Being a game designer is a lot like being a writer. It’s not so much that you want to invent new games, just like writers don’t necessarily want to write. You can’t help it. You can’t stop. Game designers design games because they can’t NOT DESIGN GAMES. Writers write because they can’t not write.
For every game that gets made and becomes a success, who know how many there were that never got made, never got played, and were only a flash of ideas? Below the line of stars begins the actual rules that I typed up in 1984.
The card game for Amber was conceived during the seventies when I was GMing a vast play-by-mail simulation of the Amber novels. At the time I thought this would make a good science fiction game, but couldn’t rouse much enthusiasm among muy circle of friends. They weren’t much into card games. The outline for the rules has languished in a desk drawer for several years. I’m going to write it out now so I can throw my notes away, and possibly get this game published somewhere. I believe it deserves to see print. (Comment from 2012: never happened. I typed up what follows, and it went in a box, only to be rediscovered after I moved and started going through all my old stuff. I wonder if I should throw these pages away, or offer them up for auction somewhere, or donate to a university. Why would any university care?)
To play the Game of Amber you will need a complete Tarot deck, paper, and writing implements. You should have at least 4 players, and the game is better if there are 9 or more.
Divide the tarot deck into 3 sets of cards: the Chaos deck consists of the 22 numbered Major Arcana; the Encounter deck consists of the 16 Court cards; and the Shadow deck consists of all the numbered Suit cards. Shuffle the Shadow deck and the Chaos deck and set them aside. Spread out the Court cards. Each player should choose one card to represent him or herself. You may use either names from the Amber books, or make up your own names. Supplement One matches the Court cards with the major characters of the Amber novels. After each player has taken a Court card, the rest are shuffled and placed face down. Before starting to play, deal each player 2 cards from the Shadow deck, face down to represent their unknown resources in Shadow, and one card face up to represent their known powers. Set the unused part of the deck to one side.
Oberon, immortal founder of Amber and its true ruler, has vanished, leaving no designated heir to the throne. All of his offspring believe themselves to be worthy, and each is maneuvering to gain the support of enough of the others to take the crown and hold it. In game terms, anyone who can take the throne and successfully hold it for 3 turns will be the winner, and perpetual ruler in Amber. While this internecine strife engulfs Amber and the Shadow worlds, Chaos is also making its move to destroy Amber and the Pattern so that chaos may rule supreme.
Before beginning to play the tabletop is designated as the City of Amber (assuming now that the players are seated around a table in order to play a card game), and the center of the table is the Throne. The Chaos deck is shuffled, and one card is placed face down on the Throne which is known as the Siege Perilous. (The Thorne has that name, not the card.) The first player to actually place his card on the Throne turns over the Chaos card and must take the consequences of the card. (See Chaos table in Supplement Two for meaning of the Chaos cards.)
All players start in Amber with their Court card and one Shadow card face up on the table. They also have 2 cards face down. There is a 5 minute Diplomacy round in which players may seek alliances among themselves. During this time they may show their face down card t the other players or not, as they choose.
At the end of the Diplomacy turn, each player must take a slip of paper and secretly declare an option. All options are revealed simultaneously. There are 4 options possible: 1. wait in Amber (this is neutral and makes no move), 2. seize the Throne (If only one Player seizes the Throne, he/she gets it and we move to phase 2. If two or more Players try to seize the Throne, there is Civil War, and the game moves to phase 3. If no one seizes the Throne, the game remains in phase 1.), 3. attack another Player. (See attack and defense rules below), 4. move into Shadow (or if in Shadow, return to Amber) Before any player moves into Shadow, all remaining Chaos, Court, and Shadow cards are shuffled together into one deck and placed face down on the Table. Each time a Player moves from Amber into Shadow, he must take the top card off the combined new Shadow deck. If it is a Chaos card, he must play it face up and take the consequences (usually that will indicate some sort of Chaotic move against Amber which would jump the game into phase 4 (Attack on Amber). If it is a Court or Shadow card, he may conceal it. The Player then surrenders his own Court card which is placed on the bottom of the Shadow deck. Each other Player then cuts the Shadow deck once without looking at the result, effecting a new shuffle of the deck. From this time on, whenever a card is played, it will go into a discard pile which will be cut back into the Shadow deck after each round of play as was just described. Players may only take one Shadow card for each trip into Shadow, and must return to Amber before they can move back into Shadow and take another card.
