Campfire Burning isn’t just about Tales from the Fireside, oh no – he’s also a splendid reviewer as this take on the brand new Lord of the Rings: The Card Game shows. Enjoy!
Do you like… ACTION?
Do you like… ADVENTURE?
Do you like . . . ILLUSTRATED PIECES OF CARDBOARD?
Then hurry this way, my friend. There’s a lot of ground to cover if we plan on reaching Mirkwood by daybreak.
That’s The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game in a nutshell. That’s everything you need to know about it cushioned in silk and wrapped in thorns. If you don’t shiver excited at the thought of running through moonlit glades with grass whipping round your ankles, your companions by your side and a quiver of arrows rattling on your back then this isn’t the game for you. The box says LotR is a card game, but with a few session under my belt I know better. Like Arkham Horror before it, and Fighting Fantasy long before that, this is adventure, plain and true. This is scaling mountains with giant eagles soaring beneath you. This is raft rides over frothing rapids with poison darts whistling past your ear. This is plunging through enchanted woods where cursed streams muddle memory, cobwebs form intricate, labyrinthine corridors, and all around glowering eyes watch your party between the tree boles, waiting for their moment to attack.
The idea of a Living Card Game skewed toward solo and co-operative play intrigued me. These kinds of collectible card games are usually multiplayer experiences. You buy the latest cards, your tune your deck, and you lay the smack down on your opponents. That’s what drives the game forward. That’s why people spend hundreds of pounds buying boosters. In LotR you’re not playing against anyone else. There’s nobody to beat, there’s no one to be better than. It’s you and your friends versus the game, so where’s the impetus to spend? As it turns out, I had the game bass-ackwards, because the closest game to LotR isn’t another card game – or at least, no card game I’ve ever played. LotR is more like a video game than anything else. There are mechanics and little routines written in the cards’ text that turn the simple act of drawing them into something grander. The sumptuous artwork and flavour text evoke incredible atmosphere, and tie in cleverly with the actions written on the cards. The whole game seems to move and breathe around you as you play. When Fantasy Flight Games called it a Living Card Game, they weren’t kidding.
To begin with, you have your Player Deck. The set comes with four decks of thirty cards – one for each Sphere of influence in the game. The Spheres each have their own strengths and weaknesses and ideally you’ll want to combine them to make the strongest deck you can – but deck-building’s something for experienced players, and certainly something you won’t want to jump straight into. In addition to your Player Deck you have three Heroes, who also fall within one of the four Spheres. Heroes are important. They generate one Resource Point at the start of every round, and Resource Points are what you need to play cards from your hand. Lose all your Heroes and you lose the game. Each round Heroes can commit to a quest, defend against incoming attacks and attack monsters. Doing any one of these things exhausts the Hero. An exhausted Hero is tap- er, tipped on its side (a mechanic you might be familiar with from Magic: The Gathering) and can’t do anything else until it’s readied again at the end of the round.
At the start of the round, if you have enough Resources gathered from the Heroes’ Resource Pools you can play attachments from your hand to kit your Heroes out with weapons, armour and magical trinkets, and also play ally cards: lesser heroes who’ll lend their swords, axes and whatnot to help your team out. The Heroes’ quest is determined by a Quest Card. Quest Cards are gathered together in bundled Scenarios which tell the player how each game should start, and how it advances once the various stages of the Scenario are completed.You play against the Encounter Deck. This is the deck containing all the monsters, locations and pitfalls your Heroes encounter over the course of the game. In other words, this is where evil lurks.
When cards are drawn from the Encounter deck, they’re played into the Staging Area – such an anodyne, unimaginative term for a wonderful concept. The Staging Area is the world surrounding your heroes. In the introductory scenario it’s the cobweb-strewn forest of Mirkwood, but it could just as easily be a smouldering volcano in Mordor or the Dead Marshes, or anywhere else in Middle Earth. At the start of every game you read the quest card which tells you where your heroes are and what they’re doing, and set up the staging area according to its instructions. Every round, once you’ve chosen which characters are committed to the quest at hand and exhausted them accordingly, you draw a card from the Encounter deck. This could be a monster, a new location or a Treachery card.
