Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lord of the Rings The Card Game Review

When Lord of the Rings: The Card Game came out, I wasn't too interested.  I already owned Warhammer: Invasion, and I was already having enough trouble getting anyone to play that with me.  So I passed on it.  However, years later, a friend of mine was completely geeking out over Lord of the Rings.  When I mentioned there was a card game, she bought it on impulse at PAX East 2013.  It took us a few months to get around to digging it out and learning how to play, but once we did, we immediately loved it.

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a cooperative Living Card Game released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2011.  It was designed by Nate French and Caleb Grace.  For those unfamiliar with the Living Card Game format, small booster packs are released roughly monthly.  They contain a set roster of cards.  There is no randomness, as you would find in a Collectible Card Game.  This is highly appealing to a lot of people, myself included.  But Living Card Games also try to bill themselves as complete games right out of the core box, using only the starter decks.  So how well does Lord of the Rings hold up?

Rule Summary

First I want to talk about your Threat Dial.  Each player has their own.  This is the ticking clock of doom.  Even when you are playing successfully, it slowly goes up.  Many times your failures will cause it to jump forwards.  If it ever gets to 50, you are out of the game, and your partner has to go it alone.

To setup a game of Lord of the Rings, you first select your Adventure.  The Core Set comes with three, and it's recommended you start with Passage Through Mirkwood.  Take out the Quest cards for this adventure, and arrange them so that their A sides are all face up, and they are in ascending order, with 1 on top.

Anatomy of a Hero
Players then select their decks.  They can build their own, but once again, if this is your first time it's suggested you begin with one of the 4 starter decks.  Each starter deck revolves completely around one of the four spheres of influence:  Leadership, Lore, Spirit and Tactics.  I would strongly suggest Spirit and Tactics for your first time.

Each deck has 3 Heroes, which start in play.  However, Heroes contribute to your starting threat.  The more powerful the Hero, the higher their starting threat.  You will add up the threat for all your Heroes, and this will be your starting threat.  Usually it's somewhere between 25 and 35.  Now make sure your deck is thoroughly shuffled, and draw a hand of 6 cards.

The adventure you choose will display icons on the middle right of the Quest cards corresponding to the types of Encounter cards that will make up the Encounter deck.  You will pull out all the encounter cards that share these icons, and shuffle them together to form the Encounter deck.

Finding all the Encounter Cards

Now you finally take the first Quest card, read aloud it's flavor text if you want to try to get in the mood, and perform it's setup instructions.  Usually they involve seeding the Staging Area with Encounter cards.  But more on the Staging Area later.  You then flip the card over to it's B side, and place it back on top of the Quest cards.  The B side will list any ongoing effects of the quest, and how many progress tokens it takes to advance to the next Quest card.

It's time for the first turn of the game.  First is the Resource Phase.  Each Hero in play gathers one resource and adds it to their pool.  Each hero has their own Resource pool.  Then each player draws one card.

The second phase is Planning.  This is when players will pay resources to play Ally and Attachment cards.  Event cards may be played here too, but may usually be played at any time.  Ally and Attachment cards stay in play until destroyed, and Event cards are temporary, usually lasting until the end of the current phase.  In order to play a card, players must pay their cost from a matching resource pool.  So if the card is a Leadership card, you must pay for it with resources from Leadership Heroes.

With new Ally and Attachment cards in play, we move onto phase three, the Quest phase.  And now it's time to explain the Staging Area.  During setup, and most often during the Quest phase, cards will be added to the Staging Area from the Encounter deck.  These will be Enemies, Locations and Treachery cards.  The Enemies and Locations will stick around, contributing threat to the Staging Area.  Treachery cards usually have a 1 time negative effect, then vanish.  Really obnoxious effects, like damaging all your exhausted characters.  Treachery cards are dicks.

So during the Quest phase, first players will commit ready characters to the Quest by exhausting them, and turning them sideways.  These heroes will contribute their Spirit to the Quest.  The goal is to have a higher combined total of Spirit than there is Threat in the Staging Area.  What makes this difficult is that after players have committed their heroes, additional Encounter cards are added to the Staging Area, one per player.  If players still have a more Spirit than Threat, they successfully quested, and may place progress tokens on the Quest equal to how much they succeeded by.  If they failed, their threat goes up by however much they failed by.  Do not fail.  If there are now more progress tokens than the Quest requires, you discard that Quest card, and move on to the next.  You are now closer to winning!

Next is the Travel phase.  You are allowed to have 1 active Location.  This is a Location you have travelled to, and are now dispelling it's threat.  If you have no active Location, during this phase, you may travel to a Location in the Staging Area.  This removes it, and it's threat, from the Staging Area.  Yay!  However many Locations have penalties for travelling to them, or just for being at them.  You must also now place your progress tokens on the active Location first, and any left over get placed on the Quest.  Boo!  Still, this is usually the only way you have to deal with Location cards, so it's best to travel as often as you can.

