The Things We Do For Love
An Open Letter from Nate French to the A Game of Thrones Community
I played A Game of Thrones: The Card Game for the first time in the Fall of 2002. Little did I know of where that game would lead...
As a player in the early years of the game’s CCG era, I quickly discovered an insatiable appetite for all aspects of the game. Building decks, flipping plots, drawing cards, and winning challenges became a focal point of my existence. I couldn’t get enough of it, and was known to drive all about the midwestern states in an effort to find more opportunities to play. I even quit my job in the restaurant industry so I could attend Origins 2003 and play in the Thrones events. (I took a lot of heat at the time, but in hindsight it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.) It was there that I met and traded blows with players like future World Champions John Bruno and Casey Galvan for the first time.
That convention was also where I discovered that--in addition to the many joys it offers in play--this game also has a friendly, intelligent, and mature community of players. As addictive as the game can be, this community is even more remarkable. Every time I interact with the community at a major event, I am reminded what an exceptional group of people the game attracts.
As a designer, this is the game that launched my professional career when I joined Fantasy Flight Games as a developer in 2006, and I enjoy working on it to this day. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work on a number of other wonderful games and settings – Lord of the Rings, Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer, Star Wars – but you can never quite escape the ghost of your first love, and I always find myself coming back to Thrones.
The above is just a brief outline of my own experiences with the A Game of Thrones card game. Outside of those experiences, thousands of other players all over the world have developed their own unique relationships with this game and its community. If you’re reading this, chances are good you are one of these players, and you have your own set of reasons for loving this game. I’m writing this letter because we have that love in common, and I know that if I were in your shoes I would want someone to explain to me, in terms I could understand and relate to, what was going on with the game I cared so much about.
A Game of Thrones: The Card Game is one of FFG’s most successful, consistent, and longest running lines. The LCG era alone features more than 70 product titles, all of which are relevant today. The game is currently published in 8 languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese) around the world. In 2013 we held our largest ever World Championship tournament, with 138 people competing in the joust event. In 2014, we had our largest ever turnout for the GenCon tournament. Each of the two draft sets was a popular addition among fans. And many of our most devoted tournament players believe that the current environment and metagame are as healthy and engaging (or better) as any time they can remember in the game’s history. In each of these respects, A Game of Thrones is very much alive and well.
But is it as “alive and well” as it could be? In spite of all the great things I can say about the game, it is--without a doubt--showing its age. With products and expansions dating back to 2008, the size of the competitive LCG card pool is close to 2000 cards, which presents an ever-increasing burden for attracting both retailers and new players to pick up the game. While a detailed rotation policy would address this first issue, it is not the only obstacle facing our game. Over the course of its 12 year run, A Game of Thrones has accumulated a considerable mass of outdated mechanics, a ponderous rules set, and what at times can be some pretty obscure ability templating and language choices. The game also rides upon the back of a core set that is more than 6 years old, was designed before we fully understood the meaning of the LCG experience, and was released as an expansion at the tail-end of the CCG era. Instead of providing an ideal entry point for new players and a solid foundation of useful cards for tournament deckbuilders, this product provides a fragmented experience that does more to hold the game back than it does to showcase its finer aspects. We who love the game have come to accept these truths as a small burden to bear, the quirks that we put up with because we so love the other charms... But does it have to be that way?
Considering all of the above, we at FFG found ourselves facing a difficult decision. On one hand, we had the option to hold on tightly to what we had. To put forth a rotation policy that could address the immediate “size of the cardpool” concerns, and see if we could squeeze 2 or 3 more good years out of a game that faced the other challenges described above. The alternative.... Well, what if we were to relaunch the game with a new edition, an overhauled rules set, an improved core set, and some exciting new features? The idea took hold, and as we discussed the possibilities, it became more and more intriguing. Instead of a 3 year plan, we wanted to establish a foundation upon which the game could conceivably thrive for the next 10 years or more.
