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Cracked LCD- LOTR LCG Retroview

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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.

Lords of Middle Earth : War of the Ring Extraveganza

War of the RingLicensed games based on well-known films or books are nothing new, and while of variable quality. generally rather better than their digital counterparts. But since its publication, the love for War of the Ring has been little short of astonishing.

It’s not hard to see why. The biggest achievement of the game is to allow players to re-tell a plausible version of The Lord of the Rings on each play through whilst still enabling plenty of strategy and freedom of choice while doing so. When you consider how difficult that balance is to maintain, and how venerated the source material is, the astonishing scale of that achievement becomes clear.

But the game is not without its detractors. It’s fiddly to set up and time-consuming to play. It was clear to even neophyte players that the original edition was tilted in favour of the Sauron player, an imbalance that actually got worse as players became more familiar with the tactics. There was also a degree of railroading, scripted strategies that could be followed to improve the chances of victory.

An expansion helped those issues but in a heavy-handed way. Handed the opportunity to re-release the game in a new edition, the design team sought lighter routes to the same goal. Aside from some minor rules tweaks, their answer lay in the characters and card deck. There were significant changes, making it harder for Sauron to bring powerful pieces into play and work the scripted strategies. The Free People in turn were given attractive alternatives to their common tactics, offering more choice, and some of their best cards were made easier to play.

War of the Ring cards

For the most part it worked like a charm. But for first edition owners to benefit they needed to invest in an upgrade kit, a nicely produced tin holding copies of the new card deck and a pack of custom card sleeves. The new cards are lovely things, their larger size used to display quality art as well as improving the horribly cramped text of the originals. But the sleeves are a bit pointless and the price for this kit, even allowing for the design work that went into it, seemed excessive, being higher than many stand-alone card games.

Now there is a small expansion to the basic game available. Lords of Middle Earth focusses, as its name suggests, on characters from Tolkien’s world, adding minor but significant players like Elrond, Galadriel and The Balrog while introducing alternative versions of almost all the characters from the basic game which can be used to replace the originals if you so wish.

The new material can be divided into two groups. We’ll deal with the more minor change first, the Council of Elrond option which allows the Free People’s player to tinker with the makeup of the fellowship, sending altered versions of some companions back to their homelands as part of setup, even allowing Strider to lead the fellowship, at the cost of some free actions for the Shadow player.

War of the Ring Lords of Middle Earth close up

I get the feeling this isn’t going to get used very often, simply because it adds to the overburdened setup time and will confuse everyone’s tried and tested strategies. Which is a shame, because it’s a flavourful addition that addresses one of my key irritations with the base game, namely the tendency for companions to be used as Nazgul-fodder, protecting the ring-bearer at all costs rather than leaving the fellowship for adventures elsewhere.

The bigger change is the addition of Shadow minions and Free People’s keepers of the elven rings. Each of these adds a weaker version of the action dice that provide the engine underpinning the base game, a player’s’ potential choices each round being determined by rolls of these dice. They also offer unique powers for the use of each ring rather than the generic re-roll of the base game.

For the free people’s player, the keepers and their dice represent a choice over whether or not to use the powerful elven rings to further their cause. In the novel, this was discussed but set aside as likely to attract the attention of the Dark Lord and therefore too risky. Mechanically this is represented in a delightfully simple manner: keeper dice can backfire, sometimes being removed from the game and others being added to Sauron’s “Hunt” tally, which is used to find the ringbearer.

The Shadow equivalents work similarly, except that while their dice can be removed from play, they never backfire. Gothmog adds a military-themed dice while the Balrog is more capricious, sometimes enabling extra actions, others the opportunity to leave Moria and go stamping round the countryside thereabouts. I was pleased to see that he goes on foot, being correctly classified as a non-flying minion.

What this brings to the game is a wealth of subtle and nuanced strategic choices for both sides without either adding much in the way of additional rules overhead or breaking the basic theme of the game.

War of the Ring Lords of Middle Earth

Every possibility that’s enabled by the expansion is something that’s been kicked around in Tolkien fan circles for years. What if the Balrog was under Sauron’s command? Or one of the elf-lords had used their ring? Or Gollum had been tamed by Frodo’s kindness and not rebuked by Faramir? All these are delicately explored by the expansion, without invalidating older possibilities. Characters and situations leap off into life, the expansion fleshing out the bare-bones narrative of the base game with colour and detail.

It’s arguable that the exploration is almost too nuanced. The price for the rules-light way in which the new elements are introduced is that nothing, with the possible exception of the Balrog, feel substantially different to the base game. The new dice are still basically action dice. Making sensible choices as to when to use alternative characters rather than the originals requires a considerable appreciation of the strategic options in the game.