We are up to phase 5, the Encounter phase.  During this phase, Enemies from the Staging Area will move to engage the players.  First, each player gets to choose if they would like to engage an Enemy.  Then, the Enemies themselves will engage the players.  To see if an Enemy engages a player, you compare threats.  If a player's Threat Dial is higher than the Enemy's Threat threshold, the Enemy will engage the player.  You go around the table checking threats in this manner until every Enemy has either stayed put, or engaged a player.

Phase 6 is combat.  Each enemy is dealt a Shadow card off the top of the Encounter deck, face down.  Now, each player must defend against the attacks by the Enemies that have engaged them.  To defend against an attack, players must be able to exhaust a character.  If they can't, or won't, the attack goes undefended, and a Hero must take the full damage.  Otherwise, the character defending gets to subtract their defence from the Enemy's attack, and then takes the difference as damage.  But before damage is assigned, it is time to reveal the Shadow cards!  Many of these cards will be duds, with no Shadow effect.  However, sometimes, usually when you desperately need them not to, these cards will have lethal and odious effects.  Sometimes the Enemy's attack power will go up.  Sometimes they destroy Equipment you've played.  Sometimes they undo progress made on the quest.  Anyways, you resolve the Shadow effect, then take your damage.  If the damage on a Hero or Ally matches their hit points, they die.  Now you get to hit back.

Only one character can defend against an Enemy.  However any number of characters can attack!  You simply exhaust the characters you want to attack, and add up their attack values.  You subtract the Enemy's defense value from this, and deal the difference in damage.  If the damage on the enemy ever equals their hit points, they die.  Now you have a nice and dead Enemy.  Usually.

If you've stuck with me this long, we are now at the final phase, Refresh.  You ready every exhausted card, increase your Threat Dial by one, and now you are ready for the next turn of the game.  Hurrah, you survived a turn!

To win, you need to advance to the final Quest card, and accomplish it's victory condition.  Sometimes it's just placing progress tokens on it.  Other times you must defeat a certain monster, or completely clear out the Staging Area.  You lose when every player is eliminated.  Either by having all their heroes killed, or more likely, their threat reaches 50.

Timelapse of Play

How accessible is the game to new players?

There are some problems with Lord of the Rings that keep it from being a broadly accessible game.  There are a lot of tiny steps in it.  The game has 7 phases, some of which are further broken down, like the Combat phase.  This requires a methodical attention to detail, since I've found it quite easy to accidentally skip phases if it goes several turns before they become relevant.  Although there is a turn sequence chart across a 2 page spread in the back of the manual, so that helps.

So many phases!

Keyword abilities are also not explained on the cards unlike other games.  Not that there are many keywords.  But still, nearly every other LCG I've played has had the card abilities explained on the cards themselves, room permitting.

Darth Vader explains what Elite does.  Why doesn't
Aragorn tell me what Sentinel is all about?

Another thing that bothers me regarding accessibility are the passive effects.  Passive effects on cards are annoying to keep track of and easily forgotten.  You either need to memorize which effects are in play, or check every card in play for passive effects every time you do anything.  Thankfully it's not many cards that have passive effects.  Mostly just active locations.

As always, this LCG has a high learning curve due to a collection of systems that decades of Magic the Gathering style game design has accumulated.  To combat this, FFG has begun producing fantastic video tutorials.  Still, it takes a significant amount of time for someone unfamiliar with the format to internalize the system.  However, the cooperative nature of the game makes it easier on players unfamiliar with this sort of complicated card battle format.  It's easier to work together to understand the game, as opposed to trying to leverage your better understanding of the rules against one another.

The first scenario is relatively easy.  But difficulty steps up enormously after that.  The final scenario definitely pushes the limits of what the Core Set can accomplish, and unless you are very lucky, requires your first forays into constructing a deck before hand.

What could have been done better?

Some of the starter decks seem blatantly better than others.  All our victories have come from one player taking the Spirit starter deck, and the other player going with Tactics.  Leadership and Lore just don't pull their own weight, although they seem like they'd be vital additions to a mixed deck.  I've found Spirit and Leadership especially potent when mixed together in, but your mileage may vary.

I also want to point out the consistently amazing reference sheets produced by The Esoteric Order of Gamers.  Their reference sheet for this game in specific is fantastic, with the turn order printed on one side, and all the keywords of the game printed on the other.  Their concise rule summary is also a welcome replacement to the meandering, bloated Fantasy Flight Games rulebook.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

This being a cooperative game, a more experienced player can take over.  However, compared to other cooperative games I've played, it's less likely.  Each player has a secret hand of cards, and lots of different abilities at their disposal.  There is enough going on that it really feels like you need more than one person to manage all the different information.  This is definitely not a game where a typical player who merely has more experience will be able to essentially play two seats at the table.

