Today my friends we venture into lands wrought with peril and danger, where many board game fans fear to tread. Where wallets collapse and melt like clocks in a Dali painting. Where addictions develop faster than the spreading of narcolepsy when the in-flight movie comes on. We are talking, of course, about collectible card games. Specifically, Fantasy Flight's own special brew labeled “living card games”. No, the pictures don't come alive to devour you. You see, it's the collectible model that is somehow alive but in reality the cards mostly just sit in a box, meticulously organized with dividers, just like any other CCG. What differs is sales, and this is what brings all the cardboard boys to the yard because their booster packs are better than yours. In fact, there are no 'booster packs' per se, as the card packs you get in LCGs are non-randomized.
Fantasy Flight did a very clever thing here. They recognized what upsets entry level gamers most and removed it with a fine scalpel. Instead they release monthly packs with 3 copies of each card – the maximum you can have in most LCGs (there's some variation and it's always accommodated). You never have to worry about not having a particular card. You never have to shell out fifty bucks for the tournament staple when the electricity is about to be turned off and all the cat's had to eat for two days was stale bread straight out of the bag.
So what's the catch? Well, there are three problems. First of all randomization creates a secondary economy for those rare and precious cards. Think of that what you will, but often an investment in a valuable card retains its value. With LCGs, individual cards have no value and the only way you're getting some of your money back is if you decide to sell your collection. Second, shops aren't too big on organizing LCG tournaments. The reason they like randomized models so much is because the hobby retailers get their money from on the day sales. With FFG card games, when players come to a tournament, they already have everything they need and there's no incentive to buy anything else. And last, but definitely not least, getting into an established LCG competitively is incredibly expensive. The Game of Thrones card game has been going since 2008 and has produced 11 cycles of packs, 6 packs each retailing at 15 bucks. Plus an additional six expansions! To catch up with all of that seems as likely as stealing dinner from your dog. You might pull it off but it sure is going to hurt.
Enter Lord of the Rings which is so unique that it completely ignores all of the problems I just mentioned. First of all, it's a co-operative game. So you build your decks and look for synergy and crazy combinations just like in your bog-standard house trained CCG but then, on your own, or with up to three other friends, you take on an adventure, which is a randomized system of challenges you need to overcome. Think about it. It makes so much sense thematically. Why would you compete in a Lord of the Rings game? The story was always about friends and heroes banding together and overcoming adversity by being true to each other. The Fellowship of the Ring? That book is all about the importance of loyalty and putting the good of the common goal before the individual. That is why Boromir's betrayal not only hurts so much but also feels so... human.
Because there's no competition, you never feel like you need to buy all the adventure packs to stay competitive. It's an expandable game that lets you choose your own pace. Have you beaten all the adventures in your possession? Well then it's time to get a new pack and not only do you have a new challenge, but you also have some new cards which often inspire you to completely rebuild your decks. It doesn't really create a reason for shops to organize tournaments – but you see, that's OK. There really is no reason for a Lord of the Rings tournament – this is a true kitchen table card game, one that never forces you to optimize or build decks based on what the champions are playing. Do what you like and no one will ever judge you.
Instead of using movie stills, Fantasy Flight chose to do their own Lord of the Rings inspired art which works incredibly well. We don't feel like we need to say much about how the game looks except that it's utterly gorgeous. The encounter deck cards do a remarkable job of looking like they are the bringers of all things vile and dark. Even the locations, which thematically are not necessarily evil places, feel barren and desolate or mysterious and treacherous. If I had to pick a fault, I'd say that sometimes the Hero cards don't stand out from other more impressive looking ally cards. Honestly though, I'm just being picky because I feel I should be objective somehow.
Hero cards! Ally cards! Encounter decks! If you haven't played the game you probably have no idea what we're talking about so let us explain some rule things. Your deck starts with your heroes and you can have up to three, although realistically you're always going to have three because having less seems incredibly punishing and the trade-off for going the other way is just not worth it. There are four influence spheres and each hero belongs to one of them and dictates which cards you can include in your deck. The other cards that you play with are allies, equipment and events which, if you think in Magic the Gathering terms, are creatures, artifacts and instants. There's also the very uninspiringly named Encounter deck, which I suppose is less cheesy than something like “Sauron's plots”. It's composed of enemies, locations and treacheries and governed by a very small quest deck. This little quest deck drives the entire adventure. It tells you what sets of cards you need to compose the encounter deck from and what your goals are. There's also a little thematic summary of what's going on in the adventure. It's great because it's so clear, precise and direct – the set up for each game will take no more than five minutes. Before you know it, you're thrust into the wilds of Rhovanion or exploring the deep caverns of Moria.