It’s also a gambler’s delight. Pretty much everything on offer outside the Council of Elrond option has a heavy random element. Dice can be very useful – or backfire badly. Smeagol can come into play if the right hunt tiles get drawn, and then might be useful depending on what cards come out. Whether this detracts from strategy is debatable, since each option needs to be chosen before being brought into play, and is therefore a calculated risk. But once picked the consequences can vary wildly on factors beyond the player’s control.

In many ways Lords of Middle Earth is the sort of expansion I’d want every game to have. It adds interesting new possibilities for experienced players without substantially altering the rules or the feel of the base game. But in being so delicately balanced it renders itself largely inessential for casual players. There are many hours of excitement and interest in the base game before you’re likely to become jaded by its possibilities, and familiar enough with its intricacies, to require this.

Where it scores though is with players who’ve done just that with the first edition game. The second edition isn’t different enough to warrant new attention from those people, but this expansion makes it so. Unfortunately to do that, they’re going to be pitching in for both the upgrade kit and the expansion, both of which look overpriced for the contents. War of the Ring is an exceptionally good and wonderfully creative game, but elements of its publishing are beginning to smell a little like a cash cow.

Guardians of Middle-Earth in Review

Being a relative newbie to the world of MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas), one of the most interesting thing about this kind of grassroots genre is that it really is an evolution of the hero-based real-time strategy game that Warcraft III represented. But the surprising thing is that these games- at least as evidenced by the two I’ve played- more or less do away with all of the boring, tedious, and repetitive clutter of the RTS, automatically cranking out cannon fodder along just a couple of set paths while you and a couple of teammates do the heavy lifting. Awesomenauts was the first game of this type I’ve played but Guardians of Middle Earth is the best that I’ve played. And from what I’ve gathered from other players and writers is that it’s a more accessible, more streamlined, and more refined, version of games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends. Oh, and it’s on consoles instead of PCs.

I tried the 60 minute trial first to see if I’d even like it but I put down my $15 about 30 minutes into it. At first, the game is overwhelming in a way that console games rarely are. There are 22 characters- each with four unique cooldown abilities and classes, each ranked along a couple of parameters including their relative difficulty to play. There are commands, consumable potions, gems, and a belt to hold stat- and ability- boosting relics. Each structure that you’re in charge of guardian-ing has four different upgrades available and your barracks can be tooled to make different kinds of generic soldiers. Then there’s an actual glossary of terms that you’ve really got to look over to understand the paragraph-length descriptions of everything. The tutorial helps with questions like “how do I move my character?” and “what does this button do”, but that’s about it.

Learn by doing is the best way to get into GOME. There’s a lot of content to digest, and fortunately all of that material translates into appreciable depth- it’s not just empty “lore” or fluff text on the cards. And I do mean cards. Monolith (yes, that Monolith that gave us Shogo, No One Lives Forever, and last year’s Gotham City Imposters) made the fun choice of presenting everything on cards and giving an almost board game-like theme to the game. It’s also definitely a strategy game, where loadouts pair up with playstyles and communicative (or at least observant) players will coordinate assaults, defenses, and counterattacks with the goal of wiping out the opposing team’s main tower.

The game makes me think of a soccer match as much as it does an RTS. Both teams sort of jostle back and forth with lots of mid-field action. You wait for an opportunity while the defenders or tied up or waiting for an opening. You let your peon soldiers run up, and then you strike. If you get killed by an enemy Guardian or a tower, it’s like the ball’s kicked back downfield. It’s not at all unpleasant, and I really like that each 20 minute game has its own development curve. Upgrading your character on the fly and even grinding a bit makes each game feel like a complete arc, despite the inherent back-and-forth repetition.

It doesn’t really make a lot of license sense that you can have Sauron and Gandalf fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, but then again Gotham City Imposters didn’t make a lot of license sense either. So if you’re a Tolkien purist demanding fidelity to canon, this game is going to piss you off. But the Lord of the Rings theme and imagery works well, and it helps ease new players into the game. You can probably sort out without much research what kind of gameplay Legolas or Gandalf offer. It is kind of odd that there is only one map- available in three lane and one lane versions- but are you really playing this kind of game to admire the scenery?

I’m finding Guardians of Middle-Earth terribly addictive, even though I’ve not been too thrilled at some of the wait times to get into laggy matches- and you get “punished” for leaving early, a temporary ban from matchmaking. But once in an online game- or even with and against the crummy AI- I love the sense of momentum and coordination. I’m enjoying the progression, earning XP to purchase new characters, gems, potions, and commands. I love all of the loadout options, and the big character roster ensures plenty of variety- and there are more on the way. One thing that I absolutely love about the game is that there are NO IAPs other than a season pass, and there are no cash-for-scrip currencies, XP accelerators, or any other kind of scam marketing. At least not yet. I hope they stay the course and keep that garbage out of this fine game.

