With bloodied sword in hand, Campfire Burning tells another legendary one of his Tales from the Fireside. Sit a while, stranger!
You knew I could never write a review about a game as thematic as this one and be done with it. Where are the war stories? Where’s the overwrought prose?
My first game of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game went dreadfully. I played using a pre-constructed Tactics deck led by Gimli, Legolas and Thalin – two dwarves, one Elf, if you like. They blundered through the forest yelling and attacking suspicious bits of moss, and generating so much threat they brought all of Mirkwood down upon them. Somewhere between fighting giant spiders and Mirkwood Orks they became hopelessly lost, surrounded by locations that twisted off in all directions, none of which they had the willpower to explore. I imagined them as the Tolkienesque equivalent of the Three Stooges getting into a slapstick fight over who was supposed to bring the map. When Gimli found himself stuck in a cobweb and spent every other turn struggling to get free I gave up on the adventure and, facepalming at my team’s incompetence, abandoned them at the centre of the forest. “Don’t worry, Campfire,” I lied to myself. “They’ll find their way home.”
For my second venture into Mirkwood I assembled a Spirit Deck of pacifists and archers. My heroes were the noble ladies Eowyn and Eleanor, and the arrowsman Dunhere. Nimble and quick they skipped over the myriad traps that lay in wait for them, tiptoeing past monsters when they could and slaying from afar those they couldn’t pass, feathering with arrows spiders that gnawed on suspiciously familiar dwarvern bones until they fell twitching, and died. They reached a fork in the path and choose wisely, taking a long and winding lane that removed them far from danger and led them to victory.
“This is easy,” I thought. “Let’s try again.”
I ventured into Mirkwood a third time and was met with equal success. The wood seemed a little more aware this time, as if dark forces concealed beneath the undergrowth had heard my bragging and sent forth grander monsters to do battle; still I triumphed and made it down the secret pathway and into glorious daylight. And then, overconfident, I braved Mirkwood a fourth time, this time with a deck of my own construction. It was as if, in the brief moments I’d spent away from it, Mirkwood had grown teeth. I’d taken the resourceful Leadership deck – a deck designed to get cards from your hand and onto the table – and meshed it with my previous Spirit deck. My heroes were Eowyn, Aragorn and Theodred. In The Lord of the Rings: The Living Card Game, heroes from a certain Sphere of influence produce resources that can only be spent on cards from that Sphere. Only Eowyn could produce Spirit resources to play the Spirit cards in my deck, but I’d constructed this dual-sphere deck myself, and knew that within it was Celebrian’s Stone, a card that would allow Aragorn to pay for cards from both the Spirit and Leadership Spheres. It was a clever move, I thought, and prided myself on my genius. Eager to get questing, I started playing cards.
I made one mistake after another. My first was sending my heroes questing and ignoring the inquisitive spiders that had begun gathering around them. “We’ll deal with those later,” I told my intrepid companions. A turn later I imagined Theodred sardonically parrotting my words back at me while a spider chewed upon his leg. “We’ll deal with those later.” Evil doesn’t rest. You can’t ignore threats building up on your game table to go searching for treasure. I found that out the hard way, as did Theodred’s right foot. My second mistake – and this was a biggy – was wasting Gandalf’s appearance. Gandalf’s a special card in LotR. Unless you have some particularly clever card-wrangling up your sleeve he shows up for one turn and one turn only, sorts out your troubles, does a few magic tricks, and is on his way again. He’s expensive to play but he’s powerful. He’s a great defender, attacker and quester, and he can automically kill low level monsters just by showing up. In other words, he was exactly what my heroes – surrounded by monsters as they were – needed. So did I have him wade in, throwing lightning bolts and making the entire forest cower before him?
No, I did not. I had him reduce the party’s threat. I had Gandalf, the most powerful wizard in the Middle Earth, go up to the party and say “Keep it down, would you? These spiders are trying to get some sleep.” We barely beat the game, my heroes and I. At the end of the Mirkwood scenario you randomly choose between two directions at a fork in the road. One leads to the long, hidden path my previous adventures had taken me down. The other leads to a boss battle against Ungoliant’s Spawn, a giant spider so massive the arachnid that snacked on poor Theodred’s leg says of him: “Blimey, he’s really big.”
With no more quests to go on and our path increasingly imperiled, I threw every character I had at this chittering behemoth. My party eventually succeeded by feeding Eowyn to the creature, distracting it for just long enough that Aragorn and his Silverlode archers could hack its legs off and rain arrowfire into its eyes. The spider was killed and the quest was won . . . but at what cost? Leaving Aragorn and Theodred to mourn over the masticated mass that was all that remained of poor Eowyn I decided I couldn’t throw a blonde into the mandibles of every passing spider my party encountered. Clearly my deck needed tuning. Clearly I needed to do better. So I returned to the deck that had served me so well, my spiritual heroes, whose willpower was indomitable and who wore pretty flowing dresses – even the man. I placed them on the table and sent them down the Anduin river on rafts. The A side of my first Quest card said I should start the game with the top card of the encounter deck in play. I drew a Goblin Sniper and set him back on the shore. For every turn he remained in play he’d shoot and deal damage to my Heroes. They wouldn’t be able to engage him as long as there was another enemy guarding him, but this early in the game he stood alone, exposed to my attack.
You’re going down,” I sneered, and flicked the card out of sheer mean-spiritedness. Then I turned over the quest card.
Quest cards have two sides. On one is the initial set up for that stage of the scenario; on the other, the victory conditions I’d need to fulfil in order to pass it and move onto the next stage. The B side of the card said I’d need to place eight quest markers on it and . . . no, this couldn’t be right. I had to search the Encounter Deck for a Hill Troll and place it next to the sniper, and I wouldn’t be able to advance from this stage until it and any other troll cards I drew were dead.
At this point I realised I had severely underestimated the game. Having played the first scenario so often, I thought I’d seen all it had to throw at me. As my heroes punted along the Anduin they encountered creatures that stole away the quest markers they’d earned, and worg-riders who jumped onto the raft to slash at them with daggers before jumping off again, to lurk along the riverbanks awaiting their next opportunity to attack. The Banks of the Anduin seemed never-ending – as soon as they explored one location, another similar to it appeared. I managed to take the sniper down on the second round by drawing out his Hill Troll protector just long enough to leave him unguarded, and then sending the troll back away with a deftly played card. But the threat grew too great, and though we fought off barrages of Dol Goldur Orcs and slew their Chieftain, Uthak, the troll was ever present, and he eventually waded into deep waters that barely reached his waist, to club my brave heroes into oblivion.
“Nuts,” I said, and then I said something worse, like a sailor who’d just seen his boat sink beneath the waves.
And upon this dour note we leave today’s story. I didn’t triumph against the river it’s true, but I had a heck of a time trying. In all those board games I despised as a child, I never really believed that it wasn’t about the winning or the losing, but that it was the taking part that mattered. But then, I never came away from Ludo or Monopoly with stories such as these. The Lord of the Rings is all about stories, and while not all of them will have happy endings, I came out of every one I played smiling. I’ll tell you what went right and what did not. I’ll tell you the places I’ve been and the allies I’ve met. And I’ll swear to you, like a fantasy hero given a second chance at victory, next time I’d do better.
Now pass me my deck, and let’s hunt some orc.
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