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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fantasy Flight Games' Living Card Game Model

For many years, I was addicted to Magic: The Gathering. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm no longer addicted, although I do occasionally through together a deck on Magic: The Gathering Online if I want to kill some time.

One of the frustrating things about Magic was that it's an incredible money sink. Roughly eight-hundred new cards are released every year. I'm not a collector, so I never tried to acquire a copy of every single card, but if I had, it would have been extremely expensive. No, I approached the game not as a collector, nor even as a gamer, but as a deck-builder. I enjoyed creating new and interesting decks. I liked tuning and tweaking decks until they were just right. The problem was that I would finish a deck and move right on to the next one. I wanted to build something else. The pleasure for me was more in the creation of decks, less in the playing of them.

I discovered, after ripping open far more booster packs than I'd care to admit, that there was a way to play the game designed specifically for people such as me. It's called drafting. Each player is given three booster packs of fifteen random cards each--eleven commons, three uncommons, and a rare card. Each player opens their first pack, selects one card from the pack, and passes the remaining fourteen cards to the player on his or her left. He or she then takes the fourteen cards passed from the player on his or her right, selects one of those cards to keep, and passes the remaining thirteen cards to the player on his or her left. This continues until the pack is depleted. Each player then opens his or her second pack and repeats the process, except everyone passes to the right. The third pack is passed to the left. Each player ends up with forty-five cards. Using those cards, plus any number of basic land card, each player creates a forty-card deck and plays each other.

This was an amazing revelation for me. I could go into a game store every week, build a new deck, and play it right then and there! Unfortunately, this really drained my wallet. I won't say how much money I've spent on Magic cards over the years, but it was a lot. Way too much.

So I gradually weaned myself from the game. I still find it enjoyable, but I cannot afford to keep it as a hobby. It is too expensive for me, both in time and money.

Most people will eventually fall away from collectible card games because of the expense. One of the major contributing factors to this expense is that collectible card games come in random booster packs. Consumers never know exactly which cards they will get. This makes certain cards--particularly the tournament-level rare cards--extremely difficult to acquire. Players who participate in Magic tournaments today could spend four- or five-hundred dollars or more to assemble their decks. One card that sees a great deal of use is called Jace, the Mind Sculptor. A single copy of this card retails for around one-hundred dollars, and most of the decks that use it will run the maximum of four copies in the deck. That's just for four cards of a (typically) sixty card tournament deck.

That's quite the money sink.

Fantasy Flight Games seems to have caught on to this dilemma. They currently have three games that follow the Living Card Game model. (Those games are: A Game of Thrones, Call of Cthulhu, and Warhammer: Invasion, based on George R. R. Martin's book series, H.P. Lovecraft's mythos, and Games Workshop's fantasy world, respectively. An LCG based on The Lord of the Rings is set to be released this year.) Instead of releasing randomized packs, new sets are released in their entirety. Every single card is bundled together in a single pack. No more hunting through booster boxes, hoping for the right cards. No more competing over rare cards. Every card, all in one purchase.

This may not be exciting for collectors, who love the thrill of the hunt. A Living Card Game is too easy for them. There is nothing to chase after. But for gamers and deck-builders, this is fantastic. Everyone has easy access to the same cards. How those cards are put together, then, as well as the skill in using those decks, will make the difference between victory and defeat. I have lost many a Magic game because my opponent had a deeper wallet. He could spend money to acquire the most powerful and ridiculous cards, while I struggled to put together something remotely competitive. This is not a problem with LCGs. Everyone is on an equal playing field.

I didn't like Mr. Martin's fantasy series, so A Game of Thrones is not for me. The Warhammer fantasy setting is not nearly as interesting to me as the Warhammer 40,000 science fiction setting, so I probably won't try Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings game might be intriguing, but it's not out, yet. But Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos is very intriguing to me. Admittedly, most of the actual stories were pretty terrible. But the mythos behind them is fascinating, and I would love to explore that world further. Subsequently, I have purchased some Call of Cthulhu LCG products.

One thing I noticed was that the Call of Cthulhu Core Set, which is supposedly the jumping off point for beginning players, was not a good product for beginners. For one thing, although a maximum of three copies of a given card is allowed in a deck, only a single copy of each card is included. This means that the game designers were able to squeeze in many different cards, and therefore introduce new players to a wide variety of concepts.  This also means that players do not get a clear idea of how to build a good, streamlined deck.  Players must either assemble sub-par decks consisting entirely of singletons, or purchase three copies of the Core Set.  That's a high initial cost to get into the game.

The Core Set does provide a decent rule book to introduce players to the complex game.  It does a very good job of explaining all the basic mechanics of the game and how gameplay work.  It does not, however, do a very good job explaining tactics or deck-building. 

All told, I would say that this game is very difficult to get into unless you are already familiar with other collectible card games.  The Core Set provides cards, a game board, and tokens with which to play the game.  It contains a rule book that explains how the game works.  It does not, unfortunately, provide new players with tactical or deck-building advice, or even very much internal guidance within the cards themselves.  (There is, for example, a subset of cards that give bonuses to Cultists, but there are only three or four such cards--not enough to build a deck around.)

Thankfully, FFG apparently noticed some of the problems of the Core Set.  The set remains the same, but newer Call of Cthulhu LCG packs (called Asylum Packs) now come with a full three copies of each new card.  This helps facilitate efficient deck-building, which I can approve of.  New Asylum Packs are released every month, each containing three copies of twenty new unique cards.  They tend to retail for ten to twelve dollars a piece, which isn't bad at all.

Currently, I haven't found anyone to play the game with me, which is slightly frustrating.  My wife does not wish to learn the game, and I can't blame her, because this game is at least as complicated as Magic.  She prefers simpler games, which is fine.  I haven't managed to hook any of my friends, yet, and the game hasn't taken off at my friendly local game store.  I'm sure it's only a matter of time.  For now, though, I am not in an arms race to create decks that smash all my opponents, which means that I haven't purchased a lot of product.  I have made it known at the game shop that I am interested in supporting a monthly Call of Cthulhu game night, though, and apparently I am no the only one that has expressed such interest.  Hopefully within the next few months I will have a regular group of people with whom to play.  Until then, I'll be playing it solitaire--which, let me tell you, is also not the best way to learn a new game.  Maybe someone should suggest a starter pack of two ready-to-use decks to Fantasy Flight Games?

I do like that the game provides the thrill of opening new cards, finding interesting and powerful card combinations, building fun and unique decks, and playing intense strategic games against opponents.  I also like that this game is much easier on my wallet than any other trading card game I've seen.  Having only played the game against myself--and with subpar decks--I can't say for sure whether it's the best thing since television shows on DVD.  I've had fun, though, so far, and hope to continue to explore the world of Cthulhu, Miskatonic University, Yog-Sothoth, and the Order of the Silver Twilight.


  1. Hmmmm.... I may have to check this out. Cheaper than Magic you say? That's definitely a plus. As much as I love to play it, I can't afford to go draft as often as I'd like.

  2. Yep. They come out with a new "set" every month, but it's only twenty new cards, and you can buy them all at once. Much easier than ripping open packs.

    I'm trying to get Dragon's Keep to do a monthly Call of Cthulhu night. They're happy to do it, there's just not quite enough support, yet. Three or four other guys have said they'd participate, but I don't think they'll start unless they can get six or more people to commit.

    It's a complex game, though. I really haven't figured out the best strategies at all.