The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
Designed by Nate French
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
1-2 players (3-4 with two base sets)
I love The Lord of the Rings. Like, really love the Lord fo the Rings. I mean, I may not speak fluent sindarin, but if you need someone to annoyingly contextualize every scene during your next viewing, rambling something about appendices and silmarillions, I’m your guy. Fortunately for me, the last 50 years of tabletop gaming has seen some great (and truly awful) takes on the setting. The problem is that many of these games, even the really good ones, are like the books themselves; long, unwieldy, and too broad of scope for most people to bother with. FFG’s The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game defies these expectations, attempting to pack an engaging cooperative, strategic, and thematic adventure into a 60 minute timeframe. And incredibly, it works.
Before we get to the game itself, this is a “Living Card Game”. That means two things: First, you probably won’t get the full enjoyment out of this game unless you are willing to construct a deck; and second, the base set is more like a starter pack, trying to get it’s hooks into you so FFG can sell you more and more cards down the road. Fortunately, LCGs sell fixed packs of content with full playsets of cards and there are ample resources online to help you construct decks, or even provide card lists for you. So if you can get past those two hurdles, then keep reading and let’s see if this game is worth the proposed addiction.
Book I: The Fellowship of the Rules
The Cards Set Out:
Players each control up to three heroes that start in play. The player decks have the various equipment, events, and allies that will aid their heroes in conquering (or more likely suffering brutal defeat) in each game’s quest. Heroes belong to one of four factions (colors), and produce resources that can purchase cards in hand matching their faction. The four preconstructed decks that come with the game correspond to the factions, but to have any success beyond the first quest, players will have to start combining decks and colors to balance their respective strengths and weaknesses.
The game starts with setting up the quest and the encounter deck. The quest, usually separated into three stages, dictates the types of enemies, locations, and events in the encounter decks, and also explains the special rules and objectives to win the game. Encounter cards are in groups of 10-20 cards with a Symbol that can be used in different quests, the quest simply shows a collection of symbols and you shuffle those cards together. I really love that, it’s simple and clever. It makes the world come to life, seeing little bits from a previous quest crop up again, but comboing in new and strange ways. For instance in one quest you may use the Spiders, Mirkwood, and Dol Goldur encounter cards, but in another, you’d use the Dol Goldur, Sauron, and Gundabad Orc cards. You actually feel like you are exploring the world, becoming more familiar with the inhabitants and locations even as you are making new discoveries.
The Game Goes South:
The gameplay largely consists of encounter cards being revealed and players finding ways to discard them through exploration or combat. Encounters left in the staging area increase the “shadow” in play, making it more difficult to succeed when questing. This is another beautiful example of mechanics successfully conveying theme, you really feel the pressure as Sauron’s dominion grows more vast and powerful each turn. Players manage a dangerous juggling act as they choose whether their characters (heroes and allies) will quest, defend, or attack. By questing, you advance the story and discard location encounters, but leave yourself vulnerable to attack. By focussing solely on combat, the players defeat enemies and are well defended, but Sauron’s strength grows and eventually causes the end of the game.
Book II: The Two Towers of Theme
The Treason of Comfort:
One of the challenges that card games face is maintaining a consistent and cohesive art direction. Fortunately, FFG must have prioritized art as one of the main pillars of design. Simply put, it’s beautiful; the landscapes are sweeping, the villains are looming and dangerous, and the heroes are valiant. In spite of the dozens of artists to work on this game throughout the years, they still manage to capture the essence of Tolkien’s stories. It’s exactly what you expect out of a high quality Lord of the Rings game; but... it’s not very original.
The base set in particular is heavily influenced by the great John Howe, one of the premiere Tolkien artists working today. Howe’s artwork is iconic, he was a consultant on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, he’s illustrated many releases of Tolkien’s work, he is the basis for most modern interpretations Middle Earth. As much as I love this style, I feel like it’s a missed opportunity to bring to life Tolkien’s world with a fresh vision. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the game suffers for it, in fact, some styles could have been far worse than what we got, it just feels very safe in an otherwise bold game.
