Of Dice and Men
Reviews of Pandemic and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (2nd Edition)
This post was written in January 2017
Christmas is a time of cracking open the dusty board games cupboard in order to subject the family to forced togetherness with the use of the enjoyable world of capitalism, solving the murders of aristocrats or the acquisition of cheese through general knowledge. Fortunately, board gaming has come a long way from the days of the Parker Brothers and Mattel, and it is now becoming a booming industry with surprising inventiveness and a wide range of games on offer to suit all kinds of people.
I got the rare opportunity to play a couple of these newer games over the Christmas period, so here are a few thoughts. (Despite the title, neither of these actually require dice.)
Anyone that knows anything about this new board gaming boom has probably heard of this one. On the other hand, if you only know board games from the likes Monopoly then all you need to know is that this is a good place to start to see what else is on offer. The big reason for this is that it plays cooperatively. I’m sure that we have all had an experience playing old style of board games in which one or two people build up an unstoppable lead fairly early on and the end becomes inevitable. Or the reverse can also happen, where you have a terrible start and there is no chance of you coming back. It is a miserable experience for all and what leads to the angry end to these games, with bits of houses or hotels flung across your room. With Pandemic, as well as other co-op games, everyone is in it together. People are sharing their ideas and getting involved right from the off.
Rules are kept to the minimum and are wrapped around a theme that is instantly understandable by all. 2-4 players work together in an attempt to find cures for four different illnesses that are spreading throughout the world. Each player will begin the game by taking a role card to indicate what special abilities they will be able to use throughout the game. The main board depicts a map of the world with various different cities dotted around, grouped together by four different colours. Each of these cities are connected by lines. At the start of the game, some of these cities will have coloured cubes matching the colour of the city. These cubes represent the diseases. The players take it in turns to take four actions, which will mainly be moving around the map, clearing disease cubes or sharing city cards. After the four actions are taken, the player will then take two cards from the player deck, which comprises of mainly city cards, as well as a few powerful action cards, and pull cards from the infection deck to decide where the infection spreads next. The player deck also has deadly epidemic cards that will accelerate the spread of the diseases and bring back all of those cards that you have discarded from the infection deck, putting them to the top. Once a city has three cubes on it and is infected again it will outbreak and spread the disease to all connecting cities.
The goal for the players will be to collect five city cards of the same colour and trade those in to cure the disease represented by the colour. Do that four times and you all win. Hit eight outbreaks, run out of a colour of disease cubes or run out of cards in the player deck and you lose.
And that is pretty much it for the rules. There are few more extra bits, such as the research bases that you are able to build and are required to be at when making the cures, but those 300 or so words are all you really need to grasp what you have to do and what you need to avoid. All actions the players can take are outlined on an action reference card (four copies included, so everyone gets one in each,) removing the need to scurry into the rule book every turn to double check what you can do. The cards and the board itself give you pretty much all other information that you require while playing.
These simple and easy to understand rules leave the game open to what is important; everyone getting the chance to discuss their plans and for people to co-ordinate. This is where Pandemic really shines and why it is considered the gateway game for this new generation of board games. These games are becoming increasingly a social experience, an element that video games often lack, particularly in recent generations with the death of split screen gaming.
Having said that, the game does also have an issue of being a little too straightforward, which means it is unlikely to be something you would want to return to too often. I played four games over the Christmas period. The first game was a loss on the easiest difficulty (you only have four out of the six epidemic cards in the player deck,) but was just about learning the ropes. The second game, with four of us (the other three not being particularly into games,) was a win on the easiest difficulty. The third and fourth game were with a friend that does play quite a few games and both were wins, with the first being on medium difficulty and the last being on the hardest difficulty. With that last game, we pulled the roles of the Scientist (cure a disease with four city cards, rather than the usual five) and the Researcher (share a city card without needing to be in the city on the card). This role combination made the game very, very easy to win. We also worked out a few other combinations that could be equally straightforward. Still, all these games had the tension you want from the game and it was definitely never dull.
