In my quest to share gaming with my wife, I am constantly on the lookout for cooperative games we can play together. I happened to stumble across The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games, and it seemed like an intriguing option. Phoenix enjoys the LOTR universe and Thunderstone, a fantastic deck-building board ngame. A cooperative romp through J.R.R. Tolkiens universe seemed like an excellent way to spend a few hours together.

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a one to four  player adventure, where players fight enemies and explore locations with decks of up to 50 cards from four spheres of influence.  The spheres are Leadership, Lore, Spirit and Tactics.

Each player controls one to three heroes who collect resources from a given sphere each turn, allowing you to buy cards from the same influence. Legolas is from the Tactics sphere, allowing him to perform combat actions and summon spearmen or archers to help his side.  Only one of each hero can be used in a game.  In order to play with three or four players, you will need two copies of the base game.

Background:

I played Magic: The Gathering way back in the mid 90s, Phoenix had never really played a card game that involved tapping or exhausting characters.

What’s in the Box

The base game contains starter decks for each sphere of influence, and three heroes for each sphere. It also includes three adventures: Passage Through Mirkwood, Journey Along the Anduin and Escape from Dol Gudur.

Disclaimer

For the purpose of this review, cards were used from the Conflict at Adventure Pack. More information on expansions and adventures pack will follow the review.

Setup

For this review, I used Legolas (Tactics), Thalin (Tactics) and Theodred (Leadership). I built my deck of low-cost meat shields and ranged archers. My goal was to have a wave of guys to tie up the enemies, and use my heroes to attack. Archers are ranged, and are able to target enemies engaged with either player.

Phoenix used Eowyn (Spirit), Frodo (Spirit) and Glorfindel (Lore). Her deck consisted of healing abilities, scouts and other magic.

Explaining the Threat Level

One of the core mechanics in LOTR is the threat level. You start the game with a threat level, and if you reach 50, you lose and your partner is on their own. Each hero has a threat number, which determines your starting threat level. Enemies also have threat levels, and will only attack players with the same or higher threat levels. Several events/cards also target players at or above certain thresholds.

Playing the Game

Game turns consist of seven phases. Within those phases, you will gather resources, summon allies and spend resources, send characters on quests, encounter new enemies and distant locations, travel to new locations for exploration, encounter and fight enemies and refresh.  Each adventure consists of multiple phases that require different set-ups and sometimes introduce new rules.

To send a character on a quest and ultimately make progress towards victory, you have to exhaust (tap) those characters in one of the early rounds. This leaves them unavailable for combat in the later rounds.

Each turn you will flip over a number of encounter cards equal to the number of players, and send them to a staging area. You compare their value to the willpower of your questing heroes to determine if you make any progress exploring your current location or against the current quest. If the enemies and distant locations are stronger, your threat level goes up. When it comes time to encounter enemies, each player can choose to engage a single enemy, otherwise monsters will strike at the first player that matches their threat level.

For Phoenix and I, play is most comfortable at our dining room table. Our coffee table gets cramped with heroes, allies and the staging area of enemies and locations. I’m not sure how you would set it up for four players in a reasonable amount of space.

Combat

Fighting the denizens of Middle Earth is more challenging than I would have guessed. The enemies always get to act to first. They attacki, and you have to designate characters (either allies or heroes) to defend against them. Unless you have a card that says otherwise, only one of your characters can defend against an enemy. You compare the monster’s attack to the defender’s shields, and assign damage to the defender.  The bad guys also get a random card dealt face down to them, and when they attack the cards are flipped to reveal Shadow Effects. These have a range of negative outcomes for the player, from allowing the baddie to do more damage to wounding your characters. It can really wreck your plans.

Once the enemies have gone, you get to fight back, using any unexhausted characters to strike back at the monsters. If you have ranged attacks, you can target enemies fighting any other player, otherwise you are stuck fighting the monsters in front of you.

Adventures in Middle Earth

Before starting this campaign, Phoenix and I tried the initial adventure, “Passage Through Mirkwood” a couple times with decks of a single sphere to get a feel for the mechanics. Once we were really ready to dive in, I built our decks.

