Come on in for Next of Ken, where I'm talking about Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Fantasy Flight's new Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Join us, won't you?
Hagrid, Ron, Harry Potter...That's Me
The final Harry Potter movie has finally hit a multiplex near you in the form of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Volume 2. Ten years in the making, the multi-billion dollar franchise looked to go out on a high note, and it did--breaking the record for single-day domestic gross, a record formerly held by The Dark Knight.
My wife and I managed to see it last Friday at 10:30, as most of the shows from the previous midnight onward were either sold-out or close to it. Needless to say, excitement for this one was pretty high.
It's a little bittersweet to watch this series finish, as we've all watched these kids grow up right in front of us.
I thought the movie was pretty good, about on par for the others in the series. The decision to split the two films feels even stranger now, as this entire movie is almost all climax. It picks up exactly where the other left off, with the slower glacial build-up of the first half completed and the principal characters readying themselves for the final confrontation.
I'm not going to give extensive spoilers away, but it was nice to finally see Harry as the pro-active hero. For almost the entire series, he's been extremely passive as things just sort of happen to him and around him, and there's always been either a powerful adult or otherwise deus ex machnica on hand to save him whenever he gets into trouble.
That's kind of been the one biggest sin of the movies, as the rules get sort of tossed out the window and things just sort of...happen. "Oh, right, you have the magical Didgeridoo. Now we can portkey our asses out of here!" I'm sure the books do a much better job of explaining things, or at least the "why" that some of the things happen, but no matter. You're going to get some of that here as well, though not quite as bad as in some of the other movies.
At any rate, Harry is now ready for the final battle, and it's up to him and his friends to defeat the ultimate evil. Will they succeed? Do I need to remind you these books were written for the kids? ;) If you've been a fan of the previous installments, or have enjoyed them with your kids, you're not going to be disappointed here. They kept the same level of quality throughout these movies, and that in itself is an accomplishment.
This was Potter's first foray into 3-D, and I think it came off okay. It wasn't critical, and there were very few of those "Oooh, stab something at the camera" moments. A few scenes were nicely enhanced by the 3-D with additional depth, but the 3-D itself wasn't nearly as polished as Avatar's, the benchmark by which all of these are going to be judged in terms of 3-D quality.
Now that the series is done, it's funny to look back on the failed efforts of the studios to try and create the "next fantasy craze." Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both debuted in 2001, but Lord of the Rings went through its three installments in three subsequent years (Return of the King seems a lifetime ago now, doesn't it?) So many of these other studios, smelling wads of cash no doubt, tried and failed to launch myriad efforts to establish themselves as the next big money franchise. The rallying cry was always, "The next Harry Potter!"
That never really did work out, for any of them. Spiderwick Chronicles, The Golden Compass, Eragon, Series of Unfortunate Events, all of them came and went with little to show for it. Even Narnia, which started extremely strong, floundered and honestly had its final movie released as a kindness to its fans. At any rate, there are the corpses of many would-be franchises littering the path from then til now, but none truly took the mantle from Potter.
We will be getting a pair of Hobbit movies, and of course there's the wait to see if all this build-up for The Avengers is going to pay off. Still, it remains to be seen if something will show up to finally replace the gargantuan Harry Potter franchise.
I will say this, it will be weird not having a Potter film to look forward to. That's sort of been a constant for ten years.
Speaking of seeing Harry Potter, I was surprised to see the teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises:
As a HUGE Batman fan, I had chills when I realized what I was seeing, but when it was over, I was a little underwhelmed. It's mostly just Gordon rambling weakly from a hospital bed, looking inches from death. Remember how awesome The Dark Knight's teaser was, with the voice-over from The Joker?
Still, you can see the snippet with Bane stalking into view and Batman already looking exhausted. I think, more than anything, the new movie will deliever *the* signature fight that we've been waiting for.
Anyway, next year looks to be pretty freaking amazing with this and The Avengers. I don't envy Christopher Nolan in having to follow up the previous movie, but here's hoping he delivers.
He Riddled With Gollum...a Magic Ring He Stole!
Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is Fantasy Flight's latest foray into the burgeoning LCG market, and their fourth to date. The game takes place during the 17-year period from Frodo's 111th birthday until Frodo's leaving of the Shire. This is the same fertile time period that was mined for Middle-Earth Quest, and heroes from that game can also be found here, along with all the big names from the books such as Aragorn, Gimli, and Gandalf, this time in playable form. (In Middle-Earth Quest, they were all NPCs that you could get help from.)
In this game, you have a selection of quests--in the base game, three--and you can either go it alone with one of the included decks, or invite a friend to help you complete your quest. To that end, you'll summon powerful allies and other characters, along with travelling to dangerous locations and doing battle with vicious minions of the Shadow.
The questing system is actually pretty cool. Characters have a Willpower stat that can be used to quest each turn, and players can band together to send multiple characters to help progress the quest. Each minion and location in the center of the table makes this progress more difficult. If you can generate enough Willpower, you'll place progress tokens on the current quest. Earn enough of these, and you'll progress to the next quest card in the stack, following any additionial instructions if necessary. Get to the final card and complete it, and you've won the game.
If only it were that easy, though. Creatures that appear and make the quests more difficult can also either be voluntarily engaged by players, or if certain criteria are met, they will instead force their way into engagements with the players. Once either of those happens, you'll have to juggle characters that can defend against their attacks, along with characters who can deal damage to them and kill them. All of these activities--questing, defending, attacking--require a character to "Exhaust" (read: "Tap", for Magic fans). Should a character already be exhausted from a previous activity, they can't help you with something else, so if Aragorn was sent questing earlier in the turn, he will most likely not be available to help you deal with Shadow foes that have directly engaged you.
