Welcome to the first in a series of articles looking into the world of Living Card Games. In future weeks we’re going to look at how to approach a long-standing Living Card Game, tell you about some hidden gems you might not have been aware of, and generally try to keep you up-to-date with world of Living Card Games, but for today, we just wanted to offer an introduction to Living Card Games as an idea.
Collectible Games: Addictive but Expensive
To truly understand Living Card Games you first have to understand how they differ to traditional Collectible Card Games. Many people out there will have played collectible games: Magic is probably still the biggest and most famous, but Legend of the 5 Rings, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dice Masters, Heroclix and many more all follow the same basic principle – a set of game elements are released, and players acquire further bits from random packs to play the game with.
With collectible games, it’s easy to end up with A LOT of duplicates
There are lots of good things about the randomised way of selling things. For the customer, there’s the thrill that comes with picking up a new pack, the anticipation as you wait to see what you’ve got, the chance of stumbling across that one particularly rare or desirable card.
For the distributor the model is also attractive: there’s the ability to keep people buying product as they chase the card they still need, and generally a way to sell people duplicates of things they already have by bundling them up with (potentially) something the customer really needs. For competitive games, it also enables “draft” formats, where players build their teams on the fly and the playing field is levelled, allowing players to use their ingenuity and adaptability rather than their wallet and their Ebay account to demonstrate their true ability at the game.
Unfortunately, the collectible model also has problems – for every person who draws that great card (/dice/model/etc) there are dozens who don’t. For each person who can afford to buy the single online, there are many without. Ultimately, keeping up with a collectible game is likely to be an expensive hobby where it’s easy to lose track, or even control, of your spending.
Keeping it Predictable, Keeping it Going
Now in recent years there has been something of a shift in some sectors of the hobby, away from the collectible, random, model towards a fixed ongoing system instead. In this system, players can still get in to the game with a specific starting point, then add expansions which come out regularly and keep the game-play fluid, but each time the customer picks up a pack, they know exactly what they’re getting, and assuming access to a well-stocked shop and a certain amount of disposable income, all players have basically equal access.
Perhaps the biggest users of this model are Fantasy Flight Games, with their Living Card Game or (more commonly) LCG model. Living Card Game is a registered term, so you won’t find products from other companies using the exact title, although you can still find the concept elsewhere.
How to Spot a Living Card Game: Common Features
A Living Card Game typically features a number of shared functions – generally a few different card-types: characters of some sort, plus other events, equipment or locations. There will be some kind of resource mechanic, used for putting out characters and paying for other effects, along with recurring actions like the requirement to turn cards sideways in order to use abilities (“tap” for all the Magic players out there, although each Living Card Game typically has its own unique vocabulary), and various special abilities to take the complexity of the game beyond the basic numbers on cards.
Every Living Card Game involves deck-building: Core Sets come with starter decks, but players add expansions as they go along to increase the variety and power of cards available to them, developing new thematic builds or generating more powerful options for tournament play. The games are all heavily card driven, with the various decks being the vast majority of what goes on, although there are also tokens used to keep track of various game-states, including the march to ultimate victory.
Due to the large number of cards which gradually accumulate in these games, there tends to be a lot of variety, and skill in building the decks with the right cards in them can be just as important as a player’s ability to play with a deck once it has been built.
If you get into a competitive Living Card Game, you will probably find that it’s quite complex, with a fair amount of attention to detail being required, precision needed in reading rules-texts and timings. This means that the average Living Card Game is generally a fairly cerebral experience once you’ve mastered the basic shape of the game.
So what are the Living Card Games? Some Specifics
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (2011)
Randomised encounter-deck vs customised player-decks.
The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game offers players the chance to band together against the forces of Sauron, as they Quest their way across Middle Earth. For each game, players select a Quest (there are 3 in the base game, 1 per monthly expansion, and 3 per Deluxe Expansion), then assemble a team of Heroes, Allies, Equipment and Events to face it.
Players complete Quests by committing characters to pit their willpower against the threats of the forces of darkness. Using a character to quest however, typically means not having it available for combat, and players are engaged in a constant balancing act as they make decisions about where to direct their energies as they strive for victory.
Android: Netrunner (2012)
The Android: Netrunner Living Card Game is a 2-player head-to-head game set in a Dystopian future where the world is controlled by hi-tech Corporations, who are locked in conflict with cyber-activists and hackers known as “Runners.” In each game, one player plays as the corporation, trying to advance various agendas, and needing to fend off the Runner in order to do so. Meanwhile, the Runner is trying to get into the corporation’s servers (and safely out again) having stolen those Agendas, without suffering serious brain-damage in the process [disclaimer – the Brain Damage is to the Runner’s character, not the player themselves].
Netrunner has just become the first LCG to receive a revised base set without a complete re-boot of the game, which makes it a great time for new players to get involved, and shows that the game has a bright future ahead of it.
Star Wars: The Card Game (2012)
Block-based Deck building.
Set in the Star Wars Universe, this Living Card Game pits The Dark Side against The Light, for a truly-mismatched game of heroic proportions. The Dark-Side are looking to power up their Death Star, which they do in 12 rounds (or faster through various game-play effects). Meanwhile, the Light Side are looking to destroy 3 of the Empire’s objectives before this point is reached.
