I love fantasy games, and Tolkien started it all for me. Blame my mum for reading me The Hobbit before bedtime. With huge anticipation I’ve been following the boards and updates on this game for what seems like years, and despite all my intentions of holding off until payday, or getting a good deal online, the game came out in England yesterday, arrived at my FLGS at 1pm and I picked it up about 10 minutes later.
I’m not a deck-builder, I played Magic back in the day but never had a real ‘system’ for it beyond, say, 1 land per 2 spells. And I was always more interested in having a themed deck of goblins or elves than killer decks of pure lightning/fireballs/whatever. I play Resident Evil The Card Game as tactically as I can but rarely have an uber strategy going in. And my gamer mates are even less concerned about ‘honing’ a deck to make it tournament ready/unbeatable, we’re all more about the experience and narrative, if any. So my approach to LOTR the LCG is very much more about the theme, gameplay and experience. I will not, for example, be picking up multiple copies of the base game, although I may pick up some expansions if they prove to be as interesting as the base game. Which brings us to...
I read the rules online at work in the afternoon so I’d be ready for a game with my buddy in the evening. I’d seen all the great FFG videos going through the gameplay, etc. so I thought I had a pretty good grasp on it all. The rules are pretty comprehensive and especially laudable compared to FFG’s usual fair. If I had to criticise them at all, personally I could’ve done with more sentences in bold highlighting the key elements. “Why even bother engaging enemies? Because it takes their threat out of the staging area, dummy.” But there were still some sticking points and I had to reference the rulebook a few times during play. e.g. what happens to engaged enemies at the end of the round? They stay engaged with you ‘forever’ apparently, removing their Threat from the staging area. I thought I’d read it somewhere but couldn’t find it in the rules for the life of me.
Usually I play any game solo first to grasp the rules before introducing it to mates, but I didn’t have the time yesterday and was too eager to wait. So things will be a lot smoother with more plays obviously, and it was getting late, but our first game took close to two hours as we analysed all the tactical possibilities, discussed our hands, admired the artwork, read the quotes, dissected the abstract nature of the goal - you need to put X footprints on here to get to there - and generally panicked as the game threw adversaries and obstacles at us.
By the way, opening the box was a laugh; clearly it’s packaged for the gazillion expansions that are waiting in the wings. You get a couple of hundred cards in tiny ziplock bags, with two sheets of cardboard chits - resources, wounds and progress tokens - that look good and do their job adequately. But man, that box is hungry! It’s completely empty. You’re paying for acres of blank space. Still, if it works out nice, maybe I’ll be thankful of all that space to bundle in all the aforementioned expansions...
My mate, KG, took the Tactics group Thalin, Gimli and Legolas because he guessed – rightly - that I’d want Aragorn’s Leadership team, with Gloin and Theodred.
We set up the game as instructed and I got a little confused as to why there were two “3A” quest cards for the basic Passage Through Mirkwood scenario. Turns out you have to read the “2A” quest card to find out why, so a good few minutes spent finding that out. Then we drew our 6 cards each and at this point I should probably take time out to mention the artwork. It is beautiful. The promise of the various preview cards’ art has been fulfilled and any LOTR aficionado should be more than happy. The omnipresent androgynous appearance of the elves may cause awkward feelings for those accustomed to their fantasy women in chainmail bras, but personally I reckon this is one of, if not the most beautifully illustrated game I’ve played.
So we placed our resources and set off on our quest. I falteringly articulated to KG that we had to attack the quest with our heroes’ willpower and it would throw bad stuff at us to try and beat us. So we’d need big sticks to hit things with. He quickly tooled up his heroes with some nifty Blades and axes, whilst I summoned a few unnamed red-shirt ensigns to feed to whatever nasty critters came our way.
We went Questing with 4 heroes: Aragorn because he can immediately ready with 1 resource, almost as though he never went questing at all, Theodred because he can give Aragorn a resource to do that, Thalin because he kicks anything coming out of the encounter deck as it goes past him (deals 1 damage to revealed monsters), and Gloin because I had my ensigns in reserve for defence duties anyway. But even with 4 guys we were thrown back because of new monsters (Orcs and Spiders) coming out of the forest. Not only had we made no progress but our Threat went up by 1 each too. Not a great start.
A forest spider sits in the staging area before the game starts in this basic scenario, and it’s threat was low enough to engage me straight away. KG immediately made assumptions and questions were raised.
“So you compare your fight with its defence?”
“No, it’s attacking me.”
“Oh, so you attack after it’s attacked you?”
“Well, possibly, but my guys are all tapped, I mean exhausted.”
