The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game—A Review

By Jeremiah Lord of the Rings the Card GameWell, we've certainly done our share of gushing over this game, but we've never actually given it our full, in-depth review. Until now. If you've never played a living card game (LCG) before, know this: The rules are deep and complex, and they're very similar to a collectible card game (CCG)—the biggest difference between the two is market collectibility. A CCG is distributed through starter decks and booster packs that randomly give you the cards of a 200-300 card set. An LCG releases the complete set in an expansion, so you're not trying to buy pack after pack after pack to get that one awesome card. You know exactly what you're getting in every pack, and my pack is going be the same pack you get.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, which I will refer to as LOTR from here on out, delivers what everyone would want in a CCG, but puts it in a co-operative format. It's quite simply one of the funnest card games (LCG or CCG) I have ever put my hands on!

The Core set of the game includes a starter deck of 4 spheres of influence (you'll see more about that later), several sets of encounter cards, 3 quest decks, 2 threat counters and all the various tokens you will need (progress, wound and resource).

The game is designed for 2 players...or is it? With the purchase of a second core set you can expand to 4, and the design actually scales very well for anywhere from 1-4 players (yes, you can play a solo version!). Players each control three heroes which come from 4 different "spheres of influence" in Middle Earth: tactics, spirit, lore, and leadership. As with any LCG or CCG, deck customization plays a big part in terms of your success or failure.  I won't go into the ins and outs of deckbuilding here. I will say that there is a group of 4-6 of us who play together, and we've all sort of taken ownership of our own sphere, and we all play with mono-sphere decks. It has its advantages and its disadvantages, but it's seemed to work for us for the time being.

Because the game is co-op the player turn is set up slightly differently than a standard card game. Instead of each player going through the different phases of a turn, completing their turn and then play moving on to the next player, players in turn walk through each phase of a turn or round. For instance, after the refresh phase in which players give each hero a resource token (money) and draw a card and pass the "first player" marker to the left, players start the planning phase. Whoever was just passed the first player marker now plays cards from their hand, paying the appropriate resources to do so. These are typically items or allies to add to your party. But instead of moving on to the quest phase, the next player then performs their planning phase, and so on. During each phase players are encouraged to discuss their strategies and what they are doing, making it one big team effort. You're not supposed to reveal exactly which card you're holding in your hand but you can definitely talk about the abilities that card will give you, or your teammates.

So we're all in this together...well then what are we up against? Aside from each players' deck, there are two other decks involved in the game. A quest deck, and an encounter deck.

spiderThe Encounter Deck—It's full of baddies, locations, and other stuff that you will have to encounter during the game. Defeating enemies is not how you win the game, but they can certainly be the reason you lose the game! Traveling to locations can earn you certain bonuses or penalties depending on where you are going.

The Quest Deck—This deck is usually only 3 cards, though sometimes more and sometimes less. It tells you how you win the game, and sometimes gives you alternative loss conditions as well. It also tells you which cards go into the encounter deck, which often gives you a clue as to how hard, or what type of quest, it's going to be.

Typically to successfully complete a quest you have to place an amount of progress tokens on the currently active card of the quest deck. And often fulfill some other condition. So... How does one place a progress token on the quest deck? I'm glad you asked.

The two most crucial phases of the game are the quest phase and the encounter phase.

The Quest Phase—Players must decide whether to commit their heroes and allies to the quest; if they do, they exhaust that character, and turn the card on its side (just like tapping in Magic The Gathering). This means that the character cannot attack or defend any baddies coming out until the next turn. But their "will" is committed to the quest and cancels out an equivalent amount of threat in the staging area (which is where the bad guys live after they come out of the encounter deck, and before they attack). After the last player has committed characters to the quest, out comes one encounter card per player in the game. Each of these cards have a threat level on them which adds to the threat in the staging area. AFTER these cards are revealed, if the total amount of committed will is greater than the threat, then players place progress tokens on the quest (or active location they have traveled to) in the amount of the difference. If not, then each player increases their threat level by the difference on their threat counters. (Hitting 50 on your counter signifies the end of the game for you!) Okay, take a breath. Still with me? Good.

gimliThe Encounter Phase—Things get hairier in the encounter phase. Players can choose to engage any of the bad guys in the staging area, or let them engage you later. It's often helpful if someone is primed for fighting to have them engage a tougher opponent so they don't beat on your friend who isn't ready to face such a battle. Each decision piles up on the next, because there are mechanisms in place that will cause enemies to engage players based on your threat counter. And, if you have all of your characters committed to the quest, you're taking damage points that get turned into even more increases on your threat level. Things can snowball really, really quickly.

