Lord of the Rings LCG Review
How do you help ease the pain of a Tolkien fan who has read the Lord of the Rings books, watched the movies, played the video games, read the books again, and still isn’t satisfied? The answer is more Lord of the Rings. The answer is always more Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, if you happen to fall into this group and you’re a tabletop gamer, the series is well represented.
Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is, you guessed it, a card game based on Lord of the Rings. This isn’t just any old card game though, it’s a Living Card Game, a card game that keeps on giving with continual, constant expansions being released all the time. This isn’t just any old Living Card Game though. Lord of the Rings puts a unique spin on the LCG genre by offering a co-operative experience, where one or more players can build a deck to fight against the game, which will throw out Sauron’s minions in troves to try to stop you from completing your quest.
You didn’t read that wrong, I said one or more players, meaning this game can be played solo. If you’re starving for a new Lord of the Rings experience, or if you’re itching to throw yourself into a deck-building experience with an absurd amount of content, then continue reading with cautious optimism, because this game might just take over your life.
Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, published by Fantasy Flight Games and designed by Nate French, was released in 2011 and has enjoyed a constant stream of deck-based expansions ever since. Is this the one card game to rule them all? It’s time to find out.
How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?
You might be wondering how much variety LOTR:LCG can offer if it’s using a pre-made deck to play against. “Wouldn’t that get old?” The game has an aswer to this, in the form of scenarios. Scenarios are quests that you can choose to embark on, each one with its own little story, and specific objectives that need to be cleared in order to win. Furthermore, each scenario has its own custom-tailored deck, so rest assured that you won’t be playing against the same cards every time you play.
The object of the game is to beat the scenario. Every scenario is broken into multiple parts, and you’ll have to beat whatever objective is currently in front of you in order to advance to the next. The scenarios are made up of three objectives each, though some of the expansion quests may deviate from this number. Typically, advancing requires a certain amount of progress tokens (which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment), but sometimes you might just have to destroy one of Sauron’s big baddies instead. This is one thing that’s great about LOTR:LCG. Every quest is different, and the three that are included in the core are three completely different experience that do well to showcase the breadth that this game has.
To play the game, each participating player (the core set supports two) will build a deck, or used a pre-made one that the game provides for you. Each player will start with a hand of six cards drawn out of their shuffled deck, as well as three chosen heroes, and then the game begins. Each round is broken down into seven phases, and the game will go on until the players have won, or until Sauron’s minions are enjoying a fine wine over the corpses of Middle Eath’s heroes. Additionally, reaching a threat level of 40 will end the game immediately, which is measured by a dial, and will be explained more below.
The player cards consist of four types of cards, referred to as “spheres,” that encompass different types of abilities.
-Leadership is a good all-around suite that also provides plenty of useful allies to help you out.
-Tactics cards focus heavy on offense, making it easy to kill enemies, but harder to complete objectives.
-Spirit is essentially the opposite of Tactics, focusing heavily on progression and avoidance of conflict.
-Lore is the support suite, filled with cards that can heal your heroes or provide remedial effects.
A player deck can be comprised with up to three different spheres, but most decks tend to specialize on just two. Each hero is also assigned to their own sphere. After your deck is prepped and ready, it’s time to start your journey.
The game begins with the Resource Phase. In this phase, you’ll add a card to your hand (drawn off the top of your face-down deck), and every hero collects a coin (referred to as “resources” in-game), which can be used to play cards. Although you can hold as many cards as you please, most every single one has a cost which will have to be paid to actually use it.
Once you’ve collected coins, you’ll move on to the Planning Phase, in which you can play certain cards. Ally and attachment cards can only be played during this phase. Ally cards are friendly characters that can help you progress, attack, or defend (essentially watered down versions of heroes), and attachments are cards that you can attach to said allies (or heroes) to augment their abilities.
The game then moves on to the Quest Phase, which is very important, because this is where you obtain progress tokens, which, again, is the main means through which you typically complete objectives. The Quest Phase is basically that one part of Fellowship where you see them walk over that rocky pass in single file while the iconic theme plays. You know, that one part? The part that you think of any time you ever hear the music? Your heroes are “questing” here, and if their willpower exceeds that of the threat that surrounds them, they’ll make progress.
In the Quest Phase, you’ll exhaust as many characters as you please to commit them to the quest. Beware though – once a character has been exhausted, they can’t reactivate for the rest of the round, barring certain exceptions and specific card actions. You’ll need characters to do stuff in the later phases, so if you exhaust them all now, you’re setting yourself up to be Orc-fodder later.
Committing a character to a quest adds their “willpower” (noted by a star icon on their card) to a pot, which is compared to the “threat” of enemies and locations that appear while you’re questing. In this phase, a card will be drawn from the encounter deck, and added to the staging area, which is basically a sitting room for all the enemy cards that haven’t engaged you yet. In order to gain progress tokens, the combined amount of your committed willpower must exceed the total threat of enemy cards in the staging area.
