Monday, May 16, 2011

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

Published: 2011
Designer: Nate French
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Rules Complexity: Easy
Players: 1-2
Type: Cooperative, Living Card Game

Artwork: A
Bits: C+
Gameplay: B-
Playing Time: 45 - 90 minutes

Overall: B-

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is one really challenging game to review. The game offers some unique mechanics to the ever growing field of titles Fantasy Flight has classified as "Living Card Games". Despite the interesting mechanics there seem to be some major play balancing issues if you try to play the game right out of the box.  Before I get ahead of myself lets go on a journey through what could eventually be a solid gaming experience. While I won't cover every aspect of playing the game, you can watch the excellent video tutorials on FFG's site for that. I will delve into some of the aspects.

The Parts
LOTR:TCG comes with 226 cards, 2 threat trackers (more on that in a minute) and somewhere around 90 bits for tracking things such as damage and progress. The art work on the cards is fantastic and the symbols on the cards are also pretty easy to identify and remember. This may seem like a small detail but having played other LCG's I really like that the LOTR cards make sense.

The threat dials are no different then dials used in other FFG's product such as Battlestar Galatica but the issue is you're only given two of them. Since you are given enough cards in the starter set to play a game with four players. I really can't come up with a good reason as to why FFG didn't include 4 dials other then to try and sell more core sets. In their defense I don't recall seeing anything in the rules about playing with 4 players but the game is definitely set up for it.  This means if you want to play with 4 players you'll need two starter sets.

The Game or You Better Pick Wisely
Two things sold me on trying LOTR:TCG the first was the ability to play it solo and the second was that it was a cooperative game.  Because the solo experience is where I spent a great deal of my time I'm going to give that it's own section later on but first lets cover the game itself.

The first thing you're going to do in a game of LOTR:TCG is either pick which deck or heroes you want to play. As I said the game comes with four starter decks that suggest they can be played out of the box.

Now whether these decks can be played as is depends on who you ask. Certain scenarios play better with different deck combinations and I would say some are near impossible to be won with certain deck combinations.  While you can customize your own decks most players are going to start with a starter deck and there lies the problem. This game is hard, but with a bad deck combination you could instantly be turned off by the game.

Perhaps FFG wanted people to be challenged with learning the different decks or customizing their own decks. Perhaps this additional learning curve is in place to make up for the lack of quests included in the base game. I'm not sure of the answer I just know that play balancing this off the mark is hard to be missed during testing.

Lets move on to Heroes because they are important. Each Hero has a sphere he is proficient in. The heroes collect a resource token every turn and in order to play cards from your hand you need to pay for them with resources. The catch is you can only pay for card with resources that match their sphere. For example Aragorn is a Leadership hero so if you're playing a card from the leadership deck the resources must come from Aragorn or any other hero with the leadership trait. So if I elect to play the leadership deck then I should pick only the leadership heroes. Playing the leadership deck and then having Legolas be one of your heroes is a waste because his resources won't be useful for playing cards.

Again you can customize your decks thus allowing you to mix and match heroes and cards from all the spheres but this is something you won't be doing the first time out. In fact you may never do it unless you play this game a lot. That got a little long but I think it is important to someone looking to buy this game. In short the game penalizes the player who just wants to pick it up and play once in a while which is a shame.

Once you have determined which heroes you will play and which deck or custom deck you then tally up the threat level of the heroes you control to set your initial threat level on the dial. Threat is important because if your dial ever reaches 50 you're out of the game.

As previously noted the game comes with 3 quests that you can play. A quest is a combination of cards in a sequence and the object is to add progress to the quest to continue on to the next step. In the picture above in order to move to the next Step in the quest the players would need to add 4 progress tokens to this card.

A turn of LOTR:TCG goes along these lines. First players collect a resource token for each hero and add it to that heroes resource pool. Then the player enters the planning phase this is where he/she can play cards for their resource costs. While some cards can be played at other times this is the only stage where an Ally card can be played and these are invaluable cards in the game.

Next is the quest phase which is essentially how players progress to win the game.  Starting with the first player each player determines who he will commit to questing this turn.  A player doesn't have to send anyone but they will still suffer the effects of failing to quest. If you do send someone then a card is added to the staging area for each player who sent some of his characters on the quest.  

The object here is to have the willpower of the committed characters be greater then the threat of the cards in the staging area. If you beat it you add progress tokens to the quest, if not your threat goes up. Recall I said some deck combinations make some quests challenging? Well welcome to play balance issue #2. location cards.

A monster coming into the staging area is far easier to deal with then location cards. Monsters can be attacked or will engage you if your threat level is high enough. This gets them out of the staging area onto your characters which removes their threat level from the quest calculation. 

Locations aren't as easy because when a location comes up you can elect to travel to it which makes it an active location but you can only travel to one location at a time. A location acts as a buffer to the quest, meaning if a location is active any progress you make that would normally go to the quest needs to go to the location until it is explored. 

Locations can pile up, especially in the starter quest and only two decks handle locations very well. So if you should choose the 2 decks not equipped to handle locations and your encounter deck hands you a lot of locations in a row you've essentially lost. In fact after playing several games you'll often be able to see a losing deck well before the game would end.

Going it Alone
LOTR:TCG sets up and scales well whether playing it alone or with 2,3 or 4 players. However the solo game is more challenging to play and suffers from the same issues mentioned above. I would love to see someone take the starter quest Passage through Mirkwood and play it with the leadership deck 20 times and get more then one win without cheating at all. However the same scenario can be beaten  with the Spirit deck with far more success assuming you can avoid the monsters.

The game plays very quick, especially solo and it's an easy setup and tear down game. I've played most of my games during a lunch break.  From a solo standpoint the game is one of the few that really works for the single player.

Summing it up

I've played this game with other people a half dozen times and each time the feelings were about the same. The game is cool but very challenging and most would play it again but weren't exactly banging down the doors.

I've played 22 games of LOTR:TCG solo and I have won twice. These were games 21 and 22 so what you can take from that is a few things. I could suck at this game and this could be my issue alone although searching forums on various sites would say you were mistaken.

The game has a steep learning curve which means that it is going to take an investment of time to become good. Again I would partially disagree as the rules are simple and it is one of the better card games mechanically I've seen.

It's all a crap shoot and their is so much randomness to the encounter deck that unless you know the scenarios and know which decks work with them you're going to be handicapped. To me this is the crux of the problem with LOTR:TCG and that it's a really good game mechanically but it is impossible to play balance.

The game sets up for someone wanting to customize their deck and really come up with great hero / deck combinations for beating scenarios. This is in stark contrast to every other LCG I've played which I've been able to have fun with right out of the box.

Bottom line is this is a good game, it is very challenging and the way it stand right now for you to get maximum enjoyment out of it you're going to need to either learn which decks work with which quests or craf your own combinations.


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