Once we decided to move forward with this plan, the first step was to identify the elements that make A Game of Thrones: The Card Game the game that we all love. These are the elements that are the heart and lifeblood of the game, and if these elements were not preserved, it could not be called the same game:
- The plot deck. In many ways, the plot deck is the game’s most distinguishing feature, and is frequently the first element that players identify when asked what they like about the game.
- The challenge phase as we know it, featuring the military, intrigue, and power challenges. The challenge phase is the game’s most tactical arena, and is usually the phase in which the most direct conflict between the players occurs.
- Characters are central to the game’s action. George R.R. Martin’s series is heavily character-driven, and the game should be as well.
- Unique characters must die! The discard and dead pile capture this important aspect of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
- The game is won by accumulating power on your faction card and on characters you control. A game’s victory condition establishes what a player is trying to do, and this motivation informs a player’s decision making--and thereby his or her experience of the game--in a number of direct and indirect ways.
- The nature of “the flop.” Having the game begin in medias res, as opposed to the gradual amping up that defines many card games, enables players to quickly focus on its most engaging elements--the plot phase and the challenge phase--instead of obsessing on early game tricks and development concerns. It also adds to the game’s replay value, by adding more differentiation to the opening of each individual matchup.
From there, we needed to identify the elements that we felt were holding the game back. Each of the following can be trimmed to make the the final product more appealing:
- Moribund. If one word encapsulates the layers of confusion and frustration and eye-rolling that are associated with the AGoT timing rules, that word is moribund. Originally released a couple years into the life of the CCG era as a solution to inconsistencies and paradoxes that emerged in the CCG cardpool, “moribund timing” was never an intended part of the game’s design. Rather, these rules were reverse engineered from the cardpool as a practical means of solving fundamental problems the game’s language was having at that time. Because the solution did its job, it stuck, and has been a major sticking point for many players who seek to understand how and why things work the way they do to this day. Re-engineered timing rules will replace “moribund” and thereby make the game far more straightforward and user-friendly.
- Influence was designed during the CCG era as a mechanic to provide players with a persistent resource engine to use throughout a game round, as each player’s gold did not last beyond the marshalling phase. The introduction of persistent gold and the taxation phase made the need for influence obsolete, but as the core set was originally designed as an expansion in the CCG era, influence made its way into the LCG version of the game. With the new edition, influence no longer carries a necessary function, and is being discontinued.
- With the exception of the shadow crest, crests are little more than “glorified traits.” To simplify the game’s learning curve, we are cutting them from the new edition.
- Other timing quirks such as a special class of response (the “save/cancel response”) and the dreaded “passive effect with a trigger” are being cleaned up and re-templated in a more user-friendly manner.
- The first edition suffers from a fair amount of keyword bloat, with far more keywords than a healthy game needs, especially when you are trying to teach that game to new players. In the new edition, we are trimming the excess in this area, and moving forward with a smaller set of the most essential and interesting keywords.
Finally, we identified a number of areas where we felt we had an opportunity to improve the game experience by making a revision or adjustment. These areas are:
- The attachment card type. Historically, attachments have been regarded as a “weak” cardtype among competitive players. They harm a deck’s flops, and they have an extra layer of fragility when compared to other cardtypes. In the new edition, we are taking some steps--one of which is making the effect of the “setup” keyword a built in aspect of the attachment cardtype--to make these cards a more viable subset of the card pool.
- The gold curve. With a few outliers, the majority of the cardpool for the first edition lies in the 0 to 5 gold cost range. And most of the cards used in competitive decks lie in the 0 to 3 gold cost range, with only a few key slots in these tournament decks being devoted to higher cost cards. In the new edition, we are stretching the game’s cost curve, so that more gold is available to players and more cost slots are relevant when building decks.
