Flight of Crows
A Designer Journal on the Fourth Cycle for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game
There were crows circling the seven towers and great dome of Baelor’s Sept even now, Jaime suspected, their black wings beating against the night air as they searched for a way inside.
–George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
The Flight of Crows cycle, the fourth cycle for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, has recently concluded with the release of Someone Always Tells. But before you fall too far into the dark intrigues of the new Dance of Shadows cycle, we want to spare a little time for developer Danny Schaefer to reflect back on the most recent cycle.
Developer Danny Schaefer on the Flight of Crows Cycle
In this article, I’d like to talk a bit about the Flight of Crows cycle for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game. I’ll be walking through some of the major themes of the cycle, calling out my favorite cards for each theme, and discussing my thought process when designing them and how I anticipated them fitting into the game.
From a broad perspective, the Flight of Crows cycle was designed to build on the bestow mechanic introduced in the Blood and Gold cycle, providing more support for the mechanic and playing with different ways it could be used. The cycle also introduced an overarching theme of cards that work best when combined with cards from other factions. Finally, I wanted to use the cycle to explore some of the minor themes within each faction, fleshing out some underused mechanics to help each faction feel deeper and more nuanced! Let’s take a look at each of these three themes from the cycle and a few of my favorite cards that correspond to each theme.
As the Blood and Gold cycle was the introduction to the bestow keyword, that cycle generally used the mechanic in a fairly basic way. Most cards had a bestow value of two or three, with an ability that scaled based on gold bestowed or required you to discard a gold from the card to use the ability. As a result, most bestow cards created one or two important decision points for the player—how much gold to put on the card when playing it, and when to spend that gold to use the card’s ability. For Flight of Crows, I was interested in designing bestow cards that altered this play pattern, creating a wider variety of decision points.
The Iron Bank (The Archmaester’s Key, 19)
This is one of my favorite uses of bestow in the cycle because it creates unique decisions that feel very different from the choices associated with a typical bestow card. The Iron Bank’s bestow 1 keyword means there isn’t much choice to be made when playing the card (although it does make cards like Favors from the Crown (The Brotherhood Without Banners, 120) or Unbridled Generosity (The Brotherhood Without Banners, 118) look pretty enticing as a way to “cheat” more gold onto the card). Instead, the interesting decisions are how and when to spend gold from The Iron Bank.
Unlike other bestow cards, which encourage a play pattern of using the gold at the earliest opportunity, The Iron Bank encourages you to wait as long as possible before spending its gold because the gold grows exponentially. This creates a great deal of tension, as there’s a strong allure to waiting and letting the gold build up to ridiculous amounts. But each turn you wait is another turn you have a card in play that’s doing nothing to help you, and it leaves you open to the risk of your opponent discarding The Iron Bank before you get any value from it.
The House of Black and White (Journey to Oldtown, 22)
I wanted this cycle to have a few really splashy, jaw-dropping bestow effects, and this is one of the biggest. The bestow value of ten is immediately attention-grabbing, as is the targeted kill effect—hard removal is almost always tied to winning a challenge or restricted to a small subset of characters, so a kill effect with no such restrictions should cause players to sit up and take notice. What I really like about this card, though, is the ability to refill it with more gold. This takes the one-time decision of how much gold to invest and makes it repeatable, giving you interesting choices from turn to turn. I especially like how the ability leads to tough decisions between short-term and long-term benefits: do you kill the four-cost character now, or settle for killing a one-cost character so you can add more gold and take out their six-cost character next turn?
Mole's Town (Kingsmoot, 46)
On the surface, Mole’s Town doesn’t look too different from your typical “spend one gold to use an effect” bestow card. However, the fact that the gold moves to the chosen character adds a lot of depth to the ability. Because you can’t choose the same target multiple times, you have to consider not only the best play for the current round, but whether you’ll want to use Mole’s Town on a certain character in a future round.
The other interesting feature of this card is that it plays differently against an opponent running bestow characters—characters with bestowed gold aren’t valid targets for Mole’s Town and moving gold onto a bestow character with no gold could easily backfire. I like designing cards that have different values against different decks, as it helps games play out differently, even if the game plan you’re trying to execute is roughly the same.
