Thankfully the battles for them aren't as bloody as the battles you'll see on the show, but Rittenhouse's Game of Thrones trading cards have inspired a passionate hobby following.
"I think one of the things that makes working on entertainment cards so much fun and very compelling is that the people that buy our cards are real fans," said Steve Charendoff, president of Rittenhouse Archives, Ltd. "They're not motivated primarily by price guides. Sure, that comes into it, but first and foremost, people collect Game of Thrones cards because they love the subject matter."
Game of Thrones is, of course, the wildly popular HBO series that finished its fourth season on June 15. The show, which debuted on April 17, 2011, is an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's series of fantasy novels called, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Set on the mythical continents of Westeros and Essos at the end of a 10-year summer, the show incorporates several complex plot lines. The principal plot tracks members of several noble houses - most notably the Starks and Lannisters - as they battle for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.
Renowned for its shocking twists and the moral ambiguity of its characters, the show had more than 14 million viewers per episode in its third season - the second-most ever for an HBO series.
Charendoff says the idea for Game of Thrones cards was hatched when his company was already negotiating with HBO for rights to create True Blood cards.
"It [the Game of Thrones TV series] had many of the components - like True Blood does - that I think make for a successful trading card property," noted Charendoff. "In particular, aside from the show's themes itself, you're talking about a show that really has a cast of thousands. And that's always important to us because autograph cards are certainly the biggest driver of enthusiasm for these sets."
Rittenhouse has produced sets for each of the show's first three seasons.
"We came up with a successful, logical formula for these sets, with the episode cards and then the character cards," said Charendoff. "So in a lot of ways, I liken what we're doing with Game of Thrones to the way baseball cards are configured."
"Every year, we have about 50 characters that are of consequence on the show, and like baseball cards, we give each character their own card. So every year they have a new card, unless they get killed off, in which case they won't have another card. It's like when a player retires in baseball. And if a new character comes in, we make a new card of them."
One of the challenges with the Game of Thrones cards, however, is summarizing the elaborate plot lines on the card backs. Fortunately, the writer Rittenhouse has used is a devout follower of the show.
"He keeps up with the characters and the storylines," explained Charendoff. "I think the challenge for him is to be concise, because there's a lot going on, especially for a character like Tyrion Lannister [Peter Dinklage's character] who's involved in a lot of different plot lines."
Rittenhouse has poured a lot time and energy into these cards and their efforts seem to be paying off.
"[The] Game of Thrones [card set] is certainly one of our bestselling lines. I mean, the reality is that the show has become hugely popular worldwide," said Charendoff. "We can make really good cards and we do, but the reality is we're limited by how popular the show happens to be. We're fortunate that we're working with HBO and Game of Thrones because there's nothing more popular than the show right now."
Here's a rundown of the three Rittenhouse Game of Thrones sets:
2012 Rittenhouse Game of Thrones Season 1 Trading Cards
The 72 standard-sized cards that comprise the Season 1 base set were distributed in five-card wax packs. The first 30 pasteboards summarize the 10 episodes (with three cards dedicated to each episode). Each card features a still photo, with the Game of Thrones branding and the episode name in a red banner across the bottom. The backs offer a smaller photo and text explaining the episode plot.
Cards #31 to #71 are individual character cards. These showcase a framed photo of the character, as well as the Game of Thrones branding and their name. The backs offer biographical information. The final card (#72) is a checklist.
A foil parallel of each of the 72 base set cards was also produced and these were inserted at a rate of one in every three packs. Collectors could also pull several other inserts, including one of nine diecut "The Houses" cards, which feature family sigils, or "Quotable" cards, which were inserted in one of 12 packs.
"The 'Quotable' insert sets have been used in several Rittenhouse releases, but it's especially well suited for the Game of Thrones sets, since the series really does have a lot of snappy dialogue," noted Rudy Jaquez, a Game of Thrones collector in Moreno Valley, California.
Also, in one of every 24 packs, collectors had the opportunity to pull one of six "You Win or You Die" inserts that feature photos of the main characters either in the Iron Throne or with it in the background. There was also a series of six Shadowbox cards that were placed in one in every 48 packs.
But it's the autographed cards that are the most coveted. Two autograph cards were inserted in each 24-pack box. As noted on the Rittenhouse website, these cards were signed in quantities ranging from "Extremely Limited" (under 200 signed) to "Normal" (more than 500 signed).
Most of the actors signed cards with two different designs - one design features a black border at the top and bottom on the front, while the other presents a full-bleed photo. Seven of the main actors - Michelle Fairley (Lady Catelyn Stark), Lena Headey (Queen Cersei Lannister), Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Kit Harington (Jon Snow) - only signed cards with the bordered design.
"The biggest selling point of this set is [that] Rittenhouse did a good job getting all of the big stars to sign cards," explained Vinny Holland, a veteran collector in Pleasantville, New York. "They got Peter Dinklage. They got Lena Headey. They have those kinds of characters in there. It's a great advantage when you have a good checklist of autographs."
John Witney, owner of the Non Sports Network in New Preston, Connecticut, says the autographs of the main stars command a premium.
"Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage - those are your big ones. They're over $100 a piece," he said.
Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Dinklage autographs were created as case-buying incentives. If someone purchased three cases, they would receive a Bean autograph. If they bought six cases, their reward was a Dinklage signed single. These two incentive autographs were only available in the bordered design.
Collectors could also buy an Archives box that houses a master set of all of the base cards, inserts and autographs. At press time, one Archives box was being sold on eBay for $2,499.95.
