I pick up the very attractive box and hold it in my hand, turning it over to see what this game is. I spy a warm, red-edged box with immensely evocative box art in cooler greens, browns, and greys with some dun tones that I need to investigate. It's not the motley colouration that holds my gaze, but the picture of an old Santa looking dude. He holds a shining staff aloft. He has a sword in the other hand and a fabulously wide-brimmed and extravagantly pointed hat. Is about to shake down with some overlarge arachnids and some sketchy looking orcs. The spiders have a glint of evil in their beady, red eyes. The orcs wield wickedly barbed weapons, which they look more than enthused to use.
The Santa chap is of course Gandalf the Grey, which means this is a game based upon the hugely popular and impossibly incredible Lord of the Rings franchise. The game is a living card game that has been around for Eons, well since April 2011 actually and my heart sinks just a little.
Let Me Explain
I've wanted to get into this fascinating card game for quite a while now. My children and I regularly watch all the Lord Of The Rings films by Peter Jackson. Every time, without fail, after an episode, my children charge off with cushions. Representing Boromir's shield, broom handles with which to slay cave trolls and wooden spatulas which I can only assume depict Andruil or Glamdring or some other mighty sword. Thusly armed and armoured they re-enact the many battle scenes from the movies and have great fun doing so. I am not as exuberant as I would like and so, still as inspired by the films. They are to go off and slay foul beasts, I turn to less vigorous pursuits that still scratch that Middle Earth itch.
I am a little deflated as I find it immensely overwhelming. The sheer amount of content produced over those ten years is mesmerising. This makes it hard for a novice like me to understand where to start and how to proceed. It then dawns on me that those clever people over at Fantasy Flight Games have dispelled my worries. This is the 2021 Revised core set, including everything you need to start your quest. It even caters for up to four players straight out of the box. This is great news if you can gather a gaming fellowship that wants to 'go Dutch' on the purchase.
There is the learn to play guide, rules reference booklet and all the tokens you need to play. But the key driver of the game is the 188 player cards with which to build your deck that you use to defeat your enemies and complete the quest. Also included in the set are 12 mighty hero cards from which you choose up to three, to create your all-powerful fellowship. Hopefully, it's one that Elrond would be proud of (alas, there are no hobbits in this starter set. Obviously, someone had indeed tied them up in a sack and taken them home).
Next, there are 84 encounter cards, whose sole purpose is to stop your company from achieving its goal and outright crushing you. I'm looking at you, Hill troll). There are 10 quest cards included. These tell you why you are, in fact, out on the road in the cold and scary gloom, instead of being by a roaring fire in a cosy pub in Bree with a pint (yes, they come in pints!)
The game is cooperative, which means you as players, need to work together to be successful. There is the option of four different 'faction' types to help build a strong and complimentary deck, which you will use to play the game. These faction types utilise different strategies to help you succeed in your quest. You will need to take advantage of some if not all of these play styles to overcome the perils that the encounter deck lays before you.
For the book worms, we have the Lore deck (green) whose specialities include deck delving, healing, and denying the threat levels of locations. Denethor, Glorfindel and Beravor are the heroes associated with this deck.
The bloodthirsty, we see the Tactics deck (red) which specialises in combat and going toe to toe with the enemy forces. Weapon and armour cards, as well as other powerful abilities and events, give you tactical advantages (well, duh, it's called the tactics deck). Gimli, Legolas and Thalin all call this deck home.
The questors we invite you to peruse the Spirit deck (blue) which reflects a hero's strength of will, resilience and courage. These cards and heroes help you explore locations and complete quests. It also features cards that let you throw the odd spanner into the enemy's plans. Éowyn, Eleanor and Dunhere live within this sphere.
For the commanders, there is the Leadership deck (purple) which works like a toolbox of tricks. It can do a little of everything that helps adapt to the many situations that may occur within the game. We can find some of the more powerful characters within this archetype, like Aragorn, Théodred and Gloin.
The characters the players pick will determine what spheres they can use when they build their decks, as each hero is 'faction locked' to a specific starting deck. For example, Legolas is locked into the Tactics deck and Denethor is locked into the Lore deck. Now, players are free to mix and match heroes from different 'factions'.
