What the Heck is a Living Card Game? (Four Years Later)

February 20, 2021

Exactly four years ago today, Barrister Brian wrote an article on Fantasy Flight Games’ series of expandable card games known as Living Card Games. Fittingly enough, Brian went on to work for Fantasy Flight shortly thereafter, so we can assume he knew what he was talking about.

Living Card Games are still a big part of the gaming landscape, and their basic structure hasn’t changed—so we’re reposting Brian’s article, followed by a 2021 update from Andy at the end. Enjoy!

~Original 2017 Post with Barrister Brian~

There are a lot of card games out there beckoning you to experience the joys they can provide. Fortunately, most of these games are excellent. Unfortunately, they often employ different methods for adding new cards to your collection that can be a bit confusing for the uninitiated. While the outcome and mechanics of these games is similar – purchase cards, build a deck with them, and play – the processes for going about that can vary wildly. You’re likely to hear terms like “booster pack” or “Data Pack” and wonder what that even means. I’m here to help you out.

Right now there are two major categories of expandable card games: what is known as Collectible Card Games (CCGs for short), and “Living Card Games” (LCGs).

Before going further, I should note that “Living Card Game” is a term trademarked by Fantasy Flight that refers to many of the games they produce. Such prominent games as A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, and my personal favorite, Android: Netrunner are all Living Card Games produced by Fantasy Flight. Even though “Living Card Game” is trademarked by Fantasy Flight, other card games do a similar thing. AEG’s Doomtown: Reloaded, for example, operates under a similar model, but is dubbed by that company an “Expandable Card Game.”
Note from Andy in 2021: We’re super excited about the upcoming Vampire: The Masquerade Expandable Card Game!

Collectible Card Games are the older of the two formats and are built upon the blind-buy booster pack model. This means that, in order to get more card s with which to build your deck, you’ll be purchasing booster packs that contain 10-15 random cards. You’re never sure what you’ll get in each pack. These packs tend to be relatively inexpensive (usually under $5 per pack) and are a nice way to quickly add to your collection.

The most prominent CCG is, of course, Magic: The Gathering, which has been going strong since the early 90s. Another prominent example is the Pokémon Trading Card Game. In addition to booster packs, these games also present a wide range of products that can help introduce new players to them. These mostly consist of pre-constructed decks that are competitive and introduce the basics of deckbuilding, but can also come in the form of bundles of boosters with extra goodies like dice and card sleeves.

ANRDataPackLiving Card Games, on the other hand, do away with the randomized booster pack model in favor of something a little different. These games usually come in the form of a “core” set that gives players everything they need to get started. All the cards, tokens, rulebooks, etc., that you’ll need are provided in a core set. From there, additional packs of cards are released each month. However, instead of being randomized, each pack contains the same cards, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting each time. Typically, these packs contain about three copies each of around 20 new cards (in case you want to include multiple copies of a card in your deck). As you’re getting around 60 new cards instead of 10-15 in CCG booster packs, packs for LCGs tend to be a little more expensive, right around $15 per pack.

Obviously both formats have their own appeal. While CCGs are much less certain about what you’re going to get, they bring a rush of exhilaration when you hit on a really good card. It’s like hitting the jackpot at the slot machine. Seeing as you’re getting the same thing as everyone else, LCGs might not bring this rush, but they do provide nice, steady helpings of cards. Plus, like regular issues of comics or TV episodes, they’re definitely something to look forward to every month.

In either format, there are plenty of good games to choose from. Magic and Pokémon have been around for so long that they’re practically institutions. With them you’ll find a deep pool of cards and plenty of players of all skill levels. As the newer kids on the block, Living Card Games are a good place to start if you’re looking to join a growing community. Fantasy Flight has an ever-growing stable of LCGs and that cover a wide range of media properties, from Star Wars to Call of Cthulhu. Better yet, they’re all pretty unique. I’m currently intrigued by the LCG based on The Lord of the Rings, which is actually a cooperative game where players work together through adventures in Middle-earth.

In the end, no matter what your taste, there’s probably a card game out there for you. The ability to add cards to it only sweetens the deal. Whether it be a CCG or a LCG, I wish you luck and, most importantly, have fun.

~2021 Revisit with Barrister Andy (Hi Brian!)~

Well, in some ways, a lot has changed in the world of Living Card Games. And in other ways, nothing has changed at all.

Everything Brian writes about the format and acquisition of LCGs remains true. Even four years later, each new Living Card Game begins with a Core Set containing all the base cards, tokens and components necessary to play the game. Every new player and play group will need to begin with that Core Set. From there, we get to pick and choose the additional content that we wish to add to our game. Chapters, Heroes, Scenarios, Dynasties—each game gets a thematic new name for expansion packs that look like this.

Like all living things, Living Card Games have a lifespan. We’ve seen the climax and conclusion of many of these Fantasy Flight titles through the years, and among the games now considered “complete” are Android: Netrunner, Star Wars, Warhammer 40,000 Conquest, and announced this week, Legend of the Five Rings.

In keeping with standard circle-of-life rules, we’ve also seen the birth of new LCGs—namely Arkham Horror The Card Game (2016) and Marvel Champions (2019).

Contrary to how it might appear—no two Living Card Games play similarly. Marvel Champions isn’t just the Lord of the Rings LCG with different art slapped on the cards. Each game has a vastly different set of rules created by a different design team. For instance, Arkham Horror, Marvel Champions and Lord of the Rings are cooperative games where we work together against the forces of evil. While Legend of the Five Rings, Game of Thrones and Netrunner were all 1v1 competitive games.

In Legend of the Five Rings, each player’s deck represented an entire feudal clan of characters and events; while in the asymmetric gameplay of Netrunner, we face off as a hacker against a mega corporation, and each of our decks represents the tools and resources available to us.

And while new cards can be found in similar plastic blister packs when we first acquire them, the actual application of those expansions manifests differently in each LCG:

  • Each time we sit down for a game of Marvel Champions, we’ll build Hero decks and team up to face off against a single Villain and their schemes. New packs allow us to choose the heroes and villains we want to add to our collection for the next time we’re called to action. The recent arrival of Campaign boxes has also created the opportunity for ongoing play between scenarios!
  • In Arkham Horror The Card Game, continuity is the name of the game. Choose your unsuspecting investigator and cling to survival in a world of extradimensional horror inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Each investigation begins with a two-part deluxe expansion, containing new scenarios, new gameplay cards, and new investigators to choose from. From there, the story continues in Mythos Packs, each of which contains one new scenario and more cards to add to our decks!

At this point, I feel safe saying that Living Card Games are going to stick around for a while. With each new game, the gameplay and distribution of the new content improves. And while Legend of the Five Rings was dear to my heart, I’m excited to see what new world we get a chance to explore in the next LCG announcement.

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Andy B

Andy B is our Master of Events and Online Wizardry, and that's why you see his picture at the bottom of most posts and events! You'll see him and his beard at all our locations, often with his nose at a computer, creating pages just like this one. His favorite games include The Grizzled, Guild Ball, Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle and Legend of the Five Rings.

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