I've actually found that having an experienced player is quite a boon to the process of playing the game.  They can focus on making sure all the turn phases occur, and tracking the various effects that are in play.  This frees up some mental headspace for the less experienced players to internalize the game mechanics, and focus on making good decisions themselves.

What could have been done better?

This game really requires you to be on top of all the different card effects and abilities available to you.  It will take everything at your disposal to survive the adventures.  So unobservant players can be dead weight.  If they consistently forget to use their Hero's special abilities, you will lose.  If they consistently forget to take advantage of event cards they have in their hand, you will lose.  If they consistently forget that more phases are coming and they should leave some characters ready, you will lose.  And frankly, there is just too much going on in this game for you to babysit them.  A definite plus when it comes to preventing excessive quarterbacking, but a bit of a problem when you are trying to get through your first game or two.

But despite that, the game remains a blast, and those early losses are essential in better understanding the mechanics of the game.  Hopefully after one or two completely botched attempts at adventuring, players will have enough experience to better utilize the range of options the game presents them with.  I'd rather the game have a complex enough gamestate that quarterbacking is prohibitively difficult, than be too easy for one player to run the whole table.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

I'm not really sure this game really feels like Lord of the Rings to me.  The artwork is mostly inspired by the movies.  The monsters and the treachery cards are ok.  And the heroes are definitely from Lord of the Rings.  The location cards break my immersion a bit.  Especially when your goal is to travel down a forest path, then suddenly you are running off to a half dozen other exotic locations.  But that's a nitpick.

I encountered The Mountains of Mirkwood pictured on the left
while traversing a Fork in the Road pictured on the right?

But for whatever reason, I'm just not feeling it.  And that could be related to my own personal experience with Lord of the Rings.  Reading the books, I was struck by the fact that this was a fully realized world.  It has it's own history, and there were constant themes of lost glory, fallen kingdoms, and heights to never be reached again.  Every step of the heroes journey was steeped in lore.  The game evokes none of that.  They make an attempt with a few paltry quotes from the books.  But as a setting, none of the richness of the source material comes through for me.  I keep looking for Lord of the Rings in this game, but I'm just not finding it.

Despite what I find to be thematic shortcomings, the game is quite enjoyable.  A little clunky with all the different phases.  But still enjoyable.  There is usually a nice ebb and flow to the challenge as you cope with the initial flood of Encounter cards, get ahead a little bit, and then a huge enemy comes out which sets you back again.  It's a lot of fun.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

As I said, sometimes the scale of the Location cards clashes with the Quest cards.  Overwhelmingly the Quest Cards have artwork depicting fairly intimate, zoomed in settings.  Then the Location cards depict landscapes and enormous vistas.  It all just feels inverted to me.  The solution could just be to embiggen the Quest artwork, and zoom in the Location artwork.

Once again, I feel like Fantasy Flight Games went a little overboard with all it's different phases.  7 phases is just too many.  Especially when one of the phases consist entirely of putting your cards back in the ready position, and the other consists entirely of drawing a card and gathering resources.  FFG really needs to design their games in such a way that more phases than can be counted on a hand aren't necessary.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Scoring definitely prioritizes finishing with a low threat, with your heroes undamaged.  But that usually takes a backseat to just surviving the game.  Generally you have 1 hero to commit to the quest, 1 to defend with, and 1 to attack with.  Getting allies out can augment this, but their usefulness varies wildly.  Most might be able to take a hit, and then promptly die.  Although you will occasionally see an ally really worth getting out and keeping alive thanks to a powerful special ability.  Those without special abilities are usually best used to add weight of numbers to the quest phase, or attacking enemies.

The Tracker I'm going to work hard to preserve.  The Scout is a Grade A Meatshield

Overall though, the game seems to encourage tactical play.  The spirit of the game is to not look ahead at the quest deck.  So you never know what the next quest challenge is, making it difficult to plan ahead.  Obviously once you've played a few times, you can play more strategically however.  But I've found the rewards for replaying the same quest once you've gotten a handle on it minimal.  You can keep score if you really want, and strive for better and better scores.  But you will likely begin mowing through the plethora of expansion material available instead.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Vile treachery!
There are a few elements in this game which really keep you on your toes and make the dilemmas fascinating.  The way the quest phase is structured especially heaps on the tension.  Having to commit heroes before you know the value you are trying to beat really ratchets up the pressure.  And the shadow cards during combat keep the game from being purely number crunching.  I also can't neglect the treachery cards which can cause the best laid plans to nightmarishly backfire.

