You battled through Mirkwood with barely a scratch, but now things are looking bad. Aragorn took a few lumps from the hill troll, and several smaller allies fell by the wayside; a Northern Tracker and a Snowborn Scout. Tragically, you never learnt their names. Now you travel down the Anduin river, hoping to regroup while multitude enemies lurk in the woods on all sides their weapons glinting in the moonlight. There’s a long way to go, and if you’re brave, and your luck holds out, you might just make it out alive.
The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game is quite possibly the best of the LCG brand. It’s a co-operative experience its hard as nails, but you’ll always come back for more; desperate to show those Uruks who’s boss.
You don’t know what an LCG is? It starts out with a card game in a single box; Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, even off-brand expandable games from other companies like the beloved and soon to be back in the ground Doomtown. You can play out of that box, and keep on playing for some time but then they go and put out extra packs with unrelenting regularity tempting you to expand your selection of cards. It scratches the old Collectable Card Game itch for those veterans of the CCG wars. Dark times, my friends, dark times.
Back to Lord of the Rings. You pick three heroes who vary in power depending on how big a threat you want to come across as, literally in this case as Threat is a currency. Hit 50 and you’re done. A beefy team might be in the early 30’s and then the little Hobbits who scrape by at maybe 20 and gain benefits for being so easily overlooked. Limiting your choices and helping the direction of your deck are the spheres; Leadership, Lore, Spirit, and Tactics. Your heroes belong to one of these, and each turn generates resources of their type to buy allies, attachments and to fuel events. A mono deck means you’ll get less versatility but be able to play big cards, two spheres seems about usual with one sphere more dominant than the other and tri-sphere is for crazy people who like little cards. It’s totally doable, and I have a couple of tri-sphere decks, but still… it’s tricky.
The ally cards are people who can help out by going on missions, fighting monsters or ‘chump-blocking’; falling under Orcish swords so that the name-level guys can take over. You get some useful individuals like Faramir and Hama, but generally, you’ll be playing helpful chaff. Attachments might be a sword, a title or a character trait like a little bravery. Events could be a sneak attack which flings a character out from your hand temporarily, a shot which you get off just before engaging a monster or finding trails which lead away from the threats. You can make decks based around individual key-worded mechanics like ‘Silvan’ or ‘Gondor’ which tend to have specific themes playing off each other.
So that’s the hero’s deck. It’s okay, but it’s fairly standard, featuring the same sorts of keywords and buying mechanics you’d find in any number of other similar collectable card games. Then you have the juicy bit; the adventure deck.
The core set includes three adventures. Additionally, there are six ‘adventure packs’ available separately which add more player cards and quests making up part of the ‘Mirkwood Cycle’ of adventures. Each of these mini-expansions commences a new story split over the following six parts. We’ll focus on the core set, to begin with.
There are plot cards which tell you what you need to do and the sets of cards which make up the central deck. Passage Through Mirkwood has its own plot-specific cards mixed with some giant spiders and goblins. Giving you everything you’ll need for a cheerfully sinister trip through the woods.
In an average turn you generate resources and buy cards, then the pummeling begins. You need to spend characters on three things; exploring which puts points on the story and generally wins you the mission, defending against any monsters which appear after you’ve generated said points, then attacking anything which has engaged with you. This means you need to do everything and if you’re unlucky, you won’t. Sometimes you’ll choose to fight the goblins surrounding you and letting the quest fail just a little this turn. Each point you fail the exploration phase well… that’s more Threat for you, which slowly edges towards the big 50 which will kill you. At the end of the turn, your Threat increases meaning that the more you stop to sniff the daisies, the likelihood of your death increases.
Oh! And there’s the staging area! I love this, it’s so horrible. It’s represented here by a picture of some cards on a weird wicker coaster thing. I’m not sure where they came from but in my games, it’s the staging area. When you explore, you commit people generating points equal to their Willpower (the top stat) and subtract the equivalent stat from the cards in the staging area. Then you draw more cards; one per player. This means more monsters, more locations to trek through. You travel to a location if you weren’t mid-way through one and the monsters look at the Threat level of each player before attacking. Think of the staging area like the dark woods, with monsters peeking at us through the trees.
Once you’ve put enough progress tokens on the adventure, it’ll probably pass to the next part. Sometimes you’ve got to do certain things like getting a ship back on course, explore some lost ruins or simply kill a boss monster to progress. Generally, it’s putting enough tokens on the plot. You do that and flip over the next one. Now you’re not just going through the woods, but you’re trying to sneak past Ungoliant’s Spawn, the biggest, baddest of all the big bad spiders. You fail and have to face it before the mission’s done. There you are, two heroes and a handful of allies left alive, and it’s all on the line. You snare the monster and hack it to parts while barely defending yourself from a bunch of goblins. The mission’s over. You’re most of the way dead, on 47 and 49 threat, but you’ve made it. You’re safe. Nice work. Now on to the next one.
The other adventures in the core set shake things up a bit. Journey Down the Anduin starts with a hill troll standing between you and a boat. He’s a horrible brute and one game I’ve played had him kill us before we got onto the river. When you are there, the enemies stop attacking. They build up instead, so you need to have your people run to shore and fight them rather than face their combined forces at the end. The final adventure is Escape from Dol Guldur which is a nightmare. One of your heroes starts off imprisoned, and the rest of them have to break him out. You have to locate the items to sneak in, get your hero back and then fight your way out. This one took my flatmate and I a good month to beat.
Like the way each Sentinels of the Multiverse villain and environment changes the way the game is played, so to do the adventures. In the adventure packs from the Mirkwood cycle you might be hunting down Gollum, trying to catch clues to his whereabouts, maybe you’re wandering interminable hills, shielding a baby eagle from danger. The mini-expansions make sure each storyline has different themes and concepts. I learnt how to play the game with the dwarf-themed missions, taking us down into Khazad Dum to face the Balrog in the finale. On the way there we had to solve a riddle or fight the tentacle beastie in the lake outside, we got split up and had to find one another while being harried by bats. I’ve spoken about mechanics here and about difficulty, but as a whole, this game is very narratively-focused and a pure joy for that. The difficulty shouldn’t be too off-putting either, there’s a built-in easy mode where you remove all gold-ringed cards from the adventure deck and start with a resource point for each character. Or if you’re a mental person you can buy “Nightmare Decks” which modify adventures making them even worse.
The current storyline has you with a bunch of boats, sailing to islands which might be the sunken ruins of Numenor. You start off with pirates on your tail, trying to board your ships. Later adventures have you searching a tropical island’s uncharted locations, then trying to put out fires in a town before facing off against a pirate and his henchwoman. It’s great fun and looks to feature a Kraken in one of the later adventures. I’m a little concerned about that one. I could go on all day about adventures I’ve had and will have. Soon I’ll be embarking on the Saga expansions which follow the plot of the books. I’ll chronicle my adventures and probably my repeated failures here.
If you haven’t worked it out yet, I thoroughly recommend Lord of the Rings. It’s high-stakes drama with enough narrative touches to guide you through a rollicking story, albeit one on occasions brutally short.