I reviewed Fantasy Flight’s Lord of the Rings Living Card game not long after its core set released back in 2010. To refresh, there were some things that I liked about the game but I chafed at its packaging and the way that Fantasy Flight was effectively limiting the game’s capability as a standalone product by not including a nominally complete and self-contained set of cards that would not require further purchases to link to existing keywords, combinations, or other potentialities. I stand by this review, but I thought it would be interesting to try the game again now that it’s matured over the course of nearly two years with monthly expansion packs and a couple of larger add-ons.
I felt that the game was good enough to give a second chance, and thus here is the first ever Cracked LCD Retroview- a post facto review where I’ll go back and re-examine games that got middling to even bad reviews to see how they fare a few years on. I’m not going to tell you how to play the game, describe every piece in the box, or anything like that. Read another review if you want that. This is a way to dig a little deeper and analyze a little harder with the “new” worn off and with the hype long dead. I think this is particularly a compelling opportunity to revisit games that have changed a lot or that have taken on a life of their own
My retroview of LOTR LCG was made possible by trading my way into three core sets (thereby “completing” a playset of the core set cards) and all available expansions up through the recent Hobbit set, which suggests a more campaign-oriented way of framing the scenarios. I have every card currently available and thus the full range of deckbuilding options are available to me. And I still can’t beat the Dol Guldur scenario from the core set.
Even though it remains a popular, widely played, and widely written-about game, The Lord of the Rings LCG is a strange product that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the current market. It’s effectively a co-op CCG wherein each player builds a deck and somehow needs to find synergy and mesh points with the decks built by other players. But due to the nature of the adventures, which supply different goals, challenges, and adversaries, no one deck could possibly stand a chance against each story and that means that it’s necessary to build a custom deck for each. It’s a very demanding, sometimes incredibly difficult game that either gets way too hard or way too easy with more players, but some scenarios seem to be impossible with one or two players. Enveloping all of the above is the odd fact that the game absolutely plays best as a solitaire game with one player building and playing two decks concurrently. And then there’s the whole LCG model, which exists rather awkwardly between one-stop board game packaging wherein one player can buy a game and play with others and the serial, individual purchases required of a CCG.
The sum of the above is that LOTR LCG is a solitaire CCG that requires a greater-than-usual commitment to both acquiring cards and deep-dive engagement to get the most out of it. This makes it a quite unique title, and as a single-player game it’s astonishingly rich, layered, and replayable. Particularly when you’re building two decks to work in synch with each other, and working out how to manage threat, deal with difficult encounters, and accomplish goals is really quite rewarding- if you’re willing to put in the time to fail scenarios, re-jigger, and try again with different builds. This is a game that you can really dig into, if you’re willing to deal with some of its idiosyncracies. And the serial purchases.
In some ways, the game is an intricate, high stakes puzzle (which again, makes it ideal for solo play) and some of the thrill comes from do-or-die decisions that seem to happen every other turn. The entire game can literally hang in the balance of choosing whether or not to commit a character to a quest or to block an enemy. Sacrifice is inevitable, and topdecking Gandalf at a moment of desperation is genuinely exciting. But due to the nature of how cards are drawn from an encounter deck to determine the threat number players must meet by sending characters to quest and the appearance of overwhelming foes, the game sometimes can feel as though too much hinges on not drawing cards that add more cards to the row through a couple of keywords. You might go into an encounter phase drawing two cards but wind up with five- and it can be very, very difficult to clear them.
So a big part of the game- and the deckbuilding- is working out strategies to deal with eventualities like that and tailoring decks to work with the particulars of each scenario. You’ve got to think about mitigating threat, having enough characters with good questing ability to keep pace and move through location cards, and having attackers or blockers at the ready. This can be very difficult to do, and some scenarios can be quite frustrating if you’ve simply failed to bring the right cards or right strategy. Again- that “all purpose” deck doesn’t exist.
Regardless, I keep dashing myself against some of these scenarios over and over again, toolboxing and “Monday morning quarterbacking” builds to try something different. I’ll run a Dwarf-focused deck (using a lot of cards, obviously, from the Khazad-Dum block with a Rohan-focused deck that backs up the combat power of Thorin and the gang with lots of questing options and mobility. Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it will fail spectacularly. It’s how the game rolls.
And you’ve got to roll with it if you’re going to play it. There are some gamey mechanics, like how attacking and blocking are totally separate functions. If you lose a character, the difficulty of any scenario ramps up dramatically and there are very few cards that will bring one back from the dead. Like some of the more challenging co-op games with automated adversaries, it’s the kind of game that can go south very quickly if the player doesn’t- or can’t- react to tactical situations.
After playing the game extensively over the past couple of months and getting the lay of the land as far as how the game exists beyond the core set, I would definitely recommend it for solitaire gamers and committed partnerships but I would recommend those looking for a three or four player game to go elsewhere. Getting into the game can be expensive, and my suggestion there is to buy two Core Sets and the first block of expansions (The Mirkwood Cycle) to really get a sense of its potential. Going this route- and adding each adventure pack’s card incrementally into the card pool- will keep you from getting overwhelmed, and it will keep the power curve on course with how the game has developed over its releases. A third Core Set is kind of a waste of money, as there are only something like 15 cards that only occur once in each box.
Tough, deep, dramatic, infinitely replayable. These are signs of a good game, even when some of the quirks of the design and infuriating vagaries or rules uncertainties threaten to derail the whole affair. But- once again- when you’re playing it solo and not as a group entertainment, those kinds of things don’t matter so much since you can work through these things on your own time. I think this is a great game with lots to offer if you’re willing to dive in and explore- and this is something that definitely was not apparent when I first reviewed this game.