Treachery cards indicate something terrible befalling your characters as they move through the quest – a character blundering into a snare trap say. or a rockfall that forces you to discard your hand – and once resolved, they’re discarded. Monster and Location cards on the other hand, are played into the Staging Area. Each has a Threat value attached to it. The only way your heroes can continue their quest is by having a Willpower value higher than the staging area’s Threat value. It’s as if, seeing all the dark tunnels between the trees and hearing strange slitherings coming from the wood all around them, your characters can’t concentrate on the task at hand. Which is, of course, the whole idea behind it.
The beauty of the Staging Area is how these elements tie the adventure together. The heroes see an Old Forest Path branching away from the main road. They can choose to take it – in the game this means Travelling to it, removing its Threat from the table but not letting the heroes continue their quest until they’ve thoroughly explored it – or they can choose to ignore it. The longer they ignore it, the more doubt builds in their minds – What was down that path? What if we should have taken it? – and the harder the quest becomes. Monsters placed in the staging area fit the theme even better. They can be engaged in combat whenever the player likes, but they’ll only ever attack the heroes first if the player’s threat counter has reached a high enough level. Threat mounts naturally over the course of the game by a single point per turn, although unsuccessful questing and various card effects can raise its level quickly. This is where LotR feels most like a video game. Just like ‘pulling’ monsters and generating aggro in a World of Warcraft dungeon, Threat can be manipulated to the player’s advantage – and just as easily messed up with a single misjudged action.
Combat – though laboriously explained in the rulebook – is simple. Engaged monsters attack first, and can be assigned defending characters to absorb the attack. You may then return the attack with your remaining non-exhausted characters. Successful attacks and damage are calculated by subtracting the defending character or monster’s Defense score from the attacking character’s Attack score. But here, again, another clever mechanic steps in to create tension. At the start of each battle you draw an Encounter card for each monster you’re engaged with and lay it face down next to it. This is now called a Shadow Card. Certain Encounter Cards have Shadow Effects written at the bottom of them; as soon as the monster attacks you flip the card to see what – if any – Shadow Effect comes into play. The monster could be unusually strong for that round, do more damage, or suddenly swerve off and attack a different character. On the turn of a Shadow card, anything can happen.
You can stack your deck with cards that cancel Shadow Effects, but it’s this degree of randomness and your response to it that brings the game to life. Most cards do different things when played in different situations. Some take effect as soon as they’re revealed, and some only take effect when certain conditions are met. Players can play actions and responses frequently throughout each round. Even Locations have effects that only come into play when your heroes travel to them, or once they’ve been explored. As the great Ent Forest Gump once said, card draws in LotR are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.
I haven’t yet played LotR cooperatively, but I’ve seen plenty of cards that have co-operative effects listed on them. Characters with Ranged attacks can attack monsters engaged with the other players, while Sentinels can defend against them. Cards like Wandering Took can be passed between you and the other players, carrying a certain amount of Threat with them. As with any co-op game, discussion and fore-planning are important. Work together and you’ll become an unbeatable Fellowship. Bicker, and you’ll end up like Boromir: arrow-riddled food for the crows.
LotR is a tense, surprising, and quickly-moving game with a wonderfully strong theme. I know I’m always banging on about thematic games, but LotR manages its theme better than anything else I’ve played. In fact the theme and feeling of sheer adventure is so strong, I’m devoting a future Tales from the Fireside column to it. It’s also a difficult game. The pre-constructed decks that come in the box aren’t balanced against all the scenarios, and if you choose the wrong Sphere to play you could end up tearing your hair out as you suffer defeat after defeat.
I’m sure some cynics would say this was the impetus to buy that I mentioned at the start of the review – “Buy our expansions and you’ll be able to beat the game!“ Let them wallow in their cynicism. The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a wonderful game with Baggins of replay value. It’ll take you through haunted woods, along rivers and up skulking dark towers to rescue your captive companions. Along the way you’ll occasionally fall foul of bats and orcs and other monstrosities, but once you’ve reached your destination (and re-tuned your deck) you’ll gleefully want to do it all over again.
“There and back again,” a wise old Hobbit once wrote. He clearly had this game in mind.
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game was released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2011. Designed by Nate French, it is playable either solo or co-operatively (with up to four people, should you have two core sets). Stocks are trickling through to the UK and it’ll cost you between £20-25. Campfire Burning can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and has been warned for the Baggins pun near the end of the review.