Myyyy. . . Preecioussss! - Lord of the Rings LCG Review

The Collectible Card Game genre is one that every gamer knows. Buy a starter set, then be forced to buy every booster box that comes out in bulk so that you can keep up with power creep, spend all your money, rinse and repeat. That's not to say the games aren't fun to play, but you're involved when you take one of these up.


The Living Card Game was a concept invented by Fantasy Flight Games which has similarities to CCG's. You buy a core set which contains several starter decks rather than just one and then frequent mini-expansion packs are released over time with the occasional deluxe set to supplement the card pool. Except with LCG's the cards in each pack are fixed with all the copies you would ever need so you never need to worry about whether you'll get a super rare or not, everyone is on the same playing field which is in my opinion the best thing about this format.


Now you would think that this means you can simply buy the packs you need as opposed to getting them all. And you'd be right. . . . . well sort of, you can do that . . . but you won't. Eventually the lure will take you like an uncontrolled drug addiction and you'll still buy all of the expansion packs like I end up doing. Ok, maybe some of you have stronger willpower than I, but if I really enjoy a game, I'll stick with it though being a Chartered Tax Accountant probably helps on that front!


I've already reviewed Android Netrunner, possibly the most popular (and deservedly so) LCG that exists to date and I think very highly of it. But the addiction hasn't ended there. The power of the One Ring has spoken to me and a second LCG has taken hold causing me to succumb to another legacy of expansion packs and ever-growing card pools. . . . myyyyy. . . . . preeeeecious!



Designer: Nate French
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
# of Players: 1-4
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 60 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 71 / 7.65

Is It Accessible? Is It Safe?


Lord of the Rings LCG introduces a game concept that has to my knowledge never, ever been done before. A truly unique idea. An expandable card game that's a co-op. Your enemy this time is not the other players, but rather the game itself. Players create their own decks, but each quest scenario is represented by a modular set of cards forming the Encounter deck and this is what you fight against. The game chucks out everything from orcs to trolls to traps and debilitating effects and it's up to the players to battle against it and complete the quest objectives. Get killed and you lose, but also reach a Threat level of 50 (a game timer made easier/harder depending on your starting hero choices) and you lose.


The co-op nature enables the game to far more accessible to a new player than it would first appear. Take a game like Netrunner for example where you fight each other head to head. A gamer that is already experienced will wipe the floor with a new player and using anything other than a core set starter deck will overwhelm them. Also even though you're teaching them the game, at the end of the day the aim of the game is to win and you have an advantage because you know already what kind of deck they have. Lord of the Rings LCG doesn't have this problem because it's a fully co-operative game. You could happily design two separate decks that work with each other and let your friend use one. You both have a mutual objective and as such you'll be able to teach them everything they need to know as you play the game without them feeling like they're getting butchered on a regular basis. As a bonus you can also teach the game while playing through the scenario going through each phase of the game in turn, which is a very tricky if not impossible thing to do in competitive LCG's.


You don't even have to play the game with other players if you don't want to. OK I know that sounds incredibly unsociable, but solo games are popular and I myself like it when a game has a solid solo mode given that I live alone and game clubs aren't on every night. The game is fun to play whether solo or as a 2 or 4 player game and the quests can play out very differently as it scales up. Some players like to play solo but use two decks that work together because they like the change in dynamic between using one and two decks. I personally am happy with one deck for the majority of the time, but it's just as fun with more and four player games can be pretty epic, if somewhat tough. The rules for the most part aren't difficult to learn, but the main rulebook doesn't fully explain the turn sequence in regards to where players can perform actions so I highly recommend grabbing a comprehensive reference sheet and FAQ on BGG.



The Theme That Was Broken


When it comes to the quests and encounter decks, the theme is spot on and dripping from this game. Scenarios will include key moments from the book/movies such as defending Helms Deep, running from the Balrog in the Mines of Moria and hunting for Gollum in Mirkwood Forest (read the book for that one). Each quest plays out very differently and it can allow for some wonderfully thematic moments.


That being said, there is a common complaint about the theme being slightly off with regards to the hero choices in deck builds. The heroes themselves are well themed and they tie in with their respective spheres (Tactics, Spirit, Lore and Leadership) nicely. However other than uniqueness (i.e. you can't use an ally version of a hero in play) there isn't any restriction in what heroes you can take on which quest. Now that allows you to go nuts with deck building which is great, but how can you have a party where Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit teams up with Aragorn to take on the Uruk-hai? They didn't know each other and probably weren't even both alive at the same time (don't quote me on that).