For every point of threat that your willpower exceeds, you’ll gain a progress token. Should the threat exceed your willpower, your threat dial will move up by the corresponding amount. Remember that reaching 40 will end your game, so you’re essentially forced to quest, which becomes a delicate balancing act; you’ll have to use up characters to quest, and you’ll have to save some for combat later.
Next up is the Travel Phase, which is a moment where you can “explore” a nearby area. Mechanically, this means that you’ll take one of the location cards in the staging area, and make it into the active location. If a location is made active, it no longer contributes threat. In order to make it easier to gain progress tokens, travelling is essential. Unfortunately, most places in Middle-Earth are dangerous, and travelling can hit you with some nasty side effects. It’s a double edged sword – you need to explore to reduce the threat level, but it can also punish you.
After this, you’ll reach the Encounter/Combat Phases, which is where you’ll engage Sauron’s minions. In the Encounter Phase, enemies in the staging area will engage you, depending on their threat level. If it’s too high, they’ll stay up there until you’re at their level, but you can optionally take them on if you want to get rid of them prematurely.
Once you’ve engaged an enemy, you’ll have to choose a hero or ally to defend against their attack. Enemy attack power is compared with your own defense level, and you’ll receive a hit for every point that their attack exceeds your defense. Unfortunately, you’ll also have to exhause a character to take a hit. This means that characters that defend cannot attack, so you’ll have to take all of this into account when you decide what to do with your characters. This gets sticky when you have, say, three enemies engaged with you and only four characters. You’ll have to quest, attack, and defend against every hit with four exhausts. You’ll be lacking in one of those areas, and that’s where Lord of the Rings can become a real challenge.
With any characters you have left, you can perform attacks against the enemy, and damage is calculated in the same way. One attack exhausts your character, but fortunately, you have the option of exhausting multiple cards to team up their damage against one enemy.
Finally, you’ll taste the sweet nectar of the Refresh Phase, which is where the round ends, and your characters can refresh from the pains of exhaustion. All of your characters are reactivated (though they retain any damage they may have received), your threat increases by one point, and you begin the round anew. Rounds will continue on in the same fashion until the game has ended.
One thing I haven’t mentioned are the “event” cards, which are basically action cards. While attachment and ally cards can only be played in the beginning of the round, these can be played at any moment, and knowing how and when to use these is one of the most important parts of the game. Some cards can halt enemy attacks, while some can reduce your threat level. Others can augment your heroes’ attack power, while others still can heal damage.
The important thing to remember here is that this is a card game, so every single step above could be dealt with in about a billion different ways depending on how your deck is configured. There are so many cards that it’d be a daunting task to attempt to list them all, but it suffices to say that you will have fun pulling cards out of your deck and playing them efficaciously to get through these phases as cleanly as possible. It suffices to say that you won’t be lacking for options in LOTR:LCG, and even if you’ve cleared a scenario before, doing the same one with a different deck can be just as rewarding.
The last point to make is that, thus far, everything I’ve explained has applied to solo play only. Everything functions more or less the same way in a two player game, because the game scales with the player count. For example, in the Quest Phase, two cards will come out with two players instead of one. Players can take on certain roles – one player can exhaust most of their characters to quest, while the other can engage most of the enemies, or you might choose to play where both players have a healthy balance. Either way, the game essentially just doubles up on however much it throws at you, but all the main rules stay the same.
I could, of course, go on and on and on about the finer details of LOTR:LCG’s gameplay, but at that point, I may as well be writing the entire rulebook. Let’s move on.
That being said, LOTR:LCG is definitely a different type of card game due to its co-operative aspect. I love this, because it gives you the enjoyable mechanics and depth of a collectible/living card game, but without the stress of having to keep up with a metagame. The thing about LCGs is that they’re kind of a huge investment in both time and money, and if your opponents are keeping up with all the latest releases, you pretty much need to either keep up with them, or else play with a fraction of the resources that they have access to. In this sense, LCGs/CCGs are essentially hobbies unto themselves. Are those bad things? Not really, otherwise there wouldn’t be millions of loyal card-players out there; it certainly has appeal to certain people. The point I’m trying to make is that LOTR:LCG gives you all the mechanics of an evolving card game, but allows you to play it on your own terms. This makes the game highly accessible for people who would like to play a game that has LCG mechanics, but don’t have the room to keep up with a competitive one.
What makes Lord of the Rings fun, then, is being able to play with these card game mechanics as much as you want without depending on another player. You can build a deck, play a scenario, fail, change your deck, play it again, fail again, change it yet again, and just keep going. You could even replace “fail” with “win,” and you’d still be getting mileage out of the game. Your success in LOTR:LCG is contingent upon how well-built your deck is, and that, to me, is what the game is all about. It’s not necessarily about how you play your cards (although that is obviously immensely important), it’s about building a deck that can’t lose.
