I’ve been putting off writing this review, partly because I wanted to actually beat the third scenario first, but most because I really wanted to like the game but I’m not sure I do.
The Lord of the Rings has always had a special place in my heart, not so much the books themselves, but the stories and the world that has developed from them. Having a chance to play in that world is exciting for me.
With Fantasy Flight’s previous LCG, Warhammer Invasion, still ranking as one of my favourite, if not my favourite game, I had high hopes for this new game. But before I talk about why I’m not as keen as I had hoped, lets take a look at the game.
You control a party of mighty heroes, Middle Earth’s elite defenders. Together you will venture into danger and hopefully emerge victorious on the other side. Men, Dwarves and Elves will form an alliance to vanquish the evil forces of Sauron from Middle Earth, together they will battle Spiders, Orcs and Wild Wargs. They will face terrible foes such as the spawn of the great spider Ungoliant. Through strength of will and strength of arms our heroes will, eventually, bring peace to Middle Earth, but the road is long and if you do not keep your feet there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.
Big box for two decks of cards no?
12 Hero Cards
4 Prebuilt Faction Decks
7 Encounter Decks
3 sets of Scenario Cards
1 First Player Token
2 Threat Dials
40 Damage Tokens
26 Progress Tokens
30 Resource Tokens
Ok, so that’s 226 cards plus some punchboard sheets and a box big enough to store all the expansions in. Of course, what FFG do need to do is build into their boxes some kind of organising system, ala Thunderstone, as it is you are left to devise your own.
The cards and the punchboard are all good quality and the rulebook is well written with plenty of examples. The art in the game is simply stunning, I’m so glad that FFG didn’t decide to just rehash old artwork or worse, movie stills.
The graphic design is nice and clean and reasonably user friendly. It’s not always easy to tell the Neutral grey cards from the Leadership purple at a glance but that is really only a minor quibble. I think FFG were being a tad stingy by not including 4 threat dials with the game, yes, you could just use two ten sided dice but it would have been nice to have 4 dials for the 4 decks in the starting box.
Other than this and the lack of a storage solution I feel that the production quality is top notch and well worth the price of the game, if just for the art alone!
Playing the Game
The Lord of the Rings LCG is a co-operative game where the players compete against an event deck using cards from their own custom deck and 1 to 3 heroes.
Each player starts the game with 1 to 3 heroes in play, each hero has a Threat Value in the top corner, the player adds together all of the Threat Values and sets his Threat Dial to that number. If your threat ever exceeds 50 you are eliminated from the game.
The players then decide which quest to play. There are 3 quests included in the base game. The initial quest card, labelled 1a, tells the players which cards will be included in the encounter deck, along with any rules for set up.
Once the game is set up the players each draw 6 cards, and they are allowed to mulligan if they so wish. The first player is randomly determined and the game can begin.
The turn follows seven simple steps.
1. Resource Phase
In this phase each player draws 1 card and adds 1 resource to each of his Hero’s resource pools. It is worth noting that each hero has his own supply of resources, these can only be used to pay for cards that match that hero’s sphere of influence (colour). It is also worth noting that if your deck runs out you no longer draw cards but you are not eliminated from the game.
2. Planning Phase
In this phase each player, starting with the first player and proceeding clockwise, is allowed to spend resources to play Allies, Attachments and Events using his resources to buy them. Allies and Attachments are played to the table, Allies can only be played into your play area, whereas Attachments can be played on your heroes/allies or on another players.
3. Quest Phase
In the Quest Phase the players commit characters to the quest. A committed character is exhausted so will be unable to act later in the round. Once all the players have chosen to commit to the quest a card is revealed from the Encounter Deck for each player. All when revealed effects on the card are carried out, any events are discarded, any enemies or locations are added to the staging area. Then the players adds up their total Will Power and compare the total to the total Threat in the Staging Area. If the total will power is greater the players add progress tokens to the quest equal to the difference. If the threat is higher they raise their Threat Dials by the difference. If the players place Progress Tokens equal to the number required to pass that stage of the quest (the yellow number on the quest card) they immediately move onto the next stage, excess progress is lost.
4. Travel Phase
If there is no active location the players may choose to travel to any of the locations in the staging area, making that location Active. Active Locations act as a buffer for the current quest, meaning that progress made during the Quest Phase must first be applied to the active location. Making a location Active removes it from the staging area meaning that it no longer contributes threat during the Quest Phase.
5. Encounter Phase
In this Phase each player has the option to engage one enemy in the staging area. Doing so removes that enemy from the staging area and it becomes engaged with the player, thus it no longer contributes it’s threat during the quest phase.
After each player has chosen to engage an enemy or not it is time to check for engagements. In turn each player looks to see if there is any enemy with an Engagement Cost (Top yellow number) of less than or equal to his Threat Level (the number on his dial). If there is the enemy with the largest Engagement Cost engages him. Players continue to check until only enemies with higher engagement costs than their Threat Level remain in the staging area.
