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How To Play LOTR: The Card Game

LOTR cover 1

So you want to go on an adventure, do you? Not fancying yourself a quiet wander through The Shire, no? I’ll warn you. The Realm of Middle Earth is an unforgiving one. You’ll need Spirit, Leadership, Lore and Tactics on your side to have even the slightest chance of success. Whatever your quest may be, no matter how noble, threats will chase you down as your continue your journey. Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game (2022) is a living card game (LCG) where you take on the mantle of elements of the Fellowship; questing and adventuring to achieve goals set out in scenarios.


Unlike trading card games or deck builders, LCGs have a specific set of cards that come with each set or booster pack. There’s no luck of the draw. From these you can either use pre-made or custom decks to take on the preset scenarios. There are rules and limitations to building one’s deck, but it enables full customisation within these boundaries to create something that plays to specific strengths. This particular printing of the game plays 1-4 players, comes with four pre-made decks and a campaign mode featuring two new card effect mechanics to further enhance and deter adventurers.

Component Overview

Before you go off adventuring with a wizard you’ve just met, it’s wise to familiarise yourself with the different components. There are many types of cards to contend with. Within each of these there are further types to consider, too. The hero and player cards are what players use to create their decks (or come as ready made decks). All others are what dictate the happenings through each scenario.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game contains three token types: damage, progress and resource. Damage tracks damage on enemies and characters, progress the effort against quests and resources the currency to play more cards.

Players also receive a Threat Tracker each identifying their Threat level. This increases as the game goes on and is ultimately what identifies when a player is eliminated from the game. Too much Threat results in elimination – but not game end.

Player Driven Decks

The three main of Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game are the quest, encounter and player decks.

Player deck cards are comprised of Heroes and Player cards. These are either pre-made as part of a set, or can be constructed by players.

  • Hero cards are always played immediately at the start of the game and dictate which cards you’ll want in your deck. These are limited to three.
  • Event cards are instantaneous buffs or alterations played directly from a player’s hand for their cost. These are played then discarded.
  • Ally cards are almost additional “Heroes”, but without increasing the initial Threat level. They can engage in the quest and combat.
  • Attachment cards are cards that alter a character’s (Hero or Ally) stats or give them extra effects. They modify effects or cause responses to in game happenings. These are discarded when their holder is destroyed, or when in game effects remove them.

Scenario Driven Decks

The Quest deck is a preset deck dependent on scenario played that dictates how players are victorious. A Quest often comprises of 4-5 challenges or objectives that players must overcome to move on. This is done mainly by progressing in the quest (tracked by Progress tokens) but can require other means. Quest cards have unique effects associated to them, too, identifying how players are impacted by that in game events.

Encounter cards are the ones that cause damage and hinder progress. The deck set up for this is determined by which scenario is being taken on as every quest has a specific set of enemies associated to it.

  • Enemy cards are the does you encounter on your quest. These are immediately placed in the Staging Area (between players) and will engage players during the Encounter phase. They are discarded when defeated.
  • Location cards are the places the heroes can travel to during their quest. Players can choose to investigate the Threats lurking here to aid the progress of their quest.
  • Treachery cards represent the underhanded tactics of the enemy during the quest. It is an instant effect that is resolved immediately.
  • Objective cards are scenario specific cards that are needed to advance the quest.

It’s definitely worth noting that many of these cards have effects associated with them. Some when revealed. Some when engaged to a player. These change the flow of play and cause the player's immediate issues and problems and often put a spanner in the works! These are the nitty gritty elements that often get overlooked. Don’t be afraid to take a mulligan if you do miss one… but don’t be a sneaky Sméagol and ignore it intentionally!

The Lay Of The Land… And Table…

Before you can get knee deep in avoiding the path and sticking to the shadows, there’s some basic prep to do for The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Shuffle your decks, set out your Heroes, get tokens out, draw 6 cards, prep the Quest deck (and Encounter deck!) and follow its setup instructions. For ease, I’d highly (very highly) recommend using one of the vanilla decks whilst you find your feet – it’ll save a lot of confusion whilst you get the basics nailed. The top left value of each Hero cumulatively is the starting Threat for your dial. (Unsurprisingly, you’re already on Sauron’s hit list…)

There’s a strong need for organising space in Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game. The space between players (best set up as the central point between all players) is called the Staging area. This is where enemies not currently engaged with a player are placed. We often find it best to have a nice open area for this, with the Quest deck and cards at the top and the Encounter deck to the side. How you do your feng shui is up to you, but you’ll need some space for Staging nonetheless. Also, you’ll want space in front of every player’s Heroes to place engaged enemies and to the side of each for their Resource tokens.

The Path Untrodden

You’re now ready to get skewered by orcs and webbed by spiders. Just like Frodo! The game runs across seven phases based on how the rule book wants you to experience the game. Some of these are a simple check moment, others require more meat to explain. We’ve highlighted the phases in bold but they’re mixed within the fluid running of the game. We found it easier this way than to have a stop start experience from phase to phase.

Packing Bags And Planning Routes

All rounds start with Resource phase. All Heroes gain a Resource token to their pools. It’s important that these are individual pools as cards of specific Spheres of Influence can only be bought using Resources from a pool of the same Sphere of Influence. (This is more relevant when using a custom deck.) Then all players draw one card. Next comes the Planning phase– a short one! Players can play Ally and Attachment cards from their hands using Resources from appropriate pools. Some cards are free but would still require the player to have a Hero from the same Sphere in their area. Remember! Attachment cards must be played to a Character.

