Culture

Ned's dead, baby: Hands-on with the Game of Thrones card game

It's billed as "a card game of intrigue, betrayal and epic battles," and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game delivers on all three.

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The Great Houses of Westeros (featuring everyone's favourite men in black, The Night's Watch) are vying for control of the Iron Throne. A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, or AGoT for short, sees players take control of decks based on these noble houses as they do their best to manipulate, murder and connive their way into power.

The new, revamped edition of AGoT, based on George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series, officially hit the shelves last week. Thrones fans everywhere can now fly the colours of their favourite house while they literally (in the figurative sense of course) backstab their friends on the path to victory.

The new edition is the latest incarnation of the cult-favourite card game that first saw release in 2002. Since then, it's undergone a massive redesign that streamlined unwieldy rules and breathed new life into a fairly stale design and aging art. It's very much a refinement of the game that came before.

The two designers responsible, Eric M. Lang and Nate French, have enviable resumes. Between the two of them, they've worked on games based on "The Lord of the Rings," Star Wars and H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos for publisher Fantasy Flight Games. Lang and French have a track record adapting huge universes into wonderfully thematic games, and their updated take on Game of Thrones is no exception.

The core set contains enough to get you well on your way. Each of the eight factions -- Stark, Lannister, Tyrell, Martell, Baratheon, Targaryen, Greyjoy and the Night's Watch -- have different characters, abilities, and play styles to experiment with. The core set starter decks pair off the factions, giving you four decks in total to pit against each other.

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The artwork featured on the cards is fantasy at its best, from the leather-and-iron design on the back of the cards to the stunningly detailed portraits of the series' central characters. From a design perspective, the overhauled cards are a welcome sight. Basic information is easily visible, even (and this is the big test) upside down and across the table.

As for the game itself, you know how it goes by now. "When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die." The object of the game is to be the first player to claim 15 power tokens, winning control of Westeros.

To do this, you'll use your resources to challenge your opponent and defend yourself from their attacks. Unlike most card games you might have played, AGoT features three different kinds of challenges -- after all, there's a lot of politicking and manipulation in addition to the punch-ups.

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The challenges are military (typical stabby business to kill opposing characters); intrigue (forcing your opponent to discard cards, thus reducing their available options); and power (straight-up stealing victory points off your opponent and adding them to your own stash).

Not every character can fight in every sort of challenge, either. Ned Stark, for instance, can hold his own attacking or defending in military or power challenges, but he's not the sharpest Valyrian steel blade, and can't participate in intrigue challenges at all.

In addition to their regular deck, each player also has a second plot deck that allows them to secretly pick new plans at the start of every turn. Plots can be used to do things like launch a wildfire assault to dispose of a host of enemies, or issue a summons to search your deck for a particular character, letting you set up card combinations or claw back ground against an opponent that's taken an early lead.

The game is all about sneaking punishing (and oddly thematic) combinations of cards past your opponent's defences. Drop your A Game of Thrones plot card, forcing players to win an intrigue challenge if they want to make another type of attack. Suddenly your opponent's Ned is dead in the water. Send in Cersei, winning the intrigue challenge for Lannister, and then drop the Tears of Lys event card on the table, poisoning Ned and sealing his fate.

And, because this is Game of Thrones, dead characters won't be returning for an encore performance. In most card games, a dead character gets discarded from play, but there are usually a number of ways to get them into play again. In AGoT, dead characters go to a separate "dead" pile, meaning you can't even play duplicate copies if you happen to draw one. Sorry Ned.

While AGoT works well as a head-to-head two-player "joust" game, it shines when you rope in a few more friends for the multiplayer "melee" mode.

Suddenly every attack needs to be weighed against potential reprisal from up to three other players. Pulling ahead early will paint a huge target on your back. And, as I've learned from experience, people hold grudges (or perhaps, the North remembers). It's a much tenser experience than the two-player joust mode. Players need to bide their time, forge and break alliances, and only pounce when they can snatch victory from unaware opponents.

For players who want to move beyond the core set, there are rules for constructing your own custom decks. There's one caveat: It'll be hard to make competitive decks with just one core set, so keep that in mind if you plan to try your luck in a more serious setting. Most players will recommend you buy two, if not three, core sets to get multiple copies of the most powerful cards. If you're planning to play casually with friends, one core set should be more than enough.

If you step things up even further, AGoT is a "living card game," meaning Fantasy Flight will be periodically releasing new packs of cards for you to add to your decks. Unlike Magic: The Gathering releases, you'll be able to pick up every new card in the one pack, rather than go fishing through booster packs with randomised contents.

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It can all be a little more than what most gamers are used to, but the AGoT core set does a great job walking you through. There are instructions included for a tutorial game and a handy reference sheet for important keywords and turn order.

Take it from someone who's spent far too many hours doing it (and may be trying to justify it to himself a little bit): building a deck yourself and winning with that perfect combo is an immensely satisfying experience.

The game retails for $39.95 (around £25, AU$55) and you should be able to find it at your local board game store or on Amazon. It's also available from Fantasy Flight Games directly, but at the time of writing it was sold out on its online store.

A Game of Thrones: The Card Game is a keen balancing act between attack and defence, bluffs and double-bluffs. Right out of the box, it's a game absolutely dripping with theme, packed with gorgeous art, dramatic turns of fate and expending far more effort than is sensible to make sure Ned Stark stays dead, traitor to the realm that he is.