Jan 30, 2017

Let's Play A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, 2nd ed.

Some years ago, I tried reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It was a horrible experience that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. The books are depressing, badly written and overflowing with utterly repulsive misogyny and racism. The TV show based on the books was slightly better, perhaps because it could hardly be worse and still air, but faithfully carried on the books' emphasis on racism and horrific misogyny. What it to some extent succeeded in was rescuing some of Martin's more personable characters from the leering rape porn of the books, and it's they who are the only interesting thing about the whole shitshow.

So, when we come across a card game based on them, from a company whose products we thoroughly enjoy, do we buy it? On the one hand, we'd be contributing to the ongoing relevance of Martin's disgusting chauvinism. On the other hand, it's massively popular already anyway, and since literally three (3) people read this blog, what we do or don't do has fuck all bearing on anything.

Should we consume problematic entertainment? Damned if I know. I wouldn't play an explicitly white supremacist board game, for instance, let alone pay money for one. But I don't have a well-thought-out principled stand on where to draw the line. I don't approve of the amply documented racism of H.P. Lovecraft, but I enjoy his stories and bought a copy of Arkham Horror. Orson Scott Card's genocidal fantasies, on the other hand, were too much for me. Some books into a Song of Ice and Fire, I started to feel physically nauseated and quit reading. I don't ever want to try again. A card game based on them, though, I can stomach. I think.

At the end of the day, the Game of Thrones card game has some interesting game mechanics I want to try, and I'm pretty sure I can wrangle some people into giving it a shot. So in a moment of weakness, I bought a copy of the core set. We're no closer to a definitive answer on whether to consume problematic entertainment or not, but we can now find out if this card game is any good.


We first tried the tutorial game in December, which is why you can see gingerbread Harrenhal in the background.

The tutorial game was fun! I'll admit I got some kicks out of murdering Joffrey with wildfire, and my dog ate Tyrion. I lost, but to be honest I'm counting any game in which Joffrey dies as at least a tie. I managed to win my next Stark attempt, with stealth Arya brilliantly murdering people all over the place.

As a sort of quick introduction, I thought the tutorial decks worked pretty well. I read through the rulebook a couple of times and kept it handy when we played, and I honestly don't think we made very many mistakes. Probably the most common one was forgetting a keyword like Renown. I thought the challenges were easy to understand but a little tricky to figure out optimally, which to me is a sign of a good system. We just need to kick some Lord of the Rings habits! The idea of the attacker winning ties is still completely counterintuitive to me... The plot phase was a particularly enjoyable mechanic; at the beginning of each turn, both players select a plot card from their plot deck, which are then revealed simultaneously and can interact in unexpected ways. I like the idea of trying to predict what your opponent intends to do and how best to compensate for it. I saw the wildfire coming both times!

A word about the physical game, too. As with Arkham Horror, the cards aren't nearly as stylish as those of the Lord of the Rings LCG, but by no stretch could you call them ugly. In pleasant contrast to Arkham, though, the box says 2-4 players and means it: you can create four functioning starter decks and get playing. There aren't that many counters, but damn if I don't just like those big old gold coins a lot more than the resource tokens of either other LCG. As with Fantasy Flight products in general, production quality is quite high, and you won't feel ripped off.


The one-on-one Joust tutorial has players using the Lannister and Stark decks, which makes sense for thematic reasons and works pretty well. However, because the 3-6 player Mêlée game is what we're interested in, we'll need to expand our repertoire. I'll admit that a big reason for buying this game for me was to have a new deck-building exercise to obsess over. Right now, I'm pretty happy with my LotR Amazons, and we're still kinda on the fence with Arkham, so Game of Thrones fills a crucial obsessing gap. Without it, I might have to start drawing up Warhammer army lists again!

When you have friends with strange proclivities, they'll insist on playing Lannister in the tutorial game, so I did get to try House Stark. While I have tremendous sympathy for Arya and especially Sansa Stark, and all their dogs are good dogs, the Starks are just too darn serious for my taste. Lannister, on the other hand, didn't really appeal that much to me, either, and from what I've understood, they're currently considered one of the most powerful Houses, which also makes me less than interested.

And anyway they're all rebel scum. There's a rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.