Many of the heroes also have compelling special abilities that require you to exhaust them, making you decide between committing them to the quest and combat phases, or using them to augment your other actions.

The location cards often have some pros and cons to travelling to them as well.  The primary advantage of travelling to them is immediately negating their threat.  But there are often penalties for traveling there, plus it puts more in the way of you and your quest.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

Some of the treachery cards can seem just downright unfair.  Additionally, there are very limited avenues of coping with location cards as they pile up.  Even in the first adventure, there are enemy cards that will completely sink you, and if you don't have the specific card to counter them, you just have to suck it up.

Hate Hummerhorns so much
So if you've decided to play with just the starter decks, and you and your friend have chosen Lore and Leadership, it is unlikely either of you will have anything that can counter the Hummerhorns, a monster which just flat out deals 5 damage to a hero, killing any hero from the core set in one hit.

Generally with the starter decks, you will be taking a pounding from one direction or another as you simply cannot address all the different ways the game assaults you.  Each sphere of influence has punishing blind spots, and even picking two starter decks doesn't cover them all.  This makes some aspects of the game just feel incredibly arbitrary, and takes a lot of the fun out of the decision making process.

The solution is to get involved in the deck construction before the game begins.  Between two players, it's quite possible to include all four spheres of influence in two different decks.  But I would have liked to see the spheres designed in such a way that their responsibilities weren't so harshly separated.  Most other Magic inspired card games allow their different factions to do everything, just some things better than others.  In Lord of the Rings, the spheres tend to do two things great, and the rest none at all.

Physical component design and limitations?

If there is one area Fantasy Flight Games doesn't skimp, it's components.  They are great.  The cards feel good and shuffle easily.  The tracking bits are thick and sturdy.  The Threat Dials feel good once put together, not too loose and not too stiff.   The layout of the cards feels a bit busy to me though.  Every type of card has a different look for what it's cost looks like, which can be disorienting as you start out.  Granted the cost is always in the upper left.  But sometimes it's in a box.  Sometimes it's in a shield.  Other times it's a scroll.

My camera isn't the best, but these cards are
blurry and indistinct in real life as well.

I have some issues with the artwork as well.  Some cards have some great art, others just feels boring.  Most of the locations come out looking blurry and indistinct, with an over reliance on fog and darkness to make them look threatening.  The art for the equipment also suffers.  It's almost entirely just the piece of equipment sitting on a table!

What could have been better?

I really wish FFG would stop using completely different styling for each type of card.  I understand that it helps them stand apart.  But I really wish they'd keep the styling of the common information the same.  That could just be me though.

Note how the cost in in the upper left is stylized 3 different ways,
and the name of the card is all over the place!
Now for the artwork.  The equipment cards need action shots!  I want to see the item being used heroically.  When I put Citadel Plate on a hero, I want a picture of it deflecting death blows.  Not a picture of it sitting on an armor rack!  As for the location cards, just more detailed artwork in general.

Long term prospects?

I really enjoy this novelty of an expandable cooperative game.  There are constantly new challenges to take on, and the core set serves as a fantastic starting point, unlike other LCGs.  I actually found the core set here to be very complete, and it didn't feel like a sampler or half a game at all.  Which contrasts heavily with the experience I had with Star Wars The Card Game, and with Warhammer Invasion.  I also found the deck building in it far more functional than the core sets of other LCGs.

My friend who owns this game has already decided she will end up owning absolutely everything available for it.  She recently got the entire Mirkwood cycle for her birthday, which we just began playing recently, and found to be a welcome addition.  I'd have to say as a core set, and as a system, this is the real deal.  I've also greatly enjoyed playing it solo during my time borrowing it for review.  I'm nearly tempted to purchase my own copy just because of that.  Either way, I look forward to playing it for years to come.


  1. You should try Pathfinder ACG as soon as possible :)

    1. That is what everyone keeps telling me! Copies of it were flying off the shelf of my FLGS.

  2. Meh. Star Wars game sucks compared to LOTR LCG. You either get it or you dont

  3. It seems like you really dig solitaire games, so I'm a little surprised you're not more enamored with this game and system. It's definitely become my go-to solitaire game (unless I have the time and energy to pull out Mage Knight). I heartily recommend the Khazad-dum deluxe expansion, which has great player cards and scenarios.

    Oh, and your reviews are fantastic. I really like how you lay them out, especially your sections on how accessible the game is to new (potentially game-naive) players. Keep it up!

  4. Do you or anyone you know tried to recriate the LOTR Saga from the books. Only the essential scenarios , i know the LCG has much more, but What would it be the Expansions and packs that i 'd have to buy to replicate this saga exprience with my friends?