Part 1: Base Set and Preconstructed Decks
Designer: Nate French (2011)
Publisher(s): Fantasy Flight Games
# of Players: 1-4
Play Time: 60 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #57/7.44
Category: Gamer’s Game
Let me start with the fact that I have a pretty big history with collectible card games (CCG’s). I picked up Magic: The Gathering back during Antiquities/Unlimited and was thoroughly cosumed and addicted to it on two distinct phases of my gaming career. For lots of reasons, however, I finally made the decision to leave it completely, but that old itch for a CCG-like game persists and occasionally flares up in my gaming appetite.
For a few years now, I’ve been watching Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Games (LCG’s) with a lot of interest. One of the reasons I gave up on Magic was definitely monetary, and the fixed schedule and lack of rarity in the expansions fixes a lot of that. But my biggest concern for these games is that, like CCG’s, it takes a lot of investment in the games to really understand them, and especially to be competent in their deckbuilding aspect. And while I could certainly just build a lot of decks for a game like this and let my friends play them, a competitive game just loses something when you’re better than everyone else and designed the decks they’re using.
But then I heard about The Lord of the Rings LCG. Between the attractive theme, the fact that it’s cooperative, and that it can handle solo play, I knew that I wanted to give it a try. I’ve got nearly a dozen plays under my belt so far, and since the first Adventure Pack has yet to be released, I’m limiting this review to the base set and will mostly focus on play with the preconstructed decks included in it.
But before I get into my opinion of the game, let’s take a relatively brief look at how to play.
Game Basics (click here for complete game rules)
Each game of The Lord of the Rings LCG is dictated by the Quest that you choose to play through. All of the quests in the base game are made up of three stages, represented by double-sided cards that detail both how to set up for the game and how to win it. The opposition in the game comes from the Encounter Deck, which is made up of different cards based on the Quest as well, so you’ll see different enemies, locations, and trecherous events depending on which one you’re playing against. And each quest also has a difficulty rating, which runs from 1 to 7 right now, but presumably will go higher with expansion quests.
In addition to choosing the Quest and setting up the Encounter Deck, each player also chooses which deck they will play. Most player cards in the game come from one of four Spheres of Influence, each identifying a particular flavor or approach or set of strengths. These spheres are Leadership, Tactics, Spirit, and Lore, each of which has a preconstructed deck included in the base set.
The Four Spheres of Influence: Tactics, Leadership, Spirit, and Lore
These preconstructed decks each feature three Heroes, who begin in play and do most of the work in accomplishing the quests. All characters (Heroes and Allies, which you can play later on) have four basic stats: Willpower, Attack, Defense, and Hit Points. Most of them also have one or more special abilities that they can perform as well, either when they come into play or when they “exhaust” (turn the card sideways, aka “tap” it in Magic terms). Heroes also have a Threat Cost, which is I guess sort of how much attention and trouble they draw. Each player totals up the Threat Costs of their Heroes and turns their Threat Tracker to that number. Players gather more threat throughout play, and if it ever gets up to a total of 50, they are out of the game.
So to recap setup, players first choose a quest and use it to construct the Encounter Deck and determine if any Encounter Cards begin in play. They then choose a deck and put their Heroes into play, adding up their Threat Costs and indicating it on their Treat Trackers. Finally, players shuffle their deck and draw 6 cards, and play begins.
Each turn consists of 7 phases, which I’ll move through pretty quickly here:
- Resource – players draw a card and each hero gets one resource marker. Resource markers are used to pay for other cards that you play. Cards must be paid for be resources from a hero of a matching Sphere of Influence. So a Tactics card can only be paid from from the resource pool of a hero from the Tactics sphere. Since the preconstructed decks only draw from one sphere each, this doesn’t come into play at all, but it certainly does when you start to build custom decks. There are also neutral cards (even though Gandalf is the only one in the base game), which can be paid for using resources from any sphere.
- Planning – This is the only time when players may play Allies (other characters) and Attachments (cards that modify or grant special abilities to characters, such as weapons, skills, or titles). Player decks also include Event cards, which may be played in any phase, but only during times when player actions are allowed (which is clearly indicated on the sequence of play). So, unless an Event card specifically indicates that it may be played in response to something happening, you can’t just interrupt something that is about to happen.