“So you can’t attack it at all?”
“Erm, not if I want to defend, no.”
And thus a crucial discussion of the strategy came about, when to defend (every time!), when and how to attack or quest, etc.
Anywho, enemies were engaged, defenders allocated and shadow cards were drawn. Those shadow cards can be devastating! My first one dealt damage to all my questing/exhausted heroes and in the first turn there was blood everywhere. My nameless ensigns were quickly murderised whilst KG’s Tactics group dug in and defended themselves with some bruises and cuts. We tentatively approached the second round of the game with an alarming number of wound tokens littering our characters.
We continued summoning allies and weapons and my hand actually ran out after just a few turns. The Leadership group can quickly build resources, especially once Aragorn attained the Steward of Gondor title, netting him an extra two resources per turn. At which point KG wryly remarked “Aragorn is the Steward of Gondor? Is this supposed to be canon?”
“Yes,” I replied, “each game of this replaces everything that happened in the books. Chris Tolkien has his work cut out keeping up, bless him.”
We ploughed on through, throwing as much willpower at the quest as we could and taking some serious injuries in the bloody battles that followed.
The Forest Spider from the opening round stalked me the whole game (and survived uninjured!)
KG’s Gimli took a couple of hits and became a force of nature, slaughtering everything he came up against.
Thalin proved himself repeatedly by questing and damaging everything that came into play.
Aragorn had plenty of resources but I was rarely able to use him as a defender because of his wounds and fairly modest Defence.
Gloin is okay for taking a couple of hits but then his ability (gain 1 resource per wound) is pretty much used up.
Theodred basically spent the game allowing Aragorn to untap/ready himself.
Legolas was primed and ready to kill and had his own Gondolin Blade, but we drastically underused him, instead having to allocate him to KG’s Defenders.
On a side note, I really liked the Locations and the various effects (e.g. discard two cards) they had when you travelled to them, which we almost invariably did.
Slowly but surely we overcame the first quest card only to beat the second quest card in one round (IIRC you only need two Progress tokens on it for some reason). And randomly drawing the third quest card we went into the showdown with Ungoliant’s Spawn. Having read somewhere on BGG that one group drew this quest card and spent hours going through the deck trying to find him I was shocked to see that you immediately go through the encounter deck and its discard pile to place one Spider monster of your choice per player into the Staging area. Since Ungoliant’s Spawn is a Spider we dropped him right into play straight away, it didn’t seem to make any sense to do otherwise. Unless you wanted time to build your strength, but time is against you in this game. And by the time we reached this area I had 1 hit point left on each of my heroes and some seriously bloodied allies.
My haggard bunch didn’t stand a chance so we were relying on Gimli and his angry axes to finish off Ungoliant’s Spawn and win us the game. The spiders and orcs had multiplied and were swarming us. I engaged as many as I could to give KG that chance at killing the boss. Aragorn succumbed to his many wounds and fell.
“So this was before Fellowship of the Ring?”
“Yes, Aragorn died, little known fact.”
Our allies fell in swathes, all dying to orc blades and spider bites. Then Legolas and co rallied round to give Gimli his chance. After one devastating swing of Gimli’s axe, Ungoliant’s Spawn was badly wounded... but still alive. Calculating the number of enemies, the dearth of good guys, the wound tokens splattered about the place like stars on a bright night, we quickly realised there was no way we’d survive another turn. We couldn’t even afford to Quest, which meant our Threat tracks would start flying up.
Then, next round KG pulled Quick Strike from his deck. We puzzled over its words and meaning.
Sphere: Tactics Cost: 1
Action: Exhaust a character you control to immediately declare it as an attacker (and resolve its attack) against any eligible enemy target.”
Gimli exhausted to attack Ungoliant’s Spawn before it had the chance to act. It’s spidery body was sliced in twain and the victory horns sounded. Orcs and spiders scuttled away into the forests in fear. It was a hard fought and rather paltry victory. We calculated our score: 102, thanks to a dead Aragorn, a seriously wounded crowd of heroes, and escalated Threat tracks.
We both had a lot of fun, although I anticipate it being much more fun once we’ve got the turn order and fiddly rules down.
There are remnants of Space Hulk: Death Angel in this game, which is no bad thing, although I’m glad there’s no Random Dice of Doom in this one. The artwork is fantastic, the game-play seems well considered and although we had a couple of minor teething issues I’m sure other more hardcore gamers will pick it up easily. I’m going to reserve judgement and a full review until I’ve had a few more plays, but for now I’m really happy to finally own this damned thing after all these long years of waiting, and I can’t wait to play again!