That, believe it or not, is a very rough overview of the game play. I told you. It's deep, complicated, and meticulous. But it is so fun!

This is not a casual party game; it's not even for the casual gamer—every decision, every card played, choosing whether to commit, to defend, to attack, everything, can make or break the success of the quest.

The storyline continues through the release of Adventure Packs, each of which includes a quest deck, usually a set of encounter cards, some new player cards to continue spicing up your deck, and setup instructions (often using several encounter sets from the core set). I love this aspect of it; it's like playing an RPG without having one person specified as the game master who has to put in hours of prep time before everyone else gets to play. For $15 you get a new quest and can have yourself a great evening. The down side is that rarely after we beat a quest do we go back and play it again. (Although there are plenty of them that took us more than one attempt!) And because of the monthly pace that Fantasy Flight maintains in releasing these packs, I'm a good $100+ behind in my chapter packs!

Final thoughts and my rating—I was introduced to "gaming through a couple different CCG-type games, so this title hits home for me. And it provides many nice twists to what is usually a head-to-head genre. The game is complex, but that complexity gives it a platform to build and expand on continuously, and also gives great great depth to the gameplay. The cards all have great synergy, not only within each sphere, but cross-sphere, making each quest a true team effort, which is something I've come to really enjoy about the game. And the Tolkien theme is icing on the cake. I give this one a 10.

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We Interview Jeremiah Isley!

Jeremiah2Jeremiah is one half of the team here at Theology Of Games, and since Reiner Knizia won't return our emails, we thought it would be fun to interview each other! (We haven't actually tried to contact Reiner. I'm sure he's a nice guy who replies to every email he receives. Seriously, us.) Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions, Jeremiah. So tell us a little about yourself.

Sure thing! My interests in life are about as varied and polarizing at times as you could think of. I love live theatre, and professional dance; I studied dance for over 13 years and still appear as a guest artist annually in the Nutcracker for a local professional company. I also worked for many years as a stagehand both in the local stagehand’s union, and as a freelancer. I’m also a trained audio engineer and have mixed for a few pretty big names over the years. I’m a huge football fan, and a glutton for the punishment of being a Cleveland sports fan. I've been married very happily for over 10 years, and have two sons, ages 4 and 6, who are the craziest, most awesome, and caring boys ever! We enjoy the outdoors, and like to canoe, hike, raft, and camp whenever the opportunity presents itself. We love to geocache too—nothing like using billion-dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods! I also play guitar, drums, bass, and a smidgen of keys. My current day job is in the AV department at a satellite campus for a local state university, and for the last three years I was the youth director at my church until I recently stepped down. Oh, and I co-write this blog.

How did you first get mixed up in these type of board games?

My path to board gaming really came through the collectible card game craze of the nineties, when everything was turned into a collectible card game. My brother and I played Marvel Overpower (which in hindsight is a terrible game!) and then we got into Middle Earth (which is an awesome game!). I loved the depth of strategy it took to do well at games like that. Middle Earth was also a great multiplayer game so we could have a few friends over, put the animated version of LotR on TV and play all night. (No, we weren’t the cool kids in town.) I then went through a long period of time of playing only video games, specifically Socom Navy Seals (shout out to my old clan SV!). I enjoyed video games, but the draw of Socom for me was the social side of being in a clan and working together as a team; it was more of a social activity than a gaming habit. I think that’s what I really enjoy about board games: The games themselves are great fun and all, but sitting down and having face-to-face interaction with good folks is better than any game I’ve played. For me the world of board games, like so many others, came through Catan; once that gateway opened up, all bets were off... I pretty much exclusively play board and card games now; the ps3 is basically a Netflix machine.

How has your faith affected you as a gamer?

I'd say pretty heavily. A lot of times it gets easy as a Christian to try and make your faith or your beliefs fit the mold of your interests, or political or social practices, when we should really be holding those things we enjoy up to the light of scripture and see them for what they are. The gaming world is full of thematic elements that dabble in the fantastic or supernatural—that's part of its allure. It's for this reason I tread lightly when checking out games, and especially before buying them. Many times a game is pretty benign, but other times I'll have to pass on a particular title. I try not to get hung up on those titles I won't play. There are literally hundreds of great games being published each year, so there are plenty of games to choose from that don't give me pause.

