Friday, April 22, 2011

Playing with myself is fun! A review of Lord of the Rings Card Game from FFG

I first posted a glimpse of my thoughts about the newly-released core set for the Lord of the Rings Card Game (LotR CG) from Fantasy Flight Games this past Wednesday. Overall the materials and packaging of the game were pretty average matching my previous experiences with other LCG core sets. If that's how I would describe the play and theme of the LotR CG I would be extremely disappointed. Luckily, there's a whole lot more to the game, and it stands out as a unique collectible card game that plays off of some of the most familiar tropes in fantasy gaming while offering a brand new style of card game.

The Mechanics

The point of LotR CG is to take a group of three heroes (per player) and adventure your way through a series of three quest cards to win before either your threat (basically the measurement of how much the enemy notices what you're doing) gets too high or your last hero falls. Along the way, players draw cards from a customizable deck and play attachments such as armor, weapons, or rare magical items to enhance your heroes, event cards to shift the tide of a battle or questing effort, and allies to build up your very own fellowship through directly supporting the heroes or taking a little bit of stress from them.

Players can be solo games where three heroes are controlled by one player versus the encounter deck and the challenge of the quest or cooperative games where a group of players each control three heroes (with an interesting restraint that unique cards are unique to all players, not just a single player's deck - this includes heroes as well!) and work collaboratively to overcome the challenges of the quest. So the game has heroes, but what are the heroes fighting against? If you've played any cooperative games (Battlestar Galactica, Pandemic, Death Angel) you'll recognize that the game needs an engine to run it much more than the average competitive game. In a cooperative game you have to have a system that sets up challenges for the players automatically or as a direct result of the player's actions, and LotR CG is no different.

In fact, the game plays like a highly-customizable and advanced version of Death Angel. This is good news if you like Death Angel (which we do) as it looks like a lot of the mechanics we now see in the LotR CG were first tested in the mini Space Hulk game. For instance the quest cards look an awful lot like the quest cards in DA and work pretty much the same way as well. The difference here is that the encounter deck for LotR CG is unique to each quest set. Of course the encounter decks also have a larger variety of enemies and dangers. You've got locations, which distract away from the heroes' ability to complete the quest, lots and lots of enemies that pop up and attack anyone who has a high threat, and treachery cards that can sometimes be more harmful than any orc or monstrous spider.

Speaking of threat, it's a pretty neat part of the game. Take a look at the picture to the left up there with the big Eye of Sauron thing. That thing is your threat tracker, and it's the thing that makes sure the game doesn't last too long. Every hero is assigned a threat value, and it looks like from our 12 heroes in the starter that the stronger the hero, the greater the threat. For example, Aragorn has a much higher threat than Denethor. Anyway, in a single player game, I've found that threat really only matters to make sure you speed your way through or else you hit 50 threat and lose the game (every round your threat increases by one automatically and may be increased through other encounter effects). In multiplayer though, threat is going to factor hugely into strategy. Look to the picture again. Monsters will attack the player with the highest threat equal to or less than their threat. So that mean looking orc with a 35 threat number in his upper left hand corner is going to attack the player with more threat (usually the player with the most powerful combination of heroes). Well I love that it's Lord of the Rings and that solo play is available, threat is really what makes the game shine.

The Theme

Is there a more iconic theme for fantasy gaming that Lord of the Rings? I've tried a lot of different LotR themed games and have liked a bunch of 'em. My previous favorite has been the amazing War of the Ring board game from FFG as the purest interpretation of almost every aspect of the trilogy. The Card Game doesn't stick nearly as close to the books as the War of the Ring does, but there's an important difference here. The LotR CG takes place in the time between the Hobbit and the trilogy. It's also important to note that the game is based on the books and not the movie. When I interviewed the game producer, Jason Walden at Gencon 2010 about the game, he explained that this meant that they were forced to/excited to find new ways to represent characters we all know as Viggo Mortenson, Orlando Bloom, and Elijah Wood.  For example, Aragorn in the core set is clean-shaven and Legolas has black hair (and looks like a bad ass, might I add).

I love original art for LotR and prefer games that are based on the books instead of the movies. We've already got a CCG, RPG, and miniatures game from the movies, so I'm excited to see more products coming out based on original interpretations of the books (for example, we're getting a book-based LotR RPG, The One Ring, from Cubicle 7 later this year).

I didn't play much of the Decipher CCG, and although Chuck has a lot of the Middle Earth Wizards CCG, he's actively looking forward to learning how to actually play the thing at the upcoming Gaming Hoopla next weekend. This means I don't have a whole lot of experience to compare the theme to previous CCG's for LotR, but I think the format of the game (journeying on a quest with a grab bag of adventurers) fits in nicely with both the Hobbit and the trilogy. So far, the quests we've seen, which center in and around Mirkwood, explore one of my favorite settings in Middle Earth. Also we got a kick ass version of Glorfindel right off the bat in the first release. I can't complain about that one fig.

The Verdict

I should be up front and say that this is my number one anticipated game of the year, and I'm not disappointed. I'm a huge LotR fan and love that they use terms like Arnor, Gondolin, and Nimrodel right away to give some truly epic names to their cards. I've said it a million times now, but I love the combination of LotR with solo, collectible play that can also be played cooperatively. Thinking about it now, as much as I like LotR, I probably would have given the LCG a pass if it didn't off this unique way of playing.

Not only am I excited for how the game plays now with three different quests in the core set, but I'm going to be quickly gobbling up each monthly expansion adventure pack FFG releases to further expand the game. For $15.00 you get a new hero, new player deck cards, and coolest of all - a completely new quest line and encounter deck. This game is limitlessly expandable as there's just so much ground to cover in the time frame they have to play with. I'm excited to see how they incorporate characters like Saruman and Elrond (likely as allies versus full-fledged heroes if Gandalf and Radaghast are any indication) and heroes like Prince Imrahil and Bilbo (the core set is noticeably absent of any hobbit heroes).

I will say this about the game, if you like CCG's or LCG's at all, or you like Lord of the Rings gaming, I can easily recommend this to you as a good investment in your time and money. The amazing thing is that you don't have to like both of those things. Theme and setting flavor aren't an oppressive presence to overcome, and the thing doesn't have to play or be purchased like any other competitive card game out there. With solo play as a very viable (and possibly preferred? time will tell) option, you don't even need to find other players to enjoy the game with. Along with Death Angel, I'm really loving the solo games that FFG is putting out and would love to see them put out other games along this same flexible design line. Perhaps a fantasy adventuring board game a la Runebound that's ready to be played solo out of the box? One can only hope!

(Art note: pictures are by me through an actual play through (my second - I lost!) and the art at the beginning of the review is from a very talented artists FFG has utilized in many of their games, Thaldir. Find his work and a way to buy signed prints at his DeviantArt page!)


1 comment:

  1. Very cool. I'll have to check this out now. I can't remember a game of reasonable complexity that had a workable solo play mode since... Blackbeard by Avalon Hill maybe? And that one was perhaps too complex.


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