Deck-Building is done in blocks: you add a set of cards to a deck, rather than an individual card, which streamlines the overall process. Several reviews have described deck-building in this game as having fewer decisions than the other LCGs, but all of them being more important: it also means that playing cards reveals information about the rest of your deck to your opponent, whereas most other games you rely on meta-knowledge (what cards people are likely to play in combination with each other to try and win) to predict what’s coming next..
This game sometimes stumbles on issues of thematic disconnect: R2-D2 fighting Darth Vader, or Yoda fighting a massive Starship. Elements of this can creep into any of the LCGs, but it seems more pronounced in Star Wars. On the other hand, this game has very good art-work, evocative of the ‘A New Hope’ era, and draws on a lot of expanded universe content, so it’s far from being a thin theme simply pasted over a mechanic.
A Game of Thrones: The Card Game Second Edition (2015)
Plot cards are used to govern the interactions of the round
The Game of Thrones Living Card Game Second Edition (to give its full title) was launched in summer 2015 at GenCon: A reboot of the earlier version, it retains the basic shape, whereby players take a 60+ card draw deck, and a 7-card plot deck. Each plot provides gold which they can use to marshal characters and locations from their draw deck. 8 Factions each have different strengths, including Military might, courtly Intrigue and Strength reduction and destruction, but however you get there, the ultimate aim is to gain 15 power for your faction, marking you out as the victor.
Although the 1v1 (“Joust”) format of the game is currently getting most attention, and dominates the competitive scene, there is also a multiplayer (“Melee”) format in which players form ever-shifting alliances, carefully maneuvering for position against their rivals.
The reboot was good for Game of Thrones. The rules have been sharpened and cleaned up, the graphic design is great for an overall asthetic, and although we’re now nearly 2 years into the life of the game, the card-pool is still less overwhelming than the other comepetetive LCGs.
Game of Thrones is a game with a lot of skill involved, especially if playing competitively, but the quality of the mechanics and the overall thematic experience make it worth investing the time and effort.
Arkham Horror the Card Game (2016)
Cooperative Game – Play as a single character with signature strengths and weaknesses, moving around a map of locations.
Arkham was FFG’s second Living Card Game to take the Cooperative approach, and mechanically it feels like a newer, improved version of Lord of the Rings. Designed primarily to be played in campaign mode, rather than standalone scenarios, Arkham puts players in the shoes of a single Investigator, tasked with solving a mystery, or otherwise saving the world.
Definitely the most narrative-rich of the LCGs, this almost feels like a cross between an LCG and an RPG. You can check out our full review of the game here and there are now multiple deluxe expansions to choose from: read more about the Dunwich Legacy and Path to Carcosa on our blog.
Legend of the Five Rings (2017)
Twin-Decks, multiple paths to victory through military victory, political cunning, and mastery of Honour and Dishonour.
Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is the newest LCG to take the world by storm. With a Fantasy/Japanese setting, this game features beautiful art, and a strong community with great traditions of loyalty to their chosen clan.
Mechanically, this game feels like the next step in the evolution of the LCG, and promises much in terms of players being able to influence the ongoing narrative arc of the game. Again, we have a full review you can check out for more details.
Is the “Living Card Game” Model Better? That depends on you
As noted above, the great advantage of the Living Card Game Model is that (compared with the CCG/TCG model) it offers buyers a great deal of predictability in what they get when they hand over their money. For all the LCGs currently in production, a single purchase of any product besides the Core Set will give you a complete playset of all the required cards for a deck. It avoids the hunting, the frustration and the speculative spending of the randomised games.
However, in an age where internet is king, the predictability of LCGs does also remove some of the “buzz” of picking up expansions. Chances are you saw the spoilers of the cards a few weeks before the new pack came out, and with complete control over the supply chain, why would you waste your time experimenting with that strange card when you can guarantee access to the latest power-card?
It’s also worth noting that “predictable” is not the same as “cheap.” Lord of the Rings is in its fifth year, and has had over 50 expansions – I haven’t calculated exactly how much I have spent on this game over the course of half a decade, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it must be quite a lot.
It’s also worth thinking about expectations. A Living Card Game will often sit alongside Board Games on the shelves and whilst it seems to be ever-more-common for games to have expansions, people still expect a board game to be playable out of the box without buying extra content. The Living Card Game Model however is set up with the assumption that you will buy extra content, and the play experience you get from a single Core Set can be underwhelming for someone unfamiliar with the approach.
Which one to pick? How to decide?
Most of the Living Card Games tie in to fairly well-established IPs, and for a lot of people, the fact that it is a Star Wars, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings game will instantly tell them a lot about whether they want to play it or not.
Right now, if you’re looking for a competitive Living Card Game to get into, Legend of the Five Rings really is a great choice – mechanically it feels like they’ve taken the best of Game of Thrones, but fixed some of the older game’s little niggles, and the setting is beautiful. Despite the accelerated release of the first cycle, the cost of entry is still lower than for any of the veteran titles.
On the other hand, if you want a solo game, a cooperative experience, or you want to be able to play the game with friends who have a more casual interest and won’t be doing their own deck building, then Arkham Horror is probably the way to go – the mechanics are really well done, and the fact that it’s not a game with lots of tournament play, makes it easier to get involved with a limited set of cards.
We’re big fans of LCGs here at Games Quest, so keep checking back for updates on the new releases.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.