You also have the option to pick up some expansions that will add in extra roles and more difficulties. There is also a version called Legacy, which is where each game you play connects to the next, like a season of television. Each players character grows with each game and the rules change with surprise twists. This does mean that it is a rather limited game, as it isn’t replayable once you have finished it (can be between 12 to 24 games), but it does add an extra dimension that sounds incredibly fascinating.
A Game of Thrones: The Card Game – 2nd Edition
Something very different from Pandemic, but likely to also have broad appeal is this card game based on the hit novels by George R. R. Martin (although, the art certainly does not shy away from borrowing inspiration from the also hit T.V. series.) The first thing that strikes you with this game is that it really oozes theme. Anyone that enjoys either the books or the HBO series will enjoy just flicking through the cards and looking at the gorgeous artwork. If the images weren’t enough, you quite often get a little bit of flavour text on the cards, with quotes taken straight from the books. Great card names, such as “The Things I Do For Love” and “Winter is Coming”, evoke the world of Westeros so well and getting to play with these characters can be such a thrill. Even as someone who enjoys the T.V. series, but regularly gets confused as to who is who, it is a joy to get these recognisable characters and the way the game rules contribute to the theme really does wonders.
Like Pandemic, the rules are relatively straightforward, but they hide a much more complex puzzle for you to work out. Each player has a deck of cards representing a house (and the option of the Night’s Watch, if you want to be picky,) from the franchise, mostly comprising of characters, but also featuring locations, items and event cards. The characters have a cost to play them, a strength and one or more of three different icons. These icons are military, intrigue or power. During a round each player will have the opportunity to challenge the other players to one or more of these declaring which of their characters that are in play with the matching symbol they would like to use in the challenge. The opponent(s) will then declare defenders against the challenge, if any. If the attacker is able to have a greater number of strength with their combined characters than their opponent, they win the challenge. Depending on the challenge type, the attacker can then kill a character (for a military win,) discard one of the opponent’s cards (intrigue,) or take one of the all-important power tokens from the opponent (obviously, a power challenge.) The winner is the first person to reach 15 of these power tokens.
To add an extra dimension to all of this is the additional deck each player will have, the plot deck. This is made up of seven different plot cards. At the start of each round, the players will reveal a new plot from their plot deck, which will dictate how much gold the player will receive that round, their intuition score to determine whether they get to choose who goes first, claim value to say how many times they are able to use the effect of winning a challenge (for example, if you win a military challenge with a claim value of two you can kill two characters,) and a reserve value to say how many cards you are allowed in hand at the end of the round. Lastly, the plot card will have some kind of action that can happen either straightaway or at some point during the round. These actions can be big game changes, such as requiring all players to perform an intrigue challenge before they are able to do a military or power challenge, or the terrifying Wildfire Assault that forces all players to select three of their characters to survive and kill all others.
Although this description of the game will seem fairly straightforward, playing the game for the first time is likely to be anything but. If you have ever played a card game before, such as Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner, you will know that even the simplest rules can be made vastly more complex by the way each of the cards interact (or in the case of Netrunner, a complex game becomes one that requires the use of aspirin afterwards from the migraine it causes). As an example, check out this rules reference page here, detailing all of the various different keywords and game terms that you are likely to run into in a single game. The cards will feature these keywords and will occasionally have a description in brackets, but more often than not you are left to remember that a keyword will have an action associated with it and when that action is relevant. You also have to remember how each of these rounds and phases is structured by following these detailed timing windows.
Fortunately, all of this is quite nicely explained in the manual. Compared to some other card games, it is also all relatively simple to understand once you have a game or two under your belt. Fantasy Flight, the makers of the game, have done a great job in explaining all of the different aspects of the game and kept it mostly logical, with clear descriptions on the cards of what the actions are. This is miles away from the strange terminology of Netrunner or the muddle of words on Doomtown cards (a cowboy themed card game, that has sadly recently been canned, but is a wonderful thing). I understand that this was the main purpose of this 2nd edition. I have no idea what the 1st edition was like, but it sounds as if they have done a good job of streamlining the game.
As this is a card game, a large part of the game is the construction of your deck. This might put some people off, as it does mean that you are required to do some pre-game preparation. It is also not something that you can really just spend five minutes before a game doing, as some card combinations are always going to be stronger than others and not striking the right balance between each card type can destroy your card draw and leave you sitting there with no characters or no way to protect the ones you do have. This is just going to lead to you not enjoying the game and you also not experiencing it in the way it is intended. If you are willing to put that extra bit of effort in, building a deck can be hugely rewarding. Coming up with a strategy, putting the cards together that will make that strategy happen and then successfully executing that strategy in a game is an exciting process. Playing against other peoples’ decks too lets you find new ways of playing that you have never thought of and can be equally exciting. I can completely understand why some people may not be interested in putting the effort into a game that this might require, but it really can be a very enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, this does lead to an inherent issue with card games and that is the business model. To its advantage, A Game of Thrones does use the superior Living Card Game (LCG) model. Whereas the old style Collectible Card Games, like Magic, would release packs with random cards in it, to make you keep buying in order to get the ones you actually wanted, an LCG (also known as Expandable Card Game when used by games not made by Fantasy Flight,) regularly releases packs with identical cards in them and the maximum number allowed in a deck (in this case three.) Unfortunately, they do not do the same with the core sets. Instead, you get one copy of most cards, with a few that have two and even fewer that have three. I decided to go with two sets from the off and I am very glad I did. The game manual features two tutorial decks for House Stark and House Lannister, which are only 30 cards compared to the regular 60 cards. Attempting to make these into a full 60 card deck is impossible, even with the two core sets that I have. However, you are able to join factions together, with the use of banner cards, which allow you to bring in a minimum of 12 cards that are non-loyal from the faction depicted on the banner. With these banners, I was very comfortably able to create a House Stark/Banner of the Wolf and House Lannister/Banner of the Kraken decks. If I only had one set though, I’m not sure how easy it would be and it may very well not be possible to have two decks made without dropping the minimum deck limit down to the 30 used in the tutorial game. I don’t believe it would be possible to make a deck purely made up of one house with neutral cards nor use the Fealty agenda card (which restricts you to 15 neutral cards and gives the ability to lower cost of your faction’s loyal cards) with anything but three core sets.
Then, you also have the never-ending parade of expansions. A Game of Thrones: The Card Game – 2nd Edition was released in October 2015. So far, they have released ten small expansions and two big box expansions. If you are a bit of completionist, that is already a lot of stuff to buy. If you wanted everything right now, you are looking at around about £220 and we are still very early in the game’s life. That amount will only keep climbing the longer you hold off. Of course, there is nothing forcing you to buy these extra packs unless you want to play the game seriously in tournaments (yes, these games actually do have organised tournaments going on). Still though, if you do want to enjoy the game to its most and you want to have more options when building decks, even if playing casually with friends you are likely to want to get a few of these packs. It does allow you to play the game to level that you want though and the large community that exists means there is a wealth of information about that will help you get more involved to whatever extent you wish.
This is all ancillary to the game itself though, which is really enjoyable and should not be too complex for those that are interested in the franchise to play. Have a few decks on standby that you can easily put together to play with others and I can see it going down well. If I were to be critical of the gameplay itself, I could say that I would like to see the plots be a little more involved. I could imagine some having objectives for you to complete, that would boost your power total, such as end the round with a certain amount of gold or kill a lord character. That could further add to the depth of each player’s strategy, as you try to pull off your plot and stop your opponent succeeding in theirs. As it is, the plots serve the purpose of facilitating the strategy you are going for rather than shaping it.
I’m not sure I would push a young lord out of a window for it, but for fans of the franchise I think that this is well worth giving a go.