What It’s Like to Design Art for the Game of Thrones Card Game
For a while, the card game based on George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones was pretty big. It began as a collectible card game. Picture Magic: The Gathering, but with Maesters instead of magicians. Then it moved into a “living” card game format, which is pretty much the same thing, except you know exactly which cards you’re getting in each pack and you never have to buy more than one pack of each new set. Now it’s dying, the manufacturer announcing it’s moved to a more limited release schedule.
Ten years ago, when it was still big, I stumbled into designing art for it, shaping the universe of Thrones just a little bit. I was playing AGoT, as it was called, with a group of guys in DC who were quite good. Good enough that, for three years in a row, the world championship was claimed by one of them. I wasn’t good. I’ve always been bad at card games, and I was particularly bad at this, at least in comparison. But I had just published my first novel, and my buddies knew the people at Fantasy Flight Games who produced the game, and so when FFG put out a call for writers to craft art descriptions for upcoming sets, they hooked me up.
Fantasy Flight Games sent me a spreadsheet with the details of seventeen cards: name, type, faction, cost, game text, flavor text, etc. These had been developed by the game designers and refined over months of playtesting with groups of players who’d get PDFs of “cards” that were little more than boxes with a bit of text, that they’d print out, card-sleeve, and give a whirl. To turn spreadsheets into actual cards meant going through a layout process and getting artists to paint accompanying pictures.
Which is where I came in. Like a comic book writer scripting what the artist should draw, I had to come up with little descriptions to go with all those details. These would in turn be sent to artists.
It was a fun project. I had to flip through the books, browse wikis, and, in cases like Litany of Fire, brainstorm with my gaming group just what could possibly make sense in light of the card text. I sent what I came up with back to FFG and, months later, I got to see the results.
Here are the descriptions I wrote and the cool images the artists made out of them.
SCENE. The study room of a very well educated man. Shelves and shelves of books line the walls, nearly bursting with fat volumes and scrolls. At a desk in the corner, reading, sits an ancient man in courtly robes.
CHARACTER. A man crouches and stares down from the rooftop of a building. Most of him is hidden in shadow. In his hand is a large knife. He’s watching a knight walking by himself on the darkened street below.
SCENE. The medieval version of a parliamentary chamber. Politicians are seated in rows, dressed in their finest. The Prolific Statesman is the only one standing and he’s giving a speech, his body language indicating just how important he is.
Ser Gerold Hightower
CHARACTER: An elegant and noble looking man, wearing the armor of the Kingsguard and wielding a gleaming broadsword, is locked in battle with Eddard Stark. They’re fighting inside a castle. Bodies of more Kingsguard and their attackers lay on the stone floor around them.
Valyrian Steel Link
SCENE. A necklace of metal links, each a different kind of metal, is laying across red satin. The most prominent is of highly polished steel and gleams in the light.
SCENE. A young man in grey robes stands before an older Maester. The Maester is handing the man a brass link for his (still very small) Maester’s chain and the man is beaming at his accomplishment.
Schemes of the Scholar
SCENE. A Maester is pouring powder from a tiny sack into a goblet of wine.
CHARACTER. Genna Lannister is a fat woman of late middle age, with a broad, flat face. She’s dressed in noble finery. She’s yelling at her husband, a lord.
SCENE. A Lannister knight in jousting armor, helmet in hand, in a shadowy stable. He’s handing gold, which glints in the torchlight, to a stableboy. In the background a horse is eating in its stall.
Slander and Lies
SCENE. A lord in fine Lannister robes of red and gold sits at a table. A fire burns in the hearth. On the table is a feast. Another person, who is unlit and seen only as a shadow against the flame (though, from the outline, we can tell it’s a woman), leans in and whispers in the lord’s ear.
CHARACTER. A fat, sweaty man sits in a smoky tavern. He has greasy black hair and greasy commoner’s clothes. He’s got a huge cup of ale in one hand and his other arm around the waste of a serving girl, who’s trying to pull away from him. He’s grinning, but it’s a mean, drunk grin.
LANDSCAPE — CITYSCAPE. Looking down on the balcony of a grey stone tower. Far below are the roofs and streets of a town. An old man stands on the balcony reading a huge, leather bound book. He’s dressed in a grey robe with a high stiff collar, decorated with gold at the hem, sleeves, and collar, and with a gold sash.
CHARACTER. In the interior of a large, wooden ship. A skinny man in Greyjoy colors sits at a mess table, with piles of food pulled close. He’s shoving a spoon into his mouth while looking suspiciously at a similarly attired man eating next to him.
The Iron Cliffs
LANDSCAPE. Huge dark grey cliffs rise above the sea, with waves crashing at their base. Above the cliffs, the moon and starlight filters through wispy clouds.
CHARACTER. A Lannister lord lies sick in his bed in a stuffy room lit by the flames of an unseen fire. He is feverish, sweaty, and not fully conscious. The smoke of the flame and the shadows of the room are swirling into a disturbing manlike shape on the stone wall above the sick man’s bed.
Litany of Fire
LANDSCAPE. Rolling hills sparsely populated with brush and small vegetation. Rising above the ground is an outpost tower. Coming from the right side of the image is a line of fire, consuming the tower and whatever will burn. The air above the flames is a glowing mass of colors, as this magic-induced wind of wildfire sweeps across the land.
CHARACTER. A row of warriors is charging at the viewer. Each carries a large, round, bronze shield with the Martell crest embossed on the face. Each wields an eight foot spear. If we can see much of them behind the shields, they’re bare chested and wearing sandals. A few wear bronze helmets. Most do not. Behind them are even more warriors. The sky above them is washed out by the harsh light of the noonday sun.