2013 Rittenhouse Game of Thrones Season 2 Trading Cards
Rittenhouse upped the number of base set cards to 88 for their second issue. Aside from the name of the episode being highlighted in a yellow banner (rather than red) across the bottom of the card front, the design of these cards is very similar to the first series.
Like the Season 1 release, these were distributed in five-card wax packs and the first 30 cards (three cards for each episode) offered summaries of the season's 10 episodes, followed by 55 character cards (#31 to #86) and two checklists (#87, #88).
A foil parallel version of the base set cards was again produced and these cards were inserted at the rate of one in every three packs. "Quotable" cards (nine-card subset) also returned and could be found at the rate of one per every 12 packs.
Among the new inserts were 20 Storyboard Art cards (one in 12 packs), six Family Sigil singles (one in 24 packs) and six Gallery cards (one in 48 packs).
Rittenhouse also introduced 20 relic cards. These cards offer pieces from props - including house banners, a cape and a cloak - that were used on the show and were inserted at the rate of one per every 48 packs. Holland says some hobbyists pursue "variants" and will pay a premium for relic cards that showcase artwork rather than just a plain piece of cloth. He says the average relic card will fetch around $12, but variants can command several times that.
Sketch cards were another popular addition. Artists Sean Pence, David DesBois and Charles Hall were commissioned to work on these and only approximately 70 were created.
Holland says one drawback of the sketch cards is that the artists weren't permitted to draw characters from the show. Jaquez shared the same observation, but added that these cards are still highly coveted.
"I believe they have sold for up to $1,000," he said.
But the autographed cards were once again the most sought-after inserts. Inserted at the rate of two per 24-pack box, 46 new autographed cards were released. These cards were, again, manufactured in the bordered and full-bleed designs.
According to the Rittenhouse website, the seven main characters that did not have full-bleed autograph cards in the Season 1 series have signed a very limited (200 hundred or less) number of full-bleed cards for this set. Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) also signed a "very limited" number of full-bleed singles that were included in packs.
Other actors who signed 200 or fewer cards for this series were Jack Gleeson (King Joffrey Baratheon) and Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon).
Some have chosen to collect only the full-bleed autographed cards for Season 1 and Season 2, while others are pursuing solely cards signed in the bordered format.
"A lot of people are master set collectors and they want to have every bordered [autographed] card and every full-bleed card," said Holland.
Jaquez initially had all of the autograph cards, but he prefers the bordered design and recently sold off some of his full-bleed autographs.
"The two autographed cards of Dany (Daenerys Targaryen played by Emilia Clarke) have separated themselves from the rest and are the most valuable now," noted Jaquez. "The first-series bordered version sells for a little over $200, while the full bleed card from the second series can sell for a little under $200. The bordered Tyrion [Tyrion Lannister played by Peter Dinklage] incentive [from Season 1] isn't seen as often, but the full bleed can be obtained for about $130."
For every three cases of Season 2 cards purchased, dealers would receive an autographed card of one of the executive producers, D.B. Weiss or David Benioff. For every six cases, they were rewarded with a George R.R. Martin signed single.
"I think the autograph cards that we created of George R.R. Martin are among the coolest cards that we have ever done," said Charendoff. "We've done over 1,000 different autograph signings with actors over the course of time, and maybe even closer to 2,000, but I love that card because I think of him as the creative force. It would be like having [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry sign cards. In my way of thinking, the signatures of the people who create these shows are as important as any other signature."
The Martin card has also become one of the most valuable autographed cards.
"The George R.R. Martin card is solid at $150, so it now seems to be the best autograph, value-wise, after the two of Dany [Daenerys Targaryen played by Emilia Clarke]," said Jaquez.
Collectors could also buy an Archives box that houses a master set of all of the base cards, inserts and autographs. A Season 2 Archives box sold for $1,150 on eBay in May 2014.
2014 Rittenhouse Game of Thrones Season 3 Trading Cards
Released on May 14, this set boasts 98 base cards. Aside from the name of the episode being highlighted in a gray bar across the bottom of the card front, the design of these cards is very similar to the first- and second-series singles.
Wax boxes again house 24, five-cent packs with two autograph cards in each box. The base set includes 30 episode summary singles (three cards for each of the 10 episodes) at the beginning of the set, followed by 65 character cards (#31 to #95) and three checklists (#96 to #98).
This year, however, two parallel sets were created of the base set cards. One of each regular foil parallel was inserted in every three packs, while rarer gold parallels can be uncovered in every 24 packs.
The "Quotable" (nine cards, one in 12 packs) and Gallery (12 cards, one in every 24 packs) subsets return. But Rittenhouse also launched several new inserts, including 20 "Relationships" cards (one in every 12 packs). Gold parallels (one in every 60 packs) were also manufactured of the "Relationships" pasteboards and six Map Marker Sigil cards were also created and inserted in one in 144 packs.
Collectors also have the opportunity to pull two relic cards (approximately one in every two cases).
"There's one relic of Robb Stark's cloak and another one of The Hound's cape," noted Charendoff. "And in our Archives boxes, there's a variation, which is a strap from The Hound's cloak, but that's exclusively in the Archives boxes."
Charendoff says 400 to 500 sketch cards were also created by more than a dozen artists.
"You'll find the sketch cards in about every other case or maybe a little less than every other case," he said.
Forty-five new autograph cards have also been created, some of which will feature a new blue bordered design. Those who buy three cases will receive either a card signed in gold by Headey (Queen Cersei Lannister) or Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister). Dealers that buy six cases will receive the Headey and Coster-Waldau gold autos, as well as a gold Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) signed single.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Rittenhouse Archives, Ltd. for providing the 2014 raw card images to go with this article.
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