The Tolken Masterpiece on Tabletop?


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28 September 2022
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Or why the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is the one to rule them all...

Tristan Hall tells us why this card game is the Tolkien masterpiece on our tabletops:

I’ll lay my cards on the table upfront – The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is the best card game in history.

There are giants who came before, and to whom it owes a huge debt, but LotR:TCG sees off all the competition. Calling forth up to three heroes from Tolkien’s lore – hailing from the time of The Hobbit up to The Lord of the Rings – each player deploys a carefully assembled deck of cards to cooperatively (or single-handedly) tackle one of many deadly missions in Middle-earth whilst Sauron’s evil forces range against them from a deck of imaginatively cruel enemy encounter cards.

I love fantasy, and Tolkien started it all. I could blame my mum for reading The Hobbit to me at bedtime, or Ralph Bakshi for creating the terrific 1978 animated movie which shadowed my childhood with recurring nightmares about Ringwraiths. Still, I’ve no one to blame but my teenage self for cashing in my geek chips and reading The Lord of the Rings five times between obsessively playing fantasy board games and Dungeons and Dragons. So I’d been following the pre-release hype about LotR:TCG for what seemed like years, hoovering up all of the info I could find about the game. And in 2011, I picked it up from my local game shop about ten minutes after it was released. I didn’t stand a chance.

LEAVING THE SHIRE

As a fledgeling game designer I was so keen on the concept that I ceased developing my own fantasy game Gloom of Kilforth until I’d played it because I wondered if it would slake the same fantastical thirst. Fortunately LotR:TCG is an entirely different experience. I became so immersed in playing it that I wrote articles about it, I became an official play-tester, and I designed a series of fan-made LotR:TCG adventures. These ‘ninjadorg’ scenarios garnered enough interest that the players who enjoyed them encouraged me to Kickstart my own game. It’s been over a decade since I first fell so deeply into Fantasy Flight Games’ version of Middle-earth, and I still continue to discover myself there and back again.

Not usually keen on deck construction games, I had played a lot of Magic: The Gathering back in the 1990s but never had a real ‘system’ for it. I’ve always been more interested in having a fun, themed deck of say, goblins or elves, rather than spending endless hours researching killer decks for tournaments. So my interest in LotR:TCG lies very much more in the theme, gameplay, and experience. And since it’s a cooperative game, no one has to panic about sitting across the table from a professional gaming savant who is going to destroy one’s lovingly constructed card decks within a couple of rounds. Well. At least in the easier scenarios…

Because, whilst the professional gaming savants who designed LotR:TCG have delivered a magnificent and accessible dive into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, they have also set out to destroy players in their droves. And though there are easier introductory quests as well as an easy mode, the game in its purest form is nefariously tricksy to master. Indeed, one of the three scenarios included in the core set is close to impossible for the inexperienced solo player. Player wallets are at risk too, with over a hundred adventure packs available the road to expansions goes ever on and on.

Yet the gameplay is so brilliantly considered and utterly compelling that it unceasingly pulls you back in. I’ve played literally hundreds of times over the years, and even whilst preparing for this article I broke out the game once again to have a ‘quick’ play, but ended up riveted to my gaming table until 3am having racked up six epic games before collapsing in an emotional heap somewhere in the darkest dungeons of Dol Guldur.

Certainly, the rules can be daunting during those first couple of plays. Random encounters and card draws are definitely factors too, which may not appeal to some, but players are armed with a fine array of tactical options with which to tackle incoming obstacles and enemies. The four different spheres that player decks are constructed from – Tactics for fighting and warfare, Lore for healing and card draw, Leadership for allies and buffing, and Spirit for exploration and threat reduction – individually perform beautifully and elegantly. With every game the deeper strategies of each deck style naturally emerge, and the gameplay becomes effortlessly smooth as each sphere proves formidable, either in its own unique manner, or combined delicately with other spheres. And the possibilities for synergies with other players using different decks in multiplayer games are extremely tantalising as you are all able to represent the plethora of heroic factions of elves, dwarves, ents, hobbits and humans of Middle-earth fighting back against Sauron’s endless beastly hordes.

The love for the Middle-earth theme, and the undoubtable commitment from the design team is resplendent in the game, whether from the redolent Tolkienesque art, which is for the most part eye-wateringly gorgeous, or from the painstaking attention to detail that has gone into furnishing almost every single card with selected flavourful quotes from Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings himself. Even more lore than is conceivable has been lovingly drawn from every line and hint of Tolkien’s writing, from events and places fully described in the books to those only speculated about, from the northernmost tip of Arnor to the farthest reaches of southern Harad. I was lucky enough to interview virtuoso lead designer Caleb Grace about the game for my #BoardChitless podcast and he likened the design process as being able to point at a map of Middle-earth and just go anywhere – literally the dream of Tolkien fans everywhere.

“I’ve been a (Tolkien) fan almost my entire life and it’s very near and dear to me, so being able to work within that property is fantastic,” he said of the game.

The deck construction becomes inexorably more appealing because each new scenario in every expansion pack presents a fresh set of challenges and puzzles to be tackled. But even if you’re not so keen on studiously building your own decks, the latest iteration of the game now provides deck suggestions with newer scenarios, along with online community driven deck builders where veteran players share their own favourite thematically accurate and/or unstoppably effective decks for us time-short players to mooch from.

And now that Fantasy Flight has launched The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game Revised Core Set there is no better time to dive in for the first time – or to dust off your mammoth collection of cards and adventures – and immerse yourself in one of the most splendid tabletop experiences ever created: a staggeringly researched, lavishly presented, and stunningly exquisite love letter to the greatest myth-maker of modern literature. Personally, I think I’m quite ready for another adventure. 

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FIVE ADVENTURES FOR A FELLOWSHIP

Tristan picks his five favourite expansions for the expansive The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.

The Hunt for Gollum: First of the long line of small box expansions, this meaty and enjoyable quest adds a roster of new baddies and game effects to offer a healthy taste of what’s to come whilst showcasing the huge variability between different scenarios.

 

The Black Riders: Follow the official narrative: this ‘Saga’ expansion lets you enjoy the story and events of The Lord of the Rings, embarking on the Hobbits’ quest to take the ring to Mount Doom. It’s the first of six Saga expansions though, so prepare to get sucked in.

 

Khazad-dûm: Explore the Mines of Moria and build Dwarf decks with truly epic combos. Make Dáin Ironfoot your lead hero and watch those goblins crumble before you…

 

The Massing at Osgiliath: My favourite small box adventure, this one challenges you to develop a deck that can survive an epic fight right out of the gate, and keep running whilst the threats just keep escalating. Some really neat twists in the encounter deck too.

 

Heirs of Númenor: Channel the might of the Gondorians and watch the difficulty ramp up substantially with this big box’s three truly fiendish scenarios.

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