“Isn’t that the point of any LCG?” Well, yeah, you’re not wrong. The thing that makes LOTR feel different is that it challenges you to experiment with a variety of decks. In a competitive LCG, many players make an optimal deck that is sort of a “one size fits all” deal that can weather most challenges, perhaps with some modification here and there. With Lord of the Rings, you’re playing against the game itself, and every scenario requires a deck that’s totally different.
It’s sort of like the difference between a single player video game, and an online multiplayer one. In single player, you might prep your character up for a boss fight, and your loadout is completely optimized to kill that one boss. This might not work in online multiplayer, where you’ll need to be optimized to handle a variety of scenarios at any given time. LOTR:LCG is that single player game. You’re able to build decks, but these decks are built to complete specific objectives, so it challenges you to build decks in unique ways that you likely would never have tried against human opponents.
The second scenario, for example, pits you against a nasty troll right at the very beginning of the scenario. It suffices to say that the troll is an absolute nightmare to bring down, and if you can’t kill him within two or three rounds, you’ve already lost the game. You have to build a deck, then, that can kill that troll within one or two rounds no matter which cards are drawn. The third scenario, on the other hand, robs you of one of your heroes for a while. Now you have to build a deck that works specifically to fill in the gaps that are left by your missing hero. The decks in both of these scenarios is likely to be completely different. That’s the kind of thing that I love about Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and it ends up making the game feel like it’s one-of-a-kind.
One criticism I have about the game is its difficulty. I hesitate to use the word “flaw” here, because difficulty is highly subjective, but know that LOTR:LCG can be very, very hard. If the word “unforgiving” was translated into board game form, it would take the shape of LOTR:LCG. The encounter deck seriously is evil, and there are games where you’ll be doing fine the whole time, and then suddenly your entire party is dead within a round.
Unfortunately, there is an element of luck that comes as a natural cost to an encounter deck. The goal of the game is to optimize your deck against anything that could come out, so it’s sort of to be expected, but sometimes you simply do just have bad luck, plain and simple. The game is well-designed to the point where it’s hard to get grievously bad luck, but it’s impossible to completely avoid when you’re relying on the luck of the draw. Remember that troll I mentioned? There’s one more in that deck; an example of plain ol’ bad luck would be pulling that second troll on one of the first rounds. At that point, you may as well just give up to save yourself time.
Luckily, the scenarios come at different difficulties, so even if certain scenarios are infuratingly hard, you have the option of getting some easier ones and then boom, problem solved. LOTR:LCG comes with three scenarios – the first one is pretty easy; once you have a grip on the game, you’ll most likely beat this one on a regular basis. The second is in the “middle.” I use those scare quotes because the second one is pretty freaking hard, and then the third one is at the top of the difficulty scale, which is something straight out of Frodo’s nightmares. There is a multitude of expansion scenarios that remain on the lower eschelon of the difficulty scale, so know that LOTR:LCG is a game that can be as hard or as easy as you want it to be.
Ultimately, LOTR:LCG tried something new and bizarre with its co-op LCG model, and I’m happy to say that the risk paid off. LOTR:LCG is a fun time, and a veritable challenge. As someone who just doesn’t have the time to commit to a competitive LCG, I absolutely love that I can play this game that has the same mechanics, and not have to worry about anyone else. LOTR’s twist on the LCG genre is well-done and inspired, and I’m glad it’s here to give filthy casuals like me a taste of deck-building goodness.
This also, of course, depends on how much preparation you’ve done beforehand. The hour figure implies that your deck is already ready. This shouldn’t be news to anyone who has played a deck-building LCG/CCG, but deck preparation, assuming you want a capable one, is usually something that’s done as its own activity, rather than being a component of your game night. My suggestion would be to either make your deck beforehand, or, when you make a good deck, to write it down so you can easily build it up next time you play.
Setup is pretty harmless with LOTR. Assuming you’ve got your deck, it’s really just shuffling a bunch of cards. I’d give it a couple minutes. Though, speaking of setup, the amount of cards in the box can be pretty daunting, and the time it takes to prepare the game will be greatly expedited if you’ve taken some time to organize your box, like I’ve so haggardly done with mine.
If you’re teaching the game, or having it get taught to you, it’s a lot more manageable. Most learners I’ve taught take onto it slow in the beginning, and their understanding exponentially increases the more you play. If you’re teaching, expect to answer a lot of questions, but also expect that yout player will have a good enough grip on the game by the end of the first session to not have to be babied This isn’t the easiest game to teach, but it’s a far cry from being “hard.” Just answer questions as they come and you’ll be set.
Aside from that, I would just advise players to be aware of their friend’s cards. Aragorn, for instance, has the “sentinel” trait, which allows him to defend against enemy attacks made to the other player. Good interaction will comprise of players who can recognize what their friends have, and work together to bring out the best of their hands.
How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?
