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It's Alive - A Look at the Living Card Game Model

Jason Moslander
United States
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About a year ago, I purchased The Lord of the Rings Card Game. This game is a Living Card Game (LCG). After playing this for a year and purchasing another Living Card Game (Netrunner), I have begun to look a little deeper into this branch of the game family. What is the history of the LCG? What is the purpose? Is it a good system? What are the pros and cons? And what kind of gamers are they best for? I want to explore the LCG genre and hopefully give you a better idea to if it is something you want to invest your gaming dollar into.

The History
In 2008, Fantasy Flight Games invented a new branch of games called Living Card Games. The concept has it's origins in the world of Collectible Card Games (CCGs) and Trading Card Games (TCGs). With Living Card games, the concept is that instead of buying packs filled with random cards. You buy a pack and already know what cards it contains. These new packs would be released on a monthly basis and vary in size and content. There would also be a core set that would be released first for each Living Card Game. These would also all have the same cards, and also contain the rule book and any additional pieces needed to play the game. In theory, this makes it so that there are no "rare" cards, and no hunting for that one card you need to complete your set, or the one card needed to make your deck complete.

Fantasy Flight began this model in 2008 with the 4-playerGame of Thrones Card Game and the 2-player Call of Cthulhu Card Game. Later, they release a Warhammer Invasion, The Lord of the Rings Card Game, Android: Netrunner, and Star Wars the Card Game. One of the first things you will notice about these six games is that they were all existing franchises either in the gaming world or elsewhere. Android: Netrunner benefits from being in the Fantasy Flight Android universe and having it's origins as a CCG from the mid 90s. This seems one of the strategies behind the LCG game, that is uses a theme that people are already familiar with.

Finally, other publishers have begun to adopt the LCG model, but they do not use the LCG name. Games like Stronghold's Revolver and Plaid Hat Games' Summoner Wars use similar systems to release new packs of cards for their games. Although neither of these is a true LCG (according to Fantasy Flights definition), they both draw of the model that Fantasy Flight has created.

The Publisher's View
For Fantasy Flight, this is nothing more than money, money, and more money. You get people to buy a core set of cards for $40. You give them just enough cards to wet their whistles. Then, once they are hooked, they almost can't help themselves and begin buying expansion packs (adventure packs, data packs, etc.). And the price point of $15 a pack makes it seem like an affordable choice to add more cards to your $40 investment. However, before you know it you have bought 6 packs and dropped $90 on a $40 game. And now you have spent $130. And at this point, just when you think you are done buying they release a large expansion with 125+ cards for $30. Now, you have dropped $160 on one game! What just happened? You've been nickel and dimed into investing $150 on a card game. What is wrong with you? Well, now that you are in this deep, you might as well make sure you have the best cards possible. So, you keep buying and buying, and Fantasy Flight is laughing all the way to the bank.

This is a wonderful model for the publisher if the game takes off. If the game flops, the company has just wasted hundred of man hours in development to make a game that no one is buying and no one is playing. I believe this is part of the reason why Fantasy Flight has been very selective in the games they are making for their LCG series. I also believe that is why you saw a year long delay in the release of the Star Wars LCG. The LCG needs to be a sustainable game as far as theme and game play; they just can't afford a flop, and they have taken precautions to try to avoid this.

The Gamer's View
So, how is the LCG from the gamer's perspective? Well, I can tell you that they are not for everyone. First, all but one of them only play with 2 players. So, if 2-player-only games are not your thing, you will want to avoid these. Second, the LCGs and other Fantasy Flight Games that I have played have very long and complex rule books--we're talking 30+ pages. Granted, parts of that are for setup and explaining what an LCG is and the deck building part of the game, but it is still a daunting task. Be ready to read through that thing a couple times and watch a few online tutorials. If you can get past that, you are ready to grab the LCG that has the theme and game play that you enjoy and get your game on.

Another great thing about the LCGs is that they all play very differently. Lord of the Rings is a Co-op, Netrunner is asymetrical, Game of Thrones plays with up to four players. I love that they are not all just the same game with a different theme pasted on. It makes it possible for their to be more diversity and the possible that you will find the LCG that is right for you.

Like a Fine Wine
One thing that I have discovered about Fantasy Flight Games and the LCG series is that you really can't draw conclusions after one game. You really need 3-4 good plays before: one, you have an understanding of what is actually going on, and two, a real feel for the depth of game play and strategy. So, if you have only gotten your LCG out once and didn't care for it or thought it was too complex, I encourage to try try again. Most of the time, I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of a game after one or two plays, but for some reason with the LCGs I need a good 4-5 plays before I really have my bearings and feel that I can enjoy the game.

The Game Outside the Game
Since LCGs have their roots in the Collectible Card Game realm, there is some serious gaming going on outside the actual game. Deck construction is a key portion of the LCG design, the ability to create your own custom decks. Now, the LCGs that I have played have come with pre-constructed decks, but they are really made just to get your feet wet. You get a taste of what the game has to offer, but then you have to dive into the world of deck construction to have a deck that is worth anything. For the gamers that have their roots in the same place as the LCG (the CCG world), this is almost second nature to them. Buying new packs and mixing and matching cards to make the best deck possible.

There are a good number of LCG players who have their roots in the world of board games. Yes, there is cross over between the two genres, but some have never built decks before. This is where the crossover can get hazy. Some board gamers want to be able to buy a game and play it right out of the box (ehem *Mrs. GwT*). No customization, no shuffling through decks and decks of cards. And the cool thing about LCGs is that you can do just that with the core sets. Or you can buy every expansion pack that comes out and customize your game to nth degree.

So, the question is can you enjoy these games right out of the box? Are they worth the money? Or will you need to invest? Well, from my experience it really depends on what game you are playing. Take Lord of the Rings for example: it is about impossible to beat all the scenarios that come with the core set without extra cards. But in a game like Netrunner, you could be perfectly happy playing with the 7 different decks that come with the base game. In the end, it comes down to how much time and money do you want to invest in your game? And is it worth the investment?

Final Thoughts
Personally, I have really enjoyed the LCG model. I think its a great alternative to the CCG model. There is no longer a need to search down those ultra rare cards, and then drop $75 on a single card. There is no need buy booster pack after booster pack with randomness. The LCG takes the randomness out of CCGs. It makes it possible to go to a tournament and win, because everyone has access to the same cards.

Second, I love that the games come with a core set that is ready to play. This makes entry into the game easy. I do wish that the boxes or box inserts were designed better, so that you could easily fit the game and all the expansions that you have bought without having to do major modifications.

Finally, the LCG is most definitely not for everyone. These are complex games that take a long time to learn and teach. Some people are going to hate the deck constructing (again, Mrs GwT). Some are going to hate the constant need to buy new cards and see it as a cash cow. And some are going to hate the 30 page rule book. However, others will love the constant release of new cards, the complexity of the game play, and the game outside the game. And for me I think I fall into the second category. I have had my brain thoroughly washed by Fantasy Flight and their clever marketing. And now, I am ready to invest in my Living Card Games.

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