WNG – First Impressions of The Lord of the Rings The Card Game

So, while Cooperation Month (and then some) may have passed us by, we’re still in a month that emphasizes the spirit of cooperation, sharing, love, and playing with that special someone in your life… Games. GAMES. Playing GAMES with that someone special.

So, I figure it isn’t a bad idea to continue on with discussing games to play with that special someone. Or by yourself, if that’s more your beat. Or hell, with several special someones if you really want. That, and I’ve actually played it a few times (even if I haven’t taken pictures), which means that this is a slightly more informed first impression than normal!

Honestly, this was a game that I had always sort of quirked an eyebrow at. I’m not really that big a fan of Lord of the Rings (I know, heinous as a speculative fiction buff), so I’d always sort of passed the game up in stores. Besides, as a gamer, I’ve been trained to be a bit leery of licensed products over the years. They just have a tendency to not be that good. So, it wasn’t until a friend of mine picked it up that I got a look at it.

So, what did I think? Well…

LotRLCG

The Lord of the Rings – The Card Game Vital Stats
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Players: 1-4
Playing Time: 30-90 Minutes
MSRP: $39.95 (Core Set), $29.95 (Deluxe Expansions), $14.95 (Adventure Packs)
Official Website
Amazon

Okay. Let’s get a few things out of the way right now.

1. I’ve got nothing to say on how well the game themes to Lord of the Rings. You see some familiar faces, stuff happens, it apparently all takes place before the trilogy, etc. it functions well.

2. Despite the claim that 2 core sets is needed for more than two players, you can play 4 from a single core with minimal trouble. You just use the 4 30 card newbie decks and have two players count their threat on something other than dials. If you want to do more then that with 3-4 players, however, you are going to need to have more copies of core cards or some Adventure Packs/Deluxe Expansions.

3. The core set does not contain 3 of every card. It varies, ranging from 3x – 1x. So, if you REALLY want at least 3 copies of every card, you’re going to need 3 cores. Whether or not this is something you want is up to you. Keep in mind, however, that the game does feature deckbuilding elements. Depending on your playgroup, you may want to (between ya’ll) have multiple cores available. Or proxy cards.

4. This particular practice with FFG’s LCGs annoys me severely (I trend a bit towards completionist at times), but it is not WHOAMG THE MOST EVIL THING IN THE WHOLE WORLD. Just somewhat close.

Sauron Somewhat less evil then this, I’d say.

5. This is based off play with one core set.

Okay. We good? We good.

I will fully admit that when my friend told me this was a cooperative LCG, my eyebrow quirked in skeptical dismissal. The concept was strange and somewhat goofy. I mean, really. A cooperative LCG? Card games (especially CC/TC/LCGs) are for competing! Of course, there isn’t a reason it couldn’t work. It just seemed odd to me.

So, we plopped down with the starters and got to playing.

The game, on the whole, is pretty simple.

Each player will have a deck of cards (30 if you’re using the starter decks, 50 if you’re using official decks) and 1-3 heroes. These heroes are quite important as they determine a lot of things. First and foremost, if all of your heroes are killed, you’re eliminated from the game. Secondly, your heroes also double as resource generation, each one generating one resource at the start of the turn. These resources are used to play the various attachments, events, and allies you’ll use during the game.

The trick, of course, is that each hero will belong to one of 4 different spheres: Leadership, Tactics, Spirit, or Lore. All of your cards (except neutral ones) will also belong to one or more of these spheres. The cost of a card can only be paid using resources from a hero from the matching sphere. So, if you want to incorporate multiple spheres into a deck, you’re going to need to build your deck with that limitation in mind.

Anyway, after your heroes produce a resource and you draw a card, all players will have an opportunity to play events, allies, and attachments before moving on to questing.

During questing, players will assign a number of characters to the quest, attempting to use their combined Will to exceed the threat at the quest. A number of cards from the encounter deck are revealed, the total threat now out is compared to the total will from the questers. If its a draw, nothing happens. If will is higher, you add progress to the current quest/location (bringing you closer to winning the game). If threat is higher, each player increases their threat (a number that, if it reaches 50, will cause you to be eliminated from the game). Players may then choose a new location to travel to (removing it from threat considerations, but forcing them to place progress on it before the quest).

Once that is done, players must deal with the enemies. Each player, in turn, will have a chance to optionally engage one enemy from the staging area. Any remaining enemies may choose to engage players themselves.

Combat is a little different from what you’d expect, being carried out in two distinct phases. The players must first defend against attacks, assigning one (and only one) character to bear the brunt of the attack. Determining actual damage is quite simple: just compare the attacker’s attack to the defender’s defense. Anything over defense is  damage. If you really don’t want to (or can’t defend), you can always take the attack undefended, in which case you simply deal damage to one of your heroes equal to the monster’s attack without taking defense into account. Of course, the actual process isn’t quite that simple, as enemies are dealt a facedown card from the encounter deck. The card is revealed at the time of the attack and, if it has a Shadow ability, it triggers, often enhancing the enemy or punishing your characters.

Once all defenses are taken care of, you may finally counterattack. Attacking is more or less the same process as above. Assign your characters to attack (as many as you want to an enemy), compare combined attack to defense, deal damage.

Once that’s all taken care of, every player increases their threat by 1 and the turn starts anew.