- Quest – In order to complete each stage of the quest, players must earn a certain number of Quest Points as indicated on that quest card. During this phase, players commit characters to apply their Willpower to the quest. Once all players have done this, cards are drawn from the Encounter Deck equal to the number of players. Treachery cards (which do all kinds of sadistic things) are immediately revolved, while Enemies and Locations are added to the the staging area. All cards in the staging area apply their Threat Strength (one of their stats) in opposition to the combined Willpower of all the committed characters. If Willpower is greater than Threat Strength, progress is made towards the Quest equal to the difference. If Threat Strength is greater than Willpower, however, every player must add the difference to their Threat Level.
- Travel – The starting player may then choose to travel to one of the location cards in the staging area. Doing so will remove its Threat Strength from future quest actions (since it will no longer be in the staging area), but there is usually some cost to travel there, and any progress made in future quest phases must first be applied to complete the location’s Quest Points before making progress on the quest itself.
- Encounter – All Enemies have an engagement cost listed on their cards, which is compared to each player’s current Threat Level during this phase. In turn order, players take take the enemy with the highest engagement cost that is still equal to or below their current Threat Level and move it into their play area (this actually keeps going around multiple times, so each player may have to encounter multiple enemies). Before this process is carried out, however, each player may choose to engage one enemy of their choice, usually to protect another player from having to encounter it. And similar to traveling to locations, once an Enemy card is removed from the staging area, its Threat Strength is no longer applied to quest actions, but players will now have to do combat with it.
- Combat – Enemy cards engaged with players now attack using their attack strength. Each enemy is also dealt a facedown card from the Encounter Deck which may also add an extra Shadow effect during resolution (not every card has a Shadow effect, however). Players may choose to exhaust a character to defend against the attack, in which case the Enemy’s attack is compared to the defender’s defense stat, with any excess being applied to the defender as damage tokens. If you choose not to defend (or don’t have a character available), the damage is all applied directly to any one Hero. Note, however, that defenders do not deal damage back to the Enemy! Instead, players may then have another character exhaust to attack the Enemy in a similar manner. And at any time, if a character or enemy takes damage equal to its hit points, it is immediately discarded.
- Refresh – During this phase, players refresh (untap) all their characters and increase their threat value by 1.
Play continues turn after turn until the players either complete all stages of the quest (and win) or are all eliminated (and lose) by having all their heroes die or having their Threat Level equal or exceed 50.
What I Think…
Well, what I think so far is that the Lord of the Rings LCG is pretty darn incredible. It seems to be delivering on everything that I wanted it to do, and it’s also caught on well enough in my group that we have made it the Game of the Month! for July. And hopefully, if enough others buy their own copies of the game and get into some level of deckbuilding, it may just turn out to be way more than I ever imagined it could be!
But let me get into some specifics about why I feel this way…
First of all, play using the base set specifically requires a very high level of cooperation between players in order to be successful. All of the preconstructed decks are very unique and have their own play styles, strengths and weaknesses, but none of them can handle a typical quest alone. Therefore, every time I play, the experience is incredibly cooperative, where every player feels like they have a vital role and specific purpose that no one else can perform. You get to feel special and important, but also must rely on each other to cover the areas where your deck is weak. If you’re a fan of coop games like I am, the LotR LCG is a really great one.
Some of the more familiar Heroes
But let me interrupt here to clarify something about how the game is packaged. In the base set, you get all four preconstructed 30-card decks, one from each sphere of influence. Technically, the box says that it’s for 1-2 players and that you’d need to get a second copy of the game for 3 or 4 players. I, however, totally disagree. All four of these decks are completely playable as they are, and the only “limiting” factor in the base set is that it only comes with two of the cool little threat tracker thingies. But if you just use dice or pen and paper for the 3rd and 4th player, the game works perfectly.
Just to be honest, however, I did pick up a second copy of the game, but it’s completely about having a larger card pool for deckbuilding rather than any failure in the base game itself.
In trying to get a little more specific, one of the most important factors making the game fun, tense, and challenging from turn to turn is how you have to manage the actions of your heroes. Since almost every action (questing, defending, attacking, and most special character abilities) requires you to exhaust the character, you always have tough choices to make about which one thing each hero will do on a particular turn. For example, you might need to use Glorfindel to go questing so you can make some progress towards it this turn, but you’ve also got 2 enemies engaged with you, so it’d be nice to hold him back either to defend or attack one of them (to get rid of it!). The game obviously has other limited resources as well (such as your influence tokens, of course), but I’d still say that most of the tough choices you face are related to how you will use your heroes.