The locations also hinder you by increasing the difficulty of questing. You can travel to them one at a time to lower the difficulty of questing, but while you're there, progress tokens that would normally be placed on your quest have to be placed on the location card first. Earn enough tokens and you will have completely explored that location, finally discarding it.
Of course, the pressure is on, every turn. Each player has a Threat level based on the values of their starting heroes. As a general rule, the more powerful the hero, the more initial Threat you'll have to take; I guess the presence of such powerful heroes attracts more attention from the forces of evil. At any rate, If you fail in your questing each turn--or even if you don't quest at all--all players will have to take the amount they failed by in Threat. Should a player reach 50 threat, they are automatically eliminated from the game. At the end of each turn, the Threat also increases by 1, so you are on a tight clock to make it through your quest.
Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is much, much different than most CCGs and LCGs I've tried in that it is completely cooperative. You can tune your decks to strengthen them and help you, but it's not another player you're seeking to best, it's the game system itself. That makes those late-night sessions sitting around and tweaking decks more than a little weird...are you going to sit down at the game table the next morning bleary-eyed, before thumping down your latest Spirit/Tactics deck and beating your chest as you lay out your viscious combos on the unsuspecting game system. In which case, I'm sure its stoic silence in the face of your bravado might be more than a little unnerving.
The cards are excellent; the art is solid and for the most part the icons are easily read and understood. The Threat value on locations is a bit smaller than it needs to be, but that's really the only bad thing I can say about the graphic design. Some of these cards are flat-out gorgeous in terms of artwork.
You also get tokens for wounds, resources, and progress. The resource tokens are generated one per turn by each hero, and the type of resource is dependant on the sphere of that hero; so Gimli, for example, provides Tactics with his resources. This is important as each card you can potentially put into play has a sphere, and it must be paid for in full with points of that same sphere, even if it is ordinarily free to play (so no loading your deck with lots of cheap 0-cost events from all the spheres!)
I will say this for The Lord of the Rings: TCG--out of the box, it's extremely difficult. Because of the composition of the decks, you're going to feel almost smothered by threats just as soon as you get started. New threats reveal themselves every turn, one per player, and if you don't deal with them, your Threat will skyrocket and earn you a quick defeat.
The problem is, of course, that you are so limited in how many characters you'll have at once. Characters--whether Ally or Hero--are bar none your true currency for this game. Every turn, you'll need to quest, you'll need to defend yourself, and you'll need to chop down foes, and to do these things, you'll need characters to exhaust. Unfortunately, an unlucky draw can doom you before you even get started; if you don't pull any allies and quickly, you might as well forget it.
I've said elsewhere that deckbuilding isn't as egregiously pervasive with Lord of the Rings: The Card Game as some of its other brethren, because of the lack of competition. However, there is a different flaw, in that you're not competing against an unknown opponent, but rather a game system that you can become familiar with, and given that tweak a deck to help beat it much more easily.
At any rate, you probably will want one more core set if you're into making the decks better. With 30-card decks of each sphere, there are several cards you only get 1 or 2 of, and the deck construction rules suggest decks of 50. It's not going to quite be good enough to just mash two different decks together. You're going to want to have some freedom of construction, and to do that, well, you're going to need a second core set. I was hoping that wasn't necessary, but sadly it appears if you're going to play against the game seriously, you're going to need to buy 2 sets.
"Headed for a he-e-e-e-a-a-artbreeeeakk!!!"
Otherwise, these decks are going to be very volatile, and your success is generally going to depend on good fortune--the timely drawing of allies, along with dodging overly harsh cards like those that deal damage to exhausted characters, or buff unblocked monsters, and so on and so forth. My brother and I played two games over the weekend against the easiest quest, and our very first game was exactly as harsh as that--Aragorn was dead only a few turns in, we were overwhelmed by locations and nasty monsters that took entirely too many hits to kill, and then got to discard every event in our hands...yeah. Nice.
The second try we were able to pull it together as I switched to the Tactics deck while he stuck with Leadership. We then had the opposite luck with good draws and treachery cards that came out at times that didn't harm us too badly. I think we had only one hero die (though we could build a moutain of the bones of our dead allies, heh) and Legolas' ability to progress quests through combat was easily our VIP.
That brings me to another point, though, and I think this part is well done--you will need to work as a team. In our second game, I took on all the nasty beasties but provided little in terms of questing, while Jeremy kept the shadow at bay by tossing lots of Willpower at quests every turn. As a result, we were able to grind our way through. If I'd had to quest on my own with my pitiful amounts of Willpower, I would have been toast.
Ultimately, what do I think of Lord of the Rings: The Card Game? I like it, even though I'm not as fond of the starter decks included as I'd hoped I'd be. I still feel funny about customizing decks to beat a game system, but the alternative is swingy games where much depends on the luck of the draw and the timing or appearance of certain treachery cards. The overall feel reminds me a bit of the old Decipher Lord of the Rings TCG, not in purely mechanics but in overall feel--the feeling of traveling, of doing battle with nasty creatures, and trying to keep your heroes alive until you reach the end.
I think they could have had stronger starter decks to make the game more enjoyable and less luck-driven, but I suppose part of the LCG is the whole, "Well, you don't *have* to buy more cards....but wouldn't it be nice?"
I'm keeping an eye on this to see where it goes from here. The whole notion of a cooperative LCG is fairly experimental, and if not done correctly could collapse like a house of cards, but we'll see what the future has in store. I'm giving Lord of the Rings: The Card Game a reserved thumbs-up, with the warning that unless you like the potential for extremely frustrating sessions, be prepared to shell out a little dough for more cards.
That's going to do it for this week, folks. Thanks for reading, and as always, comments and feedback are extremely welcome. I'll see ya in seven.
Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff.