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.

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