Phase 3: Civil War
Whenever there is more than one claimant for the Throne, there will be Civil War. Civil wars are fought by playing Shadow cards against the other players. Each suit has a special meaning and may only be played to accomplish a particular thing. Swords are the cards of Attack, and may only be used to attack and capture the other Player. Wands are the cards of Defense, and may only be used to defend against a Sword attack. (If a higher numbered Wand is used against a lower numbered Sword, it is a counter attack, and the defensive Player may capture or defeat the offensive Player.) Cups are a suit of Compulsion and may be used to force an alliance. They are useless against Swords, however. Pentacles (Coins) are the suit of economic strength and may be used to block compulsion by Cups. In addition, there are several special cards with specific meanings and powers that will be described below. No matter who wins a Civil War, no Player will succeed in taking the Throne of Amber on that turn.
Combat occurs by playing one card against another until one Player is unable to continue. Cards are played face down and simultaneously–then revealed to see what the results are. Any one card of Wands can counter any Sword attack excpt the Ten of Swords (see special cards). Any Pentacle can counter any Cup. In the event of mutual attacks with no defense, the stronger attack will win. The loser in such a conflict, unless slain with the Ten of Swords, is banished into Shadow for the number of turns that represents the difference in the combat (i.e. 9 of Swords vs. 5 of Swords sends the Loser into Shadow for 4 turns) without being able to make any play or draw any Shadow cards until he has come back to Amber for at least one turn. If the battle is in compulsion and not force, the Loser becomes the vassal of the Winner, and forfeits one Shadow card up to his entire stock for each point by which he was beaten. Each card played in a Civil War is placed face down in the discard deck, shuffled with all other discards at the end of the turn, and cut back into the Shadow deck at the end of the turn. Players may play any number of cards in the course of a Civil War, up to everything they have.
Phase 2: Seizing the Throne
Eventually someone will seize the Throne without a Civil War. That Player must then turn over the Chaos card that has lain there face down and accept the consequences for either good or evil. The Player who occupies the Throne has great resources to draw upon and may draw two cards from the top of the Shadow deck each turn, but must leave them face up in front of him in Amber so that everyone can see them. If he holds the Throne for 3 complete turns after taking it, the game is over and he has won. After phase 2, move to phase 4. A player who is on the Throne may not initiate a Sword attack against any other player, though he may use Cup (compulsion) attacks if he wishes. He may use Swords if he is attacked by a Rebel.
Phase 4: Encounters in Shadow
If a Player is banished into Shadow as a result of losing a Swords combat, he gets no turn until the time limit expires. He may still condust Diplomacy with other Players during the next Diplomacy round. After his time limit expires, he may take one Shadow card and return to Amber if he wishes.
If a Player has gone into Shadow voluntarily, he surrenders his Court card and takes one Shadow card in its place. There are then 3 possibilities. If he draws a Chaos card he looks at Supplement Two, the Chaos table, and follows instructions for the cards there. This must be done openly so that all Players can see. If he draws a Court card, he may either conceal it for a while, or give it back to its Player. If he keeps it, nothing happens, but if he returns it, he may either use the return to initiate combat, which moves the game into phase 3, Civil War, or demand a ransom of one other card face down in its place from that Player. If the Court card does not represent an active Player, then the Player ma ally with it by playing it face up in Amber in front of him. He will then draw 2 cards from the Shadow deck face down to represent the strength of the alliance, and that Court card will be taken out of play for the remainder of the game. There is one other thing that can be done with a Court card. If it has not been revealed or played, and the Player who holds it is in Amber, it may be used to summon that other Player back to Amber and force him to reveal all his Shadow cards face up for all to see.
If phase 4 ends without reverting to Civil War, then one complete turn is over, and the Players begin the next turn with phase 1 where each Player selects anoption and reveals it simultaneously after no more than 5 minutes of Diplomacy.
There are 5 special Shadow cards with only one meaning. They must be used for their special meanings and not for the general purposes of Attack, Defense, Compulsion, or Protection.
Nine of Cups–the Wish card. Whoever it is played on (and you may play it on yourself or another Player if you wish) automatically gains the Throne of Amber. The former occupant, if there was one, forfeits all the strength of the Throne, and goes back into the general population of Amber.
Seven of Cups–Betrayal. Whoever it is played on loses all alliances, and must forfeit 1/2 of his Shadow cards to person who played the card on him.
Ten of Swords–Death. Whoever it is played on, unless protected by the Ace of Wands, dies. His Player card is removed from the game for the remainder and all of his Shadow cards go back into the discard pile. The “dead” Player is out of the game.
Two of Pentacles–Defeat. Whoever this card is played upon, even if it is the King of Amber, loses all Shadow cards to the discard pile immediately.