The Ring Goes to the Player on Your Left:
The best thing about this game is that the mechanics reinforce the theme, and the theme reinforces the mechanics. Of course sometimes your cards will contradict the story (what is Bilbo doing in the Gap of Rohan?), but that’s OK! It’s a sandbox, a Middle Earth “What If?”. The important part is that the characters feel thematically appropriate and true to how they would behave in the stories. Aragorn is a great leader who is strong and flexible; Denethor has farsite and can peer into the darkness, but little willpower to go on; Eowyn has incredible force of will allowing you to push forward in quests. And because the game has a sense of urgency due to the accruing shadow, you are rewarded for bold action, even if a character will meet their demise.
Speaking of which, did I mention this game was hard? In my first 10 games, we won 3 times. It wasn’t until we began messing around with deck construction that we saw through the matrix and understood how we could tailor our decks to the challenges of each quest. Soon, we were analyzing our losses like football coaches, strategizing where we needed to be more aggressive or more defensive, swapping certain cards out like players on a field, and reattempting each quest we failed. I love that the game encourages players to retool their deck after losing a game. Not only does it encourage a deeper understanding and participation with the game, but the cooperative nature alleviates most of the pressure of deck building.
Book III: The Return of the Reviewer
The War of the Wallet:
Let’s get back to that LCG bit from earlier. If you are still on the fence about this game, I strongly encourage you to check this game out. It is one of, if not my favorite game based on Tolkien’s work (Middle Earth Quest holds a special place in my heart). But should you buy into it? That’s another story. The base set alone has 4 half size player decks and 3 quests which range from easy to near impossible with the provided decks. There is just enough in there to mix up the decks and start coming up with clever combinations, but once you’ve beaten the quests, you aren’t really left with much to do. Because you have such a small pool of cards, rerunning the quests doesn’t provide the thrill that it once did, and the quests themselves will start to become predictable and stale. This game doesn’t have the simplicity of Pandemic or Ghost Stories, so replaying the game with only slight variations can become a chore without letting it rest for a while in between.
SO, if you are going to get this game, I recommend also getting one or two deluxe expansions soon after so that you have a greater variety of cards to play with (Tales From the Cards has an excellent guide to which expansion packs to buy). Not only will the new quests be a breath of fresh air, but trying out vastly different decks on the quests you’ve already beaten will make them come to life again. It’s a hard sell, though. You are spending time, money, and energy that could be put toward playing more, different games. But if you are a Tolkien nerd like me, you have interest in a game that plays equally well with 1 or 2 players, or you are really into coop games and deckbuilding, this really may be a perfect platform to really sink your teeth into, like gollum and that fish in the opening of Return of the King *shudders*.
The End of the Review-age:
Wow, that was a bit longer than I expected. I guess sometimes you open a new document and there’s no telling where your fingers may take you. I adore this game, it breathes to life the rich and vast world of Tolkien’s writing, while maintaining the excitement of the groundbreaking movies that brought the Lord of the Rings into the mainstream. You and your teammates will take bold risks and pull through against great odds, and when you become comfortable tooling around with your deck, it becomes just as rewarding to lose as it is to win. Each turn is a satisfying strategic puzzle, with just enough information withheld that there is never an obvious or perfect solution. In spite of so many cards, the quests themselves maintain an elegance in how they are set up and constructed, so it never feels like a chore to play.
My only disappointment with the game is that the base set feels like an incomplete product, and instead (as intended) it is a platform to expand upon. I wish FFG would just release a new base set that comes with double the amount of content in the current one, providing more deck building options and a greater variety of quests right out of the gate, but maybe a satisfying self-contained set would go against their intended business model.
In spite of that, I highly recommend this game to anyone who cares deeply about this universe, who wants a little more strategic “oomph” in their cooperative games, and especially for couples who may be interested in constructing decks without the pressure of competing directly against one another. Both as a huge Tolkien nerd, and as someone who has played hundreds of hours of CCGs and LCGs; this is one of the finest card games to ever be released.