You have two boys. What are some of your favorite games to play with them?

Well, we got them Loopin' Louie for Christmas, or "Woopy Wooin" as my 4-year-old calls it, and they haven't stopped playing it. They also really enjoy Forbidden Island a lot! My oldest is six and has a pretty good handle on playing Carcassonne and Castle Panic, too.

Does your wife enjoy board games?

Yes, she gets incredibly frustrated when I teach them to her, but once we get through that she usually enjoys playing them. However, she does have her limits; she told our sons the other day that she doesn't play "Star Wars games," but she enjoys Carcassonne, Kingdom Builder, The Resistance, and a good deal more. As long as it doesn’t have a terribly nerdy theme, or a billion rules, she’s a gamer. She won’t sit and play an LCG, but Catan, yes.

Is it true you shaved your head so you’d look more like me?

There's not a shred of truth to that rumor. Although I did convince my sons that it would be cool because I would look like the Silver Surfer. My poor wife had gone to the grocery store one evening and left us home alone; when she returned I was completely clean shaven. I’m enjoying the new look, although the first winter has been a little rough.—even if there's not much there, insulates your head more than you think...

What are your Top 5 games…and tell us a about why you like them so much.

This is in no particular order, because I don’t think I could actually pick a favorite.

  1. Lord of the Rings the Card Game—When I picked this up, I thought, “I don’t know about this whole co-op thing...” But one play through it and I was hooked! We played through the whole first cycle of expansions and are part way through the Khazad-Dum quests. It’s great, really deep game play, scales great for 1-4 players, and has a continuous story line. It’s almost like playing a role playing game without having to put in all the work to set it up. The down side to this game is the money to keep up with the quest packs, and they don’t feel that replayable after you’ve defeated a quest.
  2. The Resistance—I love this game because it is everything that LOTR is not. Really simple game mechanics and tons of backstabbing and chicanery! I’ve never played this game and not had people ask me to play it again—and ask where they can get their own copy. I love that you can play up to 10 people at once, although it’s hard to find 10 people that play it well all at the same time. I’m REALLY hoping they retheme the plot cards for Avalon because using the original ones really kills the mood.
  3. Carcassonne—Although recently this game is getting a little overplayed for me right now. I still love the game, and it took about 784 game plays to feel overplayed. There’s a solid base of expansions to keep it fresh, mix it up, and throw you for a loop. It’s a very good game to act as a next step for my friends who are ready to move on from Catan, and it plays up to 6 very well.
  4. Pirates of the Spanish Main—I know, this is kind of an oddball title, and no they don’t still make the game. But building those little pirate ship and sailing them around the dinner table looking for treasure is just a lot of fun. I have a HUGE fleet of literally thousands of ships. My gaming friends and I haven’t played in a while (which is very unfortunate), but it’s a really fun game with very high replayability!
  5. Fluxx—It’s an old standby with lots of different versions that add to the craziness of it. I’m probably most partial to Zombie Fluxx. We’ve had a lot of good times and good laughs over this game, as well as some frustrating defeats. Just a good time all around.

What are some games you’re looking forward to playing in 2013?

One of the titles I’m really looking forward to is Boss Monster; it kind of crept under our radar last year, as we didn’t find out about it until their Kickstarter was almost finished, but playing the bad guy is always fun. I’m also really looking forward to the multiplayer expansion for the new Star Wars The Card Game. I like the game as it is, but I think it will really come into its own when it supports 2-3 light side players teaming up against a very powerful dark side player. I’m also REALLY hoping that Wizkids gets the Lord of the Rings dice building game to market soon! Quarriors just barely slipped out of my top 5, and I’m of course a fanboy when it comes to Tolkien. And my boys will be very excited to hear that Forbidden Desert is on its way! One-Word Answers:

Favorite Doctor? Tom Baker

Grail game you’d like to find a copy of? My old 1st edition of Fluxx.

Favorite superhero? Spider-Man

Favorite major Star Wars character? Han Solo

Favorite minor Star Wars character? Dengar, the fiercest of the bounty hunters!!

