Game of Thrones: The Card Game (second edition) (2015) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameA Game of Thrones: The Card Game (Second Edition) (2015)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [3.47]
BGG Rank348 [7.70]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Nate French and Eric M. Lang
Artist(s)Uncredited
Buy it!Amazon Link

Changelog

25/8/18 – added an note about the difference between houses and traits, thanks to a correction from Andrew Keddie

Version Reviewed

English first edition

Introduction

Like all living card games (LCGs), Game of Thrones is challenging to learn and expensive to fully experience. An aggressive cycle of expansions means that you’re almost always going to be behind in the meta-game and time and money will limit your ability to keep up. If there ever was an LCG that I could fall for though, it would be this one – that’s why it got four stars in our review. The last game we looked at in a similar area was the Arkham Horror Card Game. That one made a strong case for being the least accessible game on Meeple Like Us but in the end was just pipped by then reigning champion Blood Bowl. Will Game of Thrones seize the crown of inaccessibility or will it turn out to be the Prince That Was Promised? Let’s put on our dragonfire proof underpants and find out. Dracarys!

Colour Blindness

Colour in only one place is used as the sole channel of information in the Game of Thrones card game. That’s with the influence tokens which are double sided and with different colours the obverse:

Influence tokens

A Lannister always pays his debts, but I expected with money

These are used to represent special effects and as such are tightly bound to their card – the only real time you’d need to be able to tell one from the other is when a character is impacted by two (or more) effects at a time. In any case, for conditions short of monochromacy the colours are distinctive enough to be identifiable.

Colour blind icons

The only colour that matters is blood.

Every other time colour is used, it’s accompanied by either iconic or text information and serves as a complement. Different decks have different colours for their cards, but a house standard is always presented in iconographic format. The main impact of colour blindness is on the art, but the game itself is largely unspoiled.

We strongly recommend the Game of Thrones card game in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Visual accessibility is very poor. Cards are information dense and inconsistent in how their effects are written and described. Cards routinely interleave icons and text, and the icons are not particularly easy to make out at the font-size used.

Icons

How do you pronounce these icons?

Challenge icons on cards will all be down the left-hand side, and these are clear and easy to read – perhaps with the use of an accessibility aid, but they’re unlikely to present a serious problem. However, consider these two cards:

Eddard and Balon

Reunited and it feeeeels so gooood

Note the inconsistency in presentation here. Balon gets his Renown keyword by itself – no explanatory text is given. Eddard has the keyword presented with the description of what it does, meaning that you can’t necessarily simply rely on the text printed under a character having relevant character meaning. Sometimes it’s as if certain cards are considered to be ‘instructional’, but once you’ve learned what the keyword does its presence does nothing but embed the rest of the text in a wordier context than is necessary.

Similarly inconsistent is how the icons and text are used. Consider these cards here, showing Robb Stark, Risen from the Sea, and the ‘Like Warm Rain’ event:

Various cards

The recipe for a decent party

Note how icons are used to identify Starks and Ironborn within the card text. Note how on the card for Ice the challenge is indicated with a sword icon. Now look at Aeron Damphair:

Aeron

John the Baptist from the darkest timeline

Here, Ironborn is referred to by name and not by icon – that’s actually more accessible, but that’s not the problem. The problem is in in the inconsistency of referencing. It’s possible here that this has a slightly different game effect than the icon, but I couldn’t see what that might be from the game cards. in any case any difference between an Ironborn keyword and an Ironborn icon seems like it would be an accessibility issue of its own. Accessibility is best served by consistency.

(ed – it turns out that yes there is a difference – the faction is called Greyjoy and Ironborn is a trait. So, almost all Greyjoys are Ironborn but not all Ironborn cards are Greyjoys. But that kind of makes the point again about inconsistency because the Greyjoy cards referenced by trait whereas Stark by house allegiance, except in those circumstances where it’s not. It’s not then an inconsistency as I originally claimed, but rather a subtlety of effect that creates a different kind of inconsistency. Anyway, thanks to Andrew Keddie for the correction here!)