Cracked LCD- Re-reading Knizia’s Lord of the Rings

With The Hobbit soon to hit the theaters and a pretty great Lord of the Rings-themed MOBA just released on the consoles (review forthcoming) it looks like Tolkien’s in the charts again, so to speak. I’ve had a touch of Hobbit Fever myself and I’ve been slaking my thirst for all things Middle-Earth chiefly by playing the decade-and-change old Reiner Knizia Lord of the Rings board game. I’ve had an unusual history with this game. I bought it when it first came out, one of the very earliest Fantasy Flight Games releases published under license from Hasbro. It comes from a time before the Jacksonian epic, before Viggo and Magneto would become a part of the Lord of the Rings story. The artwork is vintage John Howe, the components look old-fashioned by today’s standards, and it falls somewhere in the middle of Knizia’s greatest era of design work. And it was also co-op when co-op wasn’t cool.

I have something of an up-and-down history with the game. I bought it when first came out, and it was during a period when Eurogames were still much closer to that classic German family style than the Boardgamegeek.com style that titles like Princes of Florence ushered in. I liked it but didn’t love it and the folks I was playing games with at the time really didn’t like it because it was co-op. They didn’t want to “play against the board”. As time went on and more baroque, elaborate games like War of the Ring showed up a couple of years later, Knizia’s LOTR lost favor with me altogether. It didn’t seem as thematic, narrative, or compelling. I fell into the idiot trap of assuming that playing Friendship cards couldn’t be thematic. Like many gamers tired of Eurogames in the mid-2000s, I bought into the lie of flavor text and superficial theme.

Around 2006, I came back around to the game. I actually wrote an apology to it at the old Fortress: Ameritrash blog. I was declared a “hypocrite” by some dogmatic Ameritrash types for changing my opinion on the game. I had played it a few times with a more receptive, fun group and with the great expansions, Friends and Foes and Sauron. I loved getting beat down and annihilated by the game. But then the Battlefields addition came out, and after playing it and being disappointed with it because it really was too abstract and I didn’t care for the Battle of Helm’s Deep depicted literally as a flowchart, the game was shelved again until just a couple of weeks ago.

Picking it up over a decade after publication and after playing countless other “thematic” games including several Tolkien-themed ones, I’m looking at the game with fresh eyes again. And what I’m seeing is a game that is a masterpiece of proper abstraction, conceptual theme, and player engagement.

Abstraction is a tricky thing because it’s where you can inadvertently disengage that bridge that connects the player’s imagination to both the subject matter and the process or structure of a game. There has to be adequate justification for that process and structure within the subject matter or you’re suddenly playing a mid-2000s Eurogame that is all mechanics with no actual game- or thematic meaning. But where Knizia gets this right in Lord of the Rings- even though you’re playing cards with friendship or travelling icons on them to move a pawn along a track that represents some facet of a particular section of the story and collecting shields to spend on Gandalf cards- is by connecting these mechanics very specifically to the major themes- not specific events, actions, or characters- of the novel.

Lord of the Rings is a supreme example of conceptual theme- the whole game is the journey from Bag End to Mount Doom, with the boards metering the specific, narrative details and providing some potential branches and alternative results based on outcomes. This is one of the key themes of Tolkien’s work- travelling. Travelling is more important in the stories than the martial action that most fans tend to favor when it comes to Tolkien gaming. But more than that, the cooperative nature of the game, the limited resources, and the crushing difficulty that inevitably requires players to sacrifice themselves to Corruption or face defeat illuminate the meanings and subtexts of the books far better than anything in War of the Ring, the LOTR LCG, or anything else. By the end of the game, whatever Hobbits are left to struggle through Mordor are going to feel exhausted, beaten, and facing impossible odds. But the game gives you plenty of opportunities for skin-of-the-teeth escapes and die-rolling uncertainty.

All of the above results in a fantastically engaging, emotional experience that transcends playing those Friendship cards to provide a higher gaming experience. This is a game about the same things that Lord of the Rings is about- it’s just occurring in a different medium. It attempts a retelling of the story, but allows plenty of player agency. Particularly in interacting and coordinating with other players to overcome adversity and make decisions. Sure, the game has that Alpha player problem. But that’s more a function of mammal nature than a flaw in the game’s design.

Decisions made early in the gamer end up as regrets later on. The gifts of Elrond may have been, in retrospect, squandered. A Hobbit may be facing down that glorious Eye of Sauron miniature, just a step away on the Corruption track, and really wishing that a Gandalf card or Hobbit ability wasn’t used before. This is a game where ideas like hope, faith, and shared responsibility can become factors. These are uncommon in board games.