But does the Lord of the Rings LCG feel like a CCG? It’s a little hard to say, considering that most of my CCG experience was with fully competitive games, and this is so thoroughly cooperative. But for certain, it has most of the hand-management and card-interaction elements that I loved about collectible games. There are even a few real “combos” that you can take advantage of when they come up (or build into your deck if you want), and there’s a lot of room for developing some real skill in understanding the nuances of timing and card efficiency. Developing a thorough understanding of the cards and how to play them definitely feels like old, familiar territory to me, and for the time being, I’m very pleased with how it’s scratching my old CCG itches.
Now, I’ll cover deckbuilding more in my second review later on, but I do want to touch on it briefly in regards to the base set alone. There are specific “tounament” deck construction rules (50 card decks, no more than 3 of any card), which can be a little limiting if you only have one copy of the game. Probably most concerning is the fact that you only get one copy of some cards. And since each preconstructed deck is only 30 cards, putting together a 50-card, 2-sphere deck would basically just mean leaving out 5 cards from each sphere (which isn’t really all that interesting). However, I have had some really good fun and success so far in playing 3-sphere decks solitaire. My favorite right now is a Lore-Spirit-Leadership deck using Beravor, Eowyn, and Theodred, which I’ve used to win pretty convincingly against the first two quests. But there really aren’t enough cards to build more than one or two decks (at the same time anyway) in the base game, so at that point you probably are talking about it being a 1-2 person game. But to be clear, I have still been impressed with the deckbuilding possibilites even from having just one copy of the game, even though I now look forward to my options expanding by getting more cards to work with.
The heroes from my favorite custom-built deck so far…
The base game comes with three quests of increasing difficulty. Since you actually construct the Encounter Deck differently for each one, they really do play and feel noticeably different from each other. I really like the simplicity of how the Encounter Deck works to add stress and challenge on several fronts throghout the game, and when you then have a few little situational tweaks to play or goals from the Quest cards themselves, it can really change the way you play your deck and approach the quest. If there’s any real weakness in the base game, however, I’d say that it would be including only three quests. I mean, sure, the randomness of the card draw will make quests play out differently each time, but a little more variety (maybe 1 or 2 more quests) would have been nice. Plus, people that really invest in learning the game will probably find the quests a little easy, especially if you build custom decks.
And to finish up, I want to say a few words about the theme. Obviously, The Lord of the Rings is a popular and well-used property. Part of my enjoyment with the game is certainly related to my affinity for Tolkien’s work, but I don’t know that it’s really required to enjoy it. The game itself is very strong and compelling, especially as a cooperative game, and I’d say that if you’re at least tolerant of a general fantasy theme, you’ll have a lot of fun with it. Until you’re pretty familiar with the game and the sequence of play, however, the theme may be a little overshadowed by all of the mechanical aspects that you’re learning. But after my third or fourth play, I remember commenting about how the narrative of the quest really started to shine through and even find a lot of support from the mechanics. And especially if you take the time to read the flavor text on the quest cards and step back a little to appreciate the cinematic nature of what you’re doing in the game, it can be a pretty rich thematic experience.
Resources for the Game
While the Lord of the Rings LCG isn’t overly complicated, the nature of having a game based on so many cards and card interactions still lends itself to needing clarification. So here are a few resources that may make your experience a little easier as you’re getting started with it:
– Official FAQ from Fantasy Flight
– Universal Head’s amazing player aids
– The Comprehensive Card Reference and Unofficial FAQ
– Ninjadorg’s Website (with several unofficial Quests)
– Card Game DB (deckbuilder and more for this and other LCG’s)
As I said above, The Lord of the Rings LCG is pretty much everything I wanted it to be. Whether you’re looking for a deep and customizable CCG-like experience, or if you just want a solid cooperative game that you can pull off the shelf every once in a while, it seems to be able to give you what you want. While I look forward to the coming expansions and more opportunity for building my own decks, I’ve already had a lot of fun playing with just the preconstructed decks included in the base set.
- Rules: The underlying mechanics are pretty simple, but the sequence of play can be a little hard to get your head around, and there can be a lot of complexity in the interactions of the cards
- Downtime: It’s cooperative and the turns are integrated, so there is virtually no downtime at all
- Length: Most of my games have run around 60-90 minutes, but which quest you’re playing has some effect on that as well
- Player Interaction: Again, it’s fully cooperative, and there’s lots of opportunity to work together and make a real difference in the game
- Overall Weight: Medium
- GamerChris’ Rating: It’s my favorite game of the year so far, and I give it an enthusiastic 9 on the BGG 10-point scale