Frontiersman Gamer: Not the Gathering

I’ve decided to start a new semi-regular column, which I have lovingly named Frontiersman Gamer. Here I’ll talk about games – video games, board games, card games, etc. – that will probably not be familiar to the average video gamer. In the beginning I’ll be focusing on tabletop games, and in this one I’ll be starting with the very familiar name of Richard Garfield.

It would not be a stretch to say that readers would be familiar with Magic: The Gathering, the popular collectible card game designed by Richard Garfield. Readers may also be familiar with other collectible card games (CCGs) such as Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon and Cardfight! Vanguard. The premise of these games is straightfoward – you collect cards buy purchasing multiple booster packs and preconstructed decks, you construct a deck out of your cards, and you compete with a friend in a head-to-head battle.

But there exists a plethora of other card games that do not fall within the category of collectible card game (in fact, they might be more aptly described as board games despite lacking, well, boards). One of which was designed by Richard Garfield himself many years ago. Trading random packs of cards for core sets and expansions with fixed decklists, you can often get complete game experiences out of the box without the need to invest in building a competitive deck (though drafting does go some way to solving that issue for CCGs). Sometimes they do away with the premise of players battling head-to-head entirely. Let me expose you to a series of games where the story that emerges is sometimes more enjoyable than the mechanics of the game, and where building cities can be just as fun as fighting orcs.



In 2008 a card game was released that took the board game community by storm, precisely because it invented a new genre of board games that had never existed before it. Donald X. Vaccarino, an informal contributor to Magic: the Gathering in its early years and who discussed game design with Richard Garfield on occasion, conceived the idea for this board game in 2006. Traditionally the player’s deck in a card game is something constructed before the game begins, and drawing down the deck to the last card typically means a loss for that player. Dominion’s ground-breaking innovation was to make the construction of the deck one of the core mechanics of the game itself; hence the name of the genre Dominion spawned – the Deck-Building Game.

In Dominion, players are rulers of a small kingdom with ambitions to expand. You begin with a small deck of basic cards that reflects how in the gutter your little fiefdom is. But each turn you can buy card from the common pool of cards on the table, which go into your discard pile. “The discard pile?”, you may ask with a perplexed look on your face. Yes, because when you draw the last card in your deck you shuffle your discard pile into your deck. So as you buy more cards and cycle through your deck, your deck grows and grows, filling up with more gold, more buildings (which are action cards), and most importantly, more victory cards. Once certain piles in the common supply pool are empty, the game ends and players tally up the total number of victory points in their deck. The one with most reigns supreme as the ruler of the grandest, most luscious, most verdant kingdom of riches and debauchery.

You can see the beginnings of a genre in Dominion. The idea of a game revolving around the process of deck-building is inherently appealing, as you discard the difficult pre-game theory-crafting and deck-testing for a more fluid and turn-by-turn consideration of what would be the best card to buy and place into your deck. However, the base game suffers from certain drawbacks of the game’s system – in particular the relative lack of interaction between players. Even if you manage to keep track of the number of victory cards in each player’s deck, you face the problem of being limited in how you can respond to it. Apart from the Witch card, which can curse players with negative victory cards, the most that a player can do is attempt to buy as many of their own victory cards to make up the difference. The subsequent expansions rectify this problem, in particular the Intrigue expansion, by expanding the tools with which players can combat with each other, but the base game very much reflects this game’s place as the first of its kind. That said, overall the game was a well-produced and fairly well thought out game, and it remains a popular game even after numerous new deck-building games have been released.

Another advantage of Dominion was that it was not a collectible card game at all, yet still retained some of the variability of CCGs. The base game contains 25 sets of Kingdom cards, of which you choose 10 sets for each game. The expansions contain even more sets of Kingdom cards and other cards, but as you know what every expansion contains, it does not become the money sink that certain formats of MTG can be. But what if this idea was expanded to the more traditional card game?

Dominion Nitroplus Card Masters

But just before we get to that point, in one of the oddest cross-overs ever, Dominion got a special Japan only edition, with cards featuring Nitro+ characters on identically functional cards. All your favourites including Steins;Gate, Chaos;Head, Saya no Uta and SoniComi are depicted, along with guest appearances from Guilty Crown and Fate/Zero.

The Living Card Game

Fantasy Flight Games is one of the big name publishers in board and card games, with product ranging from the complex, much-beloved Twilight Imperium to games based on the Warhammer, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings (non-movie) and Cthulhu properties. In 2008, FFG began to market a new idea for traditional card games – the Living Card Game (LCG). Rather than relying on the traditional pre-constructed deck and random booster pack model of traditional CCGs, with a Living Card Game you purchase base games and expansions that will always have the same cards. Not only that, FFG promised full game experiences when you played straight out of the base game, with no need to purchase additional cards to enjoy the game. It is an interesting sales model, given that it deprives FFG of the potential profit to be made on booster packs. There is a slight catch however, in that expert deckbuilders will usually want two Core Sets to obtain enough copies of a card to reach the card limit for a deck. This is less of a problem for the expansions, which usually contain enough copies on their own.

