The Game of Thrones Card Game is intimidating when first taken out of the box. Heck even the size of the box may turn CCG players off, but in actuality it shares many aspects of other card games which makes for an easy learning experience. Even people who are experiencing this game as their first introduction to CCGs will find it easy to pick up after only a few rounds. Lets dive in!
An interesting aspect of The Game of Thrones Card Game is that it is not a traditional Collectable Card Game. It is called a Living Card Game that is customizable through deck building and tuning like a CCG, but there are no rarities to the cards and you can purchase a whole set in one box.
In the basic box set you are given 6 house Cards (Stark, Baratheon, Lannister, Targaryen, Martell and Greyjoy) but you are only given the decks to 4 of them (Not included: Martell and Greyjoy) Which is clever because it immediately makes a completionist gamer like me want to order the decks for the other houses. If you are like me and have this immediate thought, stop. Any sets sold outside of the core box are grossly overpowered by comparison. When you add another house that house will dominate every game. In order to bring them all to balance you would have to order a new set for every house which will take some time and cash. If you can handle having only the starting houses until then the game is very balanced and fair with the included houses.
The house cards serve a purpose outside of being branded with your faction's sigil. They list the turn order, which is very helpful during your first few games. But before we get into the turn order let's talk a little bit about the houses themselves. Each of the 4 has a certain theme in its mechanics. Understanding that theme will help you decide which house to play as well as give you a general idea on how each card works with the deck.
The Starks mostly revolve around Ned Stark and the family dire wolves. Each of the wolves acts like an accessory. When attached to the proper Stark they gift bonuses. These wolves can be played alone and then attached when the owning Stark comes into play. The reason I counted Ned Stark as a defining mechanic in the Starks deck is because of his ability. Ned is meant to die. He dies in the book and he's died on TV and so Fantasy Flight made sure he would die in the Card Game. What's neat is that as the person playing the Stark House you want him to die as well. When Ned dies he is placed back into the draw deck to be rebirthed like some kind of winter phoenix. Getting the other players to constantly kill Ned is a great strategy and an easy one.
The Lannisters, just like in the books, are incredibly wealthy and everyone knows it. Gold, being the resource most things cost, is almost always available. Players of the Lannisters will near always have more cash then other Houses. Even the head of the house Tywin, acts as a bank and protector of extra income. A strategy I employ is to sacrifice all other warriors to keep Tywin and Jamie alive. There are other cards of note in the house but those two cards work very well together as one provides an intimidating protector of your house's wealth, while the other is the Lannister's strongest warrior.
The Baratheons have a few key cards that reinforce the strategy of always being ready. From knights who do not exhaust after an attack to characters who, when killed, unexhaust other characters in this house, if played right, is never undefended. They also have an amazing Plot card (explained later) that allows them to go through any other player's deck and take a single card. This means the Baratheons can essentially take a signature element from the other houses, it's an amazing card and it's usually the first Plot card played by the house.
The Targaryens of course center on their dragons. Getting any of the three dragons out is a definite power switch. They are powerful creatures, each with unique bonuses either for themselves or for the rest of your army. Most of this army is made to be tossed away. The Targaryen house is best played in a reckless fashion. Do not be afraid to throw away troops as a means to keep your dragons or Lords alive.
Now that you know a little about the different houses lets break down the basics of the game. There are really 3 mini-games at work here. One is the game of each house's army. This is a fairly straightforward card game. Each character card has 1 to 3 colored spheres on their bottom left with a number in a shield above them. Each color represents 1 of 3 different types of attack and the number is how powerful they are with it. Not all cards are able to attack with all three types and some can't attack at all and are just defenders or enhancers for other army characters. There are more than a few similarities to MAGIC with the cards. Like being exhausted (called Kneeling in this game) after an attack. Or having special traits like "Lord" (similar to flying in magic the gathering, only other flying cards can block it).
The other game theme has to do with the Plot and Title cards. These add both a Rock Paper Scissors element while the Plot cards add a bit of the deception and tactics found so prevalently in the Game of Thrones Universe.
Plot Cards are House specific and range from greatly helping you to not really helping you, to even hurting you. It's knowing when the hurt you cause yourself will hurt the other players more that is the key. The Lannisters have a Plot Card that kills every character in game. Which is harsh, but playing it when another player has just used his best Plot card and all his gold to bring out his best characters could make it worth it.
Which brings us to the coolest part of Plot Cards. A player has access to all of their Plot cards all the time. Unlike the normal deck which is shuffled and random. A player can choose when to play each of their Plot cards. These add a very neat element of strategy as you all flip them over and see which Plots players are using. After a few games you will quickly start wondering in your head when a certain player will play a specific plot card.
The Title cards on the other hand are less secretive. It is true, they are like playing Rock Paper Scissors. But imagine playing with 3 opponents and having to say aloud what you will being throwing before you count to three. Each player chooses a title that conveys a benefit, one lets you draw an extra card on your turn and another gives you extra gold. But each one also sets a rule that you cannot attack a player with a certain title and that you want to help a different player with a different title. This creates an interesting mix each turn as people try and safeguard themselves from other players while still picking a title that gives them the benefits they want.
There are of course other types of cards like attachment cards that are like buffs for the characters. Location cards, which are permanent places that bestow benefits to the controlling players each turn. And event cards, which are one time use cards that are instant actions. These cards add flavor to the houses but also have direct comparisons to types found in Magic the Gathering and other Collectable Card Games.
The object of the game is to collect 15 power tokens. There are a number of ways to gain power (Such as letting Ned die!) but the most common 2 are. A) To have the most Standing (Untapped) characters at the end of the round. And B) To attack using the a character's Power (Blue circle with a crown inside) attack which if successful will steal a power from the attacked player. The game can take anywhere from an hour to several depending on the strategies employed.
The Game of Thrones Card Game does seem intimidating looking at all the pieces or watching others play. But if you've had any experience with other Card Games like Magic: The Gathering, Warcraft or anything similar, the mechanics at work here draw direct comparisons and make for an easy transition.