind games between opponents - often revolves around which of the challenges (as well as the so-called 'fourth challenge', dominance) is more important at any given time. The answer to this question varies with the timing in the game's arc (military more important early, power later), the faction you're running, the type of deck, the strategy you're pursuing and the board state. Evaluating these factors and building a game plan is the strategic skill required for the game. But what's really beautiful about the challenges as a game mechanic is that they really represents different ways of hurting your opponent, different things you can do to your opponent. There are a ton of other game effects that different cards can trigger but most of them are akin to one of the challenges. Fools draw cards for you (with their 'insight') or discard you cards, and so they fit with intrigue challenges. Kill affects compound military claims and are often triggered by military challenges. Gaining power effects are often done by taking it from your opponent's house card. When you play the game, you might focus on effects rather than the actual challenges but most of them are in the 'mindset' of one of these challenges. And playing the game is balancing these three mind-sets.
Which is why Thrones is such a rewarding political experience, even in a two player game. Unlike most two player games, you're not just destroying your opponent by overwhelming them with force and punching them until some 'life' track hits zero. Thrones lets you toy with your opponent. It lets you start slow and then spring to victory, or lose a few battles just so you can win the war. Your opponents needs to figure that's what you're doing or they are done You can frustrate your opponent by taking away their options, wait them out with a long con or overwhelm them with force. There's an element of guessing and bluffing built into the structure of the game. The brilliance of Thrones is that these options do not depend on fancy card abilities, but they are in the structure of the game. If all cards were blanks and only had icons and strength, you could still build a deck that's all about frustrating your opponent or play around with the timing of a rush to power. And my favorite part about it is that all of these are really tied well to the theme - go heavy on intrigue really feels like getting inside your opponent's camp and going for military feels like trying to crash them. This is the core strength of the game, and with that - I conclude my political analysis of it.
1. This post only discusses the 2 player head to head format known as joust. I'm not referring at all to the 3-6 players version, known as melee, not because I don't think it's important but because I sadly have only played it once.
2. As a side note, since this makes power challenges pretty useless early on and pretty boring in general, the game designers spiced them up with cards like Support of the People and Plaza of Punishment; the fact they exist create more tension in early game power challenges and reduces the predictability of the challenge phase. But the designers were careful to make these effects limited and few, so that they don't change the fundamental structure of the game and the nature of power as an abstract goal akin to victory points.