There are a number of LCGs, each playing in a unique way. The first two were CCGs that were imported into the LCG model – Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game, and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game. We’ll be focusing on the two most interesting and acclaimed card games, along with the latest one to hit the shelves.

  • Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game
  • A Game of Thrones: The Card Game
  • Warhammer: Invasion
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
  • Android: Netrunner
  • Star Wars: The Card Game

Android: Netrunner

Android: Netrunner

Richard Garfield was not a one-trick pony when it came to card and board games. While Magic: the Gathering was the one that made him most successful, two other games he designed have become popular in recent years. One is the cartoony kaiju board game King of Tokyo; the other is a card game released in 1996. Netrunner (hereon called Netrunner Classic) was hailed as the best CCG ever designed when it was released, and Garfield considers it his best board game (as opposed to card game) that he ever created. The set-up was simple, one player controlled a corporation (“The Corp”), and the other controlled a hacker (a “Runner”) attempting to gain access to the corporation’s servers. The Corp had countermeasures in the form of ICE, which hackers had to break or bypass using icebreakers. To reflect this dichotomy of resources and objectives, each player’s cards are completely different from their opponent’s. Corp players can only use Corp cards, and Runner players can only use Runner cards. Sadly Wizards of the Coast stopped printing Netrunner only several years after it was first released.

Android: Netrunner is the ultimate competitive bluffing game.

But in 2012 FFG obtained a licence from Wizards to create their own version of the game, based on their own Android universe. Unsurprisingly, it took the board game community by storm, winning numerous awards and currently ranking at number 6 on the Board Game Geek rankings. Several changes have been made from the original, but the core conceit remains the same. In this asymmetrical game of Corporation versus Runner, Runners attempt to hack into the Corporation’s servers and steal Agenda cards, winning if they accumulate 7 points from those stolen Agendas. Corporations win if they manage to activate those Agenda cards and accumulate 7 points that way.


I’ve embedded the tutorial here, but there are several key points that demonstrate why this is such a brilliant game. The Corporation must play Agendas as servers in order to activate them and gain score. But playing anything as a server leaves it vulnerable to the Runner. But Agendas are not the only servers accessible to the Runner – the discard pile, the deck and the hand of the Corporation player are also servers that are accessible to the Runner. To access a server, a Runner makes a “run” on a specific server, and if they manage to break through the ICE protecting that server, they can access one or more cards in the server. So making a successful run on the Corporation ID server (representing the player’s hand) lets the Runner choose a card from the Corporation player’s hand at random and look at it. Not only that, if they reveal an Agenda card, they automatically steal it. So if the Corporation player leaves their deck, hand or discard pile unprotected, they may be in significant trouble.

Android: Netrunner cardfan

But the Corporation player is not at a disadvantage. They have the ability to place ICE, Assets and Agendas face-down on the board. Assets and Agendas are both placed as servers – meaning that a Runner has no idea if they are running against a valuable Agenda or a trap in the form of an Asset. Not only that, the ICE protecting those servers can be of several types, and if the Runner does not have an icebreaker that can break ICE of that type, they suffer the consequences written on that card. For the Corporation player, Android: Netrunner is the ultimate competitive bluffing game. When they place ICE, they do not need to pay the cost of it. They only pay when they want to activate it, during a run. So every run becomes a question of whether the Corporation player has placed efficient and deadly traps to protect valuable Agendas, or they have put three dud ICE’s in order to entice the Runner to access a trap Asset. The Corporation player can also fight back, using Traces and Tags to force the Runner to randomly discard a card from their hand, or in some cases even reduce the maximum hand size of the Runner permanently.

That’s not all. There are four Corporation factions and the Runner factions, and each plays in a different way. Jinteki focuses on trapping the Runner and dealing net damage to the Runner, while Weyland Corporation aims to drop a satellite on the Runner, flatlining them after a successful trace. Shapers prefer to build up their Rig to make runs on the remote servers, while Criminals like to hit fast and often against the deck and hand servers.

But what’s even greater about the game is that the art and the gameplay all exude an attention to theme and atmosphere that is common to FFG’s Living Card Games. It makes sense to have asymmetric gameplay when a small hacker goes up against a big corporation. Each of the Corporation factions reflect their corporate nature – the media conglomerate NBN is adept at tracing and tagging Runners, while the military industrial Weyland has the ability to level the city block the Runner is located in. The art is simply superb, with dystopic black and cyber blue abound. It is the premier competitive card game of recent years.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

But I myself would have no-one to play Android: Netrunner against. But as fate would have it, my sister and I are LotR fans, and The LotR Card Game is an excellent game for very different reasons. Unlike almost all other card games, LotR:TCG is an exclusively co-operative card game. Each player controls a band of three heroes who must fight against the relentless forces of Sauron, in the form of the fear-inducing, terrible-to-behold Encounter Deck. But if you are brave enough and skillful enough, you can also play the game solo as a solitaire game.