Ace of Wands–Protection. This card when played, protects the Player on whom it is played from Death by the Ten of Swords. It will not protect against death at the hands of the Forces of Chaos.
Combat is always conducted by using the Shadow cards. Each card represents a source of power that is effective against two of the other sources and ineffective against one of the other sources.
Swords: physical force on the attack.
Cups: magical compulsion.
Pentacles (Coins): financial strength (suitable for hiring either mercenaries or magicians)
Wands: Defensive strength (fortifications and the support of the common people)
Swords may attack Cups and Pentacles but will be beaten if a higher numbered card is played. Any Wand played against a Sword negates the attack.
Cups may be played against Pentacles and Wands and will be beaten if a higher numbered card is played. Any Sword played against it will negate the attack.
Pentacles may be played against Wands and Swords. Any Cup played against a Pentacle negates the attack.
Wands are strictly a defensive card. They can do damage in a counter attack when attacked by Cups or Pentacles, but you cannot initiate an attack with a Wands card.
Combat is always conducted with one Attacker and one Defender. In the option phase or during the Shadows phase one player will initiate combat by declaring his intention to attack another. Multiple players may attack the same person if they wish, but only one at a time. In the event of more than one Player initiating an attack, they can flip a coin or roll a die to decide who gets to attack first.
Other Players may not help an Attacker with his attack. However, when all Players concerned are in Amber, they may choose to help a Defender with some of their own Shadow cards if they wish.
In combat the Attacker plays a card first. The defender must then respond with a card, or give up. Attacks are decided by the numerical value of the cards, high value winning except where the defensive card just nullified the attack (such as a Wand against a Sword or a Sword against a Cup).
An attack with Swords always causes physical defeat and retreat so that the losing player cannot move for the number of turns by which he was beaten. In the event of ties, Players may either break off the attack in a stalemate or continue by playing a second attacing card. If a player cannot respond to an attack he must surrender and acknowledge defeat.
An attack with Cups always reduces the loser to the state of vassal to the winner. The loser must give the winner Shadow cards equal to the number he was beaten by, or all of his cards, whichever is the greater number.
An attack by Pentacles may be either one or the other as specified by the Winner.
A counter attack with Wands against Cups and Pentacles has the same effect on the loser as an attack would have had. If the counterattack succeeds, the attacker must either retreat out of play into Shadow or give up cards.
Defensive plays when successful inoutpointing attacking plays cause the combat to end for that turn, but leave both players where they are. Most attacks will only last one turn., but may go on for any number of rounds (1 round equals 1 card from both attacker and defender) as long as both players have cards. (Example: Eric attacks Corwin with the 8 of Swords. Corwin replies with the 2 of Wands, negating the attack. Eric comes back with the 6 of Pentacles. Corwin plays the 7 of Wands, defeating Eric on the counterattack by 1 point. Corwin wins. Seeing that Eric has one card left, and not having any himself, Corwin (the Winner) declares Eric must be his vassal and give him one card. Eric reluctantly hands over his last Shadow card and the combat is over.)
After combat is over, it then moves to the next Player who has an attack chosen as his option. If, in the example above, Corwin had chosen to attack Fiona, he would then initiate his attack. Since he has only the 3 of Cups that he just took from eric, he would use that to attack her.
Supplement 1: The Court Cards
You may either play Zelazny’s characters or make up your own names. If using Zelazny’s characters, these names are associated with the following cards:
King of Swords: Benedict
Queen of Swords: Fiona
Knight of Swords: Corwin
Page of Swords: Brand
King of Cups: Julian
Queen of Cups: Deirdre
Knight of Cups: Blaise
Page of Cups: Merlin
King of Wands: Gerard
Queen of Wands: Flora
Knight of Wands: Caine
Page of Wands: Martin
King of Pentacles: Eric
Queen of Pentacles: Llewella
Knight of Pentacles: Random
Page of Pentacles: Moire
Supplement 2: The Chaos Cards
0. The Fool: Chaotic Forces intervene. You lose all Shadow cards (to the discard pile).
1. The Magician: Mastery of Chaos. You may hold this card and play it at any time to gain any object except the slaying of another player. (Example: You may use this card to negate another Player’s attack, or change the outcome of an Attack. You may play the card to force another Player to give you a Shadow card. You may play the card to save the life of a player attacked and killed with the Ten of Wands. When playing this card, you are the Master of Chaos for one brief moment.)