Our first playthrough with the new decks was nothing short of catastrophic. Mirkwood has a low difficulty rating and pits you against the spiders of Mirkwood, Passage through Mirkwood and Dol Guldur Orcs.

In the first game, my deck was poorly shuffled, and I wound up with a hand full of leadership cards. With two of my three heroes hailing from Tactics, two thirds of my resources were wasted waiting for me to draw tactics cards, which make up roughly 80 percent of my deck. My heroes were constantly tied up on defense, and I wasn’t able to clear any enemies off the board. With me not being able to destroy enemies, we both got overrun and all six of heroes perished.

Our second attempt at the Journey through Mirkwood (Difficulty = 1) went more the way I envisioned. I drew more tactics cards, and was able to stem the tides of the oncoming horde with Gondorian spearmen. Between Legolas and another archer, I was able to clear enemies and keep us from being overrun. With me engaging enemies, Phoenix’s heroes were able to go on quests and drive us through the adventure. Gandalf also popped in at opportune times to help us seal the deal. Using Fantasy Flight’s handy scoring system, which allows you to track how well you performed in an adventure, we came up with a score of 97. Scores are influenced by your threat level, and how beat up your heroes get. The lower the threat level the better.

The second adventure in the base game is Journey Along the Anduin (Difficulty = 4). It pits you against cards from the Journey Down the Anduin, Sauron’s Reach, Dol Guldur Orcs and Wilderlands sets. Without spoiling the adventure, the core mechanics change slightly for this adventure. The adventure was definitely longer and more challenging. There were more monsters and more locations. I had some pretty decent draws again and was able to summon a fair amount of meat shields. Phoenix was able to play an extremely useful scout who helped us burn through locations.

For me, I thought it was a pretty intense adventure. It was evenly balanced, and I felt like we really had to work together and spread out the enemies slightly to maximize our combat opportunities. We were able to defeat the adventure on our first playthrough, and finished with a score of 145. With worse luck on our draws, I could easily see us getting overwhelmed on this adventure as well. If I had to guess, I think we would usually defeat it three out of every five times we play.

The third and final adventure in the base game is Escape from Dol Guldur (Difficulty = 7). In this adventure, you take on cards from the Escape from Dol Guldur, Spiders of Mirkwood, and Dol Guldur Orcs sets.  It begins with one hero being captured, one Nazgul hovering ominously over the board, and three objectives that will need to be completed in order to win.

This adventure was a disaster for us. We could not have killed more than one or two enemies before we were overrun. We lost in approximately six rounds. I had lost one hero, and we both wound up with a threat level over 50, which knocks you out of the game. Even with outstanding luck, I’m not sure how we would beat this adventure with our existing decks. To me, it felt a little unfair, like a tool designed to push me to buy more expansions, get new cards and come back in the future to whoop some orc bottom.

Overall, I think the game is very fun. We have already had several hours of enjoyment from the base game. I think the core mechanics are very fun, and the threat level keeps the pressure on throughout the game. I just wish there were more heroes, more adventures and more enemy sets included in the base.

Looking to the Future and 1,000,000 Expansions

LOTR is a living card game, meaning there are an endless stream of expansions as the game keeps growing and evolving. The base game ($30) has a cycle of six adventure packs ($15) that enhance the experience. Each adventure pack includes one new hero, one new adventure and two new cards for each sphere of influence. With the base game, you are able to play each of the six adventure packs in the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle.

If you want to continue your adventures, there is also a series of deluxe expansions ($30).Each deluxe expansion includes two new heroes and three new quests, and allow you to play a series of six new adventure packs (also $15 apiece). That’s $120 per cycle.

There are also Saga Expansions ($30) that recreate iconic moments from the Lord of the Rings books. These expansions require only the base game to play.  Sage Expansions include one to four new heroes, three new quests and over 100 new player and encounter cards.

Buy it Or Burn It?

Overall, I think Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is very fun. There is no doubt that the business model is difficult to accept, with each cycle running over $100. I’m yet to see how much the expansions add to the base decks, I was somewhat underwhelmed with our first adventure pack. That being said, I am very excited for our first saga expansion.

If you have the resources to keep up with the ever-expanding game, I recommend jumping in. I would love to connect with another pair of players to try out the four player action.

Buy it on Amazon: Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game

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