The game itself is driven by a card tapping economy. Anything you want to do with your cards requires you to tap them, which you can only do once a turn, unless of course a card lets you untap something. Like any good co-operative game, it forces you to make decisions. Decisions that are not pleasant. Do I send my heroes questing? That's the thing that actually progresses me through the adventure. If I don't send enough I might get threat and if I reach 50 threat – I am out of the game. But if I send all my guys adventuring I won't have anyone to defend when the enemies eventually pop out of the encounter deck.
But that's not it. Even if I do have some guys to defend, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm safe. So say I draw an enemy card from the encounter deck. If its engagement value is lower than our threat, it will engage one of the players (the one with most threat). It will then attack said player. They can choose not to defend, but then it will just deal its damage to one of their heroes' hitpoints directly – they don't even get to apply their defence bonus. If they do decide to defend, they have to declare an ally or hero that defends. In this instance the defence value does get used and is subtracted from the total damage dealt. Only after all the enemies have attacked can you strike back, and only with an ally or hero that is still untapped.
So with all the fluffy talk we might have made it sound like this lovely dovely game is a wonderful thematic romp through the Shire, visiting farmer Maggot's crop in Buckland and maybe having a nice feast. Well, I have a secret to tell you. Let me whisper in your ear.
THIS GAME IS SO BRUTAL AND HARD IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN DEVELOPED BY THE DARK LORD MELKOR HIMSELF!!!
Wait? Isn't Sauron the Dark Lord? Well, yes, but before him there was Melkor and, basically, Sauron is a wooly sheep in comparison. That's how devastatingly hopeless this game is. Yes, you can win but usually not on your first playthrough of an adventure. Admittedly, every adventure has a difficulty rating but even the average ones (difficulty 5) really punish you. From turn one you are bombarded with enemies and other cards that cripple your ability to progress through quests until you deal with the present threats. All the time you're thinking, OK, if we execute this plan to its perfection and if we get a little lucky, maybe, MAYBE, we can survive another turn. What you're forgetting is that even though you can deal with everything on the board, new threats develop continuously and have a tendency to wreck the best laid plans of hobbits and men. As you play more and more and your card collection increases, you will find it easier to beat the early scenarios. But fear not, because print on demand saves the day with nightmare mode variants. This game. Am I right?
With all this constant shifting and pushing LOTR LCG makes a good stab at dealing with one of the biggest problems plaguing co-operative games – the alpha gamer syndrome. How many times have you played a co-op and were really getting into it and then some guy gets up and says, “this is what we should do”, detailing an exact plan of action. And the painful thing is that he's right. His plan is a good plan. It works. It'll let you win. But it's not your plan and you stop playing the game and just go through the motions. The difficulty in Lord of the Rings doesn't let people plan out the game, at least not on your first playthrough of an adventure if you don't spoil it for yourself by reading through all the cards before you begin play. But most importantly, players are not allowed to discuss what cards they have in their hands. So you can plan just as far as what your hand tells you and can never dominate the game.
So that's the good stuff but what about the bad? There are some minor issues with Lord of the Rings but nothing that's going to burst my infatuation with the game. I'm not a big fan of the timing of actions and when you can take them. Certain cards will let you do something as an action and there's a very specific table that tells you when it can be done. What it does is it stops you from doing things like healing your characters in response to them taking damage. And that complicated timing structure is fine in a competitive card game but I want Lord of the Rings to be more relaxed because I want to enjoy it with my friends without worrying all the time whether I can do an action or not.
But that's something I can live with because Lord of the Rings is one heck of a game. It even got Elaine into deckbuilding, which she normally abhors so if that's not a recommendation to buy, I don't know what is. There's a steady supply of excitement and adrenaline because you just never know what card you're going to flip off the top of that encounter deck. And there's hope. No matter how bad things are there's always hope.
And today I'd like to leave you with a question. When I play Lord of the Rings I like to go into each adventure blind. I deliberately avoid looking at the cards in the encounter and quest decks to avoid spoilers. I love to learn the game by myself and if my deck isn't good enough, I want to rebuild it so I can beat it. Are you the same with games? Or do you like to go in armed with as much information as possible? Not to throw a personal slant, but that always feels like cheating to me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm right. Tell me why.