At a Glance: The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is an intense, difficult adventure that matches the desperation of the heroes in Tolkien’s saga.
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a Living Card Game (LCG) for 1-2 players published by Fantasy Flight. An LCG is a trademarked subgenre that differentiates itself from Collectible Card Games and the like in that you do not have to purchase packs with randomized cards inside. LCG’s typically have a base game and then multiple booster packs with preset, standardized sets of cards in them, so there are no surprises. Unlike almost all other similar card games, The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative adventure. It is customizable, as you can construct your own decks to suit your playing style or strategy. The cards can be boiled down to 4 styles (called Spheres of Influence): Leadership, Lore, Spirit, and Tactics. To begin, players select which scenario they want to play, then that forms the Quest Deck. Beside that is the Encounter Deck, which is comprised of random enemies and events that happen along the way. Each person has 3 Hero cards that provide resources to play cards from your hand. Then you are faced with the decision to make progress on the Quest, and how many characters you will commit to the quest. Because when they’re committed, they’re exhausted (turned on their side) and cannot participate in the later phases. During the Quest phase, different events and enemies are revealed and dealt with by comparing the willpower of the characters vs. the threat level of the cards revealed. Then, players will engage with enemy cards and combat them using attack strength. Like other similar games, each card has a certain number of hit points before they are eliminated, and at the end of the round, players refresh their exhausted cards. I’m scratching the surface a bit, but players will continue questing and attacking round by round. If at least one player survives the whole scenario then everyone wins. If all players are eliminated, everyone loses.
Even though the base game is supposed to have taken place in the 17 years between Bilbo’s birthday and Frodo’s departure from the Shire, the game captures Tolkien’s universe better than any other game I’ve played. The desperation, the difficulty, the glimmers of hope, nobility, selfless sacrifices, it’s all there, presented with great care and great artwork. It has many similarities in gameplay and terminology with other games in the subgenre, but it is cooperative, which gives it a whole different feel. I like how you have to weigh the options of progressing through the quest vs. committing ample strength toward the battles. There is a TON of material that has been released for this game, most of which I have not even delved into, and even so, it is such an excellent experience. Each sphere that you can construct your deck around has a nicely unique flavor to it. Tactics focuses on military might, Spirit emphasizes willpower and is useful for the overall success of the Quest, Lore is specialized in knowledge, defense, and healing. Finally, Leadership is great at increasing deployment and resources. The enemy cards and their shadowed powers are tenacious and even your best efforts sometimes end in failure. I do not say this often, but if you are just an occasional casual board gamer and wish to stay that way, then this game is probably not for you. But if you are a fan of Tolkien’s work and want to work together with a friend or spouse in a tough but rewarding adventure, then I highly recommend tackling this one. By the way, there are expansions that do include events from the novels, so those are available if you like the basic game.
This game was published in 2011, and to show you how well-loved it is, Fantasy Flight (the publisher) is still releasing expansion packs for it. Just this year (2018), there was an inaugural Con of the Rings that was held in Minnesota strictly for fans of the game. The immersion and wide spectrum of material released for this game have kept the fanbase alive and well. Just keep in mind, like most card games in this genre, if you want to really dive in and collect them, it will require quite an investment of time and money. But of any you can choose, this is one of the elite ones. It is immersive and tough, but so much the sweeter when you triumph. In their darkest hour before the unforeseen victory, Frodo said, “Step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”
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Tolkien’s world of epic fantasy really lends itself well to gaming, and this is one Intellectual Property that has been treated fairly well in games, as there are plenty of quality options. Here are some other good Tolkien-themed games I have played that did not make my Top 100.
Lord of the Rings: Journey to Mordor – This is s small roll-and-write dice game where you play as the hobbits on their way to destroy the One Ring. The dice interact with each other in an interesting way, almost like rock, paper, scissors. Thematically, it is a little weird in that it is not a cooperative game, but it is so light and easy that it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much. Good, quick, fun.
Trivial Pursuit: Lord of the Rings – This LOTR version of Trivial Pursuit is great for big fans of the films, though I do wish it included content from the novels.
The Hobbit – This is an adventure game from Reiner Knizia where players play as dwarves aiding Bilbo on their way to confront Smaug the dragon. It is sort of cooperative in that it is possible for everyone to lose if Smaug makes it to Laketown. Ultimately though, you want to be one with the most treasure at the end. Despite its flaws, the production quality is high.