I find it completely laughable when people argue that this game isn’t “thematic”, usually citing those darn Friendship cards or the linear sequencing of it all. Yet I fail to see how it’s any less thematic than anything occurring in War of the Ring or Middle-Earth Quest. And I fail to see how those enjoy so-called “thematic games” would not appreciate- and treasure- the intricate and very resonant ways in which this game describes the specific themes that Tolkien expressed in his work. There’s nothing particularly Tolkienian about rolling dice, drawing cards, or moving plastic miniatures around a map. But working together, making difficult choices, and overcoming the odds would fit that description at a thematic level.

But this is a different medium than fiction. The genius of Knizia’s work is that he is able to leverage the board game medium’s unique elements to tell the same (but possibly different) story with the same meanings and subtexts while using many of Tolkien’s proper-noun touch points and specific events from the books to define card and gameplay event functions while also providing the necessary settings. That it does all of this in a fairly slim set of standardized rules is amazing. That the game can bear two quite impactful expansions that manage to cram in more specific detail without becoming an overwrought burden is astonishing.

The bottom line is that there is no better adaptation of the Lord of the Rings to a gaming medium than Knizia’s adaptation. As far as the vaunted integration of theme and mechanics goes, it’s just as successful as Dune or Battlestar Galactica and in some finer, more subtle ways it is those great games’ better. It’s also far more thematic and narrative than many popular games that go to great lengths to prove to the player that they fit those descriptions, such as Arkham Horror. It is one of the world’s greatest stories made playable as one of the world’s greatest board games.

The Lego Games of 2012: Batman 2 and Lord of the Rings

One of the more notable surprises for me at E3 this year was just how incredibly good Lego Batman 2 looked – and not in a “for a Lego” game kind of way. This new trailer doesn’t offer much of a peak at the game, but it does show the new voice work and, as much as I liked the “Legoeese” of the previous games, it looks like it’ll add some dimensions those other games lacked. However, there’s a lot more to this one, and the upcoming Lord of the Rings game, than some solid voice work…

So, Lego Batman 2. It’s got a full range of DC Superheroes, but then you probably new, at least, about characters like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash all making an appearance. Executive Producer Ames Kirshen, however, told me the game would have “dozens and dozens” more of DC’s both well and lesser known characters. When I started going through the list of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, etc. he merely smiled and said he wasn’t allowed to say more.

He was willing to tell me, however, that the game, despite all these characters being available, does still center around Batman, with the Bat Cave remaining the home base for all that you do. Taking a page from Arkham City, the game lets you travel, with relative freedom, throughout Gotham City, with numbers on the main map indicating progressive mission points you can tackle.

I didn’t see a lot of the game’s characters in action, but I did get a good long look at The Flash, and hot damn was that cool. The Flash is a tricky one. How do you make a character superfast without making him impossible for the player to control? They got it done. The Flash looks amazing on screen and has just enough precision control to make his speed powers effective. Likewise, flying around with Superman to the tune of the John Williams score playing in the background gave me a great big geek smile.

Make no mistake, this looks like a joyous DC superhero game, not just a Lego game with DC super heroes in it. It’s coming out in a week, so if I’m wrong, there’ll be plenty of chances for you to all call me stupid.

The other Lego game on display was the Lord of the Rings game. I didn’t get as good a look at this one as I’d of liked (no hands-on time), but per Publishing Producer David Abrams, this is another fully voiced game and the overriding goal is to pay homage to the films. (As a fan of the books, who thought only the first film truly nailed the spirit of the story, I was rather put off by this, but I recognize I’m in the minority there.)

What really stood out here, however, wasn’t the attention to detail brought to Lego-izing this iconic setting (though it’s considerable), but the number of RPG-lite wrinkles they’re adding to usual Lego model. Characters will have small inventories to manage, a fully explorable and unlockable “hub environment” for Middle Earth, upgradeable items and weapons, and quests to solve. One such example I was given included the need for the party to make a fire, something only Samwise Gamgee can do and something he can only do if he’s got a tinderbox in his possession.

There’s also some new twists to co-op play, including the ability for characters to go into completely separate, but concurrent, questlines when the story demands it. The example I saw took place in the mines of Moria where Gadalf battles the balrog in freefall on one side of the screen while the party escapes on the other. It looked well-implemented and these games have already come a long way with using the split-screen effect to make sure co-op players aren’t driving each other crazy moving in opposite directions. (There are times I dread it when Ana and Kyle boot up Star Wars or Indiana Jones.)

I asked Abrams if adding all these new wrinkles risked making it a little too hard for younger audience to get into, while not being enough to bring in more dedicated RPG players, and he said the team is working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen and the game remains just as accessible as the rest of the Lego game family.

Would I play these games if I didn’t have kids? Certainly, I wouldn’t see myself playing The Lord of the Rings solo if it weren’t for the fact that my progeny adore the games (and liked me reading The Hobbit), but Batman 2 looks cool in a way that makes me want to play it, not as a parent-child bonding experience, but as a gamer.