The numbers that are used to identify the cards are intensely small, and in order to construct the set decks from the core game you’ll need to hunt out several of these and cross reference them against a list. They’re mostly in sequential order when they come out of the box, but if anyone has been doing experimentations in deck building this is going to be a significant problem when it comes to reconstructing the standard offerings. This isn’t as bad as in the Arkham Horror Card Game, but it’s not far off it.

Tiny numbers on cards

163? 152? 168? Who knows

The cards themselves aren’t hugely accessible and that alone is enough to make the game all but completely inappropriate for those for whom total blindness must be considered. However, for less severe visual impairments it’s likely possible to make out the core information of the cards with the use of an assistive aid. You usually won’t have so many cards out in a game that it’s impossible to keep track, although there is no formal limit that prevents you fielding a massive army of characters should the mood take you. I suspect taking into account the area in front of you and the cards you have in hand, the game is probably playable, with difficulty, in terms of your own game state.

The problem is that intelligent play here needs you to take into account every other card around the table. Some cards give bonuses when particular events occur, and you want to know that will happen. Some cards have special effects that trigger in defence or offence, and you want to know that’s the case. Some cards will have attachments that hide underneath other cards and you’ll want to know what that means. You get three actions you can take on your turn (barring special overrides) and can take them in any order you like. You don’t leak any actionable game intention by inquiring of the cards other players have. That comparison though is complex. Any number of attackers and defenders may be committed to a challenge if they have an appropriate icon, and the specific combination of these is more than simply an arithmetic issue. You need to know how those card powers will work if in attack, or then judge which of those cards might be committed to the defence. Or vice versa if you are on the other side of the challenge. More than this, you’ll want to know what the combinations left behind mean for other challenges you might undertake.

Consider if an enemy has Robb Stark in their hand. If a Stark character is killed or sacrificed, he can then stand every other character under the player’s control. That makes a huge difference when it comes to weighing the risk and reward of doing a military action – maybe the Stark player will let the attack go through and kill a cheap direwolf pup in order to stand a half-dozen powerful characters in response. You need to know not only that Robb Stark is there, but also that there is a cheap Stark character that can be given up to the challenge. The more cards in play, both for you and for your opponents, the more complex it becomes to ascertain the game state. It’s not just the whole sweep of the game you need to know, you need to know how it interacts in subsets. As a sighted player you can spend an awful lot of time peering at the game state trying to read risk and reward into its various nooks and crannies.

It’s reasonable to ask someone ‘How much military strength do you have’, but it’s a lot less reasonable to expect people to answer honestly about card synergies they have available since they commit defenders only after you commit your attackers. Without being able to ask about card synergies, you’re left trying to intuit it from the sprawling, complex game state. With Arkham Horror, at least the game is co-operative and you can rely on people to give as much help as is possible. With Game of Thrones, it’s too competitive for that to be something expected.

We don’t recommend Game of Thrones at all in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

There is so much card synergy, so much arithmetic, and so many individual game modifiers on any action that this is an extremely challenging game in this category. The core game rules aren’t especially onerous, and the turn structure is reasonably solid (even if actual player order is malleable based on plots). However as with most LCGs the complexity isn’t found in the rules – it’s found in the cards. Here, that complexity is extreme and nobody in the game is incentivised to help a player understand it. After all, you’re all working against each other and while it’s good sporting behaviour to point out obvious follies it’s harder to judge when you should do that in less obvious circumstances. In any case, even with a full explanation of cause and effect and consequence there is an awful lot that needs to be taken into account.

GoT Index

Turn to page 28 in your hymnals

A game that has a 32-page reference manual is not one that is a strong initial candidate for accessibility in this category.