As far as deck-building goes, I’ve found that you want to make a deck that will be effective no matter what cards are drawn. The random factor is huge in any card game, and therefore you want to maximize your odds of cards coming out that complement each other well. Just as with any deck-based game, the trick is to not dilute your deck with cards that don’t strongly contribute to your overall purpose.
An example would be the deck that I created for the second scenario. Let’s talk about that troll again. This guy is a beast. He has a ludicrous amount of HP, can insta-kill half the characters in the game, and you can’t even chump block him (playing a cheap/expendable ally to take his hit and die) because every amount of excess damage that the troll does that’s not negated by defense raises your threat level. This means that, in just a few turns, the troll will likely either kill you, or make you lose from threat. Let’s talk about one deck-building strategy you can use to deal with this jerk (note that there are plenty more strategies that could be used).
The odds of you directly engaging the troll head on and surviving aren’t good. So there’s two options – either negate his attacks, or prevent him from engaging you. Fortunately, the troll has a pretty high threat number, so he can’t engage you unless it matches the amount of threat that you have on your dial. You’ll start off with a certain amount which is determined by the heroes you’ve chosen (more powerful heroes start you off with greater threat). With a lower starting threat, you usually have a few turns to prep before the troll engages you.
One of the strategies, then, could be to build a deck that prevents the troll from engaging you at all. This is how I beat the scenario, using a Spirit/Leadership deck. I designed the deck to have a high likelihood of cards that would decrease the threat level, and that would give me high questing power (something that comes in handy for the next objective of the scenario).
Gandalf the ally card was an absolute savior here, who has high attack, high defense, high questing power, and can perform one of three powerful actions when he enters play, two of which include reducing total threat, and immediately dealing undefended damage to any enemies in play. The catch? In true Gandalf fasion, he shows up for the round that he’s played, and then goes into the discard pile. The Galadhrim’s Greeting can reduce your threat by a hefty six points, which means that you effectively have six more rounds to wait until the troll attacks. Drawing even one of these can practically guarantee you enough time to build up enough of a force to crush the troll. A Sneak Attack allows you to play an ally for one turn, and then have them immediately return to your hand. This allows you to play Gandalf multiple times, which in this scenario, is a huge boon.
By drawing a Galadhrim’s Greeting, you could reduce your threat and give you plenty of time to draw more allies. With a Sneak Attack and Gandalf, you can play Gandalf once, deal four free damage to the troll, play him again for real the next round, engage the troll directly, have Gandalf take the hit , and then use your heroes and allies to combine together to deliver a mighty blow which will leave him to the sport of Saruman’s crows in one round.
The above scenario is, of course, an ideal combination of cards that come out, but keep in mind there is still an entire deck of hypothetical cards I haven’t accounted for. Eventually, I was able to refine the deck to the point where I could play the scenario every time without taking a single hit from the troll.
Aside from the deck-building, you’ll have to play your cards wisely in-game to stand a chance. For a player who has no idea how to use their cards, the best deck ever made won’t do diddly-squat. The thing about Lord of the Rings is that there are a lot of problems to worry about at once, and efficiently allocating your resources to deal with them all is your only chance of success. Multi-taskers would probably enjoy LOTR:LCG.
Exhausting characters for willpower, attacking and defending, keeping track of a rising threat level, and making sure that monsters/locations don’t stack up in the staging area are all among your priorities. As if keeping track of everything on the table wasn’t enough, you also have to account for the things you haven’t seen. So, you’ve got enough willpower to deal with the enemies above, and you have enough characters in reserve to defend and attack against the baddies that you’re engaged with. But, what happens if another enemy pops out? How will you deal with him? What if it’s a surge card, which makes you draw another one out of the deck? What if The Necromancer’s Reach comes out, and deals a hit to every single exhausted character? How many of your allies will die? Are your heroes prepared for that? The truth is that, in Lord of the Rings, you should always prepare for the absolute worst, because that’s usually what you get. If you’re hoping for the game to be kind, I hate to spoil it for you, but that’s not really Sauron’s style.
This is one of those games where there are so many options of what you can strategically and tactically do, that writing a fifty page university thesis on the matter probably wouldn’t cover all the options, which can likely be said about any LCG/CCG on the market. It suffices to say that, if you want a game with deep strategic and tactical depth, Lord of the Rings won’t let you down.
Both sides are right, to a degree.
LOTR:LCG comes with as much luck as anyone would expect from a deck-based game. As far as your own deck goes, it’s up to you to decide how effective your deck is. If you put some work into it, you can make your odds pretty good. If you put a lot of work into it, you can practically mathematically guarantee that some sort of winning combination will always be available to you. As far as drawing your own cards go, I don’t see a lot of room for complaints; this is a game where you build and use a deck, it’s what you signed up for.