Whew. Okay, a bit more of a mouthful then I wanted. Also, I apologize for butchering terminology. Since I was taught to play by a friend, I have only glanced through the rulebook in passing.

Anyhow, if you have any familiarity with a Magic derived game, nothing here is going to be mindblowing. All events are instant speed and can mostly be played when you figure. Tapping exists. Etc.

The actual gameflow is pretty neat, though. See, you have to juggle quite a bit. Questing requires characters to exhaust. Defending requires characters to exhaust. Attacking requires characters to exhaust. Using special abilities often requires characters to exhaust. So really, a large chunk of the game is managing manpower. You need to carefully manage every phase to make sure you have characters available for when you’ll need them later. You can’t send everyone questing, because you’ve got to have attackers and defenders.

As the game progresses, you’re exact needs are going to change. Sometimes questing is going to be pretty easy and you’ll be able to concentrate on wiping enemies out. Sometimes you’re going to be drowning in enemies and you’ll barely be able to spare anyone to quest. You’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to manage threats as they show up.

My play experience currently is 3 player and 4 player only, which really does a nice job of emphasizing the synergy in the game. Using the core starter decks, each player really feels like they have something to add. Of course, certain decks are stronger in certain phases (Spirit excels at questing, Tactics at combat, for example), but your actions tend to provide you a lot of influence outside of your main phase as well.

The game can be a bit unsteady, though. Some games you’re going to be drowning in locations, in others you’ll be swarmed with enemies, and in others still, the threats will be anemic and allow you to plow right through them with minimal trouble.

Combat is pretty awesome and provides a lot of opportunity for dynamic decision making. While the need for separate defenders and attacks is a bit unintuitive, it really works some magic when it comes to pressuring you on deciding how to mobilize your characters. When you’ve got two enemies and only two characters available to defend, you’ve got to make tough decisions. Shadow cards make this pressure even more (delightfully) terrible, since they force you to risk the unknown. Sure, Gimli could defend that attack and survive with one health… unless the Shadow card adds more damage. You could always take that attack undefended okay… unless it is one of the ones that adds +3 damage to an undefended attack, which is sure to murder one of your heroes.

Quests. I should talk about those. So, I’ve alluded to these a few times, but quests are specific scenarios that you will play through. The quest you play will determine the composition of the encounter deck (the encounter cards are broken into a number of categories which are then added together to form the encounter deck). The quests themselves are fairly ingenious, having their own unique twists and condition for completions. One has you wandering Mirkwood and fighting terrible spiders off, another will see one of your heroes being kidnapped by orcs and you having to rescue them.

There are only three quests in the core set and they’re pretty cool. Better yet, they really show the potential for future quests and do a LOT to show the potential longevity of the game.

One immediate problem that sprang to my mind is that scaling does feel pretty uneven. With 3-4 players, we’ve got a solid 100% success rate going (obviously this is somewhat influenced by having only the starter decks available, but it is worth noting). Anyhow, the game’s scaling (increasing the cards dealt during the questing phase) is completely linear, while the relative power gained from having multiple, synergistic decks is probably closer to exponential. Similarly, the reduction of power from having fewer players (1, for example), can make things incredibly difficult. I haven’t tried it myself, but I hear tell that the third quest in the core set is nearly impossible solo, even with every available card. Rumor tells me scaling is handled a bit better in later quests, but hey. I’ve only got the core to talk about here.

Anyhow, in short, in the group setting. I dug the game, seriously. It shows an immense amount of potential and I’m quite excited to see what various expansions have added.

What really intrigues me about the game is its potential as a solo game, though. See, I’m a longtime TCG player. I like building decks. The Sphere system in LotR provides a lot of interesting deckbuilding opportunities. But the problem with building decks is that it can be hard to play with all of them, since you need to, well, normall you need to be able to play with other people to try them out.

However, the ability to play LotR solo means you can play with decks and break them out at any time. In fact, given the deckbuilding requirements, I’d be inclined to say that the game is potentially more interesting as a solo/duo game then a 3/4 player game, simply because you can design tighter deck synergies to beat difficult quests.

So yeah. My first impressions are that I regret ignoring this whenever I walked by it in the game store. There is some REALLY cool stuff in here. I’d be inclined to recommend people try it out! But as far as buying it goes…

The game honestly kinda sits in kind of a weird spot because of the deckbuilding element.

See, I’ve had fun with the core set, but the game really seems to want you to deckbuild. There  are quite a few cards available now and approaching quests with different decks/different combinations of decks is a definite and decisive way to increase replay value. To a large degree, I think that’s where the brunt of the replay value lies: challenging yourself to beat various quests with different decks.

The problem is deckbuilding eats time. Especially if you’re deckbuilding for several people and have to explain every deck before you play. Especially if everyone wants to build decks.

So, in that way, the game really, REALLY appeals to the solo player (or a duo who loves the game and lives together) who will have fun tweaking decks continuously to triumph over every quest in new and exciting ways. For them, there is going to be a LOT of game.

For players who regularly game with a group, on the other hand, I feel the deckbuilding aspect (especially if you need decks for 4 players) is going to be more of a hindering factor than anything.

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  1. #1 by Bjorn on February 20, 2013 - 12:33 pm

    Just want to say I love your writing, both topics (main interest Netrunner) and style, keep it up!

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