However, only those heroes from a particular faction can use resources to play those faction specific cards in the game. So, if you selected Aragorn (Leadership), Gimli (Tactics) and Legolas (Tactics) only Aragorn could use resources to play Leadership cards. Both Gimli and Legolas could contribute resources to any Tactics cards you would want to play.
Each hero gets one resource a turn which they can use to pay towards the cost of a card. Now the cards in your deck will vary depending on what factions you chose to play. They will range from allies who help you fight enemies and explore locations to attachments. You place on any of your characters to make them better at what they do. Event cards help you mitigate against a perilous encounter deck and can help avoid enemies overwhelming you.
You build a deck of at least 50 cards that correspond to all the heroes' factions. You can have no more than three copies of any one card in your deck. So, it's a pretty simple deck-building mechanic. They provide you with instructions on how to build your very own starter decks for up to four players to quest in the introductory scenario "Passage Through Mirkwood".
Now, these starter decks are all faction locked, so one of you will play Leadership, one of you Lore. But this is just to give you a taste of what the game is about. It lets you learn how to play the game and ease you into the scenarios in which there are three provided. Once you grasp how to play the game, you can freely mix up the factions to create powerful cross-faction combinations. They even suggest two decent decklists using all the factions towards the back of the learn to play guide. So, if deck building is not your thing, then you can just follow the instructions to create these different decks to give you a varied gaming experience.
Is The Game Complicated To Understand?
Learning the game could not be easier. The learn to play guide goes above and beyond for allowing you to understand what you need to do in a concise and easy-to-read format. The language is simple to comprehend. They include examples of what they mean after almost every step, which helps to let the rules bed in.
There are seven phases to the game. These are all laid out in easy-to-follow sections with clear headings in the different coloured text so as not to confuse you. These phases are then broken down into further sections to help you grasp the game in a manageable step-by-step instruction. The artwork throughout the two booklets and the cards themselves is gorgeous and rich, which helps you become immersed in the storytelling element that this game beautifully portrays.
How The Game Plays
I won't spoil the enjoyment of learning how the game plays too much here. In a nutshell, you have your characters spend their resources on the cards that you want to play. The scenario sets the goals for the mission and is often laid out in multiple steps which you must defeat to conclude the mission. All the while, the encounter deck will thwart your every move by sending forth evil and varied creatures from lowly goblins to truly fearsome trolls and bees to destroy you.
They can also make you travel to different areas where you can become bogged down and swarmed. The scenario invites you to put several exploration tokens on the current quest to advance to the next stage. The culmination of your journey is to face off against an end boss or to complete some other hard to achieve a goal, all the while fighting to survive. It's a proper case of risk management, with the game constantly forcing you to make decisions. Most of these decisions are of the 'lesser of two evil' or 'for the greater good' type.
The revised core set comes with three scenarios to complete. Including "Passage Through Mirkwood" a relatively easy stroll in the woods to help you grasp the game's key concepts. However, don't be fooled, as some nasty things can pop up to foil you just as you crest the hill to victory. Did I mention the bees? Then there is "Journey Down The Anduin" a scenario that ramps up the difficulty right from the get-go and can pose your questions on how to complete it. Last, we have "Escape From Dol Guldur" which takes no prisoners (well technically that's not true, but you'll see what I mean). It is a challenging scenario that can certainly make you think twice or even thrice about your choice of hero and the type of cards you put in your deck.
Does It Draw You Into Middle Earth?
Descriptive story text, which is a theme of this game, links these scenarios beautifully and adds to the complete immersion. Well, you wouldn't expect anything less from such a setting, and the scenarios lovingly blend into each other by the outcomes of your success.
With linked scenarios in mind, they also provide a campaign mode. How you complete each scenario drives what happens in the next one. This gives a different complexion to the game and makes for a very re-playable experience. The game plays very well as a solo game and, from my current experience, it holds up well as more players get involved. The difficulty scales nicely to the number of players so that each scenario is challenging no matter how many of you lovely Men, Dwarves and Elves are on the quest.
I liken this game to Marvel Champions The Card Game, where the similarities lie in cooperative play with decks constructed from different factions. In the Marvel game, you control one hero and play only one faction against one main boss. In the Lord Of The Rings The Card Game, you have more construction leeway and the scenarios are more story-driven. You find yourself fighting different enemies and in many varied locations which add to the immersion.