…The encounter cards, on the other hand? Okay, I’ll complain a little. The simple fact is that LOTR is designed to be hard. To make a good co-op game, it has to be a challenge, and I don’t envy the difficulty that the designers have to face of making a co-op game that provides a challenge while being neither too easy nor too hard to play. For the most part, the game succeeds, albeit leaning a little bit towards the “hard” spectrum. That being said, the design isn’t infallible, and sometimes, the right (maybe wrong would be a better word) cards come out to create a situation that’s just a little too ridiculous, and sometimes otherwise successful games can be lost because the cards that came out were just too hard to deal with.
Because you’re not playing against a human, the deck you’re playing with isn’t custom picked by a player. The deck is designed for that specific scenario, so the cards will be the same every time. I’ve gotta give it up to the designers; the deck does a good job at balancing itself out the majority of the time. There are dastardly cards that are cripplingly powerful, but in most encounter decks, they’re separated by plenty of cards that aren’t quite as evil.
Something that deserves mention are the shadow effects. Any time an enemy attacks, a card is drawn from the encounter deck and flipped over to complement their attack. Many cards have their own shadow effect on the bottom, which only applies to this specific moment. If there is no shadow effect, the attack proceeds as normal. If there is one, the effect is added accordingly. While these can be a huge pain to deal with, it’s actually a clever design mechanism that prevents certain cards from being played regularly. There are plenty of powerful cards that you may never run into if they happened to be drawn as shadow cards. Going back to that troll example I just love to use, there are two of those guys in the deck. If one ends up being a shadow card, then you can rest easy knowing that the other troll won’t be invited to the party for the rest of the game.
The fundamental design stacks the odds well enough to where, most of the time, the game as about as hard as you’d expect. But the game can’t completely escape from luck, and in the rare case that three or four super powerful cards are drawn one after another, it can really turn your game around in a bad way, and it might even leave a bad taste in your mouth.
The occasional bad luck of the encounter deck is something that should be known about LOTR:LCG going in. If you’re aware that sometimes, despite your efforts, you might just get screwed, you’ll be able to accept it as the exception and not the rule.
Given that this game is focused on the core set, if you’re worried about a broken game, then worry somewhere else, because LOTR:LCG on the whole feels very well designed.
Solo play isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Technically, solo play mandates that you use one deck, and the game scales accordingly. I personally prefer playing with one deck, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t have some drawbacks. With a solo deck, the third scenario is agonizingly difficult, and almost impossible. Most players who play the game on a regular basis recommend two decks (simulating two players albeit in a solo setting) if you’re to take on Escape From Dol-Guldur. I was able to beat this with a solo deck, but it reaches a point where you basically have to have a certain threshold of good luck to succeed. This one definitely feels designed for multiple people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; you can either play as a buddy or just pull a dual deck. And that’s the great thing about solo play in this game. You can play “one player,” or you can simulate two players by yourself and both end up being an awesome experience. I just want to make it clear that, if you’re a fan of solo play, don’t be afraid to play two decks if the scenario is too hard for one alone.
At two players, the game is similar, only now with teamwork. Certain rules change slightly when there are more players, and they can make a difference in your game. For example, the “first player” (this switches off every round) has to do the travelling in the travel phase. Sometimes this is associated with certain card effects that may or may not effect him alone. Also, enemies engage players in a specific order; careful planning will have to take place to determine who engages which enemy, and if it will be necessary to voluntarily engage a foe to prevent it from attacking your friend.
There are also certain cards which change in nature depending on player count. “Ranged” characters can attack enemies in your friend’s area, and “sentinels” can defend against them. These are keywords that have no meaning in single player (unless referenced by other cards). And then there are cards that make use of multiple players. “Wandering Took” allows you to lower your threat level, but only if you pass it to another player and raise theirs. With no other players, this effect becomes unusable in single play and reduces the card to a normal ally.
The core set is only designed to accomodate two players, though the game itself can support up to four. If you acquire another core set, you could play a game with four players, and the single scaling mechanism in the game (the number of cards drawn during the Questing Phase) would adapt accordingly. Technically, there’s no reason why you can’t play with more players in the core set, as really the only stipulation is that each player has their own deck. The game comes with four pre-made player decks (each suite being its own), so there’s enough cards to do it. While this is an option, it’s hard for me to imagine a scenario like that where the game wouldn’t feel watered down. Sure, you could make three or four decks, but at that point they probably won’t be very good. Not to mention the fact that the game only comes with two threat dials. This is an easy homemade fix (I mean, you can just write the numbers down), but the core set was definitely designed for two players (or one), so that’s where you’re likely to get the most out of it.
For the sake of transparency, I want to mention that I’ve never played with more than two players. If you’ve had great experienced with higher player counts, I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments!
Look and Feel
Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?
This is a Fantasy Flight Game, and as usual, they don’t disappoint with aesthetics. As a Lord of the Rings fan, I just love the visuals. The artwork is rich, and pays worthy tribute to Tokien’s world. As a board game fan, I’m also not disappointed. The tokens are nothing particularly interesting, but they’re nice to look at, and the threat dial is pretty cool. Even if I weren’t a LOTR fan, I’d be plenty pleased with the artwork. It’s high quality all across the board, and I have not yet run into cards that are glaringly low quality in comparison to the rest (I’m looking at you, Dominion).