Each game proceeds according to the three stages of the quest for that game. The Core Set contains three such quests, depicting the story of your heroes as they discover the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. Each turn monsters and other dark threats pour out of the Encounter Deck, which must be engaged and dealt with by your heroes and allies promptly. The players’ goal is to fulfill the requirements of each of the three stages of the quest, listed on the quest cards, and all will win if the third quest card is completed. But they are working against the clock and the Encounter Deck. Each player has a Threat Counter, which ticks up every turn by at least 1, and even more if players do not have enough combined Willpower to overcome the Threat level of enemies on the board that are not engaged. If a player’s Threat Counter reaches 50 (and it doesn’t start at 1), they are eliminated from the game. They are also eliminated if all of their heroes die, which is a problem because all undefended attacks against them are deal damage to a hero.

But, and for the harder quests this is a very big but, if at least one player can fulfill the final quest objective, the players all win.

The great thing about this game is that every battle is a story worthy of being told in the Prancing Pony. In one quest where the heroes are chased to the shores of the River Anduin, twice the monsters pour out each turn during the second quest phase. It was a struggle of fighting tooth and nail trying to get enough Progress Tokens onto the quest phase, as orc and goblin alike were hewed in our mad rush for the River. But when you get to the third phase, the flow of monsters stops completely, and it becomes a slaughterhouse as you mow down the remaining enemies.

The Hobbit: Over Hill and Under Hill

Even more memorable is the quest from the first Hobbit expansion in which the dwarves are captured by the three trolls. In the game the three trolls are simply unstoppable monsters, with massive amounts of health, defence and attack. Even worse is their ability to “sack” your heroes, disabling them from performing certain actions or even shutting them down completely. To defeat this quest phase, you either have to draw down the Encounter Deck completely or defeat the trolls. Unless you have a killer deck your best bet is to weather the assault from the trolls, waiting for that Deck to empty and for sunlight to turn the trolls into stone. It was difficult, and most of our heroes didn’t make it, but we survived in the end to see daylight.

FFG put out both big Deluxe Expansions and smaller Adventure Packs. Both add new players cards, but more importantly add new Quests and new Encounter Deck sets for your heroes to struggle with. The expansions are released in sets, each with a theme that expands on certain player cards. The Khazad-dum expansion adds more dwarves, while the Heirs of Numenor adds to the forces of Gondor. FFG have also released rules for both an Easy Mode (that removes cards to make it easier), and a Nightmare Mode (a separate print-on-demand product that adds harder Encounter Cards).

Again, the theme is strong in this game – banding together to fight the forces of Sauron, impossible odds as both Threat and monsters accumulate, and needing to overcome Sauron’s forces both with willpower and might. The art is similarly wonderful, a great take on the Tolkien universe that’s fairly similar to the artworks on the various books put out by Tolkien Estate. But the clincher is the fact that it is a co-operative or solo game, where the struggle is against a merciless deck of cards rather than against each other.

Star Wars: The Card Game

Star Wars: The Card GameFinally, we have Star Wars: The Card Game. Star Wars is no stranger to card games, the first being Decipher’s Star Wars Customizable Card Game. This game had asymmetrical gameplay like Netrunner, with Dark side and Light side cards. Following that was Wizards of the Coasts’ Star Wars Trading Card Game, which was a fairly traditional CCG, albeit designed by Richard Garfield. But Wizards put it on hold in 2005, and it has taken 8 years for a new Star Wars game to take to the shelves.

FFG’s Star Wars card game is also asymmetrical, with players constructing decks using cards specifically for either the Light side or the Dark side. Victory conditions also differ – the Light side player must destroy three Dark side Objective cards, while the Dark side wins when the Death Star counter reaches 12. The Death Star counter advances by 1 each turn, and by an additional point if the Balance of the Force is with the Dark Side. The Star Wars card game is a game of fast-paced action across multiple fronts. Certain Unit cards can attack other Units, but some Unit cards can attack Objective cards. Some Units even exhaust enemy cards by placing Focus tokens on them (which are removed at the beginning of each turn and are like tapping a card, but multiple times). But players will also need to dedicate some of their Unit cards to the Force, as each turn the player with the highest Force icons on Units dedicated to the Force will win the Balance of the Force for the next turn. When engaging the opponent, the first to strike is not the active player, but the one who wins the Edge Battle – a pre-battle battle where the one who plays cards with the most Force icons wins.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the game is the deckbuilding – you don’t select individual cards to put in your deck. Instead, you choose a number of Objective cards, and each of those includes a set of cards to put into your deck. Essentially you build your deck from multiple sets of cards, rather than individual cards. It’s something that both simplifies the deckbuilding aspect while enhancing the in-game tactical analysis for an experienced player. Since you show the opponent three Objective cards in a game, you are showing your opponent three sets of cards in your deck.


Star Wars: The Card Game is a game about fast-paced action, where cards are quickly entering your hand and the Death Star counter ticks up to 12. While Android: Netrunner remains the quintessential competitive LCG, Star Wars: The Card Game seems to be a faster, easier to get into competitive LCG. It remains, as always, thematically strong, and all your favourite Star Wars characters are depicted in it.

But it’s probably not the best Star Wars game from FFG. Perhaps I’ll look at that one next time, though I’ll definitely look at it some time in the future.

By Benjamin Lay

Proprietor of this fine website, with interests ranging from video games to anime to amateur programming.

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