- The draw cap was added to the game in late 2003, as a “band-aid” to rein in abusive draw decks. It’s a functional fix, but is not elegant in that it forces players to keep an untracked memory count of drawn cards throughout the course of each game round. For the new edition, we are doing away with the draw cap and replacing it with a more elegant and dynamic check against abusive card accumulation strategies by adding a reserve value to each plot card that caps its owner’s hand size in the taxation phase.
- Plot deck building. When building a plot deck in the new edition, players are able to run a second copy of any one plot card in the deck. This allows for the construction of more specialized plot decks, and also maintains a bit more in-game uncertainty: the first time a player sees a plot card, that player can no longer eliminate the possibility of seeing that plot again until the used pile cycles around. Some plots--like Valar Morghulis--may be excluded from this option for balance reasons by a “max 1 per plot deck” restriction.
- Treaties. The gold penalty is a clunky means of addressing “faction mixing,” and no treaty or alliance agenda yet printed has felt completely right. A new loyalty mechanic combined with the ability to select a support faction in lieu of another agenda makes combining factions a more balanced and viable option than we have yet experienced.
- The factions. We decided that there was room in the game for more than 6 factions, and are expanding and adjusting the color pie accordingly. (To help narrow your speculation: House Brax will not be a core faction.)
- The new edition also showcases a veritable feast of gorgeous original artwork and striking new graphic design.
With all of these changes and revisions in mind, it should be clear that the two editions of the game are not compatible with one another. This point raises another important question: what about the first edition?
I understand that many of you are deeply invested in the first edition cardpool. There is a financial aspect to this investment, but also a very real emotional aspect: you enjoy playing the game with these cards and exploring the dynamic environment and metagame they have formed. I also understand that, as exciting as some of the changes in the new edition may sound, there is a world of difference between playing a card game with a mature, multifaceted environment (such as we now enjoy), and playing a new game with only a few products’ worth of cards (such as we would have upon the launch of the new edition).
For these reasons – and because we too love the current cardpool and metagame – we are committed to continued support of the first edition as we make this transition. To that end, FFG will run sanctioned National and World Championship level tournaments for the first edition (as well as events for the new edition) at GenCon 2015 and at next year’s 2015 World Championship Weekend. Tournament kits will be available to support first edition events throughout the 2015 tournament year. This will provide players with an opportunity to continue to enjoy and compete with their first edition cards at sanctioned events while the metagame of the new edition matures. Additionally, just as the CCG era cards remained a popular draft option well into the time frame of the LCG era, the Westeros and the Ice and Fire draft pools will continue to see support at major AGoT events while the new edition expands to a size that can support a draft format of its own. Finally, the Wardens cycle will soon be releasing, as a swan song expansion that completes the first edition cardpool.
One last question I can anticipate is, “What about the champion cards?” In my opinion, the champion cards are one of the highest honors that can be achieved in our gaming community, and each of these cards functions as a mark of a player’s lasting legacy upon the game. Any champion who has earned the right to design a card for the game but has not yet done so will still be able to design that card for the new edition if he or she so desires. Further, just as we brought the CCG era champion cards forward into the LCG, I will make every attempt--at the appropriate moment for each card--to bring recognizable versions of the first edition champion cards into the new edition.
So where does that leave us? The new edition is knee deep in development, and I will be recruiting an external beta playtest group throughout the course of our World Championship Weekend. (If you’re interested, make sure you talk to me!) We will begin previewing the new game in greater detail in late spring/ early summer, and – if there are no unforeseen delays outside of our control – we’re looking forward to the launch of the new core set at Gen Con Indy 2015. In many ways, this new edition is built upon passions we have felt and lessons we have learned over the course of the past 12 years, and I’m looking forward to sharing this product, the quintessential experience of one of my favorite games, with the rest of the world.
Nate French November 2014
Nate French is a Senior LCG Designer at Fantasy Flight Games, and has been involved with the development of A Game of Thrones: The Card Game and other games since 2006. For more information about A Game of Thrones: The Card Game Second Edition, visit the minisite.