The box is also very nice, and I love the panoramic quality of the shot of Gandalf riding into Dul-Guldur. It captures the ominous tone of the game, and sets a precedence that this is not butterflies and rainbows.
Natural comparisons will be drawn to the movies in anything that has the name “Lord of the Rings” attached to it, and as a huge fan of the movies, I found myself doing just that. The game is based off the book universe, so there’s no official movie tie-in. Nonetheless, given that the LOTR movies are highly respected amongst most of the fanbase (We’ll talk about The Hobbit later…), I’ve certainly seen a fair number of cards that pay homage to the movie’s visual designs. Some characters look like hybrid versions of their movie and book personas, while others look differently entirely. Given that this is a card game, there’s a wide range of artists, and I’ve already seen in the expansions that there’s no “canon” look for the characters.
In any case, I think the game does a very good job of pleasing hardcore Tolkien fans, while also showing some visual resemblance at times to the movies we know and love. Once again, Fantasy Flight shows that it’s able to handle a beloved licence with reverence and finesse.
The components are good, and there’s not much more to say than that. The cards (correct me in the comments if I’m wrong) are made up of the same stuff that you’ll find in other LCG/CCG games. If you’ve ever played Pokemon, Magic, or any other FFG title, you’re probably familiar with the card quality that you’ll be getting in LOTR. I’ve found that the cards tend to scratch easily if you’re moving them around on your table, so if you prefer your cards to be in mint condition, you might want to look into getting some card sleeves. I personally don’t mind some wear and tear on my cards, but I don’t speak for everyone.
The other physical components are just peachy. You’ll get FFG’s standard cardboard quality for the tokens, and the threat dials, once assembled together, feel impossible to take apart. Production quality is overall very good, and more or less what I expected out of a FFG title.
This is normally a section where I say “it’s fine, it’s good!” and then move on, but I found myself looking online to find answers to questions that I didn’t feel like the rulebook answered very well. Sure enough, on several accounts, I was playing the game wrong. I’m not sure if this has to do with the game’s innate complexity, or if it’s just the way that the rules were worded, but I think they could have done better.
LOTR:LCG’s rulebook has the weird scenario where it’s easy to interpret the rules one way, and then when it’s explained to you correctly, you look back and say, “Ohhhhhhhhhhh, NOW I get it.” The rules are worded correctly, but for some reason I just didn’t interpret all of them right the first time around.
One problem that LOTR’s rulebook has is that it’s very text heavy, and doesn’t have digestable sections to make things easy to read or reference. There are plenty of rules that you’ll find yourself looking back on, and there’s not really one place where you can just flip the book open, get a quick summary, and go back to your game. No, you’ll have to open the book up, find whatever specific section the rule applies to, and then dig through the paragraphs of text to find what you’re looking for. At 31 pages, this can become tiresome.
Not everyone will misinterpret the rulebook as I did; it may be that you read it and had no problem getting it all down. Even so, I would argue that FFG could done better here, especially given how well written some of their other rulebooks are. You can see examples of this in my Imperial Assault and X-Wing reviews.
One thing I do enjoy about the rulebook is the run-down of all the phases, which can be found at the end. This also includes all of the action windows in which you can play event cards, which is extremely helpful. As an experienced, seasoned player of the game, I still find myself referencing this thing.
Visually, it won’t leave you wanting. It’s generally aesthetically pleasing, with good artwork placed tastefully throughout.
Essentially, the game chooses an “in-between” period in Middle Earth canon and opens it up to plug whatever adventures they wish into the game. Presumably, this is for the sake of designing quests that are new and unpredictable, instead of treading over book material, which we’re all familiar with. If you were expecting to play through the storyline of the books/movies, well, you’re not going to do that in the core set. As a Tolkien fan, I didn’t find myself bothered by this; the game still feels like Lord of the Rings, and has plenty of characters and references that will make you feel right at home in Middle Earth. Besides, how seriously are you going to take the story when you’re using a deck that has Eowyn and Denethor fighting giant spiders together? Didn’t read about that in any of the appendices.
If you’re interested in playing through the Lord of the Rings story, this is an option with expansions. While I’ll touch more on this in the expansion section, there are “Saga Expansions” that plunge you right into the main Lord of the Rings storyline and they are excellent.
Mechanically, the theme translates very well into gameplay. I found myself marvelling over and over at how cleverly some thematic aspects were implemented. There’s only so far you can go if you want complete fidelity to Middle Earth canon (again, Denethor and Eowyn), but aside from that, actual gameplay actions are cleverly representative of the cards they’re printed on. While it would be far too much to list everything, some good examples are as follows:
Gandalf is extremely powerful and only pops in and out to help: While this is more representative of the Gandalf we see in The Hobbit, it is representative nonetheless. Gandalf has better stats than any hero, and can initiate one out of three ridiculously powerful actions. After he’s done his work, he disappears back into your deck.