Coupled to this is an intense need for sophisticated literacy, and the ability to deal with and manipulate conditional effects of escalating complexity. The fact that cards get attachments, for example, means that you need to be able to navigate a shifting web of cause, effect and competence. Eddard Stark wielding Ice is a different thing entirely to Eddard Stark wielding nothing. Arya with a duplicate is different to Arya without, and so on. Since you need to respond to attacks with an eye to your own future requirements, it’s important to be careful with card effect. That makes decision making more important than the relatively straightforward numeracy of the challenge would imply. Card play requires sophisticated long-term planning and short-term tactical appreciation. Challenges are deterministic, for the most part, but they’re also modified by card effects and by the occasional surprise inclusion of an ambush character that upsets all careful planning.

From a fluid intelligence persoecptive, this is all enough to render the game all but entirely inaccessible in this category. From a memory perspective, we need to layer in the fact that knowing how to play a faction deck well is a function of deck composition but also of deck interaction with other factions. You play Stark versus Lannister differently to Stark versus Targaryen for example. That needs you to remember, at least in broad strokes, what is to be found in each deck. The plot cards you choose are most effectively selected in comparison to what you know an enemy has available. You don’t want to field too many characters if you know that there’s a wildfire plot in the offing, and similarly you might want to be wary if you suspect your opponent has a Varys card that can reset the game state. You need to make decisions all the time based on what might be in an opponent’s deck, or what you should know is in a deck based on the standard game setup.

Standard decks

Your set menu

To repurpose a paragraph from the Arkham Horror card game teardown:

“In short, [The Game of Thrones Card Game] requires a flexible understanding of an emergent game-state that becomes increasingly more complex and hostile as time goes by. The tools for managing this game-state are highly interrelated, often deeply conditional, and require forward planning and careful management of a pool of resources and cards that is simultaneously highly individual and group dependent. “

And it does all of this in a competitive environment. We strongly advised people away from Arkham Horror on the basis of its cognitive complexity, and that’s a game where much of the game state is open and you can rely on other people to help keep another player appraised of everything. Game of Thrones doesn’t have even that small mercy.

We think this is game is all but unplayable for those with moderate cognitive impairments, and likely far more difficult than would be enjoyable for those with even relatively minor concerns in this category.

Physical Accessibility

You have a secret hand of cards, the size of which is limited by your current plot. You’ll mostly be able to get by with a pair of card holders for that part of the game. You also have a smaller deck of plot cards, but you only need manipulate that at the start of each round. Awkwardly, plot cards are landscape rather than portrait and as such they are an awkward fit for a card holder. For that part of the game though assistance from another player can be enough to alleviate the issue – you don’t need to refer to them often during play. All you need to do is have someone manipulate them without looking, and that’s easy enough to handle.

There’s a fair amount of card manipulation, including rotating cards, playing cards under cards and sprinkling power tokens onto individual characters. There’s also the collecting and return of gold throughout the course of a round. There is though a lot less physicality needed of Game of Thrones than there is in the Arkham Horror Card Game and in and of itself none of it is especially onerous. In any case, all of that can be handled on one player’s behalf by another.

Verbalisation is fully possible in play because rounds are well structured and even with interrupts you don’t have a time component that you need to work within. During an opponent’s turn you just say who you want to commit to the defense and whether to trigger any optional effects. During your turn you say who the target will be and who you’re committing to the attack.

We recommend Game of Thrones in this category.

Emotional Accessibility

The aggression in Game of Thrones is pointed, continual, and directed. In a two-player game it’s basically swinging lump hammers at each other in the hope of doing enough damage to knock someone out of play. In larger games the aggression is mediated a little by the title cards but you are usually the explicit target of someone’s challenges. As with most games like this it makes sense for the table to attack a leader, especially if that leader is in a position of logistical strength. However, it also makes sense in certain respects to attack the weakest player at the table – for example, a player that cannot contest a challenge you issue. This can lead to a player having their effectiveness whittled down to nothing over the course of a round, and their few power tokens being stolen by the other players. The game permits ganging up, encourages it in its mechanics, and positively incentivises it in its titles with the rivalry system.

