Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

I have a conflicted relationship with The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.  This game is part of Fantasy Flight's "Living Card Game" series, which are a combination of a standard card game and a collectible card game.  Instead of buying booster packs with a random assortment of cards to expand your game, every few months the publisher puts out a new set of cards, which are fixed.  So you can expand the game as you want, and you know what you are getting when you pick up a new pack.

With that out of the way, let's cover the mechanics for the game, and hopefully explain my issues with it.  The game provides materials for one or two people to play it (though you can combine sets to allow more people to play).  Each player selects from one to three hero characters, and puts together a deck of cards that they will use for their characters.  Cards include additional ally characters, useful items, or special actions that can be taken.  Cards require resource points to play, and each hero character gets one resource point each turn (which can be kept from turn to turn to allow for more powerful cards to be played).  There is also an encounter deck, and each turn you are drawing at least one encounter card per player.  These encounters can include evil creatures to fight, locations to travel through, or various bad things.

One key aspect of each turn is the concept of "questing."  While you might want to keep all of your characters to fight and kill bad guys, you really need characters to go questing during each turn, because of the "threat" mechanic.  This is one of the ways that you can lose the game.  When you choose your starting hero characters, they all have a threat value.  You total that up at the beginning of the game and that is your "threat value" at the start of the game.  Each turn this goes up by one, and certain encounter cards can make it go up even faster.  If a player ever gets to 50 threat, they are out of the game.  Well, encounter cards also have threat values, and unless you are directly engaged with that specific encounter card, its threat will increase your threat value as a player EVERY TURN.  This can get out of control really fast.  They only way to counter this is to send a hero character "questing," as only the negative difference between your hero's questing value and the opposing threat is used to increase your threat value.  In fact, if you have more quest points than there are threat points on the table, you can progress towards either traveling through your current location are completing the specific quest stage you are on.

This is a fairly complicated game.  Not Advanced Squad Leader style complicated, but there it can take a while to wrap your head around how all of the various game mechanics interact with each other.  And this game is HARD.  Super, super hard.  It takes luck with card draws and a lot of skill in building and playing your deck to win.  The boxed game comes with three scenarios, ranging from hard but doable, to one apparently needing Divine intervention to win.  Each of the expansions also comes with at least one new quest, as well, and there are literally dozens of expansions currently available, so this game has a large amount of replayability.

The game is solitaire friendly, and has a really good theme to it, so you would think that I would love this game and play it all the time.  Alas, it leaves me kind of cold.  Why?  I'm not entirely sure, but the stupidly high difficulty of many quests probably plays into it.  As a point of comparison, winning games of Arkham Horror can be really hard, but even when I lose I still really enjoy the way that the game plays and the sense of creeping doom.  In The Lord of the Rings, the doom doesn't creep up on you, it usually starts punching you in the face from turn one.  Solitaire games are supposed to be hard, but they should not be despair inducing.  In addition, while other solitaire games really give you a sense of story/narrative, this game does not.  Instead, you randomly encounter things from the deck, and deal with them.  It doesn't necessarily feel like you are actually traveling through a forest, or hunting a specific enemy, or anything like that, you are just playing cards.  To put it another way, the mechanics get in the way of the theme.

Bottom line, this game doesn't see much play.  Maybe one day this game will "click" for me and it will all make sense, but as it currently sits I only play this sporadically.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Alsace 1945

The next random game from my collection to discuss is Alsace 1945, a relatively small wargame (only one counter sheet, MSRP around $20) from Avalanche Press dealing with the German offensive in Alsace that coincided with the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945.  The game uses standard "hex and counter" mechanics, with counters having combat and movement values on them, and combat involving totaling attack and defense combat strength and then calculating an odds ratio, rolling a die, and looking up the result on a Combat Results Table.  If you have familiarity with this kind of game, the rules are easy to pick up.  This game does have a few interesting mechanics worth mentioning, though.

First, rather than a standard "I go, you go" format, units are organized into commands, and each command has a counter that can be put into an opaque cup (you don't have to put the counter in the cup, if you don't want to activate that command on a specific turn).  You then draw command counters at random to activate a command to move and fight.  The reason for maybe not wanting to activate all of your commands is due to limited supply.  It takes supply points to activate a command Headquarters unit, and especially the German player may run out of them depending on the draw order.  Also, after two commands have activated you start rolling dice to see if you end your activations, so if you put all of your command counters in the cup in a big scenario, you might not get to draw the one that is most important to you.  I kind of like this mechanic, and "chit pull" activation systems are generally friendly to solitaire play.

Second, in three of the five included scenarios, the Allies have to check to see if Eisenhower starts pulling units away to reinforce the Ardennes front.  This is represented by the American player getting few supply points, and perhaps having to retreat from specific objectives.  This is an interesting aspect of the historical situation, where Eisehnower thought about doing this, but DeGaulle talked him out of it.  The mechanic works well enough.

So, this is a pretty standard game with a couple interesting mechanics.  Unfortunately, the game has a fatal flaw; it is boring.  I did not enjoy playing this game, as it just wasn't that interesting to me.  Other games using similar mechanics I have found much more enjoyable than this game.  So, I'm not sure that this will ever see the table again.