How can I not love Daenerys? Yes, her plot in the books is repulsive white savior garbage, but the beauty of this card game is that I don't need to care about that: all I have here is a beautiful queen, her dragons (dragons!) and her nomad pals, here to restore order and rightful rule to these revolting peasants. Hell, she's practically from Melniboné. There's even a white-haired Eternal Champion candidate.

House Targaryen is also notable for including the Game of Thrones character I identify with most: Ser Jorah Mormont.

An older man vainly pursuing a younger woman and fucking it up, whose in-game ability is failing challenges? It me. I think I've picked a house.


So next it was time to try melee. For whatever reason, the Targaryen melee starter deck has them teaming up with House Martell, so that was what I got. My partner picked the Stark-Greyjoy starter, and my brother joined us with the Night's Watch-Baratheon deck. I should stress that we had very little idea what we were doing, two of us having played the tutorial decks before and one of us not even having done that.

I thought I got a pretty good setup hand, with several characters and a selection of icons, including Areo Hotah, Viserys and a Roseroad. My partner, however, set up Balon Greyjoy. A surprise Fortified Position from my brother blanked him for the moment, but my partner then proceeded to play a Seal of the Hand on him as well.

From then on, the theme of the game became the many deaths of Balon Greyjoy. He was killed, and immediately resurrected with Risen from the Sea. Then, after a miscalculation, Ghaston Grey got rid of him. When he returned, he got a Milk of the Poppy played on him, and ended up being Marched to the Wall. It wasn't easy being Balon.

For whatever reason, the plot cards tend to have some of the best art! While the battle for Balon was going on, I had played Summons and, to my delight, found Daenerys. She's expensive, though, and I'd already used A Noble Cause to play the Red Viper. However, if I picked Master of Coin for my title, I could just afford her, and I managed all this - just to see who my partner played before my turn.

Yes, Varys was here, and the Stark-Greyjoy board was in such a pitiable state that there was no doubt in my mind that come the dominance phase of this turn, everyone was going to die. So, no Dany. Predictably enough, by the time the dominance phase rolled around, Varys did his thing and all our characters were gone. (I actually had Put to the Sword in my hand, and in retrospect I should've been able to get rid of Varys, but I couldn't execute). So what's called a board reset was accomplished, and we were kinda back where we started.


The objective of the game, which I think I've neglected to mention, is to gather 15 power tokens on cards you control: the first person to accomplish this wins. In the early stages of our game, our power totals swung back and forth, with nobody gaining a clear advantage for long. One of the particularly clever things about melee is titles: in a melee game, after plots are revealed and the order of play for the turn is determined, each player secretly selects one of six titles. Each comes with an ability that either buffs a certain type of challenge or gives some other advantage, and each - except Crown Regent - supports and rivals some other titles. When you win a challenge against a rival, you gain extra power; however, you can't initiate challenges against a title that you support. The titles serve to direct play in an unpredictable way. For instance, you might be in an advantageous military position, and select Master of Ships to press your advantage, only to find that your weakest opponent picked Master of Whispers and you can't attack them. Meanwhile, the Master of Laws and Hand of the King are now your rivals, so they have a strong incentive to attack you.

After the reset, we each managed to play a single character: my brother had someone I don't remember, I got a Greenblood Trader, and my partner played Balon. Unsurprisingly, this was when he got marched to the wall. By this time, we'd all managed to gather at least some power, and with two copies of a Illyrio's Estate and a Kingsroad, I was able to get Dany and Drogon into play. The others were recovering as well: Euron Crow's Eye showed up (and stole Ghaston Grey!) as did Stannis fucking Baratheon. Unwisely, Stannis was the only character my brother had, and my partner declared a military challenge against him with just a lone Tumblestone Knight. Stannis defended - only to meet the Kraken's Grasp. Bye bye, Stannis.

Amidst all this fun, we were all doing our best to pile up power tokens. With Daenerys on board, I managed to win dominance and get to 12 power. By this point, we'd all worked through our plot decks, so I managed to pick a high-initiative plot that let me bring Arianne Martell. I was really hoping to get Hand of the King for my title, both for the boost to power challenges, but it wasn't available, and to add impediment to insult, my brother marshalled Robert Baratheon. Still, I managed to go first, and Arianne and Daenerys managed to put together enough of a power challenge to beat Robert. The one power token that let me steal, plus one bonus power for winning a challenge against a player whose title I rival was enough for 14 - and Drogon being in play gave Daenerys Renown, which made 15.

