When Fantasy Flight first began their "Living Card Game" business model, I told a friend that if they ever leveraged their Tolkien license into an LCG, I would be first in line. When they announced that very thing last summer at GenCon, I was all a-flutter. I'm a dedicated fan of Tolkien's classic novel, but all of the in-print LotR board games have left me somewhat cold. The best of the lot is the mammoth War of the Ring, but that was a game that was difficult to get to the table, since it required another reading of the rules before every session. And 2009's Middle Earth Quest was an easy game to admire from afar, but it faded fast down the stretch. Then of course, there's the classic Knizia design, one of the first of many cooperative board games. That was a very good design, but I had trouble actually loosening up and enjoying it. But I do think that the cooperative design is the best one for Tolkien's novel, since the villains are viewed in long shot. Fantasy Flight agreed with me, since The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is also a cooperative game.
Now's as good a time as any to admit that I have never really gotten into a collectible card game. Part of that was my own childhood, largely spent overseas. And then when I was in a financial place where I could support a hobby like that, thereweren't any that interested me. So this is my first foray into the world of customizable games. When I opened the box, I was not disappointed. This game looks really good. The cards are, as far as I can tell, entirely new artwork. And the threat dials and tokens all look sharp too. If first impressions mean anything, this game was already off to a great start.
And my first few plays bore that out. Playing largely alone, using two different decks, I worked through the first scenario without really breaking a sweat. The second scenario was also excellent, though it was more difficult. I tried that one a few times, but was never able to conquer it. There's one more scenario, where the players need to collect items to free a character from Dol Guldur, although I think it'll become more beatable with further cards. The scenario design is very impressive here. They all feel varied, and they work hard to forge some really solid narrative. After only a few games, I was completely ready to dive into the game and build decks, and keep chugging away at the more difficult scenarios. I was a real cheerleader for this game.
So what happened to make me ready to trade this game away?
As is often the case, it's a lot of little things. First of all, I have a feeling that the whole customizable card game scene (be it "living" or "collectible") may be one that I'm just not cut out for. Despite the strong narrative in each scenario, the game felt incredibly mechanical to me. Each turn is broken into a half-dozen phases, all of which take a couple columns of rules. This isn't tough to understand, and apparently it's par for the course with LCGs. But it wore me down after 8-10 games, and I grew weary of forgetting steps and needing to go back to redo something. No doubt this was exacerbated by the fact that I played mostly solo games, where it's easier for me to miss rules and steps. So I'm willing to say that this is on me, and probably not something that will bother an experienced LCGer.
And of course, in an age when our gaming dollar is stretched further than ever, it's exhausting to think about another expansion treadmill to run. I already have enough games where I've "fallen behind" on expansions. I need another one like I need a hole in my head. But of course, Fantasy Flight is very transparent about this. The game is marketed as a "Core set," so it's pointless to complain about any future purchases or perceived lack of content in this box. That's more a problem with me, and not the game. I can't criticize it.
But I HAVE played a lot of cooperative games, and I do feel like I can criticize the game here. Lord of the Rings makes the cardinal error of cooperative designs: it confuses difficulty for excitement. The second and third scenarios are both difficult, the kind of thing where you can try dozens of times before the game deigns you are worthy to taste the now-withered fruits of victory. Monsters keep pouring out of the encounter deck, and they keep piling up in your stage area. You see the game digging you in a deeper and deeper hole. This is common in a lot of co-ops, and I have no problem with it. But the game offers nothing in the way of a Hail Mary. There are very few moves you can make that run the risk of wild success or spectacular failure. The players have too many other things to juggle to really commit to something epic, and often the game gets out of hand early. When that happens, you can almost call the whole thing. It's challenging, but it's almost never thrilling. And any game with a narrative this strong deserves to have some amazing moments that will live in legend.
The difficulty also shows that perhaps the cooperative model is at odds with the LCG model. If I play an LCG against my friend, and we flail around wildly, at least one of us has the satisfaction of winning. Here, we mostly just feel like we played poorly. That's not a great incentive to continue buying cards. A game has to do more than offer "do better next time" as an incentive to continue playing. It needs to provide thrills in spite of wild failure. I've heard this game compared to last year's terrific Death Angel. If only Lord of the Rings had the wild tension of that game.
Am I being unfair? Maybe a little. It's not the game's fault if I can't get into the LCG model. And it's my own problem that I was a little wearied by the structure of the game. Experienced LCG fans won't have any problem with that. But I do have a problem with its relentless refusal to offer satisfaction beyond the experience of winning. A good cooperative game may not let you win once in 10 games, but it will make sure that you have fun each time you fail. Lord of the Rings doesn't do that. It just raps your knuckles and tells you to try harder.