The Living Dead – The State of Living Card Games

21 Jan , 2015  

This piece comes from new contributor Barrett Huddlestone, a graduate educated professor, performer and academically published writer. A lover of table top RPGs, board and card games alike, he’s been an enthusiast of the hobby for the past few decades. You can find more of his written work here.

And then the prophet said unto the enthusiast of games, “Lo! For there shall come a time when neither copyright infringement or product line discontinuation shall prevent the one true fans from acquiring 1,791 pledges for a Conan relaunch! And the open gaming license shall lay waste to those that would obstruct backwards compatibility. And they shall dwell in the land of Kickstarter.” Verily.

(Poindexter’s Second Epistle to the Otaku, Revised Substandard Version)

Barrett | The eschaton of traditional distribution models may be upon us, brothers. And I have only one question: where are my Gotrek and Felix hero cards? Last year, Fantasy Flight Games announced the “living end” of its Living Card Game, Warhammer: Invasion. This preceded the discontinuation for one of its flagship product lines, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (in the same breath as a second edition was unveiled).


Five years after it’s release, Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Game is no more.

Yes, I recognize some of you only support the “one ring” of tabletop card games, Magic: The Gathering. So, permit me to conjure some context: most mass market card games never make it to retirement. Like ethnically diverse sidekicks in buddy cop movies, many card games are brutalized by an oversaturated market moments before they “bleed out” in the arms of their most loyal fans (“Mendoza!”). For the “whipper snapping” millennials that can’t remember the great “card game wars” of the mid-nineties allow me to elaborate. The onset of the tabletop card game was a “Dodge City” wasteland of discarded product lines – X-Files, Rage: Werewolf, Lord of The Rings: The Card Game. Count yourself lucky this stroll down memory lane has a destination. Were it not so, this is where I’d be getting especially wistful about Jyhad (Yes, Generation X named a card game Jyhad – it was a simpler time) cum Vampire: The Eternal Struggle.

But, a new breed of card game has emerged in the last several years. Living Card Games (so named because they develop via expansions while evading blind purchase) have begun to circulate though the crevices of friendly local game stores. After the Friday Night Magic crews dissipate, discarded commons are swept off the table for titles like “Pathfinder,” “Call of Cthulhu” and “Netrunner.” Fixed card distribution and regular expansions have created a small but loyal niche for such products, even facilitating store sponsored events and tournaments. Fantasy Flight Games took point with this “wallet friendly” market as its unofficial patriarch and single largest tournament supporter.

The aforementioned “Call of Cthulhu” and “Game of Thrones” quickly became top sellers; follow-up titles like “Lord of the Rings” (what is this third time around for this property? Finally, right?) and redux of Richard Garfield’s “Netrunner” have supplanted Fantasy Flight as the “gold standard” for other, likeminded product lines. So goes Fantasy Flight Games, so goes Living Card Games.

And now, we’re back up to speed. Last November, Fantasy Flight pulled the plug from Warhammer: Invasion. The cause, according to its website, was to provide a “complete collection that players can explore and enjoy.” A cynic might question the statement’s veracity. After “Warhammer: Invasion” was bestowed its “gold watch,” Fantasy Flight wasted little time in announcing a Living Card Game based on the Warhammer 40K  universe (its rules might not be a direct  descendant of Invasion, but they certainly have its eyes).

W40K Conquest

Warhammer 40K Conquest bears more than a passing resemblance to it’s now departed older brother.

But even retiring one title to make room for another can be forgiven. A million game developers at a million laptops can only churn out so much product. Besides have the nineties taught us anything? Nothing murders a product line (only three days from retirement) faster than market saturation. Speculation aside, the Warhammer: Invasion announcement yields two seismic observations regarding the state of the industry:

  1. Fantasy Flight’s decision invites the chance for heavier narrative continuity for tabletop card games. The conventional model for distribution was simple and (hindsight is 20/20) puerile – grind out product until it stops turning a profit. Time to make the donuts Jace the Mind Sculptor! Power creep be damned! Nerf that Mutha! This resulted in games that either died before their time (*sniff* Shadowfist) or out stayed their welcome: how does one (for example) continue to expand after “Gehenna” with a straight face? The sum is a conspicuous absence of narrative threads within the medium en masse. But those days are over. “Pathfinder: Rise of the Runelords” and “Shadowrun” each demonstrate the strength and appeal of linear storytelling through tabletop card games. And it’s a cinch Fantasy Flight won’t be adding canonical material to “A Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Rings.” More immediate is the possibility designers will devise their own narratives that more intuitively draw on the quintessential traits of the medium.
  2. More importantly, Warhammer: Invasion’s “end of days” compels a question: does it truly have to end? The d20 open gaming license has taught the industry geeks will willingly do twice the work with half the results for labors of love. This “Can’t stop the signal, Mal” attitude proclaims no single entity should hoard the rights to a beloved property. The recent Conan Kickstarter reboot and expansion (just to name one example) seemed like lightning from a clear sky only to those living in caves the last several years. Who controls the rights to Warhammer: Invasion? Who can authorize Kickstarter based expansions? How much? The new industry standards have proven these are merely logistics. Ad today’s climate has proven such logistics increasingly (exponentially?) nominal concerns.

Today, Adventures in Hyboria. Tomorrow, a (we humbly pray) Heroscape reboot. And after a fashion, who knows? Maybe I’ll finally get my Gotrek and Felix cards. What’s the point in a Living Card Game if it’s born to die?

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