Here, on the left, is what the table looked like just before Varys killed everyone. On the right, the true ruler of Westeros, her dragon, and the fifteen power counters that signify victory. I couldn't have asked for a more storybook ending than Daenerys personally defeating the hated usurper to seal the win.

I thought our first melee experience was excellent fun. None of us really knew what we were doing, but I don't think we made any egregious mistakes with the rules, and we managed to pretty much pick it up as we went along. The interactions between the plots and titles are potentially fascinating, and we hope to take a shot at a four-player melee soon!


While the one-on-one Joust format is fun enough, I feel it has the same problem as Magic: the Gathering, or indeed chess: play becomes predictable, especially against the same people. There's a short but interesting thread on the cardgamedb.com forums where somebody asked why Joust is getting all the attention online and Melee seems neglected. The answers are fascinating. Obviously the main reason is mentioned: Fantasy Flight Games has decided that Joust is the primary tournament format, so they highlight it. But beyond that, the argument was made that because of the social dynamics around the table, melee is inherently unpredictable and difficult to plan for, unlike Joust where players can fully control the situation. Also, a particular problem with melee is "kingmaking", where players who are unlikely or unable to win themselves can still affect the end result.

As a poker player, I find this hilarious. The idea that playing a full table is somehow unfair is ludicrously comical. Now, there are people who'll argue that heads-up play is the true test of poker skill. That's where you really have to read your opponent and get inside their head and whatnot. I disagree, and there's actually a case to be made that they're empirically wrong, because heads-up (limit) hold'em is effectively weakly solved. In other words, getting inside your opponent's head and so on doesn't actually matter, because if you play the game correctly, you'll win. This seems to me to be pretty much what people mean when they say that Joust is somehow a truer test of skill. I strongly disagree with this definition of skill.

Yes, arguably, memorizing a set of guidelines and applying them to a situation is a skill. However, it isn't a particularly interesting one, and it can be completely duplicated by a fairly simple computer program. In chess, the openings have for themost part become so ritualized that each player could arguably tell a bot to run their opening of choice and notify them as soon as the bot no longer knows what to do, because that's when the game really begins. The ability to carry out a preconceived set of moves isn't really a shining example of skill. For my money, the interesting skills in chess come into play in the midgame, when the situation is more fluid. I feel the same way about poker: it's much more interesting and challenging to play at a full table and try to figure out what kind of players the others are, and observe the social dynamics at work. Certainly if you're playing a tournament, there will be situations in which players on the brink of elimination will try their best to survive, and sometimes an ill-judged play will hand over the rest of their chips to an opponent in a way that others might feel is unfair, but as long as collusion isn't suspected, players accept this as part of the game rather than whining about "kingmaking". Certainly if we accept that understanding and even exploiting these social dynamics isn't a skill, then of all games Diplomacy isn't a game of skill!

Deckbuilding introduces another element to this equation; there are people who maintain that in a "fair" game, the best-built deck will win if it's played correctly. If this is the objective, though, then we should dispense with actually sitting down to play the game, and input our decklists into a program that then runs a suitably massive number of simulated games with them, and the player whose deck achieves the highest winning percentage is best. Because of the vagaries of opening hands, card draw and player mistakes, even a Joust tournament is a decidedly suboptimal way of determining who is best at deckbuilding.

In my opinion, a PvP cardgame is a test of both deckbuilding and playing skill. The reason I'm particularly interested in melee is that ideally, it combines those skills with the social-strategic skill set required in, say, poker, or Diplomacy. It's slightly bizarre to me that Fantasy Flight would choose to intentionally downplay this aspect of A Game of Thrones, but here we are.


So just forget about Joust entirely, except as a tutorial to teach the game mechanics. Instead, if you approach second-edition Game of Thrones as a 3-4 player board game, you won't be disappointed. We've certainly had enough fun getting acquainted with the Melee game that not only will we be playing more of it, but I'm seriously considering picking up a second core set. Not only would a second core let us build tournament-legal 60-card decks for ourselves, but also let us maybe create a fifth, even sixth deck for maximum melee mayhem.

So to make a perhaps surprisingly long story short: try Melee. We thought it was excellent.

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