Eowyn is a weak fighter but has ridiculously high willpower: This evokes images from the scene we all love, “I am no man,” Eowyn says, as she takes off her helmet and stabs her blade into the Witch King’s wraithly face, ending his reign of doom forever. You might want to argue that Eowyn should be a good fighter, but it was never really her physical ability that won her battles, it was her indominatable spirit and strength of heart. I love that this is represented in her numbers.
Gimli becomes more powerful as he takes hits: Gimi’s base attack power is decent, but for every blow that he receives, it’s increased by one. He can raise his attack power by +4 before he finally goes down. To me, this makes me think of a pissed off dwarf that fights harder and heavier as he takes damage. There’s kind of a berserker quality in dwarves, and I thought this was a clever implementation of that. As a side note, Gimli becomes really fun when you add Citadel Plate to him, which increases his HP by +4, allowing you to increase your attack by +8 points total (for reference, the average attack power of any character is 2 or 3).
Denethor allows you to peek ahead in the encounter deck: Although the movies make this less obvious, a big component to Denethor’s downfall was his use of the Palantir, the seeing-stone with which Sauron himself was affiliated. Sauron corrupted Denethor as he constantly looked into the stone, so I like that Denethor, in the game is able to peek ahead into whatever evil awaits.
The thing is, I could go on and on. There are hundreds of cards, so I can’t list them all. If there’s one other thematic aspect that deserves praise, it’s the game’s structure itself. The constant danger of your threat dile rising is reminiscent of LOTR, where the heroes are constantly trying to stay under Sauron’s radar, who has them outnumbered ten thousand to one. The pressure of travelling to new areas and the threat that builds around you as you explore is palpable, and fighting enemies is a hard, grueling affair.
Overall, Lord of the Rings is amazingly represented here, even if there are canonical qualms pertaining to LOTR. I truly feel like the mechanics complement the theme, so LOTR:LCG gets high marks in this category.
First off, the deck-building will allow you to create a near-infinite amount of combinations, so there’s that. You don’t need me to tell you that having 120+ cards to combine together will give you a lot of combinations. “But, what about the scenarios? There’s only three, after all.” You’re right, there is only three, but I got a lot of mileage out of them. The first one will likely challenge you for a little bit until you figure the game out, in which you’ll probably start beating it every time. The second one is significantly more challenging, and my failures have still exceeded my successes, both in solo and two-player games, and then there’s Escape From Dol-Guldur, which I’ve personally cleared a whopping one time. If you like being challenged, these scenarios offer a lot of longevity indeed.
Furthermore, it’s not like the scenarios get old after you’ve beaten them once. I admit that I wouldn’t want to play the same one over and over and over again, but you’ll get a lot out of the three that are included. I’m going to use my favorite example, and go back to the troll! Remember the troll? I’ve mentioned him once or twice, right? Admittedly, a rather easy way to handle him is to use a “Forest Snare,” which can immobilize him, allowing you to essentially ignore him until you’re ready. For me, though, that was the obvious strategy, and I wanted to pull off a non-conventional win, so I could feel like I did it myself, instead of resorting to online resources. I formulated the deck that I mentioned in the strategy section, no Forest Snare to be found, and I eventually found a way to beat the scenario.
If you like imposing challenges on yourself, boy, does LOTR:LCG give you room to do that.
So, that’s talking about the core experience? What if you want to expand? Well…
With expansions, you will never, ever, ever, ever get bored of this game. In the next section I’ll go into depth about what’s available to expand the game, but it suffices to say that, if you like the game, well, congratulations, you’ve just found a new drug. I just hope that you don’t like having money.
For a game where you’re playing against pre-made scenarios, there’s definitely a concern about whether the game will have longevity. Assuming you’re willing to spend a little bit, then the answer is a big fat resounding YES. There are 67 additional scenarios available right now, more than 20x the amount that you get in the core set. These are spread out across many different types of products, most of which also include new player cards. The available expansions are as follows:
These are the “big-box” expansions for the game, and retail for $20-$25 online, and $30 MSRP. Each one includes three new scenarios, two heroes, and a host of player cards and encounter cards. Every Deluxe Expansion is sort of its own little story, and thus each one is the beginning of a “cycle” in the expansionary release timeline. After the Deluxe Expansion is released, add-on content pertaining to that expansion follows, which brings us to Adventure Packs, detailed below. There are currently four Deluxe Expansions available, with another one on the way.
These are the bread and butter of your expansionary content. At $10 – $13 online and $15 MSRP, these are individual decks that you can pick up. Each one includes one scenario, one hero, and more player/encounter cards. It’s worth noting that each Adventure Pack corresponds to a deluxe expansion, so you’ll have to own the base of whatever “cycle” it’s part of to play it (along with the core set). Every cycle has six corresponding Adventure Packs. One of the Deluxe Expansions, for example, is called The Voice of Isengard, and its six respective Adventure Packs that are part of The Voice of Isengard cycle will require its purchase. The core set acts as the beginning of the cycle, so the six Adventure Packs in the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle can be played with just the core. There are currently 30 adventure packs out, with six more on the way.