Title cards

Crown regent is good for a laugh

And my word, those challenges can be rough. Military challenges kill characters. Intrigue challenges steal cards. Power challenges steal power right out of your pocket and place it in the pocket of your opponent. In a well-matched game the power will ebb and flow and it’ll be a nice, fraught competition. If you’re not blessed with cards early on, or if an opponent gets especially lucky, you might find that you begin on the back foot and continually get pushed farther down until you’re only hanging in to the end for the look of the thing. Sometimes that’s a consequence of the cards you drew. Often though it’s a consequence of someone simply playing better – most of the time, it’ll be the better player that wins.

It’s entirely possible to have no points at the end of Game of Thrones, and to have no points because other players took them all off of you. It’s entirely possible that you may find a lot of your turns boil down to ‘I have choices but none of them will interfere with any plans you have’. It’s possible to be presented with a menu of bad options and know that not only will you have no effect on an enemy you’ll weaken your own position in the process of the attempt. Some cards exist to mitigate this (Varys, as an example) but their availability is highly situational and it’s possible even those cards will be stolen right out of your hand by an opponent. Not everyone in a game of this is going to have an equal chance to play, and not everyone is going to have an approximately equal amount of fun.

Often too poor performance in a game is simply down to not keeping track of the escalating complexity of game states – you can find yourself very badly damaged by a card synergy you didn’t fully appreciate. This layers on an additional issue – feeling stupid when you fall for an opponent’s trap, or when an opponent puts you in a position that the only actions you can take are self-harming. It’s necessary to invest some study into Game of Thrones to play it well. At the very least you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of the decks in play, and how various special keywords and card effects are going to cause problems for you, or create opportunities.

We don’t at all recommend Game of Thrones in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The art from the game is drawn from the book rather than the TV show, and overall it’s very well done. The art is rarely especially objectified, even in characters where thematically it would be appropriate. Some characters, Margarey for example, are depicted in very seductive poses but not overtly sexualised. Even the ‘courtesan of the rose’ is wearing a dress that would be fully appropriate for formal evening wear. The game walks a fine line between sexy and sexualised and I think it does it well. Perhaps nowhere is that better shown than on the cover, where Daenerys is shown fully clothed and yet reclining in a position of relaxed authority. Were this the TV show the first encounter we’d have had with the character would have ended with her naked. We know that, because that’s exactly what happens in the show.

Box art

#TeamDany

This strong showing continues through the rest of the game, with a goodly number of men and women presented in various roles of power and authority. A range of body types and ethnicities are represented, especially in the Targaryen deck that draws on the more Easterly artistic conventions of Essos and the southernly lands of Dorne. Within the core set at least, representation is done quite well.

With Arkham Horror, we reserved our most significant criticism for this section – the business model that coupled progressing a narrative to a continued program of purchasing expansions. Here we can be more positive. As I said in the review, I think you get an awful lot of game out of the core set here. Enough to sustain dozens and dozens of plays. Game of Thrones is almost entirely focused on the mechanisms of the cards, and what narrative is there is an incidental feature of how those cards interact. It’s a very shallow form of storytelling, and it’s all focused on the first book of the series. There’s enough content in its four meaty starter decks to keep you interested. You can buy this core set and never spend another penny on the Game of Thrones card game and not feel the loss.

However…

This is a game of deckbuilding, and if that’s the angle that you’re most interested in pursuing you won’t be able to do it with a single core set. For that you need two, or perhaps three, core sets. That starts to ramp the price up quite considerably given how each core set has an RRP of £37. It’s really not okay that a core element of a game like this is only available by spending three times the price of a standard board game. It doesn’t stop me enjoying the game because I’m not going to get sufficiently deep into playing that it’ll be a problem. If you want to become a regular player though you’ll need to dig into your pockets, and dig deep. Everything else, as far as expansions go, is largely optional. It lets you see more of the game and more of the world as expressed in the books. It’s not necessary to enjoy, and keep on enjoying, the core game. A comment on our review proper also suggests that there are some new starter decks that improve the situation with regards to deckbuilding, but I haven’t had a chance to investigate that yet. When I do, I might adjust this grade accordingly.