6. Combat Phase
In this phase engaged enemies attack. Each engaged enemy is dealt a facedown card encounter card known as a shadow card.
When an enemy attacks, the player has the option to declare one of his characters as a defender, exhausting that character. The enemy then flips over its shadow card, performing any actions that are listed as “Shadow” on the card. It then attacks, the enemy’s attack value is subtracted from the defenders Defence value and any left over attack is converted to wounds. If an attack was undefended the player must apply the attacker’s full attack value to a single hero he controls (not an ally) and he cannot apply his defence.
After all the enemies have attacked it is the players turns to attack back. A player may declare only 1 attack against each enemy per turn. Exhausted characters cannot attack. Each attack may have multiple characters, which are exhausted in order to attack, they pool their attack value and subtract the enemies defence applying the rest as wounds.
Any defeated enemies or characters are discarded. Defeated enemies with the keyword Victory are placed to one side not in the discard pile.
7. Refresh Phase
In this phase the players ready all exhausted characters, raise their threat by 1 and pass the first player token to the next player clockwise.
This continues until the players complete the victory conditions on the last Quest Card, or until they are defeated which happens by all players being eliminated by either having a threat in excess of 50 or having no remaining Heroes.
So, why don’t I like it? I guess it is for the same reason that most co-operative games fall flat for me. I’ve never been a fan of games that are too hard, even computer games, when it gets to a point where the game wins 99% of the time I just want to give up. For me a game is about fun and while I like a challenge, I don’t like being pummelled about the head.
The problem with LOTR LCG is that the game doesn’t have much of a narrative arc, it doesn’t start easy and work up to the hard stuff because the Encounter deck is random. If luck throws the three hardest beasties in the deck at you on turn one you aren’t going to survive for very long.
Because it is seemingly random luck that can spell your doom it makes me feel that victory is achieved by luck too and that cheapens the victory for me. When you end a game and say “well it was a good job such and such didn’t come up” it makes me think that the game may have very little to do with player skill.
Now, I believe that the problems I am having are based on inherent problems within the core set. These are that the base decks are simply not strong enough, the variety of cards is less than it should be, for example the decks aren’t even tournament legal sized (i.e. 50 card decks). Secondly I believe it was a mistake to include 1 easy, 1 medium and 1 hard quest. I would have preferred to see more quests than three but definitely more easier quests. If the first quest is a level 1 quest, why is the next quest level 4 and then level 7. Going from a relatively easy first quest to the rather hideously brutal second quest is not an easy transition. A lot of people bought into this new game as their first exposure to collectable card games and this quest structure is simply prohibitive to learning the game.
In addition, if you do find that you can’t complete a quest because it is simply too hard that means that you are losing a third of the replayability of the set.
Ok Enough Bashing of the Game
Ok, so, I may have sounded more negative than I wanted to there because I do enjoy aspects of the game, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have racked up 30 plays of it. I like the way that the different spheres have different strengths and weaknesses. One thing this does, as well as providing a theme to each deck, is it makes you think about how to fix what is lacking in your deck. For example if you like playing the Leadership deck, which generates a lot of resources but has poor card draw you may want to mix it with Lore to fix that problem.
I like the way that questing works and how thematic the “staging area” is. I like the idea of locations and in principle I like the idea of shadow cards although I find that many of them make the game very difficult indeed to beat.
One thing I don’t like is dead cards. In Warhammer Invasion, a game by the same company that I enjoy immensely, you always have options of how to use cards from your hand that aren’t worth playing. With a few exceptions (certain cards that allow you to discard for effects) useless cards simply sit in your hand doing nothing. If, for example, you lose the only hero you have that can play green cards, every green card in your hand is now useless, in addition because you only draw one card per turn you could be potentially drawing a useless card.
Thematically I like Gandalf, the way he turns up briefly to help when you most need it is very thematic, but it also adds to the “luck” issue I mentioned above. When you find yourself hoping that your next card draw will reveal the grey wizard you know you’re in trouble.
I know I’ve been pretty negative about this game (which is why I wanted to hold off writing the review) but it does have some good solid mechanics and it does feel like an epic adventure at times and I love the production quality and the artwork.
However I feel that the base set is too restrictive in card choices to complete the included quests. I also feel that there simply isn’t enough replayability in the base set because there are only 3 included quests. In a CCG this wouldn’t be a problem, but in an LCG I feel like the base set should be all you need to buy to play casually.
The RRP for LOTR LCG is £30, when compared to a deckbuilding card game like Thunderstone or Dominion (£35) the replayability of the game is simply nowhere near as strong. In fact, for the same money Warhammer Invasion has tons more replayability out of the box.
Overall LOTR LCG feels incomplete, that you will need expansions in order to keep the game interesting and while I realise that is the point I’m not sure it should be counted as a positive in the games favour.