The Quest phase is next. This one’s important and determines progress against the scenario. Players choose Heroes and Allies to commit to the quest. Characters committed cannot be chosen to attack or defend from enemies, but aid the potential quest progress by their Willpower value. Exhaust these heroes – that’s all they’ll contribute this round. (Any exhausted cards should be rotated – these become ready again at the end of the round.) Then players reveal one encounter card per player and trigger the effects as necessary. They then place them in the Staging area as appropriate. Players must compare the Threat value of all cards in the Staged area against the committed characters’ Willpower. This determines how well the questing goes for the Characters. Players add Progress tokens for each they exceed by, or increase their own Threat dial by the negative difference.

Making Stops To Reduce Threat

Players may now choose to travel to a location in the Staging area if they aren’t already taking one on. This is the Travel phase. Location cards have some unfortunate effects for players, but by having one as the active travel location its Threat value doesn’t count towards the Quest phase. The downside is that all Progress tokens earned first go to the active Location card until its value is met, meaning the Quest cannot be worked on in the meantime. Achieving its value discards it and opens it up to let players Quest or explore another location.

Meet The Locals…

During the Encounter phase, players will begin to engage or be engaged by, any enemies in the Staging area. This is different to combat and only identifies who is fighting what. First, players can choose to engage one enemy in the Staging area, regardless of what it is. Each enemy can only be engaged by one player at any one time. Then the forced engagement checks occur. In turn order, players check their own Threat dial value against the enemies’ Threat values. The highest Threat valued enemy lower than that player’s engages them. Then the next player checks against the others until no more enemies can make engagements. (Or, if you’re unlucky until you run out of enemies in the Staging area!)

…Get Attacked By Them…

Finally, we’re at the Combat phase. The bit many will have been looking forward to. Sadly, enemies strike first. More sadly, they immediately get a modifier. Many enemy cards have two elements to them, their effects and then a Shadow effect. Not all Encounter effects have Shadows on them, but many do and this is when they come into play. They often modify attack values or just cause chaos. Players deal one Encounter card to every enemy engaged with a player. They then resolve the enemy attack. You choose which enemies attack in what order, and you also choose who defends from your ready heroes. (Alternatively, attacks can go undefended and all damage goes to one Hero – even if they’re questing!)

  1. Choose the enemy attacking.
  2. Choose the defender (if you have one).
  3. Flip and resolve the Shadow – if there is no Shadow on the card, discard it.
  4. Compare enemy attacks against the defender’s defence and take damage accordingly. (If they don’t beat your defence you don’t take damage.)
  5. Repeat until all enemies engaged with that player have attacked. Then resolve other players’ enemy attacks.

It’s also worth noting that Shadow cards don’t disappear until the end of this phase or when the holder is destroyed. If it has a troublesome effect on it, it’s there until either criteria are met.

…Retaliate In An Organised Fashion Then Take Five

Once every enemy currently engaged has been resolved, players can act. Player attacks are resolved in the same way as enemy attacks. Players exhaust Characters and compare their strength against the enemy’s defence. They then allocate damage as necessary. Remember! You don’t take damage for a failed attack.

Alternatively! They can choose more than one Character to combine their strength in a monumental display of camaraderie and friendship, but all participating attackers are exhausted. Once that’s done, the player can continue attacking any engaged enemies with ready Characters. Including the one just attacked. As soon as any Character or enemy has 0 health remaining, they are immediately destroyed and discarded.

When all attacks are resolved, players conduct the final mop up: the Refresh phase. This is where they ready all exhausted Characters, increase their Threat by one on their dials and pass the first player token. The game ends in one of two ways: winning and losing. If all players exceed the Threat threshold of the scenario (50 for core scenarios), they lose. However, if at least one player is still in the game when the final quest is complete, they all win.

Considerations Before Simply Walking Into Mordor

Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game is not an easy game to win at. It’s a challenge and your at the mercy of a card draw. But that doesn’t make it impossible. The core game encourages you to reduce the obstacles sensibly or increase them as needed. If you’re learning the game and new to LCGs, take the advice of not drawing Shadows during combat. It’ll take the edge off the unpredictability and ensure you’ve got a solid chance of engaging the enemy.

As for customisation… The core game’s pre-made decks are ideal at cashing in on one of the four Spheres of Influence each. As such, using cards from these Spheres will bolster your confidence in a certain direction. Going massively heavy with a custom deck but not balancing it out may leave you at the mercy of specific things – in particular, a lack of Ally, Attachment or Event cards that boost a particular stat. Moreover is considering which Heroes you’ll have with that deck to help pay for these cards. There is zero point in having any Spirit Sphere cards if you don’t have a Spirit Hero – you’ll never be able to pay for them! My go to is Legolas, Gimli and Éowyn with a Tactics heavy deck. Works solo, not much support in coop though!

Finally, make use of the Rules Reference guide. LCGs are notorious for being ridden in terminology and “grey areas” for rules, and Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is no different. This little booklet is chock full of explanations for the nuts and bolts of terminology. Even now as we play our umpteenth game we still ensure we have it to hand on the off chance that one obscurely ruled card rocks up.