One theme of Flight of Crows is a focus on the Banner agendas. As the game grows and more agendas are released, the opportunity cost of running a Banner agenda increases—if you choose a Banner, you are giving up the chance to have the powerful ability of an agenda like "The Rains of Castamere" (Lions of Casterly Rock, 45), The House with the Red Door (Journey to Oldtown, 39), or The Wars to Come (Sands of Dorne, 45). As the card pool grows, each faction gains access to a deeper pool of strong cards, shrinking the gap in card quality between Banner and non-Banner decks. For that reason, I wanted to include some cards in this cycle that specifically reward you for playing with a Banner.
Secret Pact (The Faith Militant, 96)
I’m a big fan of cards that have multiple uses, so it’s no surprise that Secret Pact tops my list of favorite Banner cards. This card has applications even in a non-Banner deck, giving you a way to stop a pesky opposing character from attacking. Playing the card in a Banner leaves that option open while providing the added flexibility of giving renown to one of your own non-Martell characters. In a melee game, the applications are even broader, as attaching Secret Pact to an opponent’s character will stop it from attacking you, while giving that player an incentive to attack other opponents. Having cards like Secret Pact, that put a lot of options into players’ hands, leads to more interesting, dynamic, and skill-testing games.
Oathkeeper (The Archmaester’s Key, 5)
Oathkeeper was one of the first cards I designed with this theme in mind. The plotline of Brienne looking for Arya and Sansa lent itself perfectly to the mechanic of searching for characters from a different faction, making Oathkeeper a natural fit. I’m always on the lookout to include thematic designs that tie into the overall themes of the set.
Another thing you may notice about Oathkeeper is that it works with any non-Tyrell characters, including neutrals. This is a choice I made for many of the Banner cards in this cycle, to make them feel a bit less pigeonholed and allow them to be used in other decks.
Queen's Men (The Archmaester’s Key, 8)
Queen’s Men offers some potent support for one of Baratheon’s minor themes, which is the R’hllor “seen in flames” ability that allows you to see your opponent’s hand and remove cards from it. This ability provides Baratheon with a unique way to disrupt the opponent, and one that feels distinct from their proclivity for kneeling.
I also like the dual nature of this card’s effect; the Queen’s Men alone provide you valuable information, while using the non-Baratheon kicker can upend your opponent’s plans. Like Secret Pact, this is a card that can be serviceable even without additional support, but really shines when used in a Banner deck.
In the early expansions, we spent a lot of time building up the card pool and fleshing out major themes for each faction. By the time we began design for the Flight of Crows cycle, many of these major faction themes had come into their own, such as Night’s Watch defense, Targaryen burn, or Greyjoy unopposed. In Flight of Crows, I wanted to put more focus on each faction’s minor themes. The goal is for each faction to feel more complete and multi-dimensional, with several distinct builds possible.
Tris Botley (Journey to Oldtown, 31)
Pillage had been floating around as a minor Greyjoy theme for a while, but it hadn’t had enough support to produce a dedicated deck. One key to making the pillage deck work was introducing cards that benefit not only from their own pillage keyword, but also from your other pillage characters. Tris Botley is a good example—he works just fine on his own, but surrounding him with other pillage characters greatly expands your options. Another aspect of his ability that I like is that he really rewards knowledge of your opponent’s deck and can punish opponents whose strategy is too predictable or too reliant on certain key cards.
Tyrell has long been the most constructive faction in the LCG®, with a plethora of abilities that let you draw cards, gain gold, and build up your board, but relatively few abilities that actively disrupt your opponent. This is an intentional point of balance; they are allowed to be stronger in one area due to their weakness in the other. There should still be some ways for Tyrell to interact directly, however, and one of those is by removing characters from challenges. While not a permanent solution to a problematic character, these abilities are a nice way to give the Tyrell player more control over the challenges phase. Each of these characters is also connected to Tyrell’s more prominent “strength matters” theme, with Hyle in particular playing very well with strength buffs.
Dorea Sand (The Archmaester’s Key, 16)
The Sand Snakes theme wasn’t fully fleshed out until the development of the Sands of Dorne expansion, but even during the design of Flight of Crows, I knew it was a theme that would be explored eventually. Dorea is a great example of an effective “tribal” card—she’s okay on her own, but if you commit to building around Sand Snakes, she becomes incredibly efficient. It’s important for cards like Dorea to exist in the card pool as a reward for building around a certain theme, allowing those minor themes to sometimes supplant a faction’s more generic builds, creating a wider diversity of archetypes.
The Flight of Crows cycle has been completed, but the Dance of Shadows cycle has only just begun. Stay tuned for more information about the fifth cycle for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game!