I’ve never been interested in CCGs. It’s not so much an objection to them as games, I’m just not a fan of the model for building your games. There’s no doubt that they’ve been extremely influential in game design, particularly in the deck-building craze that is infecting the nation. I like deck-builders more because everything you need to play competitively is in the box – you don’t have to buy countless packs of cards in the hopes of getting everything. But, to be fair, I’ve only tried one CCG. A friend of mine taught me the Star Wars CCG a year or so ago. I didn’t really like it.
One way Fantasy Flight has been trying to reinvent the CCG is by introducing a concept called Living Card Games (LCGs). Basically, the point is that you buy a core set that contains everything you need to play a game. Expansions are released monthly to help you enhance your experience. I don’t know much, because I’ve never tried one, but the Living Card Game label seems like a way to dress up CCGs so people like me will get sucked in while still appealing to the CCG crowd.
Regardless, never let it be said that I won’t give a look to an interesting looking game just because of a label. The Lord of the Rings Card Game is the latest LCG from Fantasy Flight. The game was designed by Fantasy Flight’s LCG guru, Nate French, the man behind The Call of Cthulhu and A Game of Thrones LCGs. The game takes around 60 minutes to play, and is for 1-2 players aged 13 and up. You can play with four players if you have two copies of the core set. It’s a cooperative game set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If you know the books, the quests of the game take place in the span of time between Bilbo’s 111st birthday party and the time when Frodo left the Shire 17 years later. If you only know the movies, you’ll already be familiar with the world, though the timing may seem a bit weird to you. If you don’t know either, I’d encourage you to look into them. The richness of Tolkien’s world makes it ideal for all kinds of settings, including games.
The core set for this game comes with 226 cards: 12 Hero cards, 120 player cards, 84 encounter cards, and 10 quest cards. There are two threat trackers, which are dials that will track how close you are to losing the game and will let you know when you’re about to get attacked. There are 40 damage tokens, 26 progress tokens, 30 resource tokens, and a first player token.
The basic principle of the game is that you are attempting to complete the conditions outlines in a specific scenario. Three of these are included in the game. As far as I can understand, each scenario has a set of quest cards with it. There are also encounter cards with each quest that match the scenario. For the basic scenario (Passage Through Mirkwood), you’ll be using cards marked with Passage Through Mirkwood, Spiders of Mirkwood, and Dol Goldur Orcs symbols. Each player will choose a sphere of influence to play – leadership, tactics, spirit, or lore. Each of these has a set of heroes associated with it – leadership features Aragorn, Glóin, and Théodred; tactics has Gimli, Legolas, and Thalin; Éowyn, Dunhere, and Eleanor are the heroes for spirit; Glorfindel, Denethor, and Beravor are the heroes for lore. Each starter hero deck also features a Gandalf card. It should be noticed that the recommended starter decks are not static for every game you play – as you get more experienced, you should try out different combos of heroes from this and future expansions.
When you start the game, you’ll place your heroes in front of you, adding up their threat cost (top left number) and putting that total into your threat tracker. If your threat tracker ever reaches 50, you lose. Each player will draw six cards from their player deck (made up of cards from their sphere of influence). One player is determined to be first by majority decision or randomly The quest cards are arranged in sequential order, and any further setup is described by the scenario. Players should set up on opposite sides of a table, with the encounter deck and quest cards between them. This area in the middle is known as the staging area.
Each round follows a set order: resource, planning, quest, travel, encounter, combat, refresh. All players will complete each phase in a round. For resource, each hero gains one resource token and the player can draw one card to your hand. With planning, you can play ally and attachment cards from your hand. Attachments are weapons and other items you can carry around, while allies are characters who will help you out. Each card has a resource cost, for which you must spend resource tokens from heroes who match symbols on the card (but only within your sphere of influence).
The third part of the phase is the quest phase. Here, you’ll be attempting to make progress towards completing the quest card currently showing. There are three steps to the phase. First, commit characters. Characters you use will become exhausted and unavailable for the rest of the turn. Next is staging. Draw one card per player and place it in the staging area. Some cards have immediate effects, others will have later effects. Finally, resolve the quest. Add up the player’s combined will power (the top number on the character card) and compare it to the combined threat strength of all cards in the staging area. If the heroes win, they can add progress tokens equal to the difference of their victory to the quest card. If you ever get as many progress tokens as the quest total on the quest card, it is discarded. If the heroes lose, they must increase their threat dials by the difference. If there’s a tie, nothing happens. You can use card powers to increase your will.
During the travel phase, you can travel to any location by moving it from the staging area to a spot next to the encounter deck. This becomes an active location and it no longer adds threat points to the threat level. However, it must be resolved. Progress tokens go on the location card instead of the quest card. The location is discarded once it gets enough tokens.
In the encounter phase, players can choose whether or not they’d like to engage an enemy from the staging area. Engaged enemies are placed in front of the player who is going after them. If there are still enemies remaining in the staging area, you make engagement checks. The enemy with the highest engagement cost that is equal to or lower than the threat level of a player engages them. This process begins with the first player, and proceeds until there are no more enemies that can engage anyone.
Combat is the next phase. All enemies that are in front of players attack first. Each enemy gets one shadow card, a face down card from the top of the encounter deck. If the encounter deck runs out, no more enemies get cards. You resolve attacks individually by choosing which enemy is attacking. You exhaust a hero as your defender, or you can choose to allow an attack to go undefended. Flip the enemy’s shadow card and resolve the shadow effect. Subtract the defense of the defender from the attack of the attacker, dealing the remaining amount of damage to the defending player. If the attack is undefended, all damage goes to one hero. After all enemy attacks are resolved, each player attacks enemies. To attack, exhaust at least one hero, declare a target, add up your attack strength, subtract the enemy’s defense, and deal that much damage to the enemy. If a card ever gets damage equal to its hit points, it is destroyed and discarded.
Finally, it’s time to refresh. All exhausted cards are unexhausted, each player’s threat level increases by one, and the first player marker passes. The game ends with a victory if all quest cards are completed with at least one character alive. The game ends in defeat if all characters die, either by being destroyed or by reaching 50 on the threat dial.
So, a few thoughts about the game. I won’t say I’m the world’s biggest Tolkien fan, but I have read the Hobbit and all the Lord of the Rings books. It’s an extremely rich world, and Fantasy Flight has been milking the license for all it’s worth. Not that this is a bad thing – it’s a very suitable fantasy environment for games. I haven’t played any of them, but between this, Reiner Knizia’s LOTR cooperative game, War of the Ring, and Middle-earth Quest, there’s plenty of Tolkien goodness to keep you occupied for a loooooong time.
What interests me here? Well, I enjoy card games with lots of variety in the cards. And I’m sure that this will provide plenty of variety. There are four different spheres of influence, leading to exploration of multiple strategies. Still, it’s a game that begs for expansions. The core set is there to hook you, the release of expansions will surely make the game better, or at least more varied. I don’t really like the model, but there’s something to be said for not having to buy lots of packs just to complete a set. People complain about how quickly Dominion expansions come out – six months would be an eternity for games like this.
This type of game is built on tournament play – you’re trying to be competitive by exploring strategies in the various sets. However, I’m not exactly sure how it will work with a cooperative game like this. Will it be you and a partner trying to defeat a customized scenario? Will it be you solo competing with others, trying to beat the same scenario in a set amount of time? I have no clue.
Anyway, I’m interested to try it. I’m just suspicious enough about the financial commitment that I don’t want to buy my own, I’d just like to play sometime. Thanks for reading!