As such the theme is tainted slightly when heroes are mixed liberally, but this can be glossed over when the quest gets going and it tells its own story. It also allows for a lot of "what if" moments like "What if Boromir was present instead of Aragorn at Weathertop Hill when the Ringwraiths turned up?" So the theme isn't perfectly matched, but it's a relatively minor issue when you're sucked into the story unfolding and the cool artwork on the cards. The expansion packs have fold-out leaflets that explain the story arc as you go through them to add more to the theme.


If this is a potential issue for you, then fair enough, but you might want to consider this first. As well as the usual deluxe expansions and cycle packs, there are also special deluxe Saga expansions that tie into the movies specifically. Currently all of The Hobbit and LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring is already represented and we're almost done with The Two Towers. These are hands down my favourite expansions of the whole system with juicy thematic quests and player cards that allow for deck builds that tie into the continuity of the lore without obscurities. I think one of my favourite sessions involved taking Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry from the Shire through the key events that lead up to Rivendell, being forced to duck and hide away from Nazgul Ringwraiths at all costs, unless I wanted to be skewered. Quests like these show that not every scenario is about being tough as nails and killing monsters - some require a greater emphasis on other factors such as healing, stealth and escorting.



One Does Not Simply Stick With A Core Set


The core sets with other LCG's are usually quite decent, giving a large amount of variety while remaining competitive on their own to an extent. However the core set for Lord of the Rings LCG is one of its weak points. A typical deck size is 50 cards, but in the core set, even though there is one deck for each sphere of influence (think mana type or faction from other games), the decks are only 30 cards and you have to combine two of them to form a deck for the starting quests. These "combined" decks don't tend to synergise very well with the available card pool and the variety isn't as abundant as Netrunner or even the recent Warhammer 40,000 Conquest.

To make matters worse, the core quests have a significant spike in difficulty between them. The first one which has you navigating a forest defeating giant flies and spiders (way to go Fantasy Flight for putting me straight up against my worst fear off the bat) and is incredibly easy. That's fair enough, the first game should always be easier to act as a teaser for what's to come. But my god do you get a shock after that. The second quest where you travel down the River Anduin escaping from various orcs and goblins and potentially a hill troll is considerably tougher. And the third quest in Don Guldor where you start off with one less hero that needs rescuing, I've only beaten with a constructed deck from my large card pool. I'm not convinced it is even possible to beat this quest using only the starter decks.


So as a "teaser", the core set doesn't really give the best experience to someone just starting off unless they relish in difficult challenges. The flavour of Lord of the Rings and the best the game has to offer doesn't really start expressing itself until you've delved into some of the expansion packs. I started off with the first cycle of packs in full (6 packs total from the Mirkwood cycle) and constructed my decks to beat the quests from that card pool. Suddenly life became a little easier, but like with the core set, some quests are much harder than others. Fantasy Flight give a difficulty rating for each quest, but many members of the community would debate as to their accuracy.


If you're a new player to the game, then naturally the first reaction to any living card game is "where do I start?" In this case you have two recommended routes in my opinion. Either start at the beginning and work your way through the cycles in order of their release starting with Mirkwood or my preferred option which is to acquire all of the saga expansions I mentioned above and play through them.



Verdict......BAAGGGGINS!!!


Currently, this is "THE" Lord of the Rings game for me and one of the most thematic living card games of the range providing you're willing to accept a little poetic license on occasion. Some of the quests capture the atmosphere of key segments of the book and movies, especially if you concentrate on the Saga expansions which in my opinion are the best place to start for new players. The rules are a little fiddly to grasp at first particularly with regards to turn sequence and action windows, but there are some great resources online to get you through it.


With four different sphere types available, the variety in deck archetypes is vast and it will put your deck building skills to the test on a regular basis. And games will never play out the same due to the Encounter deck system and even simply going from solo to 2 player to 4 player can change the way a quest plays out dramatically. New cycles bring in fresh new mechanics ensuring that the game doesn't run dry, but be sure to keep an eye on your spending if money is tight.


I had a shaky start due to the lackluster core set, but the more I've played it, the more I love it and it's now a contender for my Top 10. Even as a solo game I can get a lot of theme and enjoyment from it and when other players want to try it out, it's easy to throw them a deck and help them through it. I highly recommend it for anyone who is even a remote fan of Lord of the Rings. Now if you'll excuse me, my White Council has an appointment in the Mines of Moria and Gandalf has his Flame of Anor ready. . . . .RUN YOU FOOLS!

You Will Like This Game If:


- You are a fan of Lord of the Rings - there is plenty of fan service and theme to be found here.
- You want a challenge with quests that cover a wide range of different scenarios
- You want a co-operative experience that can be played solo as easily as it can with other players.



You Will Not Like This Game If:


- You stick to the core set alone - it's likely the weakest core set of the LCG's and needs expansion.
- You are concerned about the expenditure required to keep up with the game as it's evolving fast.

- You get bored playing solo games and struggle to find another player to join you.


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