On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being how you feel while watching Bambi, and 10 being blind, seething, murderous rage), how did you feel toward George Lucas immediately after watching The Phantom Menace for the 1st time? The 1st time? 4.5 (I was blinded by the shiny new toy.)

Favorite LEGO line? Star Wars

Last good book you read? Shrewd by Rick Lawrence

Thanks, Jeremiah! No no, thank you.

We hope you enjoyed this. Stay tuned for Jeremiah's questions for me! (Unless Reiner emails us back. We'd totally bump that for you, Reiner...)

2012 Holiday Board Game Gift Guide—Gamers' Games

Here it is folks, the list you've been waiting for. You have a total gamer geek at work, and you pulled that person's name in the office secret Santa gift exchange! Now what? Never fear...below you'll find a list of games we ourselves are clamoring over and would love to see under the tree! We give you: the Gamers' Games gift guide! Star Wars the Card GameStar Wars The Card Game—Fantasy Flight has been working on getting this game out for years now, and they say it will be in stores for Christmas! We're very excited about this, their newest addition to the Living Card Game line up. And so will most any gamer out there! We interviewed Eric Lang the designer of the game last month; check it out here!

Cost: TBA (Estimated around $39.99)

Available from: Amazon and your local game store (Coming soon!)

Ages: 10 & up

Lord of the Rings the Card GameLord of the Rings: The Card Game—Yes, yes, we know... Two "living card games" in the same guide?! But really, if you're a fan of co-op games, this is probably one of the most elegant, and strategic of them all. It scales incredibly well—from 1-4 players—and is one of our favorite games here at TOG. If the gamer in your life is already into LOTR:TCG check out the new saga expansions The Hobbit: Under Hill and Over Hill, The Hobbit: On the Doorstep, and The Heirs of Numenor.

Cost: $39.99 (Base Set) $29.99 (Saga Expansions)

Available from: Amazon and your friendly local game store

Ages: 10 & up

DominionDominion—The card game that turned card games on their collective ears. Dominion is the premier deck-building franchise; it's incredibly rare for a game to create a genre, and then remain (arguably) the best game in that genre. Chances are if you've played a card game that was released in the last four years it was influenced in some way by Dominion. There are multiple expansions for Dominion that continue to strengthen this modern classic. If your gamer has Dominion already, check out the Prosperity expansion, and the newest Dark Ages!

Cost: $39.99 (Base set) $29.99 (Expansions)

Available from: Amazon and your local game store

Ages: 13 & up

Mage KnightMage Knight—This game is for serious gamers only! Deep, complex, and rich game mechanics, and multiple campaigns to play. It's like role-playing in a growing board game. (Some campaigns are estimated to take up to 8 hours or more to complete!) If your gamer is a fan of games set in the fantasy realm, and highly involved game play, this is the game for them! Check out our review of the game right here!

Cost: $69.99

Available from: Amazon and local game stores

Ages: 14 & up

Star Wars X-WingStar Wars: X-Wing Miniatures—Easy rules. Amazing miniatures. Fun gameplay. This game is going to end up costing me sooooo much money, but playing this with my kids will lessen that sting considerably. There are official scenarios, fan-made scenarios, or you can just have a wipe-out-the-other-guys dogfight. If you have a Star Wars fan on your list, this one should be on your short list. If you want more info, you can read our in-depth review.

Cost: $39.99

Available from: Amazon, department stores and your local game store

Ages: 14 & up

Mice & MysticsMice & Mystics—This game is basically a dungeon crawler, but instead of a typical fantasy theme, here you're playing as a group of mice trying to get to the bottom of a deadly conspiracy. Each scenario is a "chapter" in the story, with objectives, special powers, and dangerous enemies, such as rats, giant centipedes, huge spiders, and a cat!

Cost: $74.99

Available from: Amazon and your local game store

Ages: 7 & up

Gauntlet of FoolsGauntlet Of Fools—Even hardcore gamers sometimes need to play a quick game to start or end the evening—or to play while waiting for other people to finish another game. Gauntlet of Fools is the perfect game for that. You're heading into a dungeon with your chosen hero. Everyone is going to die, but if you can die with the most money, you'll win. Lots of fun. You can read our full review of the game here.

Cost: $19.99

Available from: Amazon and your local game store

Ages: 8 & up