An adventure you won’t go Sauron
Tolkien’s stories were always about the journey, rather than the destination. The most memorable scenes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place on the way to the Misty Mountain and Mount Doom: trolls turning to stone, crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, an old ring in a cave.
Journeys in Middle-earth is itself part of a longer tale. Its app-powered blend of narrative exploration and combat has roots in the spectacular second edition of Mansions of Madness, while its lore situates it in the same post-Hobbit, pre-Fellowship gap as The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.
While the two share basic gameplay elements, Journeys is far more than Mansions with prosthetic elf ears and hobbit hair glued to its feet. In place of the Lovecraftian game’s fatalistic dice rolls – the ideal fit for that universe’s doom-and-gloom horror – Journeys implements an original system of drawing cards from individual character decks to resolve tests thrown up by the app, from battles against roving goblins and orcs to interactions with rangers and townspeople.
The personalisation of the decks based on each character and their selectable D&D-ish role in the party – whether a pathfinder tuned for exploration or musician able to buff their companions – brings a meaningful layer of roleplaying-lite progression to the experience. Over the course of an ongoing campaign (the core box’s Bones of Arnor arc runs across more than a dozen separate scenarios), you gradually come to know your character and their deck’s unique make-up of symbols and abilities, spending amassed experience points and upgrading equipment to spec them further in a specific direction.
The subtle depth of the card system lets Journeys to become so much more than the sum of its parts. Recalling the turn-by-turn refinement of deckbuilders, players can remove cards from their deck as ‘prepared’ abilities, temporarily removing their symbols from aiding with tests but offering up other potential benefits. ‘Scouting’ at the end of each turn allows cards to be prepared or placed on the top or bottom of the deck, offering deliciously agonising choices over when to keep skills ready versus guaranteeing a successful test. Being able to effectively customise and control your deck like this, particularly in the dedicated ‘battle’ scenarios separate to the exploration-focused ‘journey’ chapters, brings Journeys’ combat closer to the crunchy tactical cardplay of Gloomhaven.
The app is far improved from Mansions’ virtual GM across the board, bringing flash visuals, a Howard Shore-aping soundtrack and the ability to track, save and resume a playthrough with the same characters. Replayed scenarios feel genuinely fresh thanks to new combinations of baddies, items, interactions and environments, with the central narrative generously supplemented by random side quests and able to branch as the result of critical player decisions. The variability of enemies’ behaviour – which can include gangs, elite toughs and a variety of keywords that force players to switch up their battle strategies on the fly – combines with the cards on the table to ensure encounters feel more than menial. The plot beats and writing are generally effective enough to keep you adventuring and conjure up the sense of Middle-earth – bar a few moments where certain dialogue feels a little limp coming from the mouth of a bloodthirsty orc.
Journeys is a step-up from Mansions on the table too, its miniatures a leap in quality from flimsy cultists. The switch from sweeping arrangements of modular hex tiles to the close-knit battle boards dotted with terrain (which springs up in animated 3D on-screen) achieves a pleasingly cinematic changing of pace and showcases the strength and flexibility of the central cardplay. The result is a juggling of exploration and action that you can see and feel, and excels at sustaining the energy and scope the RPG-ish campaign deserves.
If Mansions and The Lord of the Rings: TCG’s stream of expansions are anything to go by, Journeys’ core set will be just the beginning of a new Middle-earth epic. When the journey is this much fun, there’s no way you’ll ever want it to end.
PLAY IT? – MUST-PLAY
Building on the impressive atmosphere and gameplay of Mansions, Journeys drops the dice for a meaningful card-driven system and the involving progression and storytelling of an RPG-lite. It’s an adventure you won’t want to miss.
Designer: Nathan Hajek, Grace Holdinghaus
Time: 1+ hour
This review originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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