2. The High Priestess: Mystic forces attack Amber. Draw 10 cards from Shadow deck without looking at them. Play them to attack Amber. All Players in Amber must defend against this attack. If Amber falls, the High Priestess takes the Throne. If she holds it for 3 turns then all players lose. While she is on the throne treat Her as rules of Amber with all rights and priveleges and powers of the ruler, including the right to replenish her forces from the Chaos deck.
3. The Empress: The Player marries (a princess of Chaos) and gains strength. Draw one Shadow card face up on each return to Amber from Shadow.
4. The Emperor: You have encountered Oberon in Shadow. Draw 3 extra Shadow cards to represent his support. If the card starts on the Throne, everyone wins except the Player who turned it over.
5. The Hierophant: Mystic forces attack Amber. Same as for the High Priestess but Chaos only gets 6 cards.
6. The Lovers: Player is distracted by Love. Lose 2 turns (no actions except Diplomacy permitted) and return to Amber.
7. The Chariot: Armies of Chaos attack Amber. All Players in Shadow return to help defend the City. Chaotic armies back off, but each Player must discard 1 Shadow card.
8. Strength: You have found an unexpected ally in Shadow. Take one extra Shadow card.
9. The Hermit: You have encountered Dworkin. He’s crazy and no help to you. You may declare him as a Scion of Amber when returning to Amber and play him face up to gain two allied Shadow cards.
10. The Wheel of Fortune: Discard all your Shadow cards. Draw the same number from the Shadow deck to replace them, all face down.
11. Justice: When this card is played, it forces the abdication of any Player who has the Throne if that Player has ever attacked another Player. Otherwise, no effect.
12. The Hanged Man: Misfortune. Lose 1 turn and 1 Shadow card.
13. Death: Forces of Chaos have intervened and slain your Player. There is no defense and the card may not be played on another Player.
14. Temperance: You gain two Shadow cards in exchange for this, but you may make no other play this turn.
15. The Devil: Chaos makea a total attack on Amber. All Players gain 2 Shadow cards and return to the City to help defend it. Chaos gets whatever is left in the Shadow deck, shuffles it, and then attacks randomly by laying down the top card of the Shadow deck. If all attacks are not turned back then Chaos takes the City and wins.
16. The Tower: You have been captured and imprisoned by forces of Chaos. If your Court card is not already in the Shadow deck, put it there. You remain helpless there until some other Player draws your card and uses it to summon you back to Amber.
17. The Star: This card may be held. A Player may use it to bring some other Player (not himself) back from the dead, or to stop and cancel any Chaotic attack on Amber. (Example: The Devil has been played. Chaos is making an all out attempt on Amber. A player holds the Star card. That player may stop the Chaotic attack and end the turn and the battle at any time by playing The Star. When the Star is played, every card that has been played goes into the discard pile and gets reshuffled back into the Shadow deck.
18. The Moon: Demonic forces attack Amber. They are weak and get only 3 Shadow cards, but only Players currently in the City may defend against them.
19. The Sun: Your character gains in popularity. You may name any other Player in the game as your vassal to help out during a combat phase (except the Player attacking you)
20. Judgment: Forces of Chaos attack Amber with the first two Swords cards turned over out of the Shadow deck. Only the King on the Throne may defend. If there is no King, all players are banished to Shadow for one turn, and the Throne remains empty.
21. The World: You have walked the Pattern and gained control. You may replace the current ruler in Amber and add his forces to yours while he is exiled to Shadow for 2 turns.
Attack on Amber
There are several times in the game when the Forces of Chaos may attack Amber. Forces of Chaos may be played by a dead player or a non-player. They draw the specified number of Shadow cards to use as weapons. Any further Chaos cards drawn or turned over during an attack are discarded without being used. When Chaos is attacking, all 4 suits count as Swords only. The Ten of Swords, if played by Chaos, will slay whoever holds the Throne at the time. If played against Chaos, it ends the attack instantly and Chaos is defeated. If Chaos wins the attack, any Players still in Amber will be slain and removed from the game, unless the attack was solely against the King. If only the King was attacked, and he is beaten, then he dies, and the Forces of Chaos leave other Amberites unharmed and the Throne empty.
After an attack on Amber the game always reverts to phase 1, Diplomacy and option selection.
During the retyping of these rules this morning, I did not copy the exact words I used in 1984. It is 99% the same, but I couldn’t resist adding a few clarifications and improvements.
I believe the game as explained above is both deep and playable, and that it would be better with more players instead of fewer. I’d like to actually try it some time, so I guess playtesters are wanted.
If you are now or ever were a fan of Roger Zelazny’s epic fantasy Amber series, feel free to leave a comment.