All of the scenarios above are unique stories created by FFG to have fun in the Middle Earth universe. What if you bought the game because you wanted to play Lord of the Rings? The Saga Expansions are the answer to that. The Saga Expansions directly re-enact the stories of Lord of the Rings. Each book has two corresponding Saga Expansions. So far, they’ve covered The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers. The Return of the King has its first half on the way, and the second will presumably follow afterwards. These are similar in size and scope to the Deluxe Expansions, and come at the same price. Some of the differences is that Saga Expansions don’t have a defined number of new heroes – some come with one or two, while others come with four or five. Other than that, they include three scenarios, and of course, player and enemy encounter cards. Saga Expansions also don’t have Adventure Packs, so every book can be experienced with just two purchases each.
Saga Expansions also introduce a “campaign mode,” where you can choose to retain your deck throughout all three scenarios, and receive permanent upgrades (or disadvantages) referred to as “boons and burdens.” So far, I have only played the packs for The Fellowship of the Ring, but I thought they did an extraordinarily good job of translating the stories into gameplay. The first one, for example, has you playing a team of Hobbits and actively discourages you to fight; you’re instead running and hiding from Nazgul, and if they become aware of your presence, it might as well be game over. You might be wondering how this is translated into a card game, but trust me when I say that the designers have found very clever ways to subvert the game’s mechanics to offer new and unique experiences.
As if all of that wasn’t enough for you, there are Nightmare Decks available if you’re some kind of insane, pain-loving masochist. These decks, priced about the same as Adventure Packs, provide cards for currently existing scenarios to make them even harder. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent order to the way these are released; they’re sort of unevenly dispersed across several Adventure Packs, Deluxe Expansions, and Saga Expansions.
Getting overwhelmed yet? There are also seven standalone scenarios, which seem to have been promos released during GenCon. FFG has made these available for mass consumption, and they can be found online, in stores (this is not a guarantee), or through Print-On-Demand, which can be done through FFG’s website.
All in all, the extra content for this game is just staggering. I only own a few extra packs, and it already feels more than what I know to do with. Want something that will hold your attention for years on end? The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game has got your back.
I went over the pricing for the expansions in the previous section, but long story short is that bigger expansions with more scenarios and cards are $30 each (~$20 online), while Adventure Packs (single decks with one scenario) are $15 (~$11 online). This may seem like a lot, but if you love putting time into the game, each deck will add plenty of content for you to work with. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t wish these were cheaper, but I also don’t feel like it’s outright extortion (like some 5-6 extensions which shall not be named…).
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game takes a conventional genre, and adds a refreshing twist to it that makes it feel like something completely unique and in its own league. Players can experience the fun of building decks without worrying about an evolving metagame or competitive players to keep up with. It’s a fun co-operative experience that will demand precise teamwork and well-built decks.
The game is also an excellent solo experience that can keep you entertained for hours on end. The solo experience doesn’t feel shoehorned in – the game works organically with one player and I’ve often had a blast playing on my own.
Despite being very well-designed, the game is unapologetically unforgiving, and players who don’t like playing hard games might lose their patience pretty quickly as the game spits out challenges that feel overwhelming. Sometimes bad luck can play a little too much of a role in how brutal the game can be, but overall, the game rarely ever feels like it’s completely insurmountable, and players who enjoy a challenge will love taking the game head-on, building custom tailored decks to overcome specific obstacles.
LOTR:LCG is visually pleasing, with well-made components and respectable homage to the universe of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien fans will not be disappointed with this one, and will enjoy the wide assortment of quality artwork.
While the game offers decent longevity with the core set, players looking to pick up a game with extra content will not be disappointed; the game has a staggering amount of additional content released, and it’s not looking to end anytime soon. For players willing to invest, Lord of the Rings: The Card game could last them a thousand years and not get old.
Overall, for Lord of the Rings fans, card game players, and co-operative/solo game lovers, Lord of the Rings checks all the right boxes.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You’ve ever sat through a marathon of the Extended Lord of the Rings movies
- You enjoy building decks
- You want a game you can play solo
- You want a good two player game
- You enjoy co-operative games
- You like feeling challenged
- You want a game with near endless expansionary content
- You enjoy growing stronger from failure
- You’re interested in LCG/CCG mechanics but don’t want to keep up with a competitive metagame
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You’re Bored of the Rings
- You don’t like deck-building, or prepping a lot before you play a game
- Crushing failure breaks you
- You desire competitive opponents and a metagame
- Don’t want to be tempted by tons of expansionary content
- You don’t like having to think really hard when you play games
About the Author
Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!