So, our recommendation here has to be tentative – if you want the deckbuilding, the cost of entry is very high. If you just want a fun card game with good representation and plenty of entertainment then the core set is good value for money. Certainly when viewed against some other Fantasy Flight Games properties.

Communication

A significant amount of literacy is required, but there’s no formal need of communication provided it’s possible to indicate a type of challenge, the component cards and a target. That can be handled in a wide variety of ways that doesn’t require either hearing or articulating information. That literacy requirement though is significant and ongoing, and complex.

We recommend the Game of Thrones card game in this category provided everyone involved is fluent in the game’s language.

Intersectional Accessibility

The only specific worry area here that isn’t already addressed by an existing category is when a communication impairment is combined with physical impairment. Interaction with the game requires either direct manipulation of cards or clearly verbalising what might be sophisticated instructions. If neither of these are possible we suspect compensation regimes would be too onerous for the game to be fun. A workaround is almost certainly possible if enough effort is expended, but it would have a massively negative impact on game flow.

Sessions of Game of Thrones can be quite long – between an hour and two hours is probably in the right ballpark barring accessibility considerations. However, they can go on for longer and they tend to escalate in complexity as time goes by. As such, you’re investing a lot more thought and energy into later turns than you are in the earlier ones. That means that while the game length isn’t excessive it is likely to result in discomfort that manifests at exactly the same time the game becomes more effortful to play. This needn’t invalidate the game as a candidate for your library, but should be taken into account. There is a reasonable amount of down-time through play though even though everyone can be involved during everyone else’s turn. Your real level of involvement is dictated by how many characters you have left standing. If you have none, you still take part in challenges but you don’t have to spend any time thinking about them anymore.

Game of Thrones has no support for players dropping in and out of play – at two players you would lose the only opponent available, and at larger player counts the dynamics of play are too tightly linked to the game as it has evolved to date. One player might have invested a huge amount in intrigue forcing me to respond with the characters best suited to addressing that. If that player drops out it could leave me with a defence only effective against an attacker that no longer exists. The balance of power in that circumstance has been dramatically altered. Strictly speaking you could still play on, but effectively from that point it’s a very different game state. A player edging towards winning might find themselves suddenly losing through no fault of their own.

Being an intensely competitive game that relies on clever card play and synergies, players around the table are not incentivised to offer each other accessibility support. Part of play is taking advantage of the fact an opponent missed that there was something interesting you could do. Our advice in this kind of circumstance remains the same as usual – ‘play games with people as interested in the collective fun as they are in their own’.

Conclusion

When writing the earlier sections of this teardown I genuinely thought it was going to dethrone our new reigning champion of inaccessibility, Exit: The Game. The issues that were present in the Arkham Horror Card Game in many of these categories are replicated here, but the competitive model in Game of Thrones makes them all more significant. Luckily it turns out that board games can surprise me even within the context of a teardown I’m actively writing. It’s not a strongly accessible game, but Exit takes the trophy home for another week. Or perhaps that should be a crown. CROWN FOR KING.

Game of Thrones: the Card Game, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
Colour BlindnessA
Visual AccessibilityE
Fluid IntelligenceF
MemoryF
Physical AccessibilityB
Emotional AccessibilityE
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC+
CommunicationB

Really the problems here are likely to be common to any LCG – driven by card synergy and card play they’re almost never going to offer any real affordances for those with visual accessibility needs or cognitive impairments. They ask so much of players in terms of representing game state and manipulating card effects that if we ever see a fun LCG that does well in these categories I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Luckily, being ‘very surprised indeed’ is my default state when working on Meeple Like Us. I look forward to seeing the game that confounds my expectations. Game of Thrones the Card Game is a great game – four stars worth of great. It’s problematic in a whole mess of categories here, but if it